Look Overhead, Russia—The U.S. Air Force Flies Lots of Spy Missions in Eastern Europe
Older docs offer hints on current operations
Violence in Ukraine is escalating rapidly and U.S. no doubt wants as much intel as it can get. The Air Force’s fleet of RC-135 spy planes are likely hard at work gathering information on the situation.
As a rule, Washington is pretty tight-lipped about intelligence activities. However, redacted official documents offer a some clues about the kind of missions the planes might be flying.
The flying branch currently has no fewer than 22 of the high-altitude surveillance aircraft, which are based on the 1960s-era Boeing 707 airliner. These include 17 RC-135V/W Rivet Joints, three RC-135U Combat Sents, and two RC-135S Cobra Balls.
According to Air Combat Command’s annual history for 2010—which we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—at least one Rivet Joint was active in Europe at all times throughout that year. The aircraft operated from bases in the United Kingdom, Spain and Greece.
The specialized RC-135V/Ws scoop up radio chatter. In combat, the jets could help spot enemy units by way of their communications.
In 2010, Rivet Joints flew “Pacer Wind” missions over the Barents Sea and “Pinto Wind” sorties over the Baltic. These locations are perfect for keeping an eye on Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave.
Rivet Joints also patrolled up and down the Mediterranean Sea that year. Today the Air Force could easily be flying the aircraft over the Black Sea from the same American bases in southern Europe.
The ACC history has fewer details on the Combat Sent and Cobra Ball missions. The flying branch’s RC-135U—one of which is pictured here—tracks radar signals while the RC-135S is designed to monitor ballistic missile launches.
The Combat Sents could be keeping track of Russian air defenses deployed along its European borders. Videos circulated on the Internet in March reportedly showed Russia moving advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles toward Ukraine.
A single RC-135S did spy on Russia from the Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall in October 2010. The Pentagon probably watched as the Typhoon-class submarine Dmitri Donskoi fired a Bulava missile from the White Sea on Oct. 29.
The Cobra Balls no doubt monitored Russia’s test of a Yars ICBM this past April and other launches in recent years. The Russians have also sent Iskander ballistic missile to Kaliningrad in response to America’s missile-defense plans in Europe.
If Russia invaded Ukraine, the Cobra Balls could get very busy. In 2008, Russia reportedly launched some of the short-range Iskanders in its brief war with Georgia.
The RC-135s are just part of the Air Force’s fleet of intelligence gathering aircraft. The Pentagon is very likely making use of the U-2 spy plane and maybe even some of its drones, such as the stealthy RQ-170.
The bottom line is that the Air Force and its specialized planes are no doubt watching the the situation in Ukraine very closely.