The Italian Air Force F-2000, currently deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, have carried out the first alert scramble: the Italian Typhoons were launched to identify a Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” aircraft on Sept. 11, 2020.
While these missions occur quite frequently in the Baltic region, it’s worth of remark that the Italian MOD (Ministry Of Defense), unlike what has happened in all the previous BAP rotations carried out by the Italian Air Force jets, this time has released an image of the Russian aircraft that caused the activation of the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) cell.
The “zombie” (as an unidentified aircraft that triggers a QRA launch is called in the interceptors lingo), is particularly interesting. The Il-20M is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing. It can be used for intelligence gathering missions, eavesdropping the communications, detecting ground, maritime and aerial systems’ emissions and pinpointing their positions to build an Electronic Order of Battle of the NATO assets in the region.
As often reported here at The Aviationist, the Russian Il-20s regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic region, flying in international airspace with their transponder turned off; a standard practice for almost all ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. The missions of the Russian spyplane close to the NATO airspace in the Baltic region have also caused some concern in the past. In 2014, Russian Coot spyplanes flying close to civilian airports or congested airways were involved in two “air proximity” incidents: in March 2014, a SAS Boeing 737 with 132 people almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden; in December 2014, a Canadair CRJ-200 from Cimber Airlines was involved in a near collision with an Il-20 halfway between Ystad, Sweden and Sassnitz, Germany.
Since Sept. 1, 2020, the Italian Air Force has taken the lead of the NATO BAP mission. On Sept. 8, the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” and its four 4x F-2000A Typhoons, belonging to the 4°, 36° and 37° Stormo (Wing), have achieved the FOC (Full Operational Capability), providing H24 QRA duties in the Baltic. Also deployed in the region, as “augmentees” supporting the BAP mission from Amari, Estonia, are the German Air Force Eurofighters. The German detachment carried out its first scramble of the current rotation on Sept. 10, 2020, to intercept an Il-20M (perhaps, the same aircraft intercepted also by the Italians).
As we have already reported with plenty of details, on Aug. 28, 2020, six U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers participated in Allied Sky, a single-day mission that saw the BUFFs overflying all 30 NATO nations.
In particular, one of the B-52s of the 5th Bomb Wing from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, currently deployed to RAF Fairford, UK, as part of Bomber Task Force 20-4, using the radio callsign “NATO 01” and keeping its Mode-S transponder on, undertook an interesting tour flying from RAF Fairford across Eastern Europe to the Black Sea area and then back via (among the others) Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France.
During its 12-hour tour, NATO01/61-0034 was escorted by JAS 39 Gripen over the Czech Republic; by F-16s and MiG-21 Lancers over Romania; MiG-29s over Bulgaria; MiG-21s over Croatia; F-16s over Greece; Italian Air Force Typhoons and F-35s intercepted and escorted NATO 01 over Italy. As explained in the previous article, when over the Black Sea, off Crimea, the B-52 was also escorted by two Russian Air Force Su-27 Flankers that, according to the Pentagon, carried out an unsafe and unprofessional intercept on the U.S. bomber. We linked the press release in yesterday article but let’s have a look at in more in detail here:
At approximately 11:19 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2020, two Russian Su-27 Flanker pilots intercepted a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber that was conducting routine operations in the black sea over international waters. The Russian pilots flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner while crossing within 100 feet of the nose of the B-52 multiple times at co-altitude and while in afterburner causing turbulence and restricting the B-52’s ability to maneuver.
“Actions like these increase the potential for midair collisions, are unnecessary, and inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander. “While the Russian aircraft were operating in international airspace, they jeopardized the safety of flight of the aircraft involved. We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and prevent accidents,” he added.
Our B-52 Stratofortress aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace exercising our freedom of navigation and overflight. The U.S. Air Force routinely operates aircraft in the region in accordance with recognized international safety standards as prescribed in International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules of flight.
