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September 14, 2006—The traditionally secret US Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic reconnaissance aircraft is probably flying over Southwest Asia right now, but the Air Force won’t tell you so. The highly modified 737 RC-135 aircraft has been flying over SWA since August1990, said Capt. Jayme Jiminez, Rivet Joint pilot, but where and how many is closely guarded information.

The RC-135—first converted to an intelligence platform in the mid-1960s—is used for the particularly complex mission of collecting, analyzing, and jamming enemy communications, from satellite, cell phone, or short wave radio signals. The RC-135 can also target enemies, passing the information to fighters and bombers.

The Air Force is in the midst of upgrading this extremely valuable platform to keep its electronic wizardry up-to-date, maintainable, and sustainable. Reporters got a chance to see the insides of a recently upgraded RC-135 when the service brought the Block 8 aircraft to Andrews AFB, Md., on Sept. 13. Rivet Joint crews from the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Neb., and L-3 Communications executives were on hand to answer selected questions about the airplane and its mission.

To maintain state-of-the-art technology, Rivet Joints undergoing Block 8 modifications receive network-centric collaborative targeting (NCCT) software, providing machine-to-machine networking and timely detection, identification, and geo-location of high priority targets to an Air Operations Center. Another new software program improves on the current Block 7 by downlinking “information to processors on the ground to focus more assets and make available more information that the aircraft is collecting,” said MSgt. Bart Toulouse of Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Rivet Joint is considered to be a technology-driven platform that requires upgrades as soon as new technology becomes available, Toulouse said. Software and systems must be continually replaced to avoid obsolescence issues, “morphing the system to accept changes quickly,” Toulouse remarked. He noted, too, that because the Block 8 upgrade process takes 18 months, some of the as-yet-upgraded Block 7 Rivet Joints will skip Block 8 and go to Block 9 to accommodate the rapidly evolving nature of the information technology world.

During a tour of the RC-135, reporters were able to see the refurbished cabin, complete with hundreds of new wire bundles, displays, and computer stations. Even though given the green light to provide a glossy overview of the modifications, by long-standing necessity, crewmembers were hesitant to discuss many of the new features in the cabin. They did point out the “glass cockpit” displays, an LED lighting system, enhanced airflow systems, and basic IT upgrades. Jiminez noted that for Rivet Joint pilots and navigators, the only enhancement that is notably different from Block 7 is the glass cockpit. The major changes appear in the back end of the aircraft—the mission area.

For TSgt. Roy Wilson, a Rivet Joint airborne systems engineer, the new upgrades mean he has to learn the new wiring system to be able to address any wiring problems encountered while airborne. Even so, Wilson believes the new upgrades will provide better reliability and will be easier to maintain because “they are part of a common market and up to industrial standards.”