The U.S. Air Force keeps at least one of its high-tech manned spy planes near China pretty much 365 days a year. And don’t get us started on the incredibly sophisticated American aerial surveillance cordon that surrounds Iran.
It seems obvious that the Air Force would spy on Iran, China and other American rivals including Russia. But even countries that seem to be on friendly terms with Washington get the surveillance treatment.
Especially friendly countries that happen to be testing ballistic missiles. India, Pakistan, Taiwan and Egypt—we’re looking at you.
The Air Force possesses three RC-135S Cobra Ball spy planes outfitted with high-power cameras and electronic listening devices for monitoring ballistic missile tests from long range.
The Air Force describes the three modified Boeing 707s and their 10-person crews as “a national asset uniquely suited to provide America’s leaders and defense community with vital information that cannot be obtained by any other source.”
In order to keep track of who’s got ballistic missiles, what those missiles are capable of and possibly how to defend against them, the Pentagon deploys the Cobra Balls all over the world at a hectic pace. Via the Freedom of Information Act, War is Boring obtained heavily redacted official documents that hint at the scale of U.S. aerial spying in 2010.
A document pertaining to the Cobra Balls lists all the planes’ missions that year. In 12 busy months, two of the three 1960s-vintage RC-135Ss—tail numbers “662” and “663”—deployed 34 times. The third Cobra Ball, tail number “128,” did not deploy and presumably remained at its chilly, remote home base in Offutt, Nebraska.
Staging from a wide network of U.S. and allied airfields, the two active RC-135Ss spied on Russia 11 times, China three times and Syria twice. Russia possesses the world’s second-largest ballistic nuclear arsenal after the U.S. China also has ballistic nukes plus an arsenal of thousands of high-explosive tipped rockets for targeting Taiwan and U.S. Navy ships. Syria possesses a small rocket arsenal with possible chemical warheads.
Washington’s relations with Russia, China and Syria can fairly be described as “chilly.”
But India is America’s close friend, according to the State Department. “Our relationship is rooted in common values, including the rule of law, respect for diversity and democratic government,” the diplomatic agency gushed. “We have a shared interest in promoting global security, stability and economic prosperity through trade, investment and connectivity.”
That didn’t stop the Cobra Balls from deploying to Kadena Air Force Base in Japan and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean seven times in 2010 in order to snoop on New Delhi’s rocket tests. India possesses around 100 nuclear-tipped Agni ballistic missiles—mostly pointed at Pakistan, no doubt—and is continually improving their range and accuracy.
Pakistan, likewise, enjoys a “close security partnership” with the U.S., according to the State Department—this despite deep differences over alleged Pakistani support for militants in Afghanistan. Islamabad has nuke holdings roughly matching rival New Delhi’s: some 100 warheads on homegrown Shaheen missiles. Flying from Al Udeid in Qatar, the Cobra Balls spied on Pakistani rocket launches three times in 2010.
The RC-135s also watched over Taiwanese rocket tests and Egypt tests once each in 2010. Neither of those states has nukes, but both are developing improved conventional ballistic missiles. Washington is bound by law to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion; despite recent civil unrest, America also bolsters the Egypt with billions of dollars in annual military aid.
But even with such close ties, America feels it still needs to send in spy planes in order to understand what its friends are up to with their rockets.