By Nat South for the Saker Blog
From time to time, I gather and compile basic statistics on US / NATO/ Swedish flights principally near to Russia, (articles posted on my blog). The idea is to get a rough snapshot of the activity, location and types of aircraft that carry out intelligence-gathering missions, broadly known as Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance, (ISR), as well as those in direct support of those missions. It is a thankless and time-consuming task, but hopefully it can offer a semblance of having a wider perspective on issues, other than just riding on emotional off-one events, without providing any context.
The US and NATO (and Sweden) routinely send out a variety of aircraft dedicated for ISR missions along or in proximity to Russia. These missions are tasked with monitoring the military status quo, namely the movement of units and in particular the deployment of equipment and ships. Given the ongoing Ukraine-Russia tensions, the data collecting took on another aspect in the last month, namely what kind of activity and response could be seen. Well, the answer is that the skies got a little more crowded in April.
Going through the figures for April shows a marked overall increase in ISR the Black Sea region compared to other regions. Not surprising considering the military build-up in Crimea and in southern Russia, in response to the re-deployment of Ukrainian military hardware and units to Eastern Ukraine.
All the data obtained is done through trawling through social media accounts who track via ADS-B, Mode-S and MLAT sites, to identify the type of aircraft, location, and nationality of the aircraft. Invariably, there are some flights that are missed, because only those that had transponders active in each location were logged. For example, there were certainly more flights off the Norway, Barents Sea and in the GIUK region than I managed to record.
Some points to retain:
Intensification of flights in the Black Sea, (Crimea, Southern Russia FIR). Although the use of unmanned RQ-4B Global Hawks over Eastern Ukraine and Northern Georgia has been going on for a long time, (years in fact), there was an uptick of activities, (Graph 1) in April. Given their 250km reported ‘visual’ range, they can scan a wide swath of land. Unusually, on several occasions in April, two RQ-4B operated at the same time in the region. Prior to April, most of the ISR flight paths were fairly regular in character, this wasn’t the case several times during April, in particular the RQ-4B flights.
Being unmanned, this is the only US / NATO aircraft that carries out missions over territorial airspace over Ukraine and Georgia. For a short time, a RQ-4B was brought in from the Middle East to carry air missions. Many of these flights did not have habitual flight track of prior ISR missions in certain areas, (Eastern Ukraine, Crimean coastline, and Georgia), often orbiting or making multiple tracking back and forth passes.
A comparison is provided below between the number of flights between February, March, and April. The figures for March or February were not different to previous months, so, a big change in frequency. To sum up, the redeployment of Ukrainian military units did not bring about changes in air missions but the Russian redeployments to the area certainly influenced US and NATO military brass in despatching aircraft to the region.
Another noticeable increase in flights is that of the US Navy P-8 Poseidon flights along the northern Black Sea coastline region. Flights were almost a daily occurrence and this unprecedented as far I know. However, this is partially consistent with the fact that the Russian Navy units started a series of naval exercises in the Black Sea over April, (some of the media reports below to get a gist of the frequency and intensity).
It has to be noted that the flights take place in international airspace, but some of the flights tracked closely the 12 nautical miles limit. As with the other ISR aircraft (Rivet Joint, EP3 Aries), the flight route taken were fairly consistent, going along the whole coast of Crimea, flying all the way down to the sea area adjoining Sochi and towards Novorossiysk, (which I refer to as Southern Russia FIR), and then returning back along the coastline.
8-9 April https://tass.com/defense/1276211
12-13 April https://tass.com/defense/1276793
14 April https://www.rt.com/russia/520989-black-sea-fleet-dispatched-us-threat/
19-23 April https://tass.com/defense/1279759/
Boeing P-8s contrary to social media pundits aren’t just submarine hunters, (“must be looking for a Kilo” fare), but in addition to their anti-submarine warfare (ASW), P-8s have anti-surface warfare (ASUW), and shipping interdiction roles. In other words, maritime domain intelligence.
Another interesting aspect that is noteworthy is the increase in intelligence-gathering flights along the Russian Far East, (Kamchatka and Anadyr). This ties in with press releases and videos on interceptions by the RuAF, where Russian Air Force MiG-31 high-altitude fighter intercepted an USAF RC-135W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of Kamchatka.
Often, several type of ISR missions were taking place simultaneously in the Black Sea region, (usually a combination of P-8 and Rivet Joint, or P-8 with Global Hawks). This means that several types of intelligence gathering are carried out, (maritime, ELINT, etc…). This situation
The above graph shows the ISR missions carried out in April was done daily around many regions from the Baltic to the Barents Sea.
The overall snapshot for April across many regions is shown in the above graph, the Baltic region, being the second busiest region overall.
So, how do these figures compare to those for March?
The Black Sea region in April swapped places with the Baltic region, to lead by a wide margin. To note that I have split the Black Sea region into different sectors, to distinguish the location of flights. The Black Sea region is the overall total, which includes flights that did not enter Crimean, Russian FIRs but were in support of other ISR missions. Generally, this does not include Turkish flights in the southern Black Sea sector, as such the only flights that are counted are those support of other flights monitoring Russian military activities. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to confirm whether a RQ-4B flight went to Eastern Ukraine or Georgia, so it may be expected that the figures that I have are lower than in reality.
The main types of aircraft that carried out various intelligence-gathering missions in the Black Sea region are listed above. While some (the E-3 AWACS, Peace Eagle) stayed over land, their location of activity suggested support for overall intelligence-gathering operations linked to Russian military activities and units.
No surprise to say that it is the US military that flies the most often, with the UK in second place.
Lastly, as an interesting comparison with my dataset, here is a graph showing the numbers of air flights along Russian borders, (including the unmanned aircraft) along with interceptions carried out since the beginning of the year, as regularly reported by the Russian Ministry of Defence. As you can surmise, a lot more aerial activity takes place in proximity to Russia generally, (Not just ISR flights but air tankers, U2s and maybe bomber flights are possibly included in the figures). These figures probably also include other non-NATO aircraft elsewhere near to Russia.
Getting this level of official data from NATO and NORAD would be a rarity and as such, it is nearly impossible to compare data for Russian military flights, as the data is rather opaque compared that of the Russian MoD. Add in a level of obfuscation, as this quote shows the typical situation:
““NORAD responded to more Russian military flights off the coast of Alaska than we’ve seen in any year since the end of the Cold War” General Glen Van Herck’s briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2020.
- Define highest as per the yearly data (which is not available)
- Why reference it to the end of the Cold War? I find it rather misleading to use the basic value as “the end of the Cold War”, whether for aircraft and submarines.
The average NORAD interceptions in the USA/ Canada ADIZ, since 2013 is between 10-16 (roughly), PER YEAR. According to the Russian MoD, there were 10 interceptions for the whole of April alone.
The northern part of the Black Sea region has come under close scrutiny for April regarding US/NATO air missions, and it does not show any signs of decreasing in frequency as yet, (as I write this, there are 2 Global Hawks operating in the region). Yet other areas continue to be monitored as attentively as in previous months on a daily basis.
It highlights the continued need for intelligence by Washington and Brussels on all aspects of Russian military activities and units.
NB: For anyone interested in the naval sitreps side of activities, I have produced a series of them for March and April: https://natsouth.livejournal.com/19905.html concerning the Mediterranean, Black Sea and Red Sea. I regularly update the sitreps with a Twitter thread of additional events.