The visit to Siauliai airbase, in Lithuania, main operating base of NATO’s BAP (Baltic Air Patrol) mission was preceded by a presentation of the NATO E-3 AWACS component E-3A at the 1st Airlift Base of the Polish Air Force in Warsaw. A visit that marked the surveillance plane’s 1,000th operational flight at NATO’s eastern flank since the beginning of Ukraine crisis.
The Boeing surveillance aircraft, one of the 16 E-3A AWACS planes based at Geilenkirchen, in Germany, was welcome to Warsaw by F-16 and MiG-29 jet fighters from the 31 and 23 Airbases of the Polish Air Force.
Besides the Director of the Arms Policy Department, Col. Karol Dymanowski, the E-3 visit to Poland was the opportunity to celebrate the 1,000 sorties of the NATO’s primary Airborne Early Warning & Control platform in eastern Europe with a meeting attended by Deputy Commander of the Polish Armed Forces, Div. Gen. Jan Śliwka, commander of the Geilenkirchen NATO E-3A Component Brig. Gen. Karsten Stoye, along with the crew of the AWACS aircraft.
Interestingly, 5 members of the multinational aircrew were Polish.
E-3A Sentry aircraft have been operating inside the Polish airspace since the 2000. Once Poland joined the NAPMO (NATO Early Warning and Control Program Management Organization) program, along with 15 other countries, Warsaw acquired a right to use the fleet of the 17 AWACS platforms that remain at the NATO’s disposal. Besides Geilenkirchen, the jets are also authorized to use the Polish airbases, such as the Powidz 33rd Airlift Base which is visited by them quite frequently.
AWACS airframes were involved in operations over Poland for the first time during the Fruit Fly/Eagle Talon exercise back in 2006, which was the first exercise with the participation of Sentry, following the acquisition of the F-16 Block 52+ jets, ten years ago On the other hand, the Geilenkirchen-based aircraft also provide support in organization of mass events, such as the Euro Football Cup organized back in 2012, or the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
This year, E-3A component participated in and supported the ANAKONDA-16 exercise, NATO Summit in Warsaw and the World Youth Day, as well as the Baltic Air Policing operation. According to the release issued by the Polish MoD, the Geilenkirchen component has also been closely cooperating with the Polish fighter pilots of the 1st and 2nd Tactical Aviation Wings, since 2015.
The operations undertaken by the airborne radar are also tied to a number of NATO initiatives, including the aforementioned BAP mission as well as the rotational presence of the NATO forces in the region, within the framework of the Operation Atlantic Resolve.
The E-3A airborne radar is available to the member states during the crisis, as well as during the exercises concerning the IADS (Integrated Air Defense System) or other significant allied training initiatives.
The photographs taken from space gave us the possibility to identify the combat planes as 4x Su-30SMs, 12x Su-25s (based on their color scheme, these are Su-25SMs belonging to the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment from Budyonnovsk) and 12 Su-24M2s along with about a dozen helicopters, including 10 Mi-24PN, Mi-35M and a couple of Mi-8AMTSh choppers, from the 387th Army Aviation Air Base Budyonnovsk.
One of our sources with IMINT Imagery Intel experience, who has had access to the imagery in the public domain, noticed something interesting on one of the Su-30SM: the first on the left (the one closer to the runway threshold) should be equipped with a KNIRTI SPS-171 / L005S Sorbtsiya-S mid/high band defensive jammer (ECM) at the wing tips. To be honest this is almost impossible to verify unless more high-resolution images become available.
Whilst satellite shots provided much details about the deployed assets, they obviously didn’t help answer the basic question: how did they manage to reach Syria undetected?
There is someone who believes that during their ferry flight, some if not all the formation (each made of a cargo plane and four accompanying fast jets), may have made a stopover in Iran before flying the last leg to Latakia. This would also explain why some Il-76s (with an endurance that would allow a non-stop fly from Russia to Latakia) were observed stopping at Hamadan on Sept. 18-19, just before the Sukhois started appearing on the tarmac at Latakia.
Also interesting is the activity of several Israeli aircraft, including a G550 “Nachshon Aitam,” a sort of mini-AWACS equipped with 2 L-band antennas, on both sides of the fuselage, and 2 S-band antennas, on the nose and tail of the aircraft.
Although they were not conceived to play this kind of role, F-22 Raptors have emerged as some of the U.S.-led Coalition’s most reliable combat assets in supporting coalition planes during air strikes in Syria and Iraq.
Even though the largest number of air strikes is carried out by other assets, it looks like the role played by the (once troubled) F-22 is pivotal to ensure the safety of the other aircraft involved in the air campaign: the Raptors act as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” escorting strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness.
“We are operating regularly in Iraq and Syria. The F-22’s advanced sensors and low-observable characteristics enable us to operate much closer to non-coalition surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft with little risk of detection,” said Lt. Col. J. (name withheld for security reasons) in a recent 380th Air Expeditionary Wing release. “We provide increased situational awareness for other coalition aircraft while simultaneously delivering precision air-to-ground weapons. This allows us to reduce the risk to our forces while mitigating the risk to civilian casualties, one of our highest priorities in this conflict. It is a true multirole aircraft.”
In simple words, the F-22 pilot leverage advanced onboard sensors, as the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, to collect valuable details about the enemy Order of Battle, then they share the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft, while escorting other manned or unmanned aircraft towards the targets. As happened when they facilitated the retaliatory air strikes conducted by the Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16s after the burning alive of the pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh captured on Dec. 24, 2014.
Needless to say, every now and then they can also attack their own targets using Precision Guided Munitions: two 1,000-lb GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or 8 GBU-39 small diameter bombs, “which have been successfully employed against key ISIL targets. [The SDB] is extremely accurate from very long distances and has the lowest collateral damage potential of any weapon in our inventory.”
Therefore, although this may not be what the F-22 was conceived for, the U.S.’s premier air superiority fighter is excelling in a new role: making other aircraft more survivable in contested airspaces like Syria and Iraq.
Some Japan Air Self Defense Force fighter jets carried out the first interceptions of China’s AEW aircraft patrolling the area few hours after the controversial ADIZ was established but more close encounters are to be expected: on Nov. 28, talking to state news agency Xinhua, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) spokesman Shen Jinke said more fighter jets and an early warning aircraft were launched into the newly declared air defence zone.
The iarcraft conducted normal air patrols: “a defensive measure and in line with international common practices.”
So, what’s next?
Anything may happen, even if most probably Chinese jets will remain far away from Japanese or South Korean ones, that will continue to operate undistubed.
And, sooner or later, U.S. B-2s will be sent to fly an extended deterrence mission through the Chinese ADIZ.
Along with several Patriot missiles batteries, about to be stationed along the border with Syria as part of a NATO force to protect Turkey from a potential ballistic missile attack by Assad’s forces, the alliance is about to deploy E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System) planes to the region.
According to a source who spoke off the record, the AEW planes are bound to Konya, one of the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force component.
Although they were scheduled to attend a training exercise from the Anatolian airfield, it is safe to say that the “flying radar stations” will be used to keep an eye on the southern chunk of the Turkish airspace where Ankara has strenghtened the presence of Turkish Air Force planes since Turkey and Syria exchanged fire with Syrian forces on the border at the beginning of October.
The E-3 AWACS are not only capable to discover aircraft flying at very low altitude; they can provide Airspace Management duties as well as act as information sharing hubs (by interconnecting ground-based radar stations and flying assets), and can also detect missiles, as the Soviet-built Scud-B missiles that landed fairly close to the Turkish border lately.
In other words: although they may be on a scheduled deployment, they are moving into position should the need to support a Peace Support Operation arise.