One of the Air Force
's "high-flyin' spies," used by the military for both arms control
and military intelligence
. Cobra Ball
is a Boeing RC-135
which carries infrared telescope
s for tracking ballistic missile
tests at long range. Operates out of Eielson AFB, Alaska
. In conjuction with the Cobra Dane Phased Array radar and Cobra Judy ship radar, the Cobra Ball allowed the United States
to monitor via telemetry
every reentry vehicle flown from Russian test ranges, to determine the capabilities of each Russian missile, new or old.
When satellites confirmed a launch from Kazakhstan, the plane would dash off to fly across the Bering Sea as close to the impact area on the Kamchatka Peninsula as Soviet air defenses would allow, to photograph impacts whenever possible. 18 crew members aboard- 2 pilots, 2 navigators, up to 9 electronic warfare and reconnaissance systems officers, and 4 enlisted crew to monitor Soviet air force communications, and an in-flight maintenance guy.
Now that the Cold War is over, you'd think the mission would be over, but the Cobra Ball still shows up every year as a line item in the DoD's budget. Either they're spying on North Korea these days or diverting funds to top secret UFO monitoring.
Until the B-1 bomber came along, this was probably the most expensive aircraft in the US fleet.