Category Archives: Russia

We Went Air-to-Air With The Danish Vipers Supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing And Took These Stunning Photos

Baltic Air Policing is a regular mission held in the Baltic area, with the air policing assets stationed in Siauliai, Lithuania, and Amari, Estonia.

On Jan. 5. 2018 the duty in the Baltic region has been taken over by the Danes, who have deployed four F-16 Fighting Falcons to Lithuania, relieving the U.S. Air Force’s 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron F-15Cs off duty. The mission is a part of the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defense (NIAMD).

The operation has been held regularly since the year 2004, as Lithuania and Baltic States’ air defense system lacks fighter force that would be able to provide air policing duties in this critical area. Due to the fact that the region is also critical in the light of the vicinity of Russia, it “offers” a lot of opportunities to meet the potential intruders in the air – here we are referring to the Russian Air Force whose aircraft, in international airspace, “test” the readiness of the QRA assets deployed by NATO in the region.

It shall be noted that even though initially the Baltic Air Policing operation had been hosted only by the Lithuanians, at the Siauliai airbase (which underwent significant expansion and modernization, for the sake of hosting the NATO assets), after the Russians gradually become more active and somehow aggressive, the operation has been enhanced.

During the peak period of the 2014 crisis in the Crimean Peninsula region, the deployments of air assets in the area were significantly enhanced, with USAF F-15Cs stationed at Šiauliai, supported by KC-135 tankers and the second Air Policing detachment stationed at the Amari Airbase in Estonia, where the Danes made their BAP debut. Furthermore, later that year, in May, the French deployed their Rafales to the Polish Air Force’s Malbork Airbase. Overall, the RDAF F-16s has operated in the Baltic area airspace in 2004, 2009, 2011 and 2013 (operating from Siauliai), as well as in 2014 (as mentioned above – operating from the Estonian Amari Airbase).

The operation is coordinated from the German CAOC (Combined Air Operation Centre) in Ueden. This is where the orders for the assets stationed in the Baltic region come from.

Notably, an intra-detachment rotation scheme has been adopted by the Danes for their air-policing involvement this year, which makes it possible to have more crews deployed abroad. Furthermore, the intensity of the operation is going up. Last year around 130 Russian aircraft were intercepted in the area, whereas respectively 110 scrambles took place in 2016.  Previously, 160 operations were conducted in 2015 and 140 intercepts in 2014.

The Danes scrambled their jets for the first time this year back on Jan 25. In the morning that day the NATO radars in the area picked up a radar track which did not comply with the standard legal regulations imposed by ICAO and without any transponder signal. The suspicious aircraft was flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad, and it turned out it was a Russian fighter. To ensure safety in the airspace, the NATO jets are then tasked with escorting the unidentified plane until it reaches the destination or complies with the rules. This is required by the ATC services to perform their work safely and, for instance, to avoid the mid-air collisions that could be caused by the fact that aircraft with their transponders turned off do not appear on the civilian radar screens.

The activities in March required the jets to go up into the air several times a week. The general trend suggests that NATO is going to enhance the air policing operation in the region again soon. It has already been announced that the Spanish and Portuguese would deploy their assets to Siaullai as of beginning of the next month, which sees involvement on the part of two nations at a single base, complementing the units stationed in Amari.

Danish Vipers

During the air-to-air sortie we had a pleasure to participate in (many thanks go to the Siauliai PAOs for their immediate helpfulness and hospitality), we had a chance to experience a close encounter with the Danish Vipers. The Danes operate their modernized F-16 aircraft in the area.

The Danish military aviation component faced a problem back in the 1970s, as a need emerged to replace the aging fleet of the F-104 Starfighters. The issue was being challenging for other countries in the region back then, including Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands. Jointly, as the European Participating Air Forces, the aforesaid group became the first customers to get involved in a development program together with the US, concerning the Viper. The uniqueness of the said procurement stems from the fact that the EPAF airframes were not made in the US, but in Europe. The production facilities involved in the process included SABCA and Fokker factories in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Initially, according to F-16.net, the RDAF placed an order for 46 F-16As and 12 F-16Bs, with the deliveries beginning in 1980s. The jets later underwent Block 10 upgrade, at the works in Aalborg, as a part of the Pacer Loft I program. To replace the formerly used Saab Drakens, the Danes ordered another 12 Block 15 jets in 1984, including 4 two-seaters. These were not built in Denmark. Instead, the Dutch Fokker company took over the effort. This order was to replace the older aircraft that were subjected to wear. Another seven “attrition replacements” were delivered to Denmark in 1994 and 1997.

