Tim Ripley examines the secretive world of RAF and USAF spy flights around Russia’s western borders.

A Royal Air Force RC-135W tops up from a KC-135 Stratotanker belonging to the US Air Force’s 100th Air Refueling Wing off the coast of England. This was the first time a tanker belonging to the Mildenhall-based 100th ARW had refuelled an RAF ‘RJ’.
USAF/A1C Jonathan Light
The view from the cockpit of a Russian Su-27 fighter as it intercepts an RAF RC-135 over the Baltic sometime in 2015. In July of the previous year, a Rivet Joint conducting a “routine surveillance mission” in international airspace over the Baltic was forced to flee into Swedish airspace in order to avoid an “attempted encounter” by Russian fighters.

EARLY ON a cold February morning, one of the Royal Air Force’s two Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft lifted off from its home base of RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and headed out over the North Sea. It topped up the fuel tanks from a US Air Force Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker soon after take-off and then headed east.

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