Britain has agreed to purchase three American electronic warfare aircraft. Two years ago, Britain asked the United States if it would sell Britain three RC-135 "Rivet Joint" electronic warfare aircraft. These would cost about $350 million each, and would be built by converting three late model KC-135 tankers. There was opposition in Britain. The RC-135s would replace British designed and built electronic warfare aircraft. Any other solution would take longer, and the electronic warfare aircraft were needed right now.
Britain has found such aircraft very useful in Afghanistan, where their own electronic monitoring planes, based on their Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, have operated for years. But the Nimrods are old and have developed problems that make them dangerous to fly. Britain feels that the best solution is to buy copies of the best available electronic warfare aircraft. It would be cheaper, and much quicker, than developing a new one of their own.
Costing about $4,000 an hour to operate, only 15 RC-135s are in American service. The RC-135s are popular and worked hard, with one of them spending over 50,000 hours in the air since it entered service in 1962. The main reason for all those hours in the air is that RC-135s are very good at what they do, and have been much in demand of late. The RC-135 is a flying vacuum cleaner of electronic signals. Built on the same airframe as the KC-135 tanker and Boeing 707 airliner, it carries two dozen people to operate all the electronic gear. Exactly what kind of electronic signals the RC-135 can pick up is classified, but apparently includes any electronic device the enemy in Afghanistan is using.
RC-135s collect a wide variety of electronic signals in an area, and analyze them quickly. The analysis effort is looking for patterns. The bomb teams leave signs electronically (cell phones, walkie-talkies) or visually (images captured on surveillance cameras). Using the right math and analytical tools (software and computers) and you can quickly discover where the bad guys are coming from, and have the ground troops promptly raid the location.
This kind of work is popular with the RC-135 crews, because they are getting a chance to do, in a combat zone, what they have long trained for. Moreover, it's relatively risk free, as the aircraft fly beyond the range of machine-gun or shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, the most productive work is done during night missions, when the bad guys can't even see the RC-135's high above.