We don’t know where the intercept took place. However, we have an idea of the route the aircraft flew thanks to Planeradar.ru:
It’s not the first time and it won’t probably be the last one the Russian intercept is deemed “unprofessional” and “unsafe”. We have reported about several such incidents, most of time involving U.S. Navy P-8A Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft in the Black Sea or off Syria, when Russian and also Chinese fighters allegedly performed Top Gun-like stunts close to a U.S. aircraft. However, in most such cases just footage filmed by the onboard camera is released and we have never really seen interceptors aggressively maneuvering in front of the U.S. aircraft. Quite the contrary, the footage usually released only shows the interceptors closing on the wings of their target, without doing anything really dangerous, so much a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, commenting the intercepts, once told us “what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).” Moreover, back in the days, some “stunts” were performed at the request of the intercepted aircraft.
This time, it’s different. The Pentagon has released a clip, possibly filmed with a smartphone, of the Russian Su-27 crossing extremely close to the nose of the B-52. That’s, by all standards, dangerous and unprofessional. Take a look by yourself (if you can’t see the video in the tweet below click here):
US military releases video of what it says was an “unsafe and unprofessional” intercept by Russian Su-27 jets of a B-52 bomber while it was flying over the Black Sea yesterday. The US said the Russian jets crossed within 100ft of the B-52 while in afterburner causing turbulence pic.twitter.com/h5MxCtVK6w
Thus far, these stunts have never caused real damage but we should not forget some incidents of the past.
On Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters. One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield. The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11, 2001.
On Sept. 13, 1987, a RNoAF P-3B had a mid air collision with a Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Barents Sea. While maneuvering below the P-3B, the Su-27P collided with the outboard right propeller of the Orion: the impact shattered a fin tip of the Su-27P and caused fragments of the propeller to puncture the P-3B’s fuselage, causing a decompression. The Orion experienced severe vibrations and the outboard right engine was shut down. Both aircraft were able to return safely to their bases.
Now, considered all the tensions of this Cold War 2.0 era, imagine the reactions would a Russian fighter collide mid-air with a U.S. strategic bomber..
United Aircraft Corporation has just released the first-ever footage of the maiden flight of a heavily upgraded Tupolev Tu-95MSM (NATO reporting name “Bear”). The first flight took place on Aug. 22, 2020, at the Taganrog Aviation Plant, in Taganrog.
The video shows the iconic Russian bomber (with its peculiar coaxial contra-rotating propellers) taxiing, taking off, performing a fly by and landing, reportedly after 2.5 hours of test flight.
Первый полет совершил первый опытный глубокомодернизированный стратегический ракетоносец Ту-95МСМ на аэродроме ТАНТК им. Г.М. Бериева в Таганроге pic.twitter.com/rMwZ1HjPpc
As part of the modernization program, the bomber received a brand new Novella-NV1.021 phased array radar, a new flight control and information display system, and the Meteore-NM2 airborne defence complex, “capable of jamming enemy ground and aircraft-based radar”. Moreover, the “new” Bear variant features a new SOI-021 information display system and a new weapons control system, as well as new engines, the upgraded Kuznetsov NK-12MPM turboprop engines. These are said to increase the range of the strategic bomber and halve the level of the motors’ vibration.
“The NK-12MPM engine developed by the Samara-based Kuznetsov public company (part of the UEC [United Engine Corporation] within Rostec) is a modification of the NK-12MP, the world’s most powerful (15,000 hp) serial-produced turbo-prop engine,” says a statement obtained by TASS last year.
“It allows improving the aircraft’s take-off characteristics and increasing the load-carrying capacity and the flight range of the missile-carrying bomber. The new powerplant uses more powerful propellers created by Aerosila Research and Production Enterprise while the new design solutions have almost halved the vibration level,” the statement reads.
“This is an aircraft with a new set of weapons, new onboard electronic equipment, new modified engines, new propellers. The combat capabilities of the plane have doubled after this modernisation,” Yuri Slyusar, general director of United Aircraft Corporation said commenting the first flight of the Tu-95MSM, according to the Zvezda television channel.
Thanks to the upgrade, the Tu-95, first introduced in 1956, is expected to serve with the Russian Aerospace Forces until at least 2040.
