Britain is having some unique problems obtaining the new electronic warfare aircraft it sought from the United States back in 2008. A deal was struck and although the Americans had the first aircraft ready for delivery in October (six months ahead of schedule), the new Airseeker (what the Brits call their version of the American RC-135 "Rivet Joint" electronic warfare aircraft) is being delayed because, in response to reliability and safety problems with some Cold War era aircraft in Afghanistan, Britain has instituted a rigorous new procedure (the Military Airworthiness Authority) for confirming that new military aircraft are safe enough to operate. The Airseeker is facing even more scrutiny because it was built using fifty year old airframes. Despite extensive refurbishment (and regular use by the United States and other nations) the British bureaucrats appear to be on an endless quest for problems that are not there. It’s not just the Aieseeker but also new-built aircraft that are being delayed by the new bureaucracy. The other delayed aircraft include the Super King Air 350ERs for the Royal Navy, A330MRTTs tankers for the RAF, and the Watchkeeper UAV for the British Army.
The Airseeker saga began when Britain decided it was cheaper to buy a proven U.S. SIGINT (signals intelligence) electronic warfare aircraft than to develop a replacement for their elderly Cold War SIGINT aircraft. In 2010 this resulted in an order for RC-135s. These would be newly built, on old KC-135 tanker airframes. The U.S. Air Force already has 17 RC-135s, which have an excellent safety record. The U.S. agreed to deliver three RC-135 at three year intervals. These are costing about $340 million each. There was opposition in Britain because the RC-135s would replace British designed and built electronic warfare aircraft. But the RAF pointed out that any other solution would take longer, the Americans had better and proven SIGINT equipment, and it was believed the electronic warfare aircraft were needed as soon as possible because of the fight against Islamic terrorists.
Britain has found SIGINT 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 were old and had developed problems that made them dangerous to fly. Britain felt that the best solution was to buy copies of the best available electronic warfare aircraft.
Costing about $4,000 an hour to operate, 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 since September 11, 2001. 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) 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. British crews for the Airseeker have already completed training in the U.S. and are serving in American RC-135s to gain experience. The RAF wants to put their Airseeker into service right now but cannot do that until the safety bureaucrats allow it. The Military Airworthiness Authority feels no need for speed because they are judged by how thorough they appear to be, not how effective they actually are. For a bureaucrat, appearances are everything, while combat troops are more concerned with performance and less with risk.