Tag Archives: RC-135V

Online Flight Tracking Provides Interesting Details About U.S. Spyplane and Russian Doomsday Aircraft Operating Over The Black Sea

Flight tracking websites expose a sort of “close encounter” between a U.S. Air Force RC-135 and some Russian Tu-214 special mission aircraft over the Black Sea.

The Tupolev Tu-214SR is a Special Mission Aircraft of the Russian Air Force. Actually, little details about this special plane are known: the “SR” is belived to be a communication relay aircraft, often accompanying Putin’s presidential aircraft on its travels. In other words, it is the Russian “doomsday” plane, with an airborne command and control role similar to that of the U.S. E-4B.

In spite of its role, as already reported years ago, this aircraft can be tracked online by means of the usual public domain “tools” i.e. flight tracking websites that use the famous ADS-B/Mode-S transponders and, when the aircraft is not broadcasting its GPS coordinates, or via Multilateration (MLAT) a technique that use Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA) to measure the difference in time to receive the signal from four different receivers thus geolocating the target that is not transmitting position data.

Tu-214SR (Image credit: Toshi Aoki – JP Spotters/Wiki)

Interestingly, a Tu-214SR, registration RA-64527, callsign RSD049, from Sochi International Airport, Russia, has been operating in the Black Sea since Aug. 1. “I first saw it on Aug. 1 at 21:24hrs UK time, same a/c was still on station at the same location on Aug 2, at 07:10hrs (it spent around 11hrs on that location), and it was on station again on Aug. 3”, Twitter user @Andy007_SR_A explained in a message to us.

What makes the report particularly interesting is the fact that the aircraft did not remain alone during the last mission, when it basically circled over the Kerch peninsula. In fact, on Aug. 3, the Russian “doomsday” plane was somehow “reached” by a U.S. Air Force RC-135V 64-14848 launched from Souda Bay Air Base, Crete, that flew off Crimea then headed towards Novorossiysk.

The flight path of the Rivet Joint brought the spyplane south of the Tu-214SR’s orbit. Then the RC-135 turned southeast. Interestingly, at this point another Russian special mission aircraft could be tracked online: a Tu-214SUS, registration RA-64524, callsign RSD117. The latter, airborne from Sochi, is believed to be an Airborne Communication Center, “equipped with a communication and special technical means to communicate anywhere in the world en-route and designed to carry the head of state, as well as government delegations.”

 

Although the activity of the Tu-214SUS could be completly unrelated to the Tu-214SR (as the operations in the same area for three consecutive days might suggest) it is also possible that the SR was instead supporting the Tu-214SUS, acting as a flying radio relay system between the Presidential/Government plane, ground-based receivers and satellites, as shown in the image below (taken from a ria.ru infographic on the Tu-214SR published by Sputnik news outlet):

Tu-214SR onboard relay system. (Source: ria.ru)

After reaching the west of Sochi the RC-135 turned back, following more or less the very same route for its return to Souda Bay. Was it dispatched to the Black Sea to spy on the two Tu-214s ? Most probably yes, even though we can’t be 100 percent sure considered that the Rivet Joint aircraft regularly operate in the area. Still, the fact the U.S. spyplane was there by accident seems to be hard to believe…

Whatever the reason for the concurrent presence of one American spyplane and two Russian special mission aircraft more or less in the same area of the Black Sea, once again, public domain flight tracking websites provided a privileged look at some sort of “interaction” between an RC-135V, a Tu-214SR and a Tu-214SUS. Something similar to what has happened since the Cold War but can be rarely observed using a web browser from home.

The quite rare Tupolev Tu-214SUS (Image credit: Aktug Ates/Wiki)

These Spyplanes Are Watching North Korea’s Next Test

U.S. and South Korean intelligence gathering aircraft are monitoring Pyongyang’s next move.

Kim Jong Un says North Korea may soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean and, based on the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders, it looks like several aircraft operating from their deployment bases in Japan and South Korea are interested in collecting signs of missile launch preparation.

In fact, despite their pretty clandestine roles, many U.S. spyplanes can be tracked online, using a standard browser to visit a public tracking website or COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) equipment.

For instance, here are the most interesting aircraft operating around the Korean Peninsula in the last few days. Needless to say, these are the ones whose transponder exposed their presence; many others are probably operating in the very same area, but adhering to stricter OPSEC rules that require the aircrew to completely turn off their transponders.

As already reported in detail, the RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft is the asset whose activities may give a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea.

 

The RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, are able to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight. The aircraft is equipped with a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight. A distinctive feature of the Cobra Ball is the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, whose purpose was to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography when the RC-135S launched from Shemya AB, Alaska, to monitor the Soviet activities in the Sakhalin peninsula: although the aircraft still feature the black paint on the aircraft’s right hand side, the current electro-optical sensors are able to remove glare from photographs. Moreover, the current Coobra Balls are equipped with optical and electronic sensors on both sides of the fuselage. RC-135S crews are augmented by several ground based, phased-array radar systems, such as the COBRA DANE radar at Eareckson Air Station in Shemya, used to provide radar coverage over the Northern Pacific.

Another aircraft that is often tracked in the region is the WC-135 Constant Phoenix, one of the two aircraft operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center able to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The Constant Phoenix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crew made of up to 33 personnel, flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. The aircraft was first deployed to Kadena in April this year. Since then it has been tracked mainly in the aftermath of each nuke detonation.

 

The aircraft is equipped with external flow devices used to collect airborne particulate; for this reason, the Constant Phoenix “Nuclear Sniffer” is usually launched after the claimed nuke tests, to detect fission fragments by their characteristic decay radiation and verify the nuclear test and get some important details. For example, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, analysts can determine if bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

These Aircraft Sampled Air For Radioactive Particles To Determine If North Korea Actually Detonated A Hydrogen Bomb

 

Another interesting aircraft that was recently tracked online is the South Korea’s Boeing 737 Peace Eagle airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. This aircraft (that in the Turkish Air Force service can be spotted every now and then on Flightradar24.com circling at high altitude over southern Turkey most probably monitoring the movements of the Russian and Syrian planes)

Although the aircraft could be involved in routine AEW tasks monitoring the activities of the North Korean assets close to the DMZ, the Peace Eye embeds a variety of ESM (Electronic Support Measure) sensors that can be used to detect, intercept, identify, locate, record, and/or analyze sources of radiated electromagnetic energy augmenting the intelligence gathered by U-2S, RC-135V, RQ-4 Global Hawk, U.S. Navy EP-3E and P-8 and other assets that undertake ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) tasks on North Korea.

Anyway, OSINT as well as the analysis of the aircraft movements by means of ADS-B may give a pretty good idea of what happens around North Korea as Pyongyang prepares for a new test. One may wonder why such missions can be tracked online. This has been the subject of many articles. 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 RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine, Libya, or Korea, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even everyone can monitor them. It’s a way to show the flag and prove that somebody is watching. Still, we can’t completely rule out the possibility it’s just a mistake.

Anyway, regardless to whether it is done on purpose or not, point your browser to ADSBexchange or follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friends @CivMilAir (who helped with the preparation of this article) and @aircraftspots, to get an idea of what is happening in the airspace around the Korean Peninsula.

 Image credit: U.S. Air Force