RC-135W Rivet Joint Spy Plane Is Flying Orbits Over Kabul (Updated)

One of America's most capable surveillance aircraft is keeping close tabs on the Taliban as America's military presence at Kabul's airport grows.

An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft takes off from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
USAF

Online flight tracking software showed that a U.S. Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint, an airliner-sized intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, was orbiting around Kabul today as the United States and other countries continue to conduct evacuation operations from Hamid Karzai International Airport. Pictures have also emerged indicating that helicopters belonging to the U.S. Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) are also now on the ground at the airport. This all comes as the planned size and scope of the American evacuation mission continues to grow with the announcement today of new plans to send a command and control element from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to help oversee operations at the airport. You can get more information about the overall situation in Afghanistan's capital, where the Taliban are continuing to consolidating their control, in The War Zone's previous coverage of the crisis here.

The RC-135W, serial number 62-4138, using the callsign Python 52, was tracked leaving Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar in the Persian Gulf earlier today. The jet then flew out over the North Arabian Sea, before turning north toward Afghanistan via Pakistan. This is a routine route for American military aircraft flying from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan. The aircraft is no longer visible using online flight tracking software, but it is not clear if it has returned to base.

Regardless, the Rivet Joint's presence in the skies around Kabul, where the risks to the high-flying aircraft would be virtually non-existent, makes good sense. These aircraft are extremely powerful electronic and signals intelligence-gathering platforms. They are regularly used to scoop information about the type and location of various signal emitters, such as radars, to help in the construction of an "electronic order of battle" detailing the air defense, command and control, and other capabilities of an adversary or potential adversary. 

The Taliban, of course, lack any significant air defense capabilities and have limited command and control infrastructure. However, an RC-135W is also able to intercept and monitor communications chatter across a broad area, and also has the capability to relay important developments directly to friendly forces on the ground. A typical Rivet Joint crew will include a number of Crypto Linguists fluent in relevant languages, such as Pashto or Dari in the context of Afghanistan, so that they can immediately begin to analyze whatever transmissions the plane's sensors pick up. You can read more about the overall capabilities of the Air Force's Rivet Joints, and how they typically conduct operations, here

USAF

An official US Air Force graphic describing the different members of a typical Rivet Joint crew and their responsibilities.

Right now, the Taliban's leadership has, at least publicly, said it will not interfere with the ongoing foreign evacuation operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The group has, at least in some cases, gone so far as to help foreigners make it to the airport. At the same time, Taliban members are reportedly blocking Afghans from doing the same.

At the same time, U.S. military activities at the airport, as well as those of other foreign military forces, are entirely at the whim of the Taliban, which is still getting situated in the capital. On top of that, it is not clear how much direct control the group's leaders necessarily have over all of their members now operating across Kabul. There have been persistent reports of gunfire around the airport, some of which may be aimed at military personnel inside or evacuation flights landing or departing. Just yesterday, the Pentagon confirmed that American troops had shot and killed two armed individuals, but could not say whether or not they were members of the Taliban.

A Rivet Joint circling overhead would be a powerful platform for checking to see if what the Taliban's leadership is saying publicly matches up with what its forces on the ground in Kabul are saying amongst themselves. At the same time, the intelligence analysts onboard could be gleaning additional useful details just about the group's command and control capabilities, and potential vulnerabilities there might be that could be exploited, if necessary.

Having the aircraft on station would provide a measure of early warning if the group's general attitude to the expanding foreign military presence at the airport begins to shift in a dangerous direction, as well. Sending the Rivet Joint over Afghanistan with its transponder on, allowing it to be tracked publicly online, could also help send the message to the Taliban that the U.S. military is listening very closely for any such signs of an impending attack.

This would not be the first time the U.S. military has employed a Rivet Joint in such a manner, either. One of these aircraft was on station during the release of U.S. Navy sailors from Iran in 2016, specifically to help double-check that the regime in Tehran was following through with their end of the deal. You can read more about that operation here.

