Last month there was a major new development in Finland, which recently became a NATO member. That was significant because for nearly a century Finland has been neutral, a policy that provided some additional protection from Russian aggression. That protection became obviously less effective when Putin tried to restore the old USSR’s borders, so Finland joined NATO for additional protection from Russia. Some of that protection is in the form of other NATO members providing specialized intelligence capabilities to give Finland and NATO more data on Russian threats.
Finland has a 1,300 kilometers border with Russia, which includes close proximity to bases and shipyards that support the Russian Northern Fleet. This is the largest of Russia’s four regional fleets and includes most of the nuclear submarines. There is also a major shipyard, for building new ships and maintaining or upgrading existing ones. In March the Russian border got its first visit from an American RC-135 Rivet Joint ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The RC-135 is based in England, flew from there to Finland and then carried out its patrol of the border, including the far north portion that is close to the Kola Peninsula, where most of those Russian naval facilities are. Another NATO member, Britain, has its own version of Rivet Joint which will also pay visits to Finland.
This degree of scrutiny annoys Russia, which considered most of its Finnish border safe from such scrutiny. The Northern Fleet bases are also near the 200 kilometer border with Norway, one of the founding (in 1949) NATO members. RC-135s sometimes scrutinized Russian bases near the Norway border. With Finland available for RC-135 visits, such scrutiny becomes more intense. The RC-135 was designed to thoroughly scrutinize nearby land areas for a wide array of electronic activity. This activity was identified, studied and cataloged. Since September 11, 2001, the RC-135s have been very busy.
For example, in 2016 RC-135s returned to Iraq after a five year absence. At least one was spotted taking off in Qatar and heading north to Iraq (likely) or Syria (less likely). These aircraft not only collect a wide variety of electronic signals in an area, and analyze them quickly, but can also cripple that activity using onboard jammers. The analysis effort looks principally for patterns. The enemy below leaves signs electronically (cell phones, walkie-talkies) or visually (images captured on surveillance cameras). Using the right math and analytical tools (software and computers), you can quickly discover where perpetrators of undesirable activity are coming from, and have the ground troops promptly shell, bomb or raid those locations. It’s also possible to find out where people are going as well as the composition and status of a group with these analytical tools. But it all depends on collecting a lot of electronic data for long enough to detect the patterns.
This kind of work was popular with the RC-135 crews (about thirty aircrew, techies, linguists and analysts) in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Here the RC-135 crews were 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 enemy can't even see the RC-135's high above. Syria was potentially different because the Syrian government and their Russian allies had radars and jet fighters that could threaten an EC-135.
Other nations, both allied and hostile, have noted the success of the RC-135 and either (like Britain) bought the American originals or, like most other nations, built their own. Russia used the Tu-204 airliner for its new RC-135 type electronic warfare aircraft. This two engine jet can carry up to 210 passengers, or 21 tons of cargo. The military version is called the Tu-214 or, for the RC-135 clone, the Tu-214R. Russia has built at least two of these and although still in development one of them was seen over Syria in early 2016 and was apparently useful enough to keep around.
Russia and China both studied the use of RC-135s in Iraq and Afghanistan and while the Russian response was two Tu-214Rs, the Chinese have adapted an aircraft more similar to the C-130 and has been seen using these along contested borders (India and the South China Sea). Many nations, including the United States, have been equipping smaller (twin-engine turboprop) commercial aircraft and larger UAVs to carry out some of the functions of the RC-135.
The U.S. Air Force has been operating RC-135s for over half a century and in 2008 one of them set a record, spending over 50,000 hours in the air since it entered service in 1962. These are built on the same airframe as the KC-135 tanker and Boeing 707 airliner. Periodically the air force has to remove KC-135s or RC-135s from service because of metal fatigue problems (usually in the wings, or with the pylons that attach each of the four engines to the wings.) All 732 KC/RC-135s were built between 1956 and 1965. The Boeing 707 commercial transport is actually a civilian version of the original KC-135, which itself evolved from the World War II B-29 heavy bomber. Since the 1980s the KC-135 fleet has undergone constant repair and reconstruction. New engines, and new structural components have been added, as older items wore out, or showed signs of wearing out faster than anticipated.
The RC-135s, P-3s and other electronic surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft have been operating out of an American base in Qatar since the 1990s, and there are currently 9,000 U.S. troops in Qatar to support air and naval operations through the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and northwest Africa. Another base in Britain enables easy access to northern Europe.
The 130-ton RC-135 is a four-jet aircraft that usually cruises at 500 kilometers an hour and a range of 6,500 kilometers. RC-135 can be refueled in the air and has a max endurance of about twelve hours. The United States currently has 17 RC-135s in service.