The Danish jets were modified, in order to meet the RDAF’s requirements. All of the Vipers are fitted with a search light on the port forward portion of the fuselage beneath the canopy, which is useful for night-time scrambles. A very similar modification is also applied in case of the Canadian Hornets. However, the change was implemented in case of the Danish Vipers at the ‘design’ stage, before they were manufactured. RDAF Vipers have been fitted with the light during the initial production. This modification is identical to the one implemented in case of the Norwegian aircraft, where the searchlight, with a 450W light bulb, has also been installed. Needless to say, even though this element is not a technologically advanced one, it proves very useful in air policing scenarios, during which a visual identification of the potential intruder is required during any night-time scrambles.

The second modification of the Danish Vipers which clearly distinguishes this airframe comes in a form of PIDS+ (Pylon Integrated Dispenser Station) and ECIPS+ (Electronic Countermeasures Integrated Pylon System) systems that have been widely used within the EPAF aircraft. The pods in question have been fitted onto wing stations 3 and 7 (ECIPS+ on the left and PIDS+ on the right wing). The aforesaid countermeasure systems have been manufactured by the Per Udsen Co. Aircraft Industry (Terma A/S since 1997) in Denmark. The dispenser section in PIDS houses either RR-170 or CCB chaff dispensers. The latter is of the same size, but houses double of the chaff quantity, when compared to the RR-170 – 60 charges instead of 30, as in case of the RR-170. Meanwhile, ECIPS+ may house electronic countermeasures, such as the AN/ALQ-162(V)6 system.

Furthermore PIDS and ECIPS pods also feature Cassidian Electronics AN/AAR-60 (V) 2 MILDS F sensors (MILDS F = Missile Launch Detection System, Fighter), which is a missile approach warning system based on a passive imaging sensor that detects the UV radiation signature of the approaching missiles, allowing the pilot to utilize countermeasures in an efficient manner. 6 MILDS F sensors (3 on each wing) and one processor have been integrated into the Terma A/S PIDS+ and ECIPS+ pylons. The sensor windows for MILDS F are clearly visible in the front and back portion of the pylons and constitute a distinguishable element of the Danish aircraft. MILDS system has been integrated on the RDAF F-16s back in 2007 (the contract was awarded to Terma in 2004).

Avionics-wise the main modifications include implementation of the Link 16 datalink and JHMCS helmet-mounted cueing system which could be spotted during our sortie with the jets – helmets featuring the JHMCS display were worn by the pilots in the cockpit. Interestingly, the Danes also found the default instrument panel clock to be not ideal, and fitted a cheap quartz watch next to the HUD, as the F-16.net website claims.

All RDAF F-16s have undertake Mid-Life Update, with all of the work carried out at the Aalborg based workshop facility.

The photo sortie involved E006 and E596. The latter jet comes from the initial order made by the RDAF to acquire their F-16s (deliveries between 1980 and 1983), while the former aircraft that acted as the flight lead during the photo operation was delivered within the framework of a follow on order, happening between 1987 and 1991.

The jets we have photographed were carrying AIM-9L Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAMs under their wings, which is a typical configuration adopted for the air policing duty. Note the yellow stripes on the missiles, meaning that we were accompanied by Vipers carrying live armament. Notably though the F-16s involved in our sortie over Siauliai did not carry the targeting pods – which are also an important and useful tool that is usually applied during air policing operations. During the photoshoot we were flying a Lithuanian Air Force C-27 Spartan. The external fuel tanks the jets were carrying extended the playtime we had to take the shots.

Epilogue

The Danish deployment is going to last until the beginning of May. The detachment is going to be replaced by the Spanish and the Portuguese, which would mean that yet again the rotation would have a doubled size at the Siauliai AB.

On Apr. 3, according to Forsal.pl. Dalia Grybauskiate, the Lithuanian President, claimed that Baltic Air Policing is not enough to protect the airspace in the region, and more defensive measures shall be put into place. She also referred to the Patriot air defence systems that are soon to be acquired by Poland as a significant enhancement of the regional security. “I hope that the United States, as well as other nations, understand the fact that protection of the Baltic States’ airspaces needs to be taken more seriously,” Grybauskiate said.