Here below the same footage released by UAC, published on Youtube by Sputnik News (just in case the one embedded above from Twitter doesn’t work):
Since the beginning of the 2000s, we have observed an increasing usage of Missile Warning Systems (MWS) aboard air assets. The lessons learned from recent conflicts, like Afghanistan and Iraq, underlined the need to protect low flying aircraft, and especially helicopters, also from MAN-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS) threats, other than direct fire that is contrasted with the use of armor. During the last 10-15 years, almost all western aircraft deployed for combat operations had at least ultraviolet-based MWS (Missile Warning Systems) to detect incoming missiles. That was not the case for eastern armed forces, and especially Russian forces which are deployed in Syria since 2015 with their air assets.
The general lack of infrared countermeasures against MANPADS aboard Russian aircraft was remarkably demonstrated when in 2017 President Vladimir Putin visited Hmeimim Air Base, the Russian permanent base near the Syrian port city of Latakia. In that occasion, Putin’s Tupolev Tu-214PU (RA-64517) was escorted by two Su-30SM fighter jets that acted as “heat traps” to attract possible MANPADS and deploy flares to foil them, making up this way to the lack of protections of the presidential aircraft. This need was dictated by the reported presence of at least three different types of MANPADS in Syria: the Soviet-era 9K32 Strela-2 (SA-7 “Grail”) and 9K310 Igla-1 (SA-16 “Gimlet”), and the Chinese FN-6 Hongying-6.
American aircraft are using a combination of UV MWS, flares and Directional InfraRed Counter Measures (DIRCM) to defend themselves. Russian armed forces are seemingly following the same approach. The system that is being increasingly installed on all Russian helicopters, and also on some fixed wing aircraft, is the Vitebsk BKO L370, more commonly known with its export designation President-S, first appeared in 2015/2016. The system was reportedly in development at least since the first 2010s but was never installed on operational aircraft.
According to the Russians, the Vitebsk L370 in its complete configuration is designed to protect an aircraft from both IR and radar-guided missiles, which “can be tracked within a radius of several hundred kilometers”. The Vitebsk is actually a modular system with components installed both inside the aircraft or on external attachment points.
The main components of the Vitebsk system are (disclaimer: all data presented here are public and not classified):
L370-1 control unit, processes the information received from the radar, laser and infrared warning sensors to activate automatically the jamming system and countermeasures, while alerting the pilot and providing information about the threat;
L150 “Pastel” Digital Radar Warning Receiver, with sensors mounted in the tail, wingtips and nose, works in the 1.2- to 18-GHz range frequencies and covers 360° horizontally and 60° vertically around the aircraft;
L370-2 UV warning sensors and L140 Otklik laser warning sensors, detect IR signature from incoming missiles and laser designators, respectively;
L370-3S digital active jamming station (currently not installed on operational aircraft), can locate the hostile emission’s azimuth with a 5°-10° accuracy and jam the signal in two sectors (front and rear) 120° wide horizontally and 60° vertically;
L370-5 IR jammer (replaced by L370-5L or L418-5 in some configurations), a laser-based Directional IR Countermeasure (DIRCM), externally similar to a normal EO/IR sensor turret, which can “blind” the missile at a range from 500 to 5000 meters, covering 360° degrees around the aircraft and 90° vertically;
UV-26 countermeasures dispensers, each module can house 32 rounds of 26mm flares/chaffs;
Active Towable Radio-location Trap (ATRT), planned only for heavy fixed-wing aircraft, is an expendable towed radar decoy attached to a 150 meters long cable that lures radar-guided missiles away from the aircraft.
The known specific configurations are L370E31 (Ka-31), L370V50 (Ka-50), L370V52 (Ka-52), L370E8 (Mi-8MT), L370E26L (Mi-26), L370V24 (Mi-24), L370V28 (Mi-28), L370K25 (Su-25).
