The EWO and the MIRV: Cold war talk for an RC-135 crew's lucky day.
- By Robert L. Brown
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 4 of 5)
On January 13, 1969, we slid off Shemya’s icy runway, sailed over the 40-foot drop, and slammed into the downslope. Equipment racks tore loose from the walls, black boxes were ripped out of the consoles; the noise was deafening. The impact broke the airplane’s back, tearing open the fuselage aft of the wing. I’m glad I wasn’t in the dome.
A more persistent danger than that of icy runways came from our target. The Soviets knew we were spying on their tests, of course, and monitored our flights closely. They would often have fighters in the area, and we knew that they would have loved an excuse to nail an RC-135. An RC is no match for a MiG, and since they had downed an RB-47H in 1960, we weren’t about to give the Soviets the opportunity to set up an intercept and shoot us down. Between 1946 and 1991, the Soviets destroyed 18 types of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft; about 250 airmen were killed in shootdowns, lost their lives in accidents, or were captured (see “Beyond the Iron Curtain,” Aug./Sep. 1994). The perils for reconnaissance crews didn’t stop after the cold war: Earlier this year, four North Korean fighters intercepted an RC-135S over the Sea of Japan. Pentagon officials initially said that at least one of the jets locked its missile radar on the RC before the fighters dispersed, but that statement has since been retracted.
The risks aside, everyone knew the mission was important and worth whatever it took to collect the data. In October 1968, we hit the jackpot. We had taken up our position off Kamchatka, and all indications were that an event was developing. I spotted the incoming missile warhead, called the signal, and centered the crosshairs just ahead of the burning tankage. Suddenly I realized that there wasn’t one warhead but three—it was a multiple reentry vehicle, or MRV (pronounced “merv”). U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had suspected the Soviets were developing a multiple-warhead capability, but we had not been able to prove it, and of course they denied it. If the Soviets had developed MRV capability, that would be an ominous turn, one that would affect ongoing nuclear arms talks. We had found the holy grail of the RC-135S mission—but when it happened, I damn near blew it.
Nobody had explained what I was supposed to put the crosshairs on, and I wobbled them all over the place. Somehow I managed to get enough data to confirm that we had spotted a MRV. The other Raven team was now anxious to pick up the next MRV shot and share the glory. But as it turned out, Team 2 was in the air for the second MRV test, conducted on December 18.
We knew it was an important discovery, but from our chilly Alaskan outpost, we didn’t realize the magnitude. Sometime later, we were called into a classified briefing room and shown a film of the United States representative at the United Nations confronting the Soviet representative with proof that the U.S.S.R. had developed and tested multiple warheads for its missiles.
In his hand he had the photos and data from our missions. Team 2 had hit the mark.
Just as Boeing 707 and KC-135 airframes were made into a wide array of variants, including the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the RC-135, the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber, which entered service in 1956, spun off many versions.
Over its 30-year production run, the Bear, developed from the Tupolev Tu-4—itself a copy of the Boeing B-29—was produced in electronic intelligence gathering, airborne test, photo-reconnaissance, and communications relay versions for the Soviet, and later Russian, air forces. For the navy, the Tu-95 was modified into the Tu-142 anti-submarine aircraft, and for the civilian airline Aeroflot, it was made into the Tu-114, which featured a new fuselage but retained the Bear’s wings, main landing gear, and engine assemblies, as well as a nearly identical cockpit. The design came full circle when Tupolev used the Tu-114 and later -116 as the basis for new military versions, including the Tu-126, an airborne-radar craft with a large rotating antenna, similar to a Boeing E-3 AWACS.