The US intensified its Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) presence in the Black Sea after the incident between a Ukrainian naval group and Russian coastal guards near the Kerch Strait, an analysis by the Aviationist showed.
Following the incident on the morning of November 25th, the US increased the presence of airborne assets in the Black Sea region. In the days following the incident, the US dispatched ISR aircraft from both the US Air Force and Navy to monitor the situation on the ground and the movement of personnel and equipment.
Specifically, the US used the maritime surveillance aircraft P-8A Poseidon and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) from Naval Air Station Sigonella (Sicily, Italy) in addition to a RC-135 Rivet Joint and EP-3E ARIES II electronic reconnaissance aircraft from Souda Bay (Crete, Greece).
Earlier, it was reported that Russia sent an Su-25 attack aircraft and Ka-52 combat helicopters to the Crimean bridge, following the incident. Presence of any other aircraft in the area was unknown. US reconnaissance aircraft routinely operates over the Black Sea and they are often intercepted by Russian aircraft. However, from November 26th onwards the US Air Force has kept a significant presence in the Black Sea and Crimea area.
The analysis is based on various public domain sources and estimates based on time, speed and position. It further leverages on the contribution of sources from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, forums and various other social and private networks, who provided additional details, logs and hints.
The below table provides all US ISR flights identified in the area between November 26th and December 5th:
The list highlights the variety of movements and airborne assets that were utilized over the area. Most of the flights, and especially RQ-4 ones had a repetitive character in the days that followed in terms of routing.
The routes are along Russia’s sovereign airspace, which as per international law spans 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from its coastline.
The main track was deduced by studying the movements of US reconnaissance aircraft covers the entire area around the southern part of Crimea and is approximately 450 nautical miles in length and in a form that provides the ability the monitor the entire area from different angles. All aircraft that were confirmed to be in the area used the track, partially or in full. The route has been simplified and the waypoints have been designated as WEST, EAST, SOUTH.
In the night between November 25th and 26th a Sigonella-based RQ-4 UAV was launched as FORTE10. Its flight lasted 21 hours and its route looked the following way:
Simultaneously while FORTE10 was flying, a RC-135 Rivet Joint with callsign JONAS21 departed around 05.00AM on a Black Sea mission. It flew through Bulgarian airspace.
“Although the “Bulgarian route” is a significant diversion from the most direct route to the Black Sea, it presumably serves one main goal: to avoid the Turkish airspace.”
JONAS21 made passes along the track and some intermediate holding patterns, mainly along the western part of Crimea. Its flight lasted 8 hours and its route was the following:
While JONAS21 was on station, over at NAS Sigonella, a USN Boeing P-8A Poseidon departed as “PS266” before 12.00PM. It followed the same route as JONAS21, there are no records of its movements near Crimea, but it remained in the area for about 5 hours before returning to Italy.
Its route was the following:
On November 27th, FORTE10, similarly it made its way to western Ukraine, by passing over Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. It spent several hours patrolling above Ukraine, then it was spotted the far eastern part of Ukraine. It made it further east before going westbound, providing the opportunity to closely monitor the northern border or Crimea. Following this, it again made its way to the northern part of the Black Sea to establish surveillance on Crimea. Then it flew the usual track for about 4 hours and returned to the Italian base.
The flight was also closely tracked on Twitter:
🇺🇸 US Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk
— CivMilAir ✈🎅🎄🐈 (@CivMilAir) November 27, 2018
In the afternoon of November 27th, a US Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon was also once again dispatched to the Black Sea. PS276 left Sigonella, flew towards Bulgaria before entering the area of interest. Its trajectory included a short pattern just south of the Kerch Strait. It moved quite close to the border.
“It was spotted making a continuous right turn to the area to the west of Sevastopol before making a hard left hand turn towards the south-west. During these maneuvers, it just remained in international airspace.”
A Twitter post also noted the P-8’s movements off the coast of Crimea.
On the following days there were various aircraft sent to the area to continue the surveillance.
On December 3rd, an EP-3E ARIES II was dispatched for the first time to the area, its callsign was TI34. It ran the following route:
It is not surprising that there was an increased interest of surveillance over the area. Following the November 25th incident, Russia announced it would deploy an additional S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, next to the current number of three systems already present. The system was deployed on November 29th, to protect Russian airspace. Satellite imagery, provided by ImageSat confirmed the deployment at Dzhankoy Airbase in northern Crimea.
Tension in the Crimea: #Russia has deployed S-400 at Dzhankoy Airbase.
— ImageSat Intl. (@ImageSatIntl) December 2, 2018
The Russian Airforce, on its part, sent 5 IL-76 cargo aircraft to Crimea.
“In the afternoon of Dec. 5, aircraft RF-76740, RF-76743, RF-76747 RF-76739 initially flew from Taganrog Tsentralny Air Base to Anapa Airport (URKA). The next day, the entire ‘convoy’ headed towards Dzhankoy Airbase in Crimea. RF-76549 was later seen to be also going towards Crimea. Moreover, a RuAF A-50 AWACS aircraft was seen arriving at Novofedorivka (UKFI) in western Crimea, origination from Ivanovo Severny Air Base.”
— Записки охотника (@galandecZP) October 19, 2018
Two of the IL-76s the RF-76747 and RF-76739 were seen going back to Anapa on December 8th. A large convoy of military equipment from a VDV division of airborne troops was seen on the Crimean Bridge on December 8th. There were suggestions that the aircraft was used to transport an unknown amount of airborne assault troops into the area, together with ground equipment.
Following all of this, on December 6th the US conducted an extraordinary flight under the Open Skies treaty. It was announced by the US State Department. It was aimed at reaffirming the US “commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations.”
“The flight was carried out by Open Skies OC-135B, registration 61-2670. Origination from Offutt AFB, it flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany where it departed again in the morning of Dec. 5 towards Kiev. Around 09.30 GMT, OSY12F departed in a southern direction towards Crimea. At 10:20 hrs Zulu, it was captured via MLAT flying just north of Crimea flying towards the east.”
As a result of continuing tensions between the US, Ukraine and NATO on one side and Russia on the other, it would be expected that these surveillance efforts would continue, if not even increase in the future.