An F-35A flew a mission over Eastern Europe and could be tracked online. But don’t freak out about OPSEC: it was almost certainly done on purpose.
In the morning on Sunday Feb. 27, 2022, at least one F-35 from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, flew a mission over southeastern Poland, not far from Ukraine. How do we know? Quite simple, because the 5th generation aircraft could be tracked online on ADSBExchange.com, one of the websites currently used to track flights.
At the moment, the only F-35s known to operate from Spangdahlem are the U.S. Lightning II belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. had arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base on Feb. 16, 2022 to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. Overall, 12 F-35s from the 388th FW and 419th FW, that collectively are the USAF’s first combat coded unit flying the Lightning II, deployed to Europe. Six have been forward deployed to Estonia’s Amari Air Base, Lithuania’s Siauliai Air Base, and Romania’s Fetesti Air Base (two F-35s for each of these forward operating locations) and six have remained at Spangdahlem AB. One of those still operating from Germany, carried out the mission to Eastern Europe that could be tracked online.
The track of the F-35 shows that the aircraft operated close to the border with Ukraine, possibly pointing its ESM (Electronic Support Measure) sensors at the Russian forces in Ukraine or Belarus, or simply flying an armed patrol as many of the other NATO aircraft are doing these days.
Even more interesting is actually the fact that the aircraft could be tracked online. F-35s can be spotted on flight tracking websites and apps every now and then, and we have covered some interesting appearances in the past (like the one over Israel), but this was the first time an F-35 was tracking online over Eastern Europe since Russia has invaded Ukraine.
As mentioned many times, military aircraft involved in operational missions turn off their transponders/switch to encrypted transmissions but, at times, they keep it on, as we have observed during the recent Special Operation to evacuate the US Embassy in Ukraine. After studying this topic for years, it seems clear that the reason for using the transponders turned on during some of these missions is simple: a show of presence.
There are many examples when we observed military aircraft tracking online during real missions: strategic ISR assets in sensitive regions like the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea; aircraft deploying to the Middle East following the US Embassy attack in Baghdad; B-52 bombers flying deterrence missions, and many more.
You can find more information about the ADS-B system and its relationship with military aviation in this previous article. The following thread is also interesting, since it covers most of the “stereotypes” and paranoia surrounding OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) and flight tracking:
Every time I publish an article like this, with some basic OSINT analysis based on ADS-B, radio comms, movements observation, etc. I get comments like: “this is an OPSEC violation” or “Twitter and flight tracking websites have made confidential details public, etc. This is BS. https://t.co/T8Dxo61RGq
— David Cenciotti (@cencio4) January 7, 2020
Two years later the situation has not changed.
If we can observe multiple NATO aircraft tracking online these days it’s just because they want you (and especially Russia, in this case) to know that there are plenty of aircraft collecting intelligence and providing air superiority and defense of the alliance’s airspace. In fact, don’t forget that:
- pilots are aware that they are visible on flight tracking websites
- if ADS-B is turned on, it means that it is done on purpose or at least consciously
- pilots are aware their radio comms can be heard if not encrypted
- the number of aircraft involved in the current build-up in response to the Russian invasion is based on NATO and various air forces’ press releases
In other words, if you know it, it’s because they want you to know.
Lots of people freaking out about posting NATO Combat Air Patrol movements, saying they won’t be doing so due to the ongoing situation. The reason their transponders are not switched to “Standby” is for power projection. They want adversaries to know they are there. https://t.co/DaFyUbPibF
— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) February 27, 2022