The Cobra’s Stare: USAF RC -135 Missile Tracking Missions

Since the early 1960s the US Air Force has carefully tracked ballistic missile test launches. Dr Kevin Wright examines the airborne element of this major intelligence collection effort that uses the Boeing RC-135s codenamed Cobra Ball.

RC-135S, 61-4128, is pictured in its current Cobra Ball configuration.
Dan Stijovich

During the Cold War the Kura warhead test range on the huge, largely desolate Kamchatka Peninsula in the Soviet Far East was the standard aim point for hundreds of missile tests. It is an area of approximately 38 sq miles (98.4km2) with the nearest settlement being Klyuchi. Construction started in 1955 of six monitoring posts to record missile warhead re-entry. The first use of the range for this was on August 21, 1957 when an R-7 missile launched from Tyuratam (today’s Baikonur), 3,940 miles (6,339km) away in Kazakhstan, broke up prematurely just prior to re-entry.

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