RC-135 family aircraft
RC-135 family aircraft are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems that share a common airframe, the KC-135 Stratotanker, an air refueling tanker derived from a commercial airliner. Some variants have been built for exceptionally specialized purposes as unique aircraft, but there are several series that are used extensively.
To increase deployment flexibility, a program is underway to be able to exchange the payloads among aircraft. The challenge here is less the internal electronics, but the antennas, and, in some cases, mounts for telescopes and other sensors that protrude through the skin and need streamlined mounts.
Among the major types are:
- RC-135 RIVET JOINT : A United States Air Force long-range aircraft for collecting communications intelligence
- RC-135 COBRA BALL : A United States Air Force aircraft for collecting measurement and signature intelligence, primarily on foreign missiles. A COBRA BALL aircraft can be converted to a RC-135 RIVET JOINT.
- RC-135 COMBAT SENT : A long-range aircraft, operated by the United States Air Force, for collecting electronic intelligence
Many are approaching the fatigue limits of the airframe metal, and will eventually need to be replaced. They will almost certainly go into some derivative of a commercial airliner, as has the P-8 Poseidon, and the Airborne Warning and Control System for Turkey has been built into a modified Boeing 737.