Written with Dawid Kamizela

Images: Dawid Kamizela and Jacek Siminski

The authors would like to thank the Siauliai AB staff for their hospitality and professional attitude we could have witnessed during the photoshoot.

Russia Claims 71 Out Of 105 Cruise Missiles Downed In Yesteday’s Air Strikes. None Were Shot Down According to The US.

Pentagon Publishes Effective Strike Data. Russia Claims 71 Cruise Missiles Downed.

The United States, France and the United Kingdom launched strikes against targets in Syria on Friday night U.S. time, early morning in Syria. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. General Joseph Dunford, told news media that the strikes hit three targets inside Syria.

The targets included a research facility in the Syrian capital of Damascus alleged to be used in chemical weapons production, a storage facility thought to house chemical weapon stockpiles west of Homs, Syria and a command and control facility outside Homs claimed to also be used for weapons storage.

A chart released by the Pentagon showing the three sites targeted by the air strike on Apr. 14.

The last cruise missiles may have landed in Syria for now but the propaganda war is in full swing between the U.S. and its allies as Russia and Syria claim vastly different results from overnight strikes.

Soon after the strikes in Syria ended today Russian news media claimed that 71 cruise missiles were intercepted during the strikes on Syria Friday night/Saturday morning. In a press conference today, Russian Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, Colonel Sergei Rudskoy, said Syrian military facilities had suffered only minor damage from the strikes.

By contrast, in a press conference on Saturday morning, April 14, U.S. Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told journalists the U.S. and its allies, “successfully hit every target” during the strikes from the U.S., Britain and France. U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., The Director of the Joint Staff (DJS) displayed photos of targets that were hit in Syria during the press conference. “We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets,” Lt. Gen. McKenzie told reporters, in direct contrast to Russian claims that cruise missiles were shot down by Syrian defenses.

The U.S. released the following details on weapons employed in the overnight strike:

From the Red Sea:

USS Monterey (Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser) – 30 Tomahawk missiles

USS Laboon (Arleigh Burke-class destroyer) – 7 Tomahawk missiles

From the North Arabian Gulf:

USS Higgins (Arleigh Burke-class destroyer) – 23 Tomahawk missiles

From the eastern Mediterranean:

USS John Warner (Virginia class submarine) – 6 Tomahawk missiles

A French frigate ship (could not understand name) – 3 missiles (naval version of SCALP missiles)

From the air:

2 B-1 Lancer bombers – 19 joint air to surface standoff missiles

British flew a combination of Tornado and Typhoon jets – 8 Storm Shadow missiles

French flew a combination of Rafales and Mirages – 9 SCALP missiles

The above order of battle does not include the F-16s and F-15s aircraft providing DCA (Defensive Counter Air) nor the U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler that provided EW escort to the B-1s.

[Read also: Everything We Know (And No One Has Said So Far) About The First Waves Of Air Strikes On Syria]

One fact that both sides seem to agree on is that all U.S., French and UK aircraft involved in the strike returned to their bases successfully. Ships that participated in the strike remained at sea without armed confrontation from Syria or Russia. This alone marks a victory for the allied forces striking Syria following a week of rhetoric by Russia about defending Syrian interests. Based on this outcome it would appear the U.S. and its allies can strike targets in the heavily defended region with impunity. U.S President Donald Trump tweeted “Mission accomplished!” on Saturday morning.

While claims of success or failure by either side in a conflict are usually manipulated to control public perceptions Russia does have a long reputation for effective and highly adaptive air defense systems, as the U.S. does for precision strike success using cruise missiles. Russia also has a reputation for using media as a tool to craft perception of outcomes, historically to a greater degree than the U.S. But despite Russia’s admittedly dangerous air defense technology in Syria, it would appear the three nations delivering the overnight strikes in Syria achieved their objectives without loss.

One potential factor that may have influenced the effectiveness of some U.S. weapons systems was that the U.S. Administration was very vocal about the upcoming strikes, giving significant advanced warning to Russian-supplied Syrian air defense units. It is reasonable to suggest that Syrian air defense units spent this entire previous week preparing for a predicted U.S. and allied strike on Syria. Based on intelligence gathered by Syrian and Russian air defense crews from the U.S. strike exactly a year and a week ago on Shayrat Airbase in Syria, air defense crews were likely well-drilled and prepared to meet a U.S.-led attack on their claimed chemical weapons facilities. By contrast, this also gave the U.S led trio of nations participating in the strike time to gather intelligence about Syrian air defense capabilities so attack plans could be optimized to avoid losses. This approach appears to have prevailed in this strike.

