Spy planes on the edge of the abyss in Ukraine

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Sara I. Belled

Since the beginning of the invasion, NATO surveillance aircraft have been deployed on the border without hiding

The southern border of Ukraine, on the shores of the Black Sea, is every day a hornet’s nest of NATO spy planes that permanently monitor what is happening in the country invaded by Russia. The most striking thing is that this military device is not hidden, but any digital application that allows commercial flights to be followed in real time shows the evolution of the sophisticated models dedicated to gathering electronic information from the Ukrainian and Russian armies. Drones, reconnaissance platforms and huge tanker planes are permanently over Romania, just twenty kilometers from the scene of the conflict, and they are visible to the whole world. An unusual transparency in a war.

One of the most obvious questions before this exhibition is how it is possible that NATO spy flights are public and, therefore, Russian intelligence itself can know where these devices are located. According to experts consulted by this newspaper, the simplest explanation is that the Western military is sending a message to the Russian invaders by not hiding their devices. In other words, they want the Moscow government to know that it is being watched permanently. After all, the same sources point out that if the aviation of the Atlantic organization wanted to, although it must face the identification requirements that use commercial air routes requires, it could make its flights much more opaque.

commercial aircraft

avoid flying over Ukraine

This is the situation in the area on the afternoon of May 12, detected by Flightradar24

commercial aircraft

avoid flying over Ukraine

This is the situation in the area on the afternoon of May 12, detected by Flightradar24

Commercial planes avoid flying over Ukraine

This is the situation in the area on the afternoon of May 12, detected by Flightradar24

In any case, the aircraft that any citizen can locate from their computer with applications such as ‘Flightradar24’ lack, for example, the ‘Stealth’ technology -undetectable by radar- and which, without a doubt, also operates in the region in conflict. In the flight log, on the other hand, neither the fighters nor other combat devices appear. The airspace over Ukraine – in which all sorts of Russian warships are undoubtedly moving – is empty as if nothing is happening there.

The most modern aircraft deployed every day in the Black Sea is the ‘Global Hawk’, one of the latest drones in the US arsenal. This unmanned aircraft has radar and information collection systems that can operate both at night and during the day, as well as through thick layers of clouds. Since it is secret technology, many of its applications are unknown, so the level of data that this platform can collect every day is unknown. This drone, on the other hand, was constantly flying over Ukraine in the days before the entry of Russian troops into the country, but as soon as the invasion was confirmed, it moved to Romania.

Almost routinely, the drone takes off in the early hours of the morning from the NATO base in Sigonella, on the Italian island of Sicily, flies over Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, turns east and begins to orbit over the waters of the sea Black. His flight brings him within a hundred kilometers of Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula. Within the different routes of the spy planes, this is one of the most delicate since it is placed not far from a region of Ukraine that declared itself independent unilaterally in 2014, to join Russia immediately. Neither kyiv nor the majority of the international community recognize their sovereignty.

At the border, spy planes and drones patrol the terrain

Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker

A tanker aircraft prepared to provide logistical support to the rest of the fleet

Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk

(US Air Force)

An American spy drone patrolling the Black Sea

Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint

(US Air Force)

America’s most advanced spy plane

Derived from the Boeing 707 commercial aircraft, it carries a huge rotating radar

At the border, spy planes and drones patrol the terrain

Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker

A tanker aircraft prepared to provide logistical support to the rest of the fleet

Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk

(US Air Force)

An American spy drone patrolling the Black Sea

Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint

(US Air Force)

America’s most advanced spy plane

Derived from the Boeing 707 commercial aircraft, it carries a huge rotating radar

At the border, spy planes and drones patrol the terrain

Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker

(US Air Force)

A tanker aircraft prepared to provide logistical support to the rest of the fleet

Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk

(US Air Force)

An American spy drone patrolling the Black Sea

Derived from the Boeing 707 commercial aircraft, it carries a huge rotating radar

Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint

(US Air Force)

America’s most advanced spy plane

Approaching Crimea, the ‘Global Hawk’ is also approaching the bases maintained by the Russian Black Sea fleet. It is in these waters that the flagship of Putin’s Navy, the ‘Moscow’, was sunk, hit by a Ukrainian missile. The drone, in this sense, monitors some key coasts in the war. The kyiv government has indicated on several occasions that Russian warships coming from this peninsula could attempt a landing in the city of Odessa, in Ukraine. In any case, the displacement of ships necessary for an amphibious operation would be detected instantly by both the drone and the satellites. The island of Snakes, an islet that was conquered by Russia in the first days of the invasion, is also not far from its deployment area – it was there that a Ukrainian soldier ordered the sailors of the ‘Moscow to ‘fuck the ass’. ‘ when he was asked to surrender – and which is now the scene of heavy fighting with missiles, drones and fighter jets.

