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With ‘God’s-eye view,’ secretive surveillance flights maintain shut watch on Russia and Ukraine

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ABOARD A FRENCH AIR FORCE AWACS — Off within the distance, Ukraine, preventing for its survival. Seen from up right here, within the cockpit of a French air power surveillance aircraft flying over neighboring Romania, the snow-dusted landscapes look deceptively peaceable.

The {dead} from Russia’s conflict, the shattered Ukrainian cities and mangled battlefields, aren’t seen to the bare eye via the clouds.

However French army technicians driving farther again within the plane, monitoring screens that show the phrase “secret” when idle, have a much more penetrating view. With a strong radar that rotates six occasions each minute on the fuselage and a bellyful of surveillance gear, the aircraft can spot missile launches, airborne bombing runs and different army exercise within the battle.

Because the second anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine nears, The Related Press obtained uncommon and unique entry aboard the large Airborne Warning and Management System, or AWACS, plane. With 26 army personnel and an AP journalist aboard, it flew a 10-hour reconnaissance mission from central France to Romanian airspace and again, peering with digital eyes throughout southern Ukraine and the Black Sea to Russian-occupied Crimea and past.

Circling on auto-pilot at 34,000 toes (10 kilometers), the aircraft with a proud cockerel painted on its tail fed intelligence in actual time to ground-based commanders.

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Its mission for NATO on the jap flank of the 31-nation army alliance additionally, in impact, drew a do-not-cross line in European skies.

The aircraft’s sustained presence excessive above jap Romania — seeing and likewise being seen by Russian forces — signaled how intensely NATO is watching its borders and Russia, prepared if essential to act ought to Russian aggression threaten to increase past Ukraine.

Common surveillance flights, along with fighter patrols, ground-based radar, missile batteries and different {hardware} at NATO’s disposal, kind what the commander of France’s AWACS squadron described as “a protect” towards any potential spill-over.

The “final objective is, after all, no battle and deterrence,” mentioned the commander, a lieutenant colonel named Richard. Due to French safety issues, the AP was solely capable of determine him and different army personnel by their ranks and first names.

“We have to present that now we have the protect, present to the opposite international locations that NATO is collective protection,” he continued. “We have now the power to detect in every single place. And we’re not right here for a battle. We’re right here to point out that we’re current and prepared.”

France’s 4 AWACS are amongst quite a lot of surveillance plane, together with unmanned UAV drones, that collect intelligence for NATO and its member nations. Lt. Col. Richard mentioned the French E-3F-type AWACS see for tons of of kilometers (miles) with their distinctive black-and-white rooftop radar domes, though he would not be exact.

E-3s are modified Boeing 707s. The 707 first flew in 1957 however stopped carrying passengers commercially in 2013, so E-3s are additionally flying examples of aviation historical past.

“We are able to detect plane, we will detect UAVs, we will detect missiles and we will detect ships. That’s true, for positive, in Ukraine, particularly after we are on the border,” Lt. Col. Richard mentioned.

Because the aircraft loitered and scanned, the crew detected a distant Russian AWACS above the Sea of Azov, many tons of of kilometers away on the Crimean Peninsula’s jap aspect. The Russian plane additionally seemingly noticed the French AWACS: Sensors alongside the fuselage picked up Russian radar alerts.

“We all know that they see us, they know that we see them. Let’s say that it’s some sort of a dialogue between them and us,” the French co-pilot, Main Romain, mentioned.

NATO additionally has its personal fleet of 14 AWACS, additionally E-3s. They will detect low-flying targets inside 400 kilometers (250 miles) and higher-flying targets one other 120 kilometers (75 miles) past that, the alliance says. It says one AWACS can surveil an space the scale of Poland; three can cowl all of central Europe.

Capable of fly for 12 hours with out refueling, French AWACS aren’t restricted to surveillance, communications and air-traffic management missions for NATO. They anticipate to be deployed as a part of the huge safety operation for the Paris Olympics, offering extra radar surveillance with what Lt. Col. Richard referred to as their “God’s-eye view.”

Russian pilots have at occasions made clear that they do not like being watched.

In 2022, a Russian fighter jet launched a missile close to a British air power RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance plane that was flying in worldwide airspace over the Black Sea, Britain’s authorities mentioned. The U.S. authorities launched video in March 2023 of a Russian fighter jet dumping gas on a U.S. Air Drive surveillance drone. The drone crashed into the Black Sea.

Rivet Joints are notably succesful spy planes, and Russian authorities “actually hate” their capacity to eavesdrop on the Ukraine conflict, mentioned Justin Bronk, a researcher on the Royal United Companies Institute protection suppose tank in London.

In addition to gathering “real-time intelligence that theoretically may very well be shared with Ukrainian companions,” the planes additionally furnish “improbable” perception about “how Russian forces really function in an actual conflict,” Bronk mentioned in a telephone interview.

“So after all, the Russians are livid,” he mentioned.

NATO additionally scrambles fighter jets to scope Russian flights. It says allied plane took to the skies greater than 500 occasions in 2022 to intercept Russian plane that ventured near NATO airspace. The variety of such encounters dropped to greater than 300 in 2023, in keeping with the Brussels-headquartered alliance.

The strengthening of Ukrainian air defenses with Western weaponry could partly clarify the lower, with shoot-downs seemingly making Russian pilots warier. NATO noticed decreased exercise by manned Russian flights over the western Black Sea final 12 months. NATO says “the overwhelming majority of aerial encounters between NATO and Russian jets had been secure {and professional}” and that Russian incursions into NATO airspace had been uncommon and usually quick.

Aboard the French flight, the co-pilot, Main Romain, mentioned Russian planes haven’t intercepted a French AWACS “for a very long time” and that in the event that they did, French pilots would attempt to defuse any pressure.

“Our orders are to be, let’s say, passive,” he mentioned. “For a civilian, let’s say ‘well mannered.’”


Discover extra of AP’s protection of Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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