If Syrian air defense units were ineffective in stopping U.S. cruise missiles, and most information now points to that outcome (actually, it looks like the Syrians fired their missiles after the last missile had hit), this represents a significant blow to the Assad regime and to Russia’s ability to assist in an effective air defense in the region.

The Tomahawk missile, one of several stand-off weapons used in the overnight strikes in Syria, is an older and still effective weapons platform especially in its most updated versions. Tomahawks were first employed in the 1991 strikes against Iraq when 288 of them were fired in the opening days of the war. While first adopted over 35 years ago, the Tomahawk has been repeatedly upgraded but remains somewhat limited by its overall dimensions that prevent it from having a larger engine installed that would deliver greater speed. The missile currently flies to its target at low altitude and subsonic speeds of about 550 miles per hour. This low speed may make it vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems Russia is known for such as its advanced S-400 system, called the SA-21 Growler in the west. However, the low altitude flight profile of an attacking Tomahawk, its ability to use terrain masking for cover and concealment and its relatively small size, significantly smaller than a manned combat aircraft, make it a difficult target for even the most advanced air defense systems.

The Russian supplied air defense systems in use in Syria that include the S-400 missile and its 92N6E “Gravestone” fire control radar along with other systems are highly mobile and highly adaptive. That means that, while intelligence sources can pinpoint the locations of Syrian air defense systems prior to a strike, those systems can be moved in the hours before a strike to present a different threat posture to attacking missiles and aircraft. Most of the launch platforms for the BGM-109 Tomahawk are large, non-stealthy surface ships, although submerged submarines also launch Tomahawks. The newest version Block IV Tomahawk missile employs several upgrades to its guidance and targeting systems that improve accuracy and flexibility, but may increase time over a target area, making the missile potentially more vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems.

It is likely more modern stand-off weapons like the UK’s MBDA Storm Shadow and French SCALP-EG cruise missile along with the new AGM-158 JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range) were highly effective in Friday night’s strike on Syria by UK, France and the U.S. If this were the case the Tomahawks may have served a purpose by engaging relatively lightly defended targets while attacks by the more recent version of SCALP and JASSM-ER missiles could have struck more heavily defended targets.

As with most conflicts the ancient cliché about the truth being one of the first casualties seems to be true in this latest exchange in Syria, but the emerging strike intelligence from the U.S., England and France suggest this round goes to them and a significant blow was dealt to the Russian-backed Assad.

One the B-1s involved in the air strikes takes off from Al Udeid, Qatar. Image credit: US DoD via Oriana Pawlyk

 

Everything We Know (And No One Has Said So Far) About The First Waves Of Air Strikes On Syria.

Syria Air War Day 1 explained.

In the night between Apr. 13 and 14 aircraft from the U.S., UK and France launched a first wave of air strikes against ground targets in Syria. What follows is a recap based on OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) since most of the aircraft involved in the raids could be tracked online via information in the public domain.

The “limited” action was preceded by intelligence gathering activity carried out by many of the assets that have been flying over eastern Mediterranean Sea lately. The first sign something was about to happen was the unusual presence of an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone tracking off Lebanon and Syria few hours before the first stand-off weapons landed on Syrian regime’s chemical sites/infrastructure.

The RQ-4, callsign “Forte 10” flew for several hours west of Lebanon, likely pointing its IMINT and SIGINT/ELINT sensors at the Syrian Air Defense batteries in heigthened readiness status. The drone then moved southwest, north of Egypt where it was joined by an RC-135V callsign Fixx74. It was about 23.20 GMT and it looked like the two ISR platforms, after collecting intelligence from a close position, were making room for the incoming bombers.

Here’s the position of Fixx74.

Among the aircraft coming in to conduct their bombing run from the Med, there were French Air Force Dassault Rafale jets from Saint Dizier AB, France, supported by C-135FR tankers and RAF Tornado GR4s with their Storm Shadow missiles, which launched from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. Whilst they did have their transponder turned off, the presence of the bombers and their accompanying tankers was leaked by their radio communications with civilian ATC agencies, such as Athinai ACC, that took place on unencrypted VHF frequencies broadcast on Internet on LiveATC.net.

