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FAS Project on Intelligence Reform


A 30th anniversary tribute to those lost in the 1981 crash of Cobra Ball II 664 is scheduled for March 15, 2011 at Offutt AFB, NE. For further details, contact Dr. K.A. Crooks at

COBRA BALL is an Air Force airborne intelligence platform (RC-135) which carries infrared telescopes for tracking ballistic-missile tests at long range. COBRA BALL operates out of Offutt AFB NE and deploys to various locations around the world.

The Cobra Ball suite of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Measurements and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT) sensor systems designed to exploit the enemy electromagnetic spectrum. The MASINT sensors are two linked electro-optical sensors -- the Real Time Optics System (RTOS) and the Large Aperture Tracker System (LATS). RTOS consists of an array of staring sensors encompassing a wide field of regard for target acquisition. LATS serves as an adjunct tracker. Due to its large aperture, it has significantly greater sensitivity and resolving power than the RTOS, but is otherwise similar. Connectivity includes JTIDS and TIBS data links.

Variants have been proposed for the operational detection of theater ballistic missile launches. In war, Cobra Ball could provide rapid recognition of TBM launches following cloud-break and horizon clearance. Within seconds of launch detection, estimates of launch point, intercept point, and impact point are available for transmission over a data link to theater C4I elements like AWACS, JSTARS, and the AOC. Estimates of increasing accuracy are transmitted during the course of the missile's flight until burnout has occurred.

The Big Safari program delivered A/C 61-2664 (Cobra Ball II) in March of 1972. On 15 March 1981, aircraft 664 tragically crashed upon approach to Shemya AFS, Alaska, taking with it a combined SAC and ESC crew of 24 -- resulting in six fatalities.

Dave Loomis writes:

G writes: Larry Becker writes:

Hobart Gay writes:

Robert L. Mai writes:

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Updated May 4, 2010