The Ka-31 AEW helicopter features L150 sensors in the tail and four L370-2 sensors coupled with two L370-5 jammers under the front and rear fuselage. The Ka-50’s and Ka-52’s versions feature L150 sensors in the tail, L140 and L370-2 sensors in both the nose and tail, two L370-5 jammers just in front of the main landing gear and UV-26 dispensers in the wingtips. The L370-5 jammers are being replaced on new aircraft by the L418-5 jammer, the main visible difference is a round vs square sensor in the turret.
The Mi-28’s version is identical, except for the two L370-5 jammers replaced by a single L370-5L jammer housed in a transparent dome. The Mi-8’s and Mi-24’s versions seem to lack the L140 and L150, featuring only four L370-2 sensors, on the Mi-8’s wingtips and on some custom bulges behind the cockpit and on the tail on the Mi-24, and three L370-5 jammers, one under the tail and the others on the Mi-8’s wingtips and behind the Mi-24’s main landing gear. Both helicopters have also UV-26 dispenser on the rear fuselage. The Mi-26 uses two external pods to house the L370-2 sensors and the L370-5L jammer, one for each side, while the UV-26 dispensers are mounted on the lower fuselage.
The only tactical fixed wing aircraft to use Vitebsk is the upgraded Su-25SM3, latest version of the Su-25 “Grach” (NATO designation “Frogfoot”) which features the L-150, three L370-2 sensors, two in the tail and one below the nose, UV-26 dispensers and two L370-3S jammers mounted under the outer wing pilons, previously used for the R-60 IR-guided air-to-air missile. According to the Russians, the Vitebsk computer can also provide to the Su-25SM3 targeting data for the Kh-58USh (AS-11 ‘Kilter’) anti-radiation missiles.
While the system is being upgraded based on the experience from combat operations in Syria, new configurations are being developed for the Il-76 “Candid” and derivatives, the Il-96s and Tu-204s used by the presidential fleet (Rossiya Special Flight Detachment) and even civilian airliners. The new Mi-38T is also reportedly receiving the Vitebsk system, with a configuration called L370V38S that should be similar to the one used by the Mi-8 and Mi-24.
Vitebsk currently equips almost all the helicopters in the Russian Air Force, according to the MoD, while the export variant, President-S, has been delivered to Egypt for their Ka-52s and Mi-17s, Algeria for their Mi-17s, Mi-26s and Mi-28s, Belarus for their Mi-8s.
The Russians refer to the system as invincible, after full-scale live fire test were performed with a real Mi-8 on an elevated platform, with its engines running and no crew, at which “20 Igla-type missiles were fired and not one of them hit the target”, as they were reportedly blinded by the jammers and flares. We don’t know how accurate are those reports as some of the Russian helicopters equipped with Vitebsk were lost in Syria, even if officially those crashed were not due to hostile fire.
The new Su-57 “Felon” supposedly features a DIRCM system too, even if not related to Vitebsk, called 101KS-O and part of the 101KS Atoll Electro-Optical System, which is a novelty for a tactical jet. Similarly to the Mi-28’s L370-5L jammer, the system is housed in a transparent dome and mounted on the dorsal spine and under the fuselage of the aircraft.
On Jun. 15, 2020, two B-52H Stratofortress bombers, belonging to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, conducted a long-range, long duration strategic Bomber Task Force mission throughout Europe and the Baltic region. During their global reach mission, the BUFFs overflew Tallinn, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; and Vaindloo Island in the Baltic Sea, and, as happened during the most recent trips to Europe carried out by the U.S. bombers (including the B-1s), a B-52 Stratofortress “conducted integration and interoperability training” with local fighter jet: in this case, the RAF Typhoons and French Mirage 2000s assigned to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission.
Interestingly, a BUFF took also part in the 49th iteration of BALTOPS (Baltic Operation) exercise, the premiere maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic region that gathered air and maritime assets from 19 NATO allied and partner nations in live training events that include air defense, anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and mine countermeasure operations.
Supported along the way by KC-135 Stratotankers from the 100th ARW (Air Refueling Wing) from RAF Mildenhall, UK, a B-52 also conducted a low-approach over the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship and command ship of the United States Sixth Fleet in support of the BALTOPS exercise.