At the same time, the U.S. military's presence at the airport continues to grow. The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe reported that a headquarters element from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division will now be headed to Kabul to help "improve coordination and oversight of the airfield itself" since the unit "often trains in seizing and holding airfields in tense circumstances." This deployment is on top of existing plans to establish a total force of at least 6,000 Army soldiers and Marines at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Absolute chaos at the airport yesterday, as large groups of Afghans trying to flee the country by air, possibly numbering the thousands, breached a security perimeter established around the flightline, hampering the arrival of some elements of that force. The facility, at least the parts the U.S. military and other foreign forces are operating out of, now appears to be largely secure.

Interestingly, what appears to be MH-60 Black Hawk, MH-47G Chinook, and AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters from the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) can be seen in the background of pictures, available here and seen in the Tweet below, that have emerged ostensibly of Turkish troops who are now helping to secure the airport. Those helicopters were not visible in pictures of the flightline over the weekend, which did show various other U.S. military aircraft on the ground. It is possible that the 160th SOAR brought in these helicopters as part of the expanding evacuation mission or that they flew in from elsewhere in Afghanistan as the U.S. military consolidated its forces in Kabul in the face of the Taliban's lightning gains last week that led up to the fall of the capital on Sunday.

These helicopters could be very useful for supporting the ongoing evacuation operations, especially in the latter stages of the mission. The MH-60s and MH-47Gs are both capable of refueling in flight, unlike the standard Army AH-64 Apaches, CH-47 Chinooks, and UH-60 Black Hawks, or the State Department's CH-46 Sea Knights and UH-60 Black Hawks, which are also in Kabul. The AH/MH-6 Little Birds are not capable of refueling in flight, but can be fitted with range-extending fuel tanks and are specifically designed to be loaded on and off larger transport aircraft relatively rapidly. This could help these helicopters get out of Afghanistan in the end.

DOD

Members of the Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment unload an AH-6 Little Bird from a US Air Force MC-130 special operations transport aircraft. It takes relatively little effort to get the helicopter into a flyable state from the state it is seen in here, with its rotor blades folded and weapon planks in their stowed configuration.

As The War Zone has already reported, a number of modified KC-135RT "receiver tankers," which are piloted by specialized crews trained to fly very low and operate in blacked-out conditions at night, are also supporting the evacuation operations. You can read more about the Air Force's very small and shadowy fleet of KC-135RTs here

Unlike standard KC-135Rs, the KC-135RTs, which are primarily tasked with supporting special operations forces, can also refuel in flight. With that capability, they are often used to help create a "stack," serving as conduits for transferring gas from regular tankers to various other platforms, especially U.S. Air Force MC-130 special operations transport/tankers. Those aircraft can then pass that fuel to helicopters, as well as Osprey tilt-rotors. Air Force HC-130 Combat King rescue aircraft, some of which have been seen in Kabul, as well, are also able to serve as tankers for helicopters and Ospreys.

Escape from the country is something that is necessarily guaranteed for the other U.S. military and State Department aircraft in Kabul. It remains unclear how Hamid Karzai International Airport will be able to sustain the continuing influx of thousands of American troops and what the plan is for extracting those forces, as well as their vehicles, weapons, and other materiel, at the end of the operation. 

Providing cover for those final moments of the evacuation could be complicated, as well. Flight tracking software does indicate that Air Force AC-130 gunships and B-52 bombers continue to fly sorties to Afghanistan from the Persian Gulf, but there have been no confirmed airstrikes in days. A single report from Pajhwok Afghan News did emerge of a purported strike in Kabul earlier today, but there has been no subsequent corroborating information. U.S. Central Command's main public affairs office told The War Zone that there have been no American strikes of any kind in or around Kabul today.

All of those questions also apply to the activities of other foreign forces at the airport in Kabul, who may well be increasingly jockeying just for physical space on the ramp as time goes on. A number of non-U.S. military contingents are on the ground now, as well, including the aforementioned Turkish security force, to which a group of Azerbaijani troops is attached. The U.S. government had been negotiating with Turkey about providing security at the airport following the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but there had been reports of that specific plan being scrapped now that the Taliban have seized control of the country. How long the Turkish and Azerbaijani troops ultimately stay on the ground remains to be seen.

All of this, of course, as already noted, hinges on the Taliban's continued acquiescence to foreign military activity of any kind at the airport. There's no guarantee that the group's position will remain unchanged day-to-day, let alone over the next few weeks that the U.S. government says it will take to get its employees, other American and third-party nationals, and certain Afghans out of the country safely. 

