With “God’s sight”, secret surveillance flights keep a close eye on Russia and Ukraine

ABOARD A FRENCH AIR FORCE AWACS (AP) — In the distance, Ukraine, fighting for its survival. Seen from here, in the cockpit of a French air force surveillance plane flying over neighboring Romania, the snow-covered landscapes look deceptively peaceful.

Russia’s war dead, shattered Ukrainian cities and shattered battlefields are not visible to the naked eye through the clouds.

But French military technicians traveling further back in the plane, monitoring screens that display the word “secret” when inactive, have a much keener view. With a powerful radar that rotates six times a minute in the fuselage and a host of surveillance equipment, the plane can detect missile launches, aerial bombardments and other military activities in the conflict.

As the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches on Feb. 24, 2022, The Associated Press gained rare and exclusive access aboard the giant Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, plane. With 26 military personnel and an AP journalist on board, he flew a 10-hour reconnaissance mission from central France to Romanian airspace and back, scanning with electronic eyes across southern Ukraine and the Black Sea to Soviet-occupied Crimea. Russia and beyond.

Circling on autopilot at 10 kilometers (34,000 feet), the plane with a proud rooster painted on its tail provided real-time intelligence to commanders on the ground.

His mission for NATO on the eastern flank of the 31-nation military alliance also drew, in effect, a no-crossing line in European skies.

The aircraft’s sustained presence high above eastern Romania (seeing and being seen by Russian forces) signaled how intensely NATO is monitoring its borders and Russia, ready to act if necessary should Russian aggression threaten to spread. beyond Ukraine.


Regular surveillance flights, along with fighter patrols, ground radars, missile batteries and other equipment at NATO’s disposal, form what the commander of the French AWACS squadron described as “a shield” against any possible overflow.

The “ultimate goal is, of course, no conflict and no deterrence,” said the commander, a lieutenant colonel named Richard. Due to French security concerns, the AP was only able to identify him and other military personnel by their ranks and names.

“We need to show that we have the shield, show other countries that NATO is a collective defense,” he continued. “We have the ability to detect everywhere. And we are not here for a conflict. We are here to show that we are present and prepared.”

France’s four AWACS are among a variety of surveillance aircraft, including unmanned drones, that collect intelligence for NATO and its member countries. Lieutenant Colonel Richard said the French E-3F type AWACS see hundreds of kilometers (miles) with their distinctive black and white radar radomes on rooftops, although that would not be accurate.

The E-3s are modified Boeing 707s. The 707 first flew in 1957, but stopped carrying passengers commercially in 2013, so the E-3s are also flying examples in aviation history.

“We can detect aircraft, we can detect unmanned aerial vehicles, we can detect missiles and we can detect ships. That’s certainly true in Ukraine, especially when we’re on the border,” said Lt. Col. Richard.

As the aircraft loitered and scanned, the crew detected a distant Russian AWACS over the Sea of ​​Azov, many hundreds of kilometers away, on the eastern side of the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian plane also apparently detected the French AWACS: sensors along the fuselage picked up Russian radar signals.

“We know that they see us, they know that we see them. Let’s say it’s a kind of dialogue between them and us,” said the French co-pilot, Major Romain.


NATO also has its own fleet of 14 AWACS, also E-3. They can detect low-flying targets within 400 kilometers (250 miles) and higher-flying targets another 120 kilometers (75 miles) beyond, the alliance says. He says an AWACS can surveil an area the size of Poland; three can cover all of central Europe.

Capable of flying for 12 hours without refueling, the French AWACS are not limited to surveillance, communications and air traffic control missions for NATO. They hope to be deployed as part of the massive security operation for the Paris Olympics, providing additional radar surveillance with what Lt. Col. Richard called his “God’s sight.”

Russian pilots have sometimes made it clear that they do not like to be watched.

In 2022, a Russian fighter jet launched a missile near a British Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Black Sea, the British government said. The US government released video in March 2023 of a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a US Air Force surveillance drone. The drone crashed in the Black Sea.

The Rivet Joints are particularly capable spy planes, and Russian authorities “really hate” their ability to spy on the Ukraine war, said Justin Bronk, a researcher at the defense think tank Royal United Services Institute in London.

In addition to collecting “real-time intelligence that could theoretically be shared with Ukrainian partners,” the planes also provide “fantastic” information about “how Russian forces actually operate in a real war,” Bronk said in a phone interview.

“So of course the Russians are furious,” he said.


NATO also sends fighter jets to cover Russian flights. It says allied aircraft took to the skies more than 500 times in 2022 to intercept Russian planes that ventured near NATO airspace. The number of such meetings has been reduced to more than 300 in 2023, according to the Brussels-based alliance.

The strengthening of Ukrainian air defenses with Western weaponry may partly explain the decline, as the shootdowns apparently make Russian pilots more cautious. NATO noted a reduction in Russian manned flight activity over the western Black Sea last year. NATO says that “the vast majority of air encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft were safe and professional” and that Russian incursions into NATO airspace were rare and generally brief.

Aboard the French flight, the co-pilot, Major Romain, said that Russian planes have not intercepted a French AWACS “for a long time” and that if they did, the French pilots would try to calm any tension.

“Our orders must be, shall we say, passive,” he said. “For a civilian, let’s say ‘polite’.”


Find more information about AP’s coverage of Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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