A B-52 refuels over Europe in August or September 2020.
U.S. Air Force
The six U.S. Air Force B-52s that deployed from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to the Royal Air Force base at Fairford back in August have set another intelligence trap for Russian forces in the Black Sea region—possibly their biggest yet.
On Wednesday, one of the eight-engine bombers—call sign “Hero 31”—winged over the Black Sea near the Ukrainian and Romanian coasts, briefly joining up with Ukrainian air force MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters.
The bomber reportedly made a mock attack run on the Ukrainian city of Odessa before turning toward Romania. “Our team from @TeamMinot has been busy!” U.S. Strategic Command tweeted on Wednesday.
At the same time the bomber was approaching, no fewer than five high-tech NATO spy planes converged in international waters over the Black Sea, undoubtedly monitoring Russian air-defenses and other forces as the Russians went on alert.
The spy planes included two RC-135Ws—one each from the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force—plus a USAF RC-135U, a U.S. Navy P-8 and an RAF Sentinel. The surveillance planes all broadcast their positions using radio transponders that anyone can track on a variety of civilian websites.
The intel planes together possess a host of capabilities. The RC-135s with their sensitive electronic receivers monitor and register radars and other electronics. The P-8 is a maritime patrol plane with powerful onboard sensors plus the ability to carry a special underslung radar for tracking moving ships and vehicles on the surface. The Sentinel duplicates that capability with its own high-tech, movement-tracking radar.
Working together, the five intel aircraft could spot Russian vehicles, pinpoint air-defense systems and listen in on radio communications.
Ukrainian MiG-29s form up on an American B-52 on Sept. 23, 2020.
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Xavier Navarro
It’s unclear how the Kremlin responded to the Wednesday bomber flight. Hero 31 apparently stayed inside Ukrainian and Romanian air space throughout its mission.
During previous NATO intel traps involving the Fairford B-52s, the Russian military switched on its powerful over-the-horizon radars, sortied fighters from Crimea and even sent in a radio-relay plane from Moscow.
Two armed Russian Su-27 fighters flew so close to one B-52 that their afterburners rocked the bomber.
“The measures taken by the main command of the Russian aerospace forces made it possible to timely reveal the activities of strategic bombers of the U.S. Air Force and NATO countries’ air forces, as well as to organize effective countermeasures,” the Russian defense ministry stated, citing Gen. Sergei Vladimirovich Surovikin, commander of the aerospace forces.
The NATO air operations are unusual in their intensity—but they’re hardly unprovoked. Russia in recent weeks has staged large-scale exercises, including mock amphibious assaults in the Arctic, in addition to deploying forces near the Russian border with Belarus, where popular protests continue more than a month after long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko apparently rigged his re-election.
And Russian air force bombers have tried to match the American bombers’ operations. On Sept. 16, two Tu-22M3 bombers flew thousands of miles from their base—Olenegorsk, apparently—and crossed over the Black Sea.
It’s unclear whether Russian spy planes were waiting nearby, hoping to capture NATO signals.