U.S. Intelligence Gathering Aircraft Amass Off Syria As Assad Visits Russian Detachment Near Latakia

U.S. RC-135 Rivet Joint and other spyplanes operating in international airspace off Syria. While a WC-135 “nuke sniffer” flew towards the Black Sea.

The White House’s warning about an imminent chemical attack and the visit Assad paid to Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia, today are among the most likely reasons for a rather unusual presence of U.S. spyplanes off Syria in the last couple of days.

Once again, the hint of a busy intelligence gathering operation underway along the coasts of western Syria comes from the signals collected by aircraft spotters, airband listeners and ADS-B monitors, who have reported the movements of U.S. Air Force RC-135s along with a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft.

Among those who have tracked the flights, the famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast running the popular @CivMilAir and @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds, who has traced the missions of one RC-135U Combat Sent (that had already operated in the same area yesterday), one RC-135V Rivet Joint and one P-8 Poseidon on Jun. 27, more or less as Assad posed for some photos inside the cockpit of a Russian Sukhoi deployed to Syria.

The Rivet Joint is the USAF’s standard (SIGINT) gathering platform, meaning that it can eavesdrop and pinpoint “enemy” radio signals, and disseminate the details about these targets via tactical data-link to other aircraft, while the Combat Sent is designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems. The P-8 is the U.S. Navy’s multi-role surveillance platform with the ability to snoop enemy communications and signals. In other words, three of the most important ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) assets in the U.S. inventory were flying in the airspace off Lebanon and Syria earlier today: were they flying there at the same time by accident? Or, as it seems more likely, they were looking for something specific?

Another interesting movement that might be related to the situation in Syria was the WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuke sniffer” that, using the radio callsign “Lando 90” flew from RAF Mildenhall, where it deployed on Jun. 22, towards the Black Sea on Jun. 26. Although the atmospheric collections aircraft used to detect the radioactive particles that result from a nuclear detonation, could be on a “pre-planned deployment” (as the official press release usually state regardless of the actual reason behind the presence of the WC-135 around the world…) it has long been speculated that it can carry sensors even capable to detect chemical substances down wind from the attack area days, or week after they were dispersed.

Once again, it might be a coincidence. Or not.

H/T @avischarf. Image credit: @CivMilAir


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Well, guess what? He uses them again, and U.S. military forces will strike again. That’s a solid guarantee. Perhaps this time we’ll undertake a strike on Assad’s Presidential Palace – with him in it! Ain’t no S400 system can stop the U.S. military. If we want in, the door is coming down. Anywhere in the world. Anytime. Count on it!

  2. If the Tomahawks start flying, Russia had better get out of the way. If they don’t, their planes and people could be placed in harm’s way.

    One thing the RuAF doesn’t want – what they fear most – is an air war with the US. Up against Raptors, F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, and perhaps maybe even a few F-35s thrown in at the last minute (the “B” and “A” are combat ready), there is no way Russia would win in the skies against the MIGHT of U.S. airpower. But if they want to try, they are welcome to take their best shot.

    Russia may get off the first shot, but I guarantee you the U.S. and our NATO allies will get off the last. Russian losses would be devastating and total. Moscow needs to stand down if the U.S. attacks because if they don’t, their forces will be in for a whole lotta hurt. Someone tell Mr. Putin he can take that to the bank!

    • If the Tomahawks start flying, it’s another violation of international law. Something that is omitted by our media every day. In Iraq it was WMDs (Curveball) and in Kuwait it was the baby incubator lie that served as an excuse. In Yugoslavia it was “genocide” that needed to be prevented. As it turns out now, those “reasons” never existed.

      You sound like a warmonger. Still feeling safe behind the desk? I’d like to hear what real pilots would have to say about going against latest generation Russian aircraft with Russians in them. Your posts never contain any reasonable view. But you surely can tell me in what country the situation has become better for the people after an US intervention.

      Whoever opposes US hegemony plans and actually does something against it, becomes the next target. Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi tried to get away from the Petrodollar. That had to be prevented because if the Dollar is not used to pay for oil anymore, it becomes obsolete and can no longer be used an instrument of oppression and power. Having nuclear weapons would keep the US at bay. That’s why NK wants them. If they have learned something from history, it’s that.

  3. They are probably just trying to find another excuses, based on zero direct evidences, for possible next airstrike aimed on positions of Syrian Army. Since the Russians and Syrians are annihilating too fast those U.S.-backed groups, what totally ruins U.S. plans in Syria and therefore isn’t likely that Assad will be ever overthrown and replaced by some U.S. puppet.

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