Interestingly, at least two packages of fighters (each supposed to include 4x F-16Cs from 31FW and 4x F-15Cs from 48FW loaded with air-to-air missiles – actually, the second one included only 3 Vipers instead of 4) supported by KC-135 tankers, provided DCA (Defensive Counter Air) cover to the bombers and to the warships launching TLAMs.

After the first waves of attacks, that involved also U.S. Air Force B-1s from Al Udeid, another Global Hawk drone was launched from Sigonella, to perform BDA (Battle Damage Assessment).

The air strikes required a huge tanker support. There were 7 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers airborne over Southern Europe heading to the eastern Mediterranean Sea: something unusual for a Friday night. At the time of writing, there are 13 (!) tankers up: some are dragging the second package of U.S. F-15s and F-16s back to Aviano, whereas others are repositioning to RAF Mildenhall or Souda Bay after a night of operations:

Another interesting aircraft tracked online in the aftermath of the raid, is a Bombardier E-11A 11-9358 from 430th EECS stationed at Kandahar Afghanistan. The aircraft is a BACN (battlefield airborne communications) asset: 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 between allies, regardless of the type of the supporting aircraft and in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment. The BACN system is also deployed onboard EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs. Although we can’t be completely sure, it is quite likely that the aircraft was involved in the air strikes as well, providing data-bridging among the involved parties.

In the end, thanks to ADS-B, Mode-S and MLAT we got a pretty good idea of what happened during the first wave of air strikes on Syria. It’s obviously not complete, still quite interesting.

H/T to @AircraftSpots @Buzz6868 @CivMilAir @GDarkconrad @ItaMilRadar @planesonthenet and many others for providing details, hints, links and what was needed to prepare this article. You guys rock!

Sabers Rattle as New Round of Brinkmanship Appears to Unfold Off Syrian Coast.

Syrian Situation Update

The U.S. administration has suggested there may be an impending military response to the claims of a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma on Saturday, April 7, 2018. Over 500 people, “were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent,” according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a U.S. backed, Washington-based nonprofit group that provides aid in the region. The report about the casualties, that allegedly include “over 40 people killed” appeared in the Washington Post and other U.S. news outlets.

In response to a prior chemical weapons attack in Syria during April 2016 the U.S. launched 59 cruise missiles at Al Shayrat Airbase where the chemical strikes originated, according to U.S. intelligence sources at the time.

A photo posted on Twitter today by Wael Al Russi, a “Proud Syrian, Supporting Syrian Arab Army & Russia against who ruined out country” according to his Twitter page, claimed that a Russian Su-34 (NATO reporting name “Fullback”) accompanied by “several” Su-30 fighters (NATO reporting name “Flanker C”) was seen carrying a pair of Zvezda Kh-35U anti-ship missiles. The Tweet was accompanied by a long range photo of an Su-34 carrying two large shapes under its wings claimed to be the Kh-35U missiles.

According to reports appearing in Russian and English media outlets, Russian aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles have flown near the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Donald Cook (DDG-75) following a claimed chemical weapon attack in Syria this past Saturday.

Several U.S. media outlets claimed today that reports of Russian aircraft flying near U.S. ships are false. U.S. Navy spokesman Commander Bill Speaks told the U.S. media outlet Task & Purpose that, “There are elements of that story that are just simply not true,” According to reports on both the Navy Times and Task & Purpose, Speaks said the reports that the ship was being buzzed by Russian aircraft were “completely bogus.”

A photo tweeted by @WaelAlRussi claims to show a Russian Su-34 allegedly armed with cruise missiles that he reports flew nearby a U.S. ship. (Photo: @WaelAlRussi via Twitter)

A separate incident reported over the weekend by Business Insider, Reuters and the French media outlet Le Point alleged that a French Naval multipurpose frigate of the Aquitaine class “was flown over the weekend by at least one Russian aircraft displaying an “aggressive” posture, according to the term we heard.” The text was translated from the original French publication. No photos accompanied the allegations and the type of aircraft was not specified, raising questions about the credibility of the reports.

French reports claimed a Russian aircraft flew in close proximity to one of their ships. (Photo: Le Point)

Russia’s defense ministry told the Associated Press in a Monday, April 9, 2018 report that Israeli aircraft had attacked the Syrian Tiyas Military Airbase west of Palmyra. “Two Israeli aircraft targeted the base Monday, firing eight missiles,” the Russian report claimed. Russia also claimed Syria shot down five cruise missiles of an unspecified type while three of the claimed missiles landed in the western part of the base. Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Israeli F-15 warplanes fired several missiles at the Tiyas base, also known as “T4”.

