US Air Force’s New 'Nuke-Sniffing' Jet Makes Maiden Flight
© AP Photo / Matt York309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group employees walk past Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers at the boneyard, Thursday, May 14, 2015 at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. The "boneyard" is world’s largest aircraft storage and preservation facility. (AP Photo/Matt York)
© AP Photo / Matt York
The US military has renewed investment in the long-abandoned fleet of aircraft capable of detecting fissure material from high above. The maiden flight takes place amid speculation that North Korea might conduct its first nuclear tests in many years, after denuclearization talks with the US were declared dead several years ago.
The first jet from the new batch of "nuke-sniffing" planes ordered by the US Air Force has successfully conducted its maiden flight. Two additional planes, which will be designated "WC-135R Constant Phoenix", are yet to be released.
The first plane will be delivered to the Air Force for mission deployment next month.
The WC-135R is only loosely related to the currently operating WC-135W nuke-sniffer, capable of screening the air for nuclear material such as that created by nuclear weapon tests or disasters. Instead of modifying the WC-135W, which is known for being extremely unreliable, the air force ordered L3Harris Technologies to refurbish three KC-135R air tankers.
The planes will have newer and much more serviceable and reliable CFM-56 turbofan engines instead of the old ones used in the WC-135W. The engine was the most frequent reason for breakdowns and why one of the last retired planes of these series was dubbed "Lucifer’s Chariot".
The "nuke-sniffing" planes may not only be used for enforcing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963, but also to assess the damage from two notorious nuclear disasters. They were sent scouting after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, USSR, and after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake resulted in damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.
However, the Constant Phoenix aircraft has long been deprived of investments, resulting in rapidly deteriorating mission readiness. This changed in 2018, when plans to build the WC-135R were first announced.
The arrival of the first plane of the new generation might coincide with the renewed need for this class of aircraft. For some time now, speculation has been circulating in media and intelligence communities that North Korea is preparing to conduct its first nuclear tests in five years. The allegations have never been confirmed by the DPRK, which has been actively testing its missile technology of late.