Unveiling the enigmatic world from above: the operational RC-135S Cobra Ball

Contractor: L-3 Communications

Service: United States Air Force

Power Plant: Four CFM International F108-CF-201 high bypass turbofan engines

Speed: 500

Flight Crew: (minimum) Two pilots, one navigator

Mission flight crew: (minimum) Three electronic warfare officers, two airborne systems engineers, and two airborne mission specialists

The RC-135S Cobra Ball flies Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed missions of national priority to collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets. This data is intended to support arms treaty compliance verification, and development of U.S. strategic defense and theater missile defense concepts.

The RC-135S is a militarized Boeing 707 civilian airliner and is equipped with a sophisticated array of optical and electronic sensors, recording media, and communications equipment, is a national asset uniquely suited to provide America’s leaders and defense community with vital information that cannot be obtained by any other source.

Crew composition includes a minimum of two pilots, one navigator, three electronic warfare officers, two airborne systems engineers, and two or more airborne mission specialists.

The current RC-135S aircraft trace their lineage to C-135 aircraft originally modified in 1961 and operated in 24-hour alert status out of Shemya AFB, Alaska. In 1994, all RC-135S aircraft and operations were transferred to the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Nebraska. Initially employed by Strategic Air Command to satisfy nationally tasked intelligence collection requirements, the RC-135S has also participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

There are three RC-135S aircraft in the Air Force inventory all assigned to Air Combat Command and permanently based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.. The Cobra Ball is operated by the 55th Wing, and manned with aircrews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, and the 97th Intelligence Squadron, using various forward deployment locations worldwide.

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