by Nat South for the Saker Blog

This week, in an interview with TASS, the head of the Russian Border Guard Service spoke about the increase in intelligence activities along the Russian sea borders.

“Seaward parts of Pacific and Arctic oceans, Baltic and Black Seas are increasingly becoming areas of intelligence[-gathering], naval exercises, in which foreign ships and aviation of several states are involved” Vladimir Kulishov, First Deputy Director of the FSB

In a 27 March 2020 Russian MoD briefing, it was stated that aerial reconnaissance missions had increased 20% since the start of 2020 and 80 flights were reported along Russian borders. Since 2014, there has been progressively more and more NATO reconnaissance near Russia’s borders. The Russian Ministry of Defence releases on a regular basis basic statistics on air intel-gathering missions and intercepts carried out. This data makes for an interest mini-research and data analysis project, along with an OSINT information gathering to get a richer picture of what is happening in the skies near to the borders of Russia. Let’s start with the data provided by the Russian MoD, which I collated and put together as a graph for 2019.

Figure 1. 2019 Numbers of air reconnaissance / intelligence-gathering missions along / near to Russian borders

What’s noticeable is the sustained frequency of air missions along Russian border that are tracked by Russian radars, (carried out by either NATO, United States, Sweden and quite possibly also Japan and others on the Arctic and Pacific side of Russia).

Generally speaking, the data is available usually weekly although there are periods where the data seems to be only given out fortnightly, (January for instance). No further information is provided so as to get a better context overall or more details on particular geographical hotspots. Yet, the Russian MoD used to do this a couple of years ago in their weekly infographics.

A total of 1181 missions and 434 intercepts were noted for 2019, with extreme variations in numbers during the year. The lowest record is of 9 missions, (although the ratio with intercept is high with 4 carried out). There is a marked peak at the beginning of October, with significant numbers reported: 42 violations and 27 intercepts, for that previous week.

The upward trend from mid-August to October matches up with the build-up and the holding of the largest military exercise in 2019 — “Tsentr 2019“. This large-scale exercise is noteworthy not only because of the sheer numbers involved, but the participation of China and six other countries. It remains to be seen how these mission/intercept figures are directly connected to this exercise, given the central geographical locations of where the Russian military exercise took place.

It isn’t known just how many of these air reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions were linked to monitoring of regional or national scale military exercises. The Russian MoD stated that 4,000 military exercises of varying scale would be carried out in 2019. Sometimes, NATO air reconnaissance flights are connected to NATO air and naval exercises in the Baltic, Black and Barents Seas. However, more than often, it is just simply intelligence gathering mission per se.

The snippet of information released concerting NATO intercepts for 2019 paints a different picture to that of the Russian MoD. The numbers for NATO intercepts needed to be viewed differently, as they include intercepts and escorts of Russian military transport planes as well as bombers and fighters. To underline this point with an example is the following article and the video of when a NATO aircraft was moved away by a Russian fighter escort from a Russian airforce transport aircraft with the Minister of Defence onboard in August 2019. To note that the Russian plane were in international airspace in the Baltic region, transiting from Kaliningrad to Moscow. Again, this is a completely different situation to that of carrying aerial reconnaissance and intel-gathering missions on the ‘doorstep’ of Russian sovereign airspace.

All too often, this get muddled or misinterpreted by media outlets and pundits as being NATO airspace, when in fact it is an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that goes beyond the 12MN sovereign airspace of a member country up to 200NM. Additionally, this buffer zone all too often conflated with labelled as “European airspace”, a play on words to make it sound scary to the layman viewers, listeners and readers. To reiterate, it is international airspace but it is controlled for Air Traffic Control reasons, (such as civilian traffic via the FIR) and as an ADIZ monitored by the military.

Intercepts and escorts are not uncommon and the data for 2019 shows this to be the case. NATO jets intercepted Russian planes flying close to NATO members’ airspace 290 times in 2019, according to an unmanned NATO official in a RFERL article. So, how many of those intercepts were routine transit military transport flights to and from Kaliningrad? That’s one way of fudging the figures to make the numbers I suppose.

Both sides accuse each of the unsafe and unprofessional interactions during some intercepts both in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, as highlighted by the latest incident in the Eastern Mediterranean this week. Yet, very few accounts provided by journalists do also show another side, one of professionalism.