The Pentagon said yesterday that it was still days away, at best, from reaching its goal of having the capacity to help up to 5,000 people evacuate every daily. Overnight, nine Air Force C-17As arrived in Kabul carrying around 1,000 troops and their equipment, and then left with between 700 and 800 evacuees, in total, aboard, underscoring the sheer volume of aircraft will be necessary to reach the U.S. military's desired tempo of operations.

It remains murky exactly what categories of Afghans the U.S. military will ultimately help flee the country. Individuals who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) due to their work with the U.S. government, which has now put them at risk of reprisals from the Taliban, are the clearest cut group, but even then it is not entirely clear how many will come to the United States and how many might end up in other countries, at least temporarily. The Pentagon has said it is prepared to receive up to 22,000 Afghans at facilities in the United States for processing, but American officials have also been working to secure passage of thousands more to other nations.

The increasing desperation of average Afghans at the airport remains palpable, as well, which can only present a continued risk that groups may again try to get onto the flightline and force their way onto evacuation flights. The willingness of some of these civilians to take extreme measures to try to leave the country has already been on full display, with terrifying videos having previously emerged showing Afghans trying to grab onto an Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft as it took off. 

Some held on after the plane got airborne and then appeared to fall their deaths. New reporting today indicates that at least one Afghan also got trapped in the aircraft's right wheel well and died. A video that appears to show that individual's body stuck in the aircraft, which is extremely graphic, has emerged online and can be found here.

Yesterday, Ajmal Ahmady, the now-former Governor of Afghanistan's central Da Afghanistan Bank wrote on Twitter that his colleagues had helped literally push him onto a military plane leaving Kabul on Sunday after his commercial flight was canceled.

Ahmady added that one of his contacts still in Afghanistan had told him that the Taliban were now looking for him. Fears for the safety of various former military and other government officials, among others, are also growing as Taliban members are reportedly going house-to-house looking for specific individuals, such as Ahmady.

There had previously been discussions about the potential risks of the Taliban seizing the Da Afghanistan Bank, which reported last year that it had over $9 billion in Gross Foreign Exchange Reserves. The U.S. government has now frozen Afghan government funds held in American banks, which could increase tensions between American officials and the Taliban.

All told, the situation in Afghanistan, as a whole, remains very fluid and new developments, including with regards to ongoing evacuation operations at the airport, could easily come quickly and without warning. As we've said, this is very likely one of the reasons why an Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint is now flying overhead.

We will update this story as the situation continues to develop.

Update 2:30 PM EST:

The U.S. government has confirmed that it is actively engaging with the Taliban to ensure that evacuation operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport continue unhampered, and that American nationals and other evacuees can make it there safely. There are also ongoing discussions, including with the Taliban, and the expected duration of the mission and whether it might extend beyond the current planned end date of Aug. 31.

Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has also echoed recent comments from other U.S. government officials, including Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, that American authorities had planned for all contingencies surrounding potential evacuations from Afghanistan, but that the rapidity of the collapse of Afghanistan government and its security forces had not been expected. Sullivan also said that President Joe Biden had not spoken with any foreign leaders since Kabul fell on Sunday, which seems very curious given the scramble by other countries to conduct their own evacuation operations.

Sullivan also offered new details about the current capacity of the U.S. military to help individuals evacuate from Afghanistan, saying that approximately 300 people are expected to leave the country on each outgoing cargo plane. The hope, of course, is still that this figure will increase substantially in the coming days. 

Update 3:20 PM EST:

U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), visited Hamid Karzai International Airport today to evaluate ongoing operations there first hand. In a statement, he reiterated that the U.S. military has conveyed to the Taliban that any inference with the evacuations will “be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces.” McKenzie also said that the airport is currently "open to civilian air traffic operation under visual flight rules."

U.S. officials have also now said that as many as 11,000 American nationals may still be in Afghanistan, along with an equal number of foreign diplomatic personnel and other third-country nationals, all of who could need help evacuating. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Afghan civilians also remain at the airport in Kabul and are reportedly refusing to leave except on a plane out of the country.

Update 3:55 PM EST:

The U.S. Air Force has confirmed to Politico that it has opened a formal investigation into the incident involving the Afghans who jumped onto the outside of the C-17A at the airport in Kabul and the reported resulting fatalities.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com