The following day, Oct. 29, three large packages of Russian planes skirting NATO “airspace” were detected and monitored by aircraft on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) in both northern Europe and Turkey.
“These sizable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace,” said NATO in an official statement.
At approximately 3:00 a.m. CET NATO radars detected and tracked eight Russian aircraft flying in formation over the North Sea, in international airspace.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force scrambled its F-16s in QRA that intercepted and identified the Russian aircraft as four Tu-95 Bear H strategic bombers and four Il-78 tanker aircraft.
In what can be seen as a “show of force”, two of the Russian strategic bombers flew parallel to the Norwegian coast, heading to the south-west and were intercepted by Eurofighter Typhoon jets scrambled by the Royal Air Force (whereas the remaining 6 Russian Air Force planes returned towards Russia).
According to NATO, “The bomber and tanker aircraft from Russia did not file flight plans or maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic control authorities and they were not using on-board transponders. This poses a potential risk to civil aviation as civilian air traffic control cannot detect these aircraft or ensure there is no interference with civilian air traffic.”
Later on the same day, whilst the Tu-95 returned towards Russia, NATO radars detected and tracked four Russian aircraft flying over the Black Sea in international air space: 2 Tu-95 Bear-H bombers and 2 Su-27 Flanker fighter jets.
During the afternoon of Oct. 29 October, NATO radars detected and tracked 7 Russian planes over the Baltics (needless to say, in international airspace): 2x MiG-31 Foxhound, 2x Su-34 Fullback, 1x Su-27 Flanker and 2x Su-24 Fencer jets (these were probably the very same aircraft intercepted on Oct. 28).
Portuguese F-16 Fighters assigned to the Baltic Air Policing Mission were scrambled from Šiauliai, Lithuania. It’s unclear whether they reached the package or not; anyway, the Russian Air Force planes returned to Russia’s airspace.
At least seven Taliban militants were killed following a NATO air raid Afghanistan. Noteworthy, a sign of the developing operation may have been a U.S. Air Force E-11A BACN plane orbiting over southeasern Ghazni province, clearly visible on Flightradar24.com.
Although many military aircraft are equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders they are usually turned off during real war operations. In fact, by automatically broadcasting the plane’s callsign, GPS position, speed and altitude, these special transponders provide information about the plane can be received by ground stations, by other nearby aircraft (thus enhancing situational awareness) and also by commercial off-the-shelf or home-built receivers.
Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder have a network of several hundred feeders around the world who make the flight information received by their home kits available for anybody on their websites, or by means of their smartphone apps.
Three years later, a U.S. plane involved in war mission over Afghanistan could be monitored for several hours as it circled at 41,000 feet to the southeast of Ghazni.
The aircraft did not broadcast its mission callsign, but based on the hex code FR24 could identify it as a Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft, an advanced ultra long-range business jet that has been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accomodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.
Within the U.S. Air Force, the modified jet is designated E-11A.
BACN is technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to exchange tactical information and communicate.
By orbiting at high-altitude, BACN equipped air assets provide a communications link from ground commanders to their allies in the sky regardless of the type of the supporting aircraft and in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment. In the rugged, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, troops are not always able to establish LOS communications with close support aircraft overhead and moving position or relocating to higher ground could be fatal. In such situation, a legacy USAF A-10 attack aircraft could loiter away from the battlefield while using the BACN link to communicate with a special-forces Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) on the ground until all targeting information is ready before “un-masking” and beginning an attack run.
The BACN system is also deployed onboard EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs.
The tight gap between Greenland Iceland and the UK (“GIUK Gap”) was once the main “highway” used by Soviet bombers and maritime reconnaissance aircraft flying to Cuba, monitoring NATO maritime activities or simply probing local air defenses.
The mission to intercept the Soviet Tu-95/Tu-142 was assigned to the 57th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) “Black Knights”, ldeployed to Keflavik air base, in Iceland, since November 1954. The 57th FIS flew several types of aircraft such as the F-102, the F-106 and the F-4E, before receiving the F-15C/Ds in November 1985.
The Eagles belonging to the 57th FIS were fitted with CFTs (Conformal Fuel Tanks) which boosted their range allowing the F-15s to intercept and shadow the Bears much further out and for longer time.
A former Black Knights pilot, Lt. Col. Tim “Sweet Lou” Kline described to Steve Davies for his book F-15 Eagle Engaged how an intercept against the Bears took place:
“They were long intercepts. […] we’d be sitting there waiting, looking down at the water-the icebergs in the cold water-and getting our gas from the tanker while we waited, hoping our refueling equipment worked because we were away from Keflavik. Sometimes we could be out there six hours.”
Thanks to the standard CFTs, the F-15 demonstrated to be the perfect aircraft to intercept the Bears in the GIUK Gap.
“When they did show up, they’d still at altitude. Oftentimes we would simply go ‘pure pursuit’ on the raw return because to obtain a lock on would not only give away our presence but also allow the ‘Bear’s’ EWO (Electronic Warfare Operator) to begin tuning in his EW gear and start ‘dueling electrons’ with the APG-63 (the F-15 doppler radar). It was important to not let them know what range we could actually get a lock on at and other information that would prove valuable intelligence to them,” Kline explained.
If the aircraft were Soviet Navy maritime reconnaissance aircraft, instead of flying at cruising level “they’d ramp down to about 300-500ft altitude and slow down to about 230 knots to start dropping the sonobuoys and we would ‘call the drops’ so AWACS could plot their locations for Intel. When they were done they would turn around and go back northeast to Russia.”
Sometimes, during bad weather interceptions, the Soviets turned into the F-15 trying force the fully loaded and bit less responsive Eagle into a dangerous attitude.
Interestingly, at the apex of the Cold War tension, the 57th FIS mechanics fabricated a fictitious EW (Electronic Warfare) pod from a normal baggage pod. To make it more realistic, the fake pod was fitted with various unused UHF, automobile and other types of antennas and was mounted beneath one of the underwing pylons of one of the local F-15s. When the Eagle carrying the faux EW pod intercepted the Bear, the pilot rolled out alongside the Soviet aircraft with the pod fully visible to the Russian aircrew which took a lot of pictures of the previously unseen pod: how much time that Soviet intelligence officer had to waste in trying to identify the new “EW pod” remains a mystery.
Another hilarious moment dates back to the time when one F-15 pilot showed off a Playboy nude centerfold across the expansive side of the Eagle’s canopy, for the Soviet aviators entertainment. Once they saw it, they responded by running the Bear air to air refueling probe (which was encased in a long cylindrical tube extending above the nose and would be run out to clog up into the drogue basket) in and out, and in and out of its protective sleeve.
The Black Knights did not survive too long after the end of the Cold War: in fact the F-15s of the 57th FIS ensured the QRA service at Keflavik until Mar. 1, 1995 when they were eventually disbanded.