Unfortunately, that aspect that is normally encountered, is all too often sidelined into obscurity, for blatant propaganda purposes, it seems better to continuously distort the situation, to hype and ceaselessly push an image to suit the wider narrative of “Russian aggression”. Yet, these hard to find insights actually provide a wider context and a better overview of the environment and dynamics of intercepts in general and importantly why tensions in the air can flare up. Without going into details, this article outlines the procedures for intercepts. Of interest is the section “post interception phase”.

Likewise, NATO also intercept Russian military flights in international airspace, as this example shows, of a TU-142 bomber with escorts back in August 2019. At this point, I’d like to comment on the wider aspect of this incident, in particular, the response by the Russian military to NATO flights of strategic bombers that particular year, as partially detailed here in an article on a number of B-52 flights carried out including in the Baltic. As I write this, I see that B1 bombers flew to the Baltic from Ellesworth AFB, (USA) last week and today one has flown to the Black Sea region. Footage of the Russian Air Force interception and escort was available the next day.

Essentially, Russian bomber flights are designed to probe NATO mainly by asserting a psychological demonstration of capability, rather than an overt military intelligence gathering mission, which is the mainstay of U.S. and NATO air operations in close proximity to Russian borders. Having said that, the B1 and B-52 are the flip side of the Russian bombers in terms of power posturing and each side take turns to carry out probing missions. In fact, USSTRATCOM call these missions Bomber Task Force (BTF), as part of showing global power to “provide overwhelming force anywhere, anytime in support of American interests or our Allies and partners.” An unusual B1 mission was carried out in the Pacific region, that went via the Bering Sea and along the Kamchatka coastline on 22 April. The Russian MoD took note and it was mentioned in their 1st of June briefing.

The main issue, though, is the type of mission carried out, the frequency and the geographical locations. All these also entail a certain of prior intelligence-gathering missions as well. I certainly would like to know more about the frequency and intensity of such U.S. missions, compared to the missions carried out by the Russian airforces counterparts. Here’s a glimpse: compare the statistics for the Russian intercepts above with that stated by NORAD in 2019: “NORAD has intercepted an average of approximately six to seven Russian sorties annually entering its ADIZ since Russia resumed long range aviation patrols in 2007.”

How close is being close to territorial airspace? A military can literally fly up the 12NM boundary, but this doesn’t happen very often. It boils down to attitudes, as NATO flights, especially the unmanned aircraft, tend to be closer and last longer than the Russian flights reconnaissance. A example of this that happened in the Black Sea last week is shown in this visual:

It does beg the question, would NORAD and the USAF be so accommodating to this kind of flight path and duration on a regular basis, particularly if it was a Russian military aircraft as close as 33km off Florida or Alaska?

The Kaliningrad region gets put under an intense spotlight almost on a daily basis, as shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3 below. NATO keeps a close scrutiny of this Russian territory, which is often cited in the media as being an ‘enclave’ or as Russia’s ‘outpost’ in the heart of NATO. It is the homeport of the Russian Navy Baltic Fleet with a permanent land and air military presence as well. Thus, any Russian military twitch is monitored, logged and analysed continuously by NATO personnel since Kaliningrad presents significantly more anxiety for NATO than Ukraine or Crimea, keeping alive the “Russian aggression” fable. Having Kaliningrad on NATO’s doorstep is a self perpetuating accomplishment, to not only by continuously forward deploying NATO units, but by substantially raising tensions from time to time by forward deploying U.S. strategic bombers to the area. 2019 was not exception to this rule, neither is 2020 so far, given recent B-52 and B1 flights.

Figure 2. April 2020 frequency of flights bordering to Russian borders. Data derived from social media aircraft tracking accounts. Graph: Nat South 2020

Figure 3 shows the different types of aircraft that carry out air reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering near and/or along the land and sea borders of Russia during the month of April.

“NATO’s military activity near our borders increases every year. The Alliance’s land and sea units are being built up. NATO membership is expanding. The US global missile defense system is being deployed.” Defence Minister Shoigu, 25 March 2020

In the latest Russian MoD briefing, (1st of June), further details on the situation of NATO, intelligence-gathering and intercepts during May was given in a briefing by General Rudskoy. Of particular interest is the comment about the issue over using transponders by military flights in the Baltics. Originally partially agreed by both NATO and Russia back in 2017, there are still some outstanding issues to be settled. General Rudskoy stated that: “We are counting on the readiness of the NATO countries to take concrete decisions on this issue”. Another issue was mentioned, one of distances during intercepts.

Details on the air missions and intercepts for May will be provided in another blog posting, that includes the recent NATO/ UK/USA naval activities in the Barents Sea.

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