“Long-range strategic bomber missions to the Baltic region are a visible demonstration of our capability to extend deterrence globally,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander in a public statement. “Our participation in BALTOPS also provides an opportunity for us to strengthen relationships with our NATO allies and partners while operating in the air and sea domains.”
The B-52 mission (including the support tankers) to the Baltic area could be tracked online.
Noteworthy, the B-52 also flew (in international airspace) off Kaliningrad Oblast, from where Russian Aerospace Force Baltic Sea Fleet’s Su-27 fighters were scrambled to perform a VID (Visual Identification) of the bombers. The Russian MOD later released a video of the intercept that shows, along with the B-52H, also a German Navy P-3C Orion and a RAF Sentinel R1 ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft (most probably ZJ691 that was tracked in the area).
Nothing special: just routine intercept as those carried out by both sides since the Cold War (as explained here and here).
On Jun. 10, 2020, U.S. F-22 Raptors, supported by KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, under NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) control completed two intercepts of Russian formations entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone.
According to NORAD, “The first formation consisted of two Tu-95 bombers, accompanied by two Su-35 fighter jets and an A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which came within 20 nautical miles of Alaskan shores. The second formation consisted of two Tu-95 bombers supported by an A-50 and came within 32 nm. The Russian military aircraft remained in international airspace and at no time did they enter United States sovereign airspace.”
The ADIZ, or “Air Defense Identification Zone”, where the intercept occurred is international airspace that extends 200 miles from the U.S./Canadian coastline and is monitored in the interest of national security. U.S. territorial airspace begins only 12 miles from the coastline. Usually, the Russian aircraft stay well clear of the 12-mile U.S. air space limit during their long-range exercises; in this case it at least worth of note that the U.S. Command released details about the distance at which the Russians were intercepted: respectively 20 and 32NM. It would be interesting to understand exactly which were the “Alaskan shores” skirted by the Russian package, to have a clear idea of the area where the intercept occurred: the Aleutinian islands, a chain of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands, most of those belonging to Alaska, are quite far from the mainland.
North American Aerospace Defense Command F-22 Raptors, supported by KC-135 Stratotankers and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, completed two intercepts of Russian Bomber formations entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone early this morning.
— North American Aerospace Defense Command (@NORADCommand) June 10, 2020
As often explained in details, Bears sometimes fly near international borders along with Su-35s and A-50s to collect data about a country’s air defense network and to collect mapping and signals intelligence to build a communications and early warning “Order of Battle” so that radio and radar frequencies can be identified and cataloged for future use. The missions may happen periodically as the electronic order of battle is changed frequently to maintain operational security. Depending on the weather and time of day, the intercepts, when and if they happen, can produce incredible photos and video. The United States also conducts similar surveillance missions close to Russian airspace (and other areas of interest) for similar reasons.
A video of the intercept filmed from inside a Tu-95 was released by Russian Government sponsored Zvezda:
As per standard peacetime QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) procedures, F-22s carry out their intercept missions with radar reflectors and external fuel tanks as there’s no need for the fighters to fly in stealth mode, quite the opposite.
We have been observing U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon flying in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions for years. The American aircraft, that launch from Sigonella airbase, in Sicily, Italy, can regularly be tracked online by means of ADS-B/Mode-S as they are on the hunt for Russian submarines, accompany a Carrier Strike Group operating in the the Mediterranean Sea, perform instrumental approach at Italian airports for training purposes; and, more frequently, operate off Syria or Crimea during ISR missions.
On May 26, 2020, a USN Poseidon flying off Syria was intercepted by two Russian Su-35s that “flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner while intercepting the P-8.” The American aircraft was operating well outside the Syrian airspace but most probably keeping an eye on Hmeimim, the base that hosts the Russian Air Force contingent, where MiG-29s and Su-24s had stopped over on their way to Libya. As already explained, it is quite likely that the “unsafe” intercept was carried out as the P-8 was observing the residual movements of the Russian jets on delivery to Libya via Syria. In fact, between May 18 and 19 (believed to be the window of transit of the Russian jets) as many as 4x P-8As from Sigonella, Italy; 2x EP-3E ARIES from Souda Bay, Greece; 2x MQ-9 Reapers from Sigonella; and 2x U-2s from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, were logged around Syria while collecting imagery and data that was used to support U.S. Africa Command claim that at least 14 Russian fighter jets were deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground in Libya.
