Defining Integration: UK and US RC-135 Co-Basing

The RAF’s acquisition of the RC-135 ‘Airseeker’ represented a deliberate effort by both the RAF and US Air Force to set the conditions for further integration. The current lack of greater progress on this vision will represent a lost opportunity for both air forces that will only serve to drive up operating costs.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and US Air Force (USAF) have enjoyed a strong relationship since 1942 and this has only advanced in the proceeding decades.  These two air forces are representatives of two nations that share similar values, institutions and views of the global security situation. Today these air forces are challenged, much like others, by the need to keep pace with rapidly advancing technologies and the huge cost of maintaining an advanced air force. Across Europe, other NATO nations are attempting to overcome these challenges through deeper integration in order to share costs and burdens, and align their commitments ever more closely. Therefore, it is logical that the RAF and USAF should enter into a similar discussion. Given that both air forces operate a common platform in the RC-135, how these fleets could operate together should be at the forefront of this discussion. Currently, it appears that air force leaders have been slow to drive forward mutually beneficial permanent co-basing of the two RC-135 units which would allow them to become fully integrated.

Interoperability, from an air force perspective, is defined as the ability to align methods, assets and cooperate to accomplish a broad task.  An example of this might include an American KC-135 refuelling a German Tornado which then conducts a low-altitude tactical reconnaissance mission while Dutch F-16s provide high-altitude protection with a NATO E-3 AWACS coordinating the operation.  However, even in this highly multinational operational scenario, all planning processes, sortie production and even the long training programmes leading up to this operation would have been done independently of each other and at the discretion of their national air forces.  Integration, on the other hand, goes much deeper and joins methods, shares assets and functions as an element to accomplish a defined task.  An example of this could be a USAF F-35 being completely serviced by RAF personnel at an RAF base and then operating in a formation of other F-35s from nations such as Norway, the Netherlands and the UK. Integration, therefore, is defined as two or more nations sharing a singular capability and executing it as one unit in order to ensure alignment of national values and interests and, of course, share costs.

The USAF has operated various models of the RC-135 for decades. As a result, the USAF has a deep corporate knowledge of operating and exploiting these aircraft.  The aircraft’s mission is to provide near instantaneous intelligence through the use onboard electronic collection, analysis and dissemination capabilities. This mission is empowered by the aircraft’s ability to loiter over an area for long periods of time to not only collect data but also to conduct its own processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) cycle using a large onboard crew. This allows the RC-135 to send out actionable information across a wide range of subjects to a variety of users in flight. Moreover, thanks to continuous capability modifications, the RC-135 remains a combat proven and essential modern ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform. As such, it is likely, in the view of many, to remain an indispensable asset for the foreseeable future.

However, the USAF remains challenged by a limited fleet which is stretched by increasing global ISR demands, and a budgetary environment that demands efficiencies to maintain the necessary large and highly specialised crew force. In contrast, the RAF phased out its Nimrod R-1s and replaced the capability with the RC-135 since 2008. During this period, Nimrod crews were trained by USAF RC-135 personnel and even operated as integrated combat crews in order quickly gain the requisite experience to bring the RAF RC-135s quickly into operations.  As a result of both a common airframe and this shared operational training experience, RAF and USAF RC-135 operating doctrine, methods and capabilities are very much aligned.

The current basing of the global RC-135 fleet presents an opportunity for efficiency. First, maintaining and operating the RC-135 is expensive. This unique capability requires a large and very specialised crew force with a support structure to match. The average RC-135 crew contains between 21 and 27 airmen and women representing 5 different specialties, each of which requires his or her own extensive training to maintain readiness. Permanent basing and operations of the RC-135 require well above the average number (compared with aircraft of comparable size) of specialised personnel and unique facilities to sustain the weapon system. Nonetheless, the impact of a having a widely capable intelligence platform that can quickly relay actionable information is judged as justifying the expense by both the USAF and the RAF. Currently, the USAF has its European RC-135 main operating base at RAF Mildenhall – an American base on long term lease from the UK government – and will most likely relocate the unit to another location in the UK within the next ten years. The RAF, meanwhile, operates its RC-135 fleet 145 km away at RAF Waddington. The RAF chooses to operate its RC-135s from RAF Waddington for no clear reason other than to be co-located with its parent command despite a runway that limits its operational capability. On the other hand, the USAF continues to forge ahead with its own long term European Infrastructure Consolidation plans which involve the relocation of the American RC-135 fleet with little apparent consideration given to the RAF. 

This narrow view of two great air forces overruled by a staff-driven desire to accomplish arbitrary deadlines will, on the present course, result in continuing to maintain two separate RC-135 units on the same island with misaligned capabilities which could drift apart over time in terms of operational doctrine, methods and capabilities. This would be a wasted opportunity, driving up expenses and risks for each air force.  Therefore, in the best interest of the two air forces, there is a strong argument for a halt to current plans and the renewal of a meaningful dialogue about the future of their respective RC-135 fleets. Independent planning and movements is a regression past even maintaining interoperability.  The principles of the two air force’s ‘Shared Vision’ ask a logical question: how can the RAF and USAF become more integrated?

Across NATO, allied nations are coming together to overcome the challenges of defence costs in the twenty-first century. The models of ‘Pooling and Sharing’, blended military units and the framework nation concept are the future of Western defence establishments. Therefore, it seems only logical for the two most ardent leaders of NATO to aim to become a model of integration.  More specifically, many leaders will begrudgingly state that the biggest impediment to Allied harmony is intelligence sharing and classification restrictions. Co-basing and integration the RAF and USAF RC-135 forces would represent a huge leap forward in both integration and intelligence sharing.  The results of which could both deliver a more efficient use of national resources and serve as another example of the benefits of closer integration among NATO Allies. 

Mark Cramer
Mark Cramer has professional experience in a number of aircraft including the RC-135. Additionally, he holds advanced degrees in business, leadership and international relations.  The author can be contacted at:

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the United States Department of Defense or the United States Government.


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