Secret surveillance flights closely monitor Russia and Ukraine

IN A FRENCH AIR FORCE AWACS — Far away, Ukraine, he is fighting for his survival. Viewed from up here, in the cockpit of a French Air Force surveillance plane flying over neighboring Romania, the snow-dusted landscapes look deceptively peaceful.

The dead from Russia’s warthe ruined cities of Ukraine and the shattered battlefields are not visible to the naked eye through the clouds.

But French military technicians riding further back in the aircraft, watching screens that display the word “secret” when idle, have a far more penetrating view. With a powerful radar that rotates six times every minute in the fuselage and a full complement of surveillance equipment, the plane can detect missile launches, airborne bombing and other military activity in the crash.

As the second anniversary of Russia February 24, 2022, the invasion of Ukraine looms, The Associated Press gained rare and exclusive access to the giant Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, aircraft. With 26 military personnel and an AP reporter, he flew a 10-hour reconnaissance mission from central France to Romanian airspace and back, looking with electronic eyes over southern Ukraine and the Black Sea to Russian-occupied Crimea and beyond.

Cruising on autopilot at 34,000 feet (10 kilometers), the plane with a proud rooster painted on its tail fed real-time information to ground commanders.

His mission for NATO on the eastern side of the 31-nation military alliance also, in fact, drew a line European skies.

The plane’s prolonged presence high over eastern Romania — seen and also seen by Russian forces — signaled how closely NATO and Russia are monitoring its borders, ready if necessary to act if Russian aggression threatens to extend beyond Ukraine.

Shields for NATO, pieces of aviation history

Regular surveillance flights, along with fighter patrols, ground-based radars, missile batteries and other equipment at NATO’s disposal, form what the commander of France’s AWACS squadron described as a “shield” against any potential spillover.

“The ultimate goal is, of course, no conflict and deterrence,” said the commander, a lieutenant colonel named Richard. Due to French security concerns, the AP could only identify him and other military personnel by rank and name.

“We have to show that we have the shield, show the other countries that NATO is collective defense,” he continued. “We have the ability to detect everywhere. And we are not here for conflict. We are here to show that we are present and ready.”

France’s four AWACS are among a variety of surveillance aircraft, including unmanned UAVs, that gather intelligence on NATO and its member states. Lt. Col. Richard said French E-3F AWACS could see hundreds of kilometers (miles) with their distinctive black-and-white rooftop radar domes, though he would not be accurate.

E-3s are modified Boeing 707s. The 707 first flew in 1957, but stopped carrying passengers commercially in 2013, so E-3s are also flying examples of aviation history.

“We can detect aircraft, we can detect UAVs, we can detect missiles and we can detect ships. That’s certainly true in Ukraine, especially when we’re on the border,” Lt. Col. Richard said.

As the plane circled and scanned, the crew spotted a distant Russian AWACS over the Sea of ​​Azov, many hundreds of kilometers away on the eastern side of the Crimean peninsula. The Russian aircraft also apparently detected the French AWACS: Sensors along the fuselage picked up Russian radar signals.

“We know they see us, they know we see them. Let’s say it’s some kind of dialogue between them and us,” said the French co-pilot, Major Romain.

Hawk-eyed AWACS on call to protect the Olympics

NATO also has its own fleet 14 AWACS, also E-3. They can detect low-flying targets up to 400 kilometers (250 miles) away and higher-flying targets another 120 kilometers (75 miles) beyond that, the alliance says. He says an AWACS can monitor an area the size of Poland. three can cover all of central Europe.

Capable of flying for 12 hours without refueling, French AWACS are not limited to surveillance, communications and air traffic control missions for NATO. They expect to be deployed as part of the massive security operation for Paris Olympics, providing additional radar surveillance with what Lt. Col. Richard called “God’s eye.”

Russian pilots have made it clear at times that they don’t like being watched.

In 2022, a Russian fighter jet fired a missile near a British Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Black Sea. said the British government. The US government released video in March 2023 of a Russian fighter jet that dropped fuel on a US Air Force unmanned surveillance aircraft. The drone crashed in the Black Sea.

Rivet Joints are highly capable spy planes and Russian authorities “really hate” their ability to spy on the war in Ukraine, said Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute defense think tank in London.

In addition to gathering “real-time information that could theoretically be shared with Ukrainian partners,” the planes also provide “fantastic” insight into “how Russian forces actually operate in a real war,” Bronk said in a phone interview.

“So, of course, the Russians are furious,” he said.

In the skies, regular meetings

NATO too mixes fighter jets to cover the Russian flights. It says allied jets took to the skies more than 500 times in 2022 to intercept Russian jets that rushed close to NATO airspace. The number of such meetings has dropped to more than 300 in 2023, according to the Brussels-based alliance.

The strengthening of Ukrainian air defenses with Western weapons may partly explain the decline, with the downings apparently making Russian pilots more wary. NATO noted reduced activity by Russian manned flights over the western Black Sea last year. NATO says “the vast majority of aerial encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft have been safe and professional” and that Russian incursions into NATO airspace have been rare and generally brief.

On the French flight, the co-pilot, Major Romain, said Russian planes had not intercepted a French AWACS “for a long time” and that if they did, the French pilots would try to defuse any tension.

“Our orders are to be, so to speak, passive,” he said. “For a citizen, let’s say ‘polite.’

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