Interestingly, a few days later a USN Poseidon flew a rather unusual mission tracked once again by our friend Arjen Peters: between May 28 and 29, a P-8A from Sigonella operated at high altitude off the northern coast of Libya between Tripoli and Misrata, flying racetracks quite similar to those we have observed in the eastern Med off Syria.
According to Arjen, while other American spyplanes are tracked every now and then south of Malta well inside the Tripoli FIR (Flight Information Region), this was the first time a P-8 operated so close to Libya and, while we can’t rule out the possibility the mission was completely unrelated to the deployment, there are also chances that the presence of the Poseidon in an area where this kind of aircraft has never (or rarely) operated was connected to the transfer of the Russian aircraft few days before.
However, it must also be remembered that the situation in Libya is pretty dynamic and there are other things that may explain the American interest in what happens in the country (such as the alleged Iranian support to Haftar forces or the ties of the LNA leader with Venezuela).
And there are also a lot of signals along the Libyan coastline the U.S. aircraft (not only the P-8) might want to investigate…..
Generally speaking, the United States has publically stated that it is “proud to partner with the legitimate, UN-recognized government of Libya, the GNA, and all those who are prepared to protect freedom and peace.” Nevertheless it also continues to operate flights to airports controlled by both sides of the conflict. Notoriously is the direct Andrews AFB to Benghazi flight of the C-17 registration 09-9205 on April 15, 2020, as RCH223. This unique occasion was captured above mainland UK while the aircraft was being refueled in the air by Mildenhall KC-135s.
During the flight over, another plane spotter took these wonderful shots confirming that 09-9205 had indeed been refueled midair before continuing.https://t.co/jtYbtWGBHH
Similarly, C-17s from Ramstein Air Base in Germany are known to also frequently visit Mitiga International Airport near Tripoli. More recently, such a flight was captured on tracking websites that, after landing at Mitiga, continued its journey towards Ankara in Turkey.
An unusual stop by a USAF C-17 out of Ramstein in Germany.
RCH147 is reg. 10-0215, ICAO AE4D68. The 1st leg drops off at 1530Z. The next contact is 1945Z, pointing away from Tripoli, Libya, where it most likely stopped. It is now on a course for Turkey.
The exact nature of these flights remains unknown.
Back to the P-8, whatever its mission on the night between May 28 and 29, it’s worth remembering that U.S. Navy P-8As are much more than “just” MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft). They carry a wide array of sensors that give the aircraft the ability to operate in the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) battlespace. As we have already explained in a previous article here at The Aviationist, the P-8 are multi-mission platforms that can gather valuable intelligence using a wide array of sensors. Among these, an Advanced Airborne Sensor (a dual-sided AESA radar that can offer 360-degree scanning on targets on land or coastal areas, and which has potential applications as a jamming or even cyberwarfare platform according to Northrop Grumman); an APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar; an MX-20 electro-optical/infrared turret for shorter-range search; and an ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, able to geo-locate and track enemy radar emitters. Moreover, all sensors contribute to a single fused tactical situation display, which is then shared over both military standard and internet protocol data links, allowing for seamless delivery of information amongst U.S. and coalition forces.
In that respect, the P-8A Poseidon represents a huge leap forward if compared to the P-3 Orion. For instance, the externally mounted AP/ANY-10 MTI imaging radar system (upgrade from the P-3’s Littoral Surveillance Radar System – LSRS), adds both an overland and maritime MTI capability approaching the fidelity provided by the US Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). The significant difference with the more modern P-3s is, in particular, in the P-8’s ability to rapidly exchange and share information internally among the crew and externally among joint partners.
No other P-8 mission was exposed by the OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) community after the May 28-29 mission.
