Tag Archives: RC-135U Combat Sent

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

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Has An RC-135U Combat Sent Signal Intelligence Aircraft “Covered” The Two F-35A Stealth Jets Visiting Estonia?

Yesterday two USAF F-35A stealth aircraft performed a quick visit to Estonia. But their mission to the Baltic region was probably not only supported by a KC-135: an RC-135U and two RC-135Ws flew to the area while the 5th Gen. jets were there.

On Apr. 25, two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK since mid April, flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Ämari, Estonia.

Based on the information gathered by aircraft spotters, airband listeners and ADS-B monitors, who tracked the mission to Estonia of the F-35s, the two 5th generation multirole combat aircraft , 14-5102 and 14-5094, using radio callsign “Conan 01” and accompanied by “Quid 89”, a 100ARW KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall, departed from RAF Lakenheath at 07.35z.

The trio landed in Estonia shortly before 11.00z and took part in a brief ceremony (at this link you can find some interesting photographs).

Noteworthy, the quick visit to Estonia was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region.

In fact, as the F-35s headed towards Amari in formation with their KC-135 tanker, as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF bird) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia.

The U.S. Air Force dispatched an RC-135W Rivet Joint 62-4139 “Haiti 79” and an RC-135U Combat Sent 64-14847 “Spool 06” to the Baltic states.

The Rivet Joint positioned off Kaliningrad Oblast, where some of the most active Russian bases in the Baltic region are located, whereas the Combat Sent started a racetrack over Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia.

 

Shortly thereafter, even a RAF RC-135W “Airseeker,” one of the three ex-USAF KC-135 tanker converted to the Rivet Joint variant starting back in 2011, from RAF Waddington joined the scene. The British intelligence gathering plane that, just like the American “RJs” is equipped with all sorts of antennae and sensors, to eavesdrop enemy signals, transmissions, detect frequencies used by radio and radars and pinpoint sites of interest, mobile stations, SAM batteries, etc., maintained a racetrack off Kaliningrad.

RC135W ZZ664 RRR7220 west of Kaliningrad (via @CivMilAir)

At 14.43Z, the two JSFs departed Ämari to return to the UK and shortly thereafter both the U.S. and RAF spyplanes headed back to their homebases.

Although we can’t but speculate here, it appears to be quite likely that the RC-135 missions to the Baltic were somehow related to the deployment of the F-35 so close to the Russian border. In fact, whilst Rivet Joint and Combat Sent aircraft regularly fly to the region and can be daily tracked online as they head towards the international airspace off Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the presence of three such spyplanes not too far away from one another seems to suggest their missions were coordinated and probably related to something “big” happening there.

And the only “big thing” (Zapad 2017 preparation aside) we are currently aware of is the first presence of the JSF in Estonia. Moreover, not only was the type of racetrack flown by the Combat Sent unusual, but it was also located in a pretty interesting position: east of Ämari, as if the RC-135U, an aircraft designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems, was there to detect emissions from Russian radars interested in the F-35.

However, there is another possibility: what if the American and British spyplanes were there to deter the Russian from using their radars?

Indeed, whilst three RC-135s flying at the same time in the same area is something unusual, it is quite weird that the three spyplanes had their ADS-B transponder turned on during their missions.

“If they wanted to hide, they would do” says the ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast who runs the popular @CivMilAir and @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds. “The daily RC-135s flights over the Middle East very rarely show up and even the daily missions to the Baltics can usually be tracked during their transit to the area of operations, where often the transponder is turned off. That’s why I believe they remained trackable on purpose.”

Spyplanes, including the U-Boat (as the RC-135U Combat Sent is nicknamed in the pilot community), usually operate in “due regard” with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts. Even if RC-135s can be regularly tracked online, they tend to keep a low-profile when reaching the area of operations, turning off the ADS-B to avoid being detected at least by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.

On Apr. 25, both RC-135s could tracked throughout their missions suggesting they did purposely broadcast their position for everyone to see, to let everyone know they were there.

Russian spyplanes have done pretty much the same in the past: 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. In that case it was a sort of “show of force”; yesterday was likely a way to prevent some interesting details about the F-35 to be gathered by the Russians.

By the way, it’s not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics are directly or undirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

H/T to @CivMilAir, @MIL_Radar, Fighter Control forum

Top image credit: Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) via Wiki Commons

 

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Russian Su-27 interceptor performs Top Gun stunt over U.S. spyplane

An “unsafe and unprofessional” intercept over the Baltic Sea.

On April 14, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent electronic intelligence gathering aircraft flying a routine mission (in international airspace) over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 in “an unsafe and unprofessional manner,” Navy Capt. Danny Hernandez, U.S. European Command spokesman told the CNN.

According to EUCOM, the Flanker began the barrel roll from the left side of the U.S. RC-135 and went over the top of it to end on the right side of the aircraft, an aggressive maneuver (not compliant with the international standards) that brought the Russian jet dangerously close to colliding with the Combat Sent.

The episode comes few days after Russian Su-24s performed several low passes over a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea, and it’s only the last in a long series of tense close encounters between American spyplanes and Russian fighters in the skies across the world.

On Jan. 25, 2016 a U.S. RC-135 intelligence gathering jet was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet over Black Sea: during the interception, the Su-27 made an aggressive turn that disturbed the controllability of the RC-135.

On Apr. 7, 2015 another Su-27 flew within 20 feet of an RC-135U, over the Baltic Sea.

On Apr. 23, 2015 a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent performing a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, some 60 miles off eastern Russia was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that crossed the route of the U.S. aircraft putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.

Actually, some “reckless” intercepts on U.S. spyplanes have been conducted by Chinese pilots as well.

In 2014, a Chinese Flanker made a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime surveillance plane 135 miles east of Hainan Island, a spot of a far more dangerous close encounter of another U.S. electronic surveillance plane with the Chinese Navy back in 2001.

On Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters.

One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield.

The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11.

Anyway, not only have U.S. aircraft been harassed during intercept missions. Here are just a few examples.

On Sept. 13, 1987, a RNoAF P-3B had a mid-air collision in similar circumstances with a Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Barents Sea.

In Apr. 2012, whilst flying over the Barents Sea on a routine mission, a Norwegian P-3 Orion almost collided with a Russian Air Force Mig-31 Foxhound that had intercepted the patrol aircraft.

On Jul. 16, 2014, between Gotland and Latvia, a Russian Su-27 Flanker, armed with 6 air-to-air missiles, intercepted one of the two Swedish ELINT jet, and flew as close as 10,7 meters of the spyplane.

Top image: not an actual photo but a composition we made using Wiki images