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New Updates For The Rivet Joint Spy Plane
Posted on Thursday, November 28 @ 13:43:03 GMT by just_dave
Big Brother

Storied Rivet Joint Adds New Missions

By David A. Fulghum/Aviation Week & Space Technology

22-Nov-2002 2:35 PM U.S. EST

The RC-135 Rivet Joint, a collector of enemy electronic signals and communications for more than 30 years, is making the transition to the 21st century. It is becoming a key element in the Pentagon's efforts to fuse the available intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and feed it--in rivulets of useful information and not as a tsunami of raw data--to tactical commanders on the battlefield.

Modifications to Rivet Joint are apparent even from the exterior. The large new engines add altitude, endurance and shorter takeoff distances. Two new satcom antennas on the fuselage sides ensure communications coverage during turns.

More inside!

Older photo

Planning military operations that are smart and discriminately lethal is at the heart of network-centric warfare (NCW). A necessary capability of NCW is being able to rapidly locate enemy targets--in particular mobile air defenses, battlefield ballistic missile launchers, communications nodes and key command centers--on the modern battlefield where success may lie in catching fleeting transmissions, available for only microseconds.

This role is not so far removed from Rivet Joint's original mission of intercepting enemy radio communications for national intelligence agencies. But only a fraction of the intelligence collected in the 1970s and '80s resulted in timely reports to tactical planners, even though much would have been of use to warfighters. During the Vietnam War, Rivet Joint aircrews listened to the chatter between enemy pilots, messages to and from air control centers, conversations between aircraft and ground vehicles, signals from air defense sites and even the status reports of units moving through jungles and rear areas.

FOR YEARS THEY listened to the North Vietnamese army's general directorate of rear services that controlled logistics and maintained the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These units used a simple code to file regular reports of movement along the trail, bomb damage assessments, transfers of U.S. and South Vietnamese prisoners, troop strengths, health, morale and even promotions (AW&ST May 5, 1997, p. 53).

In the years since, Rivet Joint's role has shifted from the strategic to the tactical. During the 1990-91 Persian Gulf war, intercepts were used to locate Iraqi units for quick response air strikes. Intercept specialists set up direct links to U.S. combat troops. They were able to tell crews of jamming aircraft when Iraqi tank commanders could no longer talk to one another. Those intercept skills are being further honed and integrated with the electronic attack capabilities of other aircraft such as the EC-130 Compass Call (AW&ST Feb. 26, 2001, p. 50).

Rivet Joint's improving capabilities--paced by blazing progress in computer technology--are seldom talked about openly. But they include the ability, often in conjunction with other aircraft, to spoof, misdirect, confuse or scramble an enemy commander's communications to his personnel and equipment. It is quietly acknowledged that the RC-135 has become a key tool in the electronic attack of enemy air defenses that rely on rapid exchanges of data about the location of attacking allied aircraft (AW&ST Nov. 4, p. 30).

Before any military action, Rivet Joint and other special missions aircraft are actively mapping the types and location of communications and electronic emissions so an electronic order of battle--who's emitting and for what purpose--can be assembled as part of the intelligence preparation of the battlefield.

With its latest upgrades, including powerful new CFM-56-2B-1 engines and the Baseline 7 electronics package of high-speed processors and specialized algorithms, Rivet Joint's primary assets now include the ability to rapidly fuse intelligence from several sources and pass the refined product to key decision makers.

In the murky area of significant but unadvertised new capabilities is the extension of an open architecture based on national intelligence agencies and Joint Airborne Sigint Architecture guidelines. The aircraft's computers, networking and signal distribution systems were all upgraded to prepare the mission system to receive the Low-Band Subsystem (LBSS) sigint (signals intelligence) search-and-collection hardware being developed outside the Rivet Joint program for common application across the military services (AW&ST Sept. 20, p. 32).

LBSS was being redesigned to better target and define low-frequency emissions. Of particular interest were low-frequency communications, some of which were hidden among radar signals. The LBSS program ran into major technical and cost problems and was eventually canceled by the Air Force.

However, Air Materiel Command's security-shrouded Big Safari office--noted over the decades for its classified reconnaissance programs--continued to open up Rivet Joint's software and hardware architecture. That allowed the Air Force to rapidly integrate several new "quick reaction capabilities" that were only prototypes in national intelligence agencies' laboratories at the time of Al Qaeda's attacks on the U.S.

Within weeks, according to a senior Air Force official, L-3 Communications engineers were able to complete integration in time to support the war in Afghanistan to contend with Al Qaeda, whose substantial financial assets allowed it to buy the most sophisticated communications gear available

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