According to the U.S. Navy, the surveillance aircraft was flying over the Eastern Mediterranea Sea over international waters, when it was intercepted by two Russian Su-35. The intercept lasted over 65 minutes, meaning that the American MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) with ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities was probably flying close to the coast, most probably off Syria, where the P-8 is often tracked.
“The intercept was determined to be unsafe and unprofessional due to the Russian pilots taking close station on each wing of the P-8A simultaneously, restricting the P-8A’s ability to safely maneuver. The unnecessary actions of the Russian Su-35 pilots were inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules, and jeopardized the safety of flight of both aircraft.
While the Russian aircraft was operating in international airspace, this interaction was irresponsible. We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and to prevent incidents, including the 1972 Agreement for the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA). Actions like these increase the potential for midair collisions.
This incident follows two unsafe interactions in April, over the same waters. In all cases, the U.S. aircraft were operating in international airspace, consistent with international law, with due regard for safety of flight, and did not provoke this Russian activity.”
Indeed, although the lens zoom can affect the way we perceive the distances, the images and clips taken from the P-8 show the Russian interceptors quite close to the U.S. aircraft.
Interestingly, there’s also a video showing one of the intercepts, from the other side, i.e. from the cockpit of a Russian jet (H/T Alex Snow for sharing this):
More interesting than the distance between the aircraft, is the loadout of the Su-35s that can be seen in the photos:
The Su-35s appear to carry R-27TE, R-77, R-73 and Sorbtsiya L-005 ECM pods.
Once again, it’s worth remembering what a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, commenting the intercepts, once told us “what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).” Moreover, back in the days, some “stunts” were performed at the request of the intercepted aircraft….
Each time I read of a “dangerous intercept”, this article I wrote few years ago comes to my mind:
“We Did Barrel Rolls Around Tu-95s At The Request Of The Soviets”: F-4 WSO Explains The Story Of The Phantom Upside Down Near Bear”: https://t.co/UaLwbZR0Ci
Anyway, for the records, before yesterday, another unsafe intercept was reported on Apr. 15, 2020, when a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft flying in international airspace over the eastern Mediterranean Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-35 that conducted a high-speed, inverted maneuver, 25 ft. directly in front of the mission aircraft, “which put our pilots and crew at risk [because of wake turbulence]” as the USN claimed.
Therefore, as explained at the beginning of this article, it was not the first time nor will it be the last.
Last week we reported about the alleged deployment to Libya of a certain number of MiG-29s and Su-24s to support Haftar’s Libyan National Army forces in the war against Fajez Serraj and his Government of National Accord. The arrival of the contingent of MiG-29s and accompanying Su-24s was announced by GNA’s Ministry of Interior Fathi Bashagha who told Bloomberg that the aircraft had been “escorted by two Russian Air Force Su-35s” a claim that seemed quite unlikely, considered that, thus far, Russia has not officially taken part in the conflict in Libya.
As explained in the updated story posted on May 21, a satellite image showing one MiG-29 being towed at Al Jufra Air Base confirmed the presence of at least one Fulcrum in Libya. However, no signs of additional Fulcrums could be spotted thereafter:
MiG-29s in Libya update: I have checked hi-resolution satellite imagery from the last week of nearly every airport in Haftar’s territory, including Al Jufrah Air Base, where the one Fulcrum was spotted in a sat image. No signs of any MiG-29s or major logistical operations..1/X
Eventually, the first official confirmation of the deployment arrived on May 26, 2020, when U.S. AFRICOM (Africa Command) released a statement about the deployment titled “Russia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya” (highlights mine):
U.S. Africa Command assesses that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.
Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord. The Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia.”
Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions. U.S. Africa Command assesses Moscow’s military actions have prolonged the Libyan conflict and exacerbated casualties and human suffering on both sides.
“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Townsend said.
U.S. Africa Command assesses that Russia is not interested in what is best for the Libyan people but are working to achieve their own strategic goals instead.
“If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. “If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
Russia’s destabilizing actions in Libya will also exacerbate the regional instability that has driven the migration crisis affecting Europe.
The statement was released along with the satellite image of the MiG-29 at Al Jufra airbase.
