Announced in the pre-election supermarket sweep was a plan to replace the Nimrod R1 Electronic Intelligence aircraft operated by 51 squadron with US RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.
As the MRA4 programme progressed a replacement for the MR2 era R1 was being though about (via Project HELIX) and various suggestion surfaced including the RC-135 Rivet Joint, an upgrade of the existing aircraft, a version of the MRA4 or some other completely new aircraft. As early as 2008 an early day motion was raised in Parliament
The Nimrod R1 and 51 Squadron combination is a UK Gold Standard capability.
They will be replaced by 3 RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, one R1 was withdrawn last year and 2 remain in service. The RAF Rivet Joints will be equipped with the same engine as the E3-D Sentry and an SIGINT package from L-3.
The first aircraft is due to be delivered in 2014, which leaves a 2-3 year capability gap, the R1′s being withdrawn next year. To guard against skills fade the RAF crew will enter into a partnering agreement with the USAF. This also assumes that the delivery will be on time and that the aircraft and crews will actually achieve operational readiness in 2014. In all fairness it is not a bad deal, the alternative in these budget constrained times is nothing.
So, we are replacing a world leading capability with something that is slightly less capable by all accounts and in the gap will have to rely on the USAF for SIGINT i.e. no sovereign capability.
Just to add icing to the cake, the RC-135 Rivet Joint uses a boom refueling system and the FSTA airborne refueling aircraft don’t have one so the RAF will have three strategic level assets that cannot be refueled by RAF aircraft, the C17, Rivet Joint and E3D Sentry.
Whilst we are talking about cakes, the cherry on this particular one is that the FSTA aircraft won’t be coming with an air refueling probe either, so no ultra long airborne refueling missions (i.e. the Falklands) either.
How much then?
The final contracts have yet to be finalised but in 2008 (yes, that long ago) the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency published a notification of a possible sale to the UK of three RC135 Rivet Joints and associated support and logistics systems for up to $1.068 billion.