The WC-135R Constant Phoenix, often referred to as the “nuclear sniffer,” is one of the most extraordinary aircraft in the United States Air Force arsenal. Equipped with specialized devices for detecting and analyzing radioactive particles, the Phoenix is invaluable in detecting, monitoring, and analyzing nuclear weapon tests worldwide.
The topic of this remarkable machine came into the spotlight as the Pentagon deployed it to Europe in early July 2023 to monitor NATO’s allied airspace. This move was prompted by reports from Ukraine suggesting that Russian forces had mined the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
WC-135R Constant Phoenix
The WC-135R, in its current form, is an upgrade from its previous version, the WC-135W. It first entered the international stage in 1965 when it was designed to detect atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted by the Soviet Union and China. The same technology allowed for monitoring the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and Fukushima (2011), providing invaluable information on the spread of radioactivity. The WC-135R is the latest version of the aircraft, based on the Boeing 707 platform. It significantly improves the capabilities of its predecessor, the WC-135W, in terms of performance, range, and reliability.
Its key task is to identify and quantify radioactive particles in the atmosphere. The Phoenix is equipped with a set of air filters that can collect particles from the atmosphere during flight. These samples are then analyzed to identify specific radioactive isotopes, allowing for the determination of the type, scale, and location of the radiation source. The analysis is typically carried out after the aircraft returns to its base, although some tests may be conducted onboard.
Recently, the WC-135R has been used to monitor nuclear tests conducted by North Korea and to investigate mysterious “radioactive emissions” originating from Europe in 2017. In the face of growing international tensions, Constant Phoenix’s role in monitoring the global nuclear situation is invaluable.
The WC-135R Constant Phoenix, although not well-known, plays a crucial role in maintaining global stability and nuclear security. Its continuous patrols ensure that no secret nuclear test goes unnoticed, and any violations of disarmament treaties are detected and reported.
Due to the global nature of its mission, the WC-135R must be capable of operating over long distances. The aircraft can cover large distances without refueling, enabling it to monitor hard-to-reach or distant areas. The Constant Phoenix fleet is often seen in various parts of the world, far from its main bases in the United States.
As nuclear technology becomes more accessible, the WC-135R’s mission becomes increasingly important. The task of detecting nuclear weapon tests is already complex, but new challenges, such as detecting illegal nuclear material proliferation, make the Phoenix’s mission even more essential.
In addition to its military role, these aircraft also play a crucial role in monitoring civilian disasters related to nuclear energy, such as the aforementioned incidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima. In such situations, these nuclear sniffers provide invaluable information about the spread of radioactive particles, allowing scientists to understand the scale of the disaster and coordinate an effective response.