The conflicting reports in news and social media suggest an escalating concern that the U.S. may strike Syria soon in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attacks that happened there on Saturday. U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled a planned diplomatic trip to several South American countries early this week to monitor the developing crisis in Syria.

Eurocontrol said in a notification published on Apr. 10 that air-to-ground and cruise missiles could be used over the following 72 hours and there was a possibility of intermittent disruption to radio navigation equipment.

Interesting things are currently happening in the region. Here’s a report of the alleged Russian activities:

Here’s the position of NATO/US AEW/ESM platforms this morning:


Top image: NOTAM & navigation warnings in force around Cyprus for Wed 11th April (via @CivMilAir)

Eyes On Crimea: U.S. Intelligence Gathering Aircraft Increasingly Flying Over the Black Sea

Online flight tracking suggests increase in missions flown by U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft near Crimea.

It’s no secret that U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella from Beale Air Force Base, California, frequently operate over the Black Sea.

The first reports of the American gigantic drone’s activities near Crimea and Ukraine date back to April 2015, when Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, Chief of the Main Department for Operations at the Russian General Staff, said that American high-altitude long-range drones were regularly spotted over the Black Sea. Still, it wasn’t until Oct. 15 that one RQ-4 popped up on flight tracking websites, as it performed its 17-hour mission over Bulgaria to the Black Sea, close to Crimea, off Sochi, over Ukraine and then back to Sigonella. It was the first “public” appearance of the Global Hawk in that area and a confirmation of a renewed (or at least “open”) interest in the Russian activities in the Crimean area.

What in the beginning seemed to be sporadic visits, have gradually become regular missions, so much so, it’s no surprise hearing of a Global Hawk quietly tracking off Sevastopol or east of Odessa as it performs an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) mission quietly flying at 53K feet or above, in international airspace. Indeed, as often reported here at The Aviationist, RQ-4 drones can be regularly tracked online or using commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding the famous Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADSB Exchange websites, as well as closed websites like 360radar, PlanePlotter, Adsbhub.org etc, as they (most probably) point imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors at the Russian bases in Crimea.

Noteworthy, such activities (both in the Black Sea and the Baltic region) have significantly increased lately, showing another interesting trend: they seem to involve more assets at the same time. Even though it’s not clear whether the ISR platforms fly cooperatively (although it seems quite reasonable considered how spyplanes operate in other theaters), U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon and EP-3E aircraft can often be “spotted” while they operate close to Crimea during the same time slots. For instance, based on logs collected by our friend and famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast @CivMilAir, this has happened on Jan. 9, Jan. 25 and more, recently, on Apr. 3, whereas on Feb. 5, Feb. 16 and Mar. 11 the Global Hawk has operated alone. By comparison, during the same period in 2017 (first quarter, from January to March) no Global Hawk mission was tracked or reported. Needless to say, these “statistics” are purely based on MLAT (Multi Lateration) logs: there might have been traffic neither “advertising” their position via ADS-B nor triangulated by ground stations exploiting the Mode-S transponder signals, operating in “due regard” (with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid”). However, analysis of Global Hawk and other ISR aircraft activity using Open Source data seems to suggests a clear increase in “Crimean missions”.

Here are some examples (but if you spend some time on @CivMilAir’s timeline on Twitter you’ll find more occurrences on the above mentioned dates). A few days ago, Apr. 3, 2018:

Jan. 9, 2018:

Dealing with the reason why these aircraft can be tracked online, we have discussed this a lot of times.

As reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether the drone can be tracked online by accident or not. But considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcasts its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it is over there. Since “standard” air defense radars would be able to see them regardless to whether they have the transponder on or off, increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Russian spyplanes can be regularly tracked as well: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on.

Interestingly, according to NATO sources who wish to remain anonymous, Global Hawk missions around Crimea regularly cause the Russian Air Force to scramble Su-30 (previously Su-27SM) Flankers from Krimsk or Belbek that always attempt to get somehow close to, but well below, the high-flying drones.

A Flanker gets close to an EP-3E ARIES II flying off Crimea on Jan. 29, 2018.

H/T @CivMilAir for researching the topic and providing the logs.