These aircraft are all built by Boeing, but heavily modified by specialist companies, such as: Lockheed, General Dynamics & L3 Technologies.
They are exclusive to the USAF 🇺🇸 & RAF 🇬🇧 – Who are the only 2 countries to operate these airframes & their variants.The first RC-135 Variant – RC-135A, was ordered by the USAF back in 1962. The RC-135A was used for surveying and photography.The follow om from the “A” model, was the RC-135B. This was designed to be used for SIGINT collection.
Nearly all RC-135 Variants after these have been remodelled tankers or transport aircraft – with no new models being specifically made.
The RC-135 series has supported multiple USAF conflicts over the years, including – Vietnam 🇻🇳 Desert Shield/Storm & more recently Enduring Freedom.
Recently various variants have also been seen around the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, Off the coasts Of Libya 🇱🇾, Syria 🇸🇾/Lebanon 🇱🇧 & Also around the China Sea.
The USAF RC Fleet are all based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. These are operated by the 55th Wing. The RAF RC-135W are Operated By 51 Sqn & are based out of RAF Waddington.
The 55th Wing were essential to the RAF in training Crews to operate the RC-135W – With RAF Crews amassing more than 32,000 hours with their USAF Counterparts.
RC-135A – Designed for Aerial Photography & Air Charters.
RC-135B – never equipped for missions by Boeing. Once produced the airframes were sent directly to Maryland for fitting of Big Safari Modifications.
RC-135C – the 135C was the result of the modifications of the B model. It was designed for Reconnaissance duties mainly ELINT. All the C variants are currently in service but as either RC-135V or RC-135U platforms.
RC-135D – Never used as operational Reconnaissance Aircraft – mainly used for shuttling crew between Eielson AFB & RAF Upper Heyford / RAF Mildenhall.
RC-135E “Rivet Amber” – This aircraft was one of a kind – fitted with a phased array radar. Any operations were carried out alongside the RC-135S. Its mission was to monitor soviet missile testing. On June 5, 1969, Rivet Amber was lost at sea on a ferry flight from Shemya to Eielson AFB for maintenance, and no trace of the aircraft or its crew was ever found.
RC-135M – The RC-135M was designed for COMINT But also had limited ELINT capability. They were active over the Gulf of Tonkin & Laos During the Vietnam War. All the airframes were then modified to the RC-135W Variants.
RC-135S Nancy Rae / Wanda Belle / Rivet Ball – The 135S was the predecessor for the Cobra Ball aircraft. It holds the distinction of obtaining the very first photographic documentation of Soviet Multiple Reentry vehicle (MRV)
RC-135S Cobra Ball – The Cobra Ball is a MASINT collector, designed to observe ballistic missile launches from long distance. The Data is used for treaty verification and theater ballistic missile proliferation. There are 3 in service and are based out of Offutt AFB.
RC-135T Rivet Dandy – It was used to supplement the RC-135C/D/M fleet. It was also used as a trainer, after having all its SIGINT gear removed.
RC-135U Combat Sent – The RC-135U Combat Sent is designed to collect technical intelligence on radar emitter systems. The data is collected to develop new/upgraded radar warning receivers, radar jammers, decoys, anti-radiation missiles, and training simulators. They operated with a substantial crew consisting of a Minimum crew of 2 pilots, 2 navigators, 3 systems engineers, 10 electronic warfare officers, and 6 area specialists.
RC-135V/W Rivet Joint – This is the standard SIGINT platform used by the USAF. Its sensors allows the crew to detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The crew consists of the pilot/navigators, electronic warfare officers, intel operators, and airborne systems maintenance crew.
RC-135X Cobra Eye – Only one of these airframes was ever operated. She was designed to track ICBM reentry vehicles.
RC-135W Rivet Joint (Project Airseeker) – The RAF operates 3 x Airseeker airframes. They are operated by 51 Squadron, RAF Waddington & work alongside the other ISTAR airframes based at Waddington.
TC-135 – These are solely training airframes and lack any mission equipment. 62-4133 provides a training platform for the Cobra Ball Mission. 62-4127 and 4129 serve primarily for the Rivet Joint mission, but can also provide some capability for training RC-135U Combat Sent crews.