Noteworthy, along with the satellite shot, AFRICOM has also released a series of photographs and stills of Russian fighter jets, including MiG-29s, Su-34s and Su-35s, shot by spyplanes or drones’ EO/IR sensors or targeting pods. It’s not clear whether all of these were taken near Libya or are related to the deployment: there are types that are not believed to be involved in the deployment. Moreover, some show their original Red Star on the tail, while AFRICOM has confirmed the MiG-29s “were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.”
A MiG-29 (Image credit: US AFRICOM)
Dealing with the role the aircraft can play in Libya here’s what this Author has written in hte previous article on this topic, after axplaining that the Russian jets have been deployed to back Haftar’s forces, already supported by the UAE, Egypt and Russian mercenaries in the war to take the control Tripoli launched last year.
Since November 2019, the government of Tripoli has been able to reject the attacks from Haftar’s LNA forces, taking also control of the strategic al-Watiya Air Base, 90 miles south of Tripoli. In other words, with the help of the Turkish drones and anti-aircraft systems the GNA has been able to achieve the air superiority in Tripolitania: in the last hours alone, Turkish UAVs have destroyed at least nine Russian “Pantsir” anti-aircraft systems, supplied by UAE to Haftar to protect LNA bases.
What role the MiGs and Sukhois would play in this war is hard to say: while the Su-24s are attack aircraft, the MiG-29s can theoretically be used to carry out counter-UAVs as well as air-to-surface missions. In other words, they may represent a deterrent for Turkish drones that have been used with devastating results by the GNA. However, at the same time, dispatching MiG-29s (flown by mercenaries) in contested airspace with still significant SAM (Surface Air Missile) and MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System) threat would expose the fighters to the risk of being targeted, and downed, as happened to other Libya National Army Air Force jets in the skies over Libya’s capital. Anyway, we will see.
The video below was filmed from the cockpit of a MiG-31 escorting a Russian Tu-95MS as what appears to be a Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16 approaches the package: the Russian pilot waves and gives the NATO pilot a thumbs up sign.
Unfortunately, we don’t know when and where the intercept took place, although it’s quite likely that the close encounter occurred in international airspace off Norway, where Russian Tu-95s and Tu-142MK ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) and maritime patrol aircraft are shadowed by the RNoAF jets. As happened, on Mar. 7, 2020, when a Tu-142MK and a Tu-142MR Bear-J VLF band radio communications relay platform, escorted by at least one MiG-31 Foxhound (armed with R-33 missiles) were intercepted by RNoAF F-16s from Bodø as well as the Norwegian F-35A launched from Orland Air Stationfor their first intercept of Russian aircraft.
The interaction between the NATO and Russian jets appears to be quite friendly, as often been for decades during the Cold War. Nothing like the “unsafe intercept” frequently reported lately or shown in videos we have frequently commented here at The Aviationist.
The latest unsafe intercept was reported on Apr. 15, 2020, when a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft flying in international airspace over the eastern Mediterranean Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-35 that conducted a high-speed, inverted maneuver, 25 ft. directly in front of the mission aircraft, “which put our pilots and crew at risk [because of wake turbulence]” as the USN claimed.
Each time I read of a “dangerous intercept”, this article I wrote few years ago comes to my mind:
“We Did Barrel Rolls Around Tu-95s At The Request Of The Soviets”: F-4 WSO Explains The Story Of The Phantom Upside Down Near Bear”: https://t.co/UaLwbZR0Ci
It is a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, in service since 1983 fielded to counter the B-1B bomber, which was designed to operate at low-level, below the radar coverage. Hence, the MiG-31 has quite good low-level capabilities and is equipped with an advanced radar with look-down-shoot-down capability needed to detect low-flying bombers, and data bus, allowing for coordinated attack with other fighters.
Although it does not belong to the latest generation of fighters, with its top speed of Mach 2.83 and a range of 1,450 km the Foxhound is still one of the most amazing interceptors ever built. Russia has recently upgraded their MiG-31 fleet with new capabilities that include hypersonic missiles and even a small satellite launch capability that was tested.