Not far from the ‘Global Hawk’ are also two other NATO surveillance aircraft: the ‘Sentry’ and the ‘Rivet Joint’. The first is an airborne command and control warning system – ‘Awacs’, for its acronym in English – and it is unmistakable due to the enormous dome located on the fuselage and which houses a long-range radar. The ‘Sentry’ is capable of collecting information on the movements of all types of vehicles at a distance of approximately four hundred kilometers. In addition, it could become a platform from which to organize the flight of dozens of planes, especially fighter jets. However, it is an outdated model and is being renovated.

On a daily basis, one of the different models of this spy plane takes off from a base in Turkey or Greece and begins to circle a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine, inside Romanian airspace. At that moment, a key city like Odessa is barely two hundred kilometers from the plane’s radar. This town is the third largest in the country and the main outlet to the sea in Ukraine. On April 3, Russia attacked it with missiles but the authorities were alerted, which gave the population time to take refuge and some of the rockets were even shot down.

A second NATO aircraft approaching Ukraine, the ‘Rivet Joint’, is a much more advanced spy system than the ‘Sentry’. This device, recognizable by its elongated bow, is capable of tapping into all kinds of electronic signals to control enemy communications. These ships take off both from Turkey and from NATO bases in the United Kingdom and are dedicated to making long passes in front of the Ukrainian border.

37 tons of fuel

To keep this device active, other models travel daily to Romania: the tankers that take care of refueling the spy planes in flight. Two ‘Stratotankers’ capable of moving up to 37 tons of fuel in their holds are also located near the border and throughout the day they receive visits from the ‘Sentry’ and the ‘River Joint’ to refuel. In this way, the hornet’s nest of spy planes remains for hours and hours at the border, in full view of the whole world.

Incidents over the Black Sea and American paratroopers to the north

Russia is no stranger to the actions of NATO spy planes on the southern border of Ukraine. On March 16, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov announced that Russian missiles had destroyed the communications center in the Ukrainian town of Vinnitsa where information provided by Western aircraft was supposedly received. This statement came after the Alliance acknowledged that it was passing data on the invasion to the armed forces in kyiv.

In the weeks prior to the start of the conflict, official spokesmen for the Moscow government denounced that at least 56 spy aircraft -40 planes and 16 drones- were constantly monitoring their country. In addition, they warned that on two occasions fighter planes had taken off due to the possibility that NATO aircraft would violate Russian airspace.

Since the invasion there have been no incidents between NATO aircraft and Russia, something that had happened since 2014, when Moscow recognized the independence of Crimea. In January 2018, a Sukhoi 27 fighter jet approached an ‘Orion’ spy plane flying over the Black Sea, believing it was getting too close to Russia’s borders. Last year this incident was repeated.

Cryptologists and linguists

This model, the ‘EP3 Orion’, is an electronic warfare aircraft specialized in anti-submarine warfare. However, there is also an electronic warfare version that carries cryptologists and linguists in its crew to be able to intervene in enemy conversations. On occasion, a ship of this type has been incorporated into the current surveillance work over Romania.

While most of the known spy flights are on the southern border, activity in the north is much more discreet. In that area, the flights of the ‘Blackhawk’ helicopters of the US Army are common. These aircraft take off every day from the Polish Mielec airport, close to the border limits of Ukraine. The United States’ rapid intervention forces – the 82nd Airborne Division – have been deployed in this Polish town, and its airfield is being used to deliver NATO military aid to Ukraine.

Mielec is also a key place for aviation since one of the largest aircraft factories in the region is located there. This company is owned by the North American firm Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.

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