Out of the 18- member crew, the 97th has five slots for an airborne mission supervisor, manual Morse operator, cryptolinguist, air communications operator and one maintenance technician.
The Cobra Ball crew distinguished itself by performing numerous aerial reconnaissance missions of national-level significance.
When the Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked Cobra Ball for joint Navy/ Air Force Pony Express operations, they were mobilized and deployed on short notice to Kadena Air Base, Ja-pan, in March.
While there, the Cobra Ball crew monitored tensions between two neighboring countries. During the same deployment, the crew was also tasked to fly a never-attempted sortie to collect against a high- priority, strategic launch system from a different intelligence source. The 97th IS's operations tempo is reaching the maximum capacity. Last year, 133 Cobra Ball sorties were flown, adding up to more than 1,097 flying hours. Because the 97th also supports other RC-135 missions like Rivet Joint and Combat Sent, most of the air-borne linguists are qualified for more than one platform. To qualify an airborne linguist on Cobra Ball is difficult because they have to be qualified on a real sortie, with activity at their position. With three other operators on- board, train-ing is slightly easier compared to get-ting a maintenance technician quali-fied. Experienced airborne technicians are in demand for Cobra Ball to en-sure most equipment can be repaired.
Currently, the 97th supports two Cobra Ball RC- 135S's. The addition of a third Cobra Ball may make things more difficult, said Lt. Col. Jim Glenn, commander of the 97th IS. "The ops tempo would increase by 1.5. It would give us three on-station so we could keep one in depot maintenance and dedicate two crew to each aircraft. Both could deploy simultaneously and all three could actually depart if the situation got serious enough," said Glenn.
In the future, the 97th Collection Support Branch hopes to provide quick- look analysis of Cobra Ball data, decrease the turnaround time of data to national consumers and take advantage of the efficiencies created by the commonality between RC-135 programs.