7 NATO aircraft were scanning Crimea for Russian air-defense sites

Russian sources, including the think tank Rybar, report that seven NATO aircraft, consisting of four electronic reconnaissance planes and three drones, have surveyed the positioning of Russian air defenses on the Crimea Peninsula. This allegedly happened throughout April 23 and 24. 

7 NATO aircraft were scanning Crimea for Russian air-defense sites
Photo credit: Twitter

Rybar states that Ukraine’s armed forces launched three decoy ADM-160 MALD missiles, each aimed at different locations: Sevastopol, Steregushete, and Kerch. These launches were staggered throughout the day on April 23. Simultaneously, Rybar claims that a Boeing P-8 Poseidon MPA was hovering over Black Sea waters near Romania’s territorial waters. A pair of MQ-9As were seen near the territorial waters of Bulgaria, with both aircraft belonging to the United States Air Force. 

In addition, a Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft from the UK embarked on a mission over the Black Sea that same day. France contributed to the activity by deploying an E-3 Sentry AWACS escorted by four Dassault Rafale fighters. The reconnaissance mission continued on April 24, featuring an Italian G550 CAEW aircraft and a Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk from the US Air Force. The drone was listed as the closest aircraft to the Crimean peninsula’s airspace.

Raytheon to supply APY-10 radars for German P-8A Poseidon fleet
Photo by Greg L. Davis

Rybar suggests

As reported by Russian outlet Rybar, the impending deployment of seven aircraft is suspected to be in anticipation of a forthcoming assault. The outlet speculates that the Crimean Bridge may potentially be the target of an ATACMS long-range missile attack. The report confirmed that Ukraine already possesses its own version of the missile, the MGM-140B. It’s further suggested that this model was employed during the morning raid on April 17, wherein the Ukrainian armed forces successfully struck a Russian airbase in Crimea. 

According to Rybar’s analysis, the alleged attack may have occurred during Russia’s May holiday week. Rybar predicts May 7 as a feasible date. Another suggested date is May 9, which coincides with the Russian Federation’s Victory Day celebrations, traditionally marked by a military parade in front of the Kremlin at Red Square. 

Despite rumors, US may not provide Ukraine with 300km-range ATACMS
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Apart from the Crimean Bridge, Rybar speculates that the Black Sea Fleet’s command base in Sevastopol could also be a possible target. Hypothetical strikes on the villages of Steregushete and Kerch could potentially jeopardize Russian naval resources, endangering various ships, missile boats, and other vessels.

At a distance

In a graphic representation shared by Rybar, it’s clear that seven NATO aircraft are positioned at a significant distance from the airspace of the Crimean peninsula. Notably, in the past—specifically on March 14 of the previous year—an MQ-9 Reaper drone belonging to the U.S. Air Force was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 fighter jet. This action was carried out in response to the drone infiltrating Crimean airspace, as claimed by Russian sources, via a suppression mechanism involving the deployment of kerosene fuel on the drone’s structure. 

Russia will reward Su-27 pilots who 'pissed' the MQ-9 drone
Video screenshot

Fast forward to April 24 of the current year, a significant event occurred near the Crimean peninsula. The USAF’s RQ-4B drone has been operating in the closest proximity to the peninsula. The operations included a thorough scan of southern Crimea, predominantly Sevastopol, extending to mainland Russia around the city of Novorossiysk. 

In the meanwhile, Italy has implemented the deployment of its G550 CAEW aircraft. This aircraft conducted operations mostly in the western segment of the Black Sea, adjacent to Romania and Bulgaria’s airspace. The scanning mission seemed to focus predominantly on southwestern Crimea, home to Sevastopol.

Scan

French E-3 Sentry AWACS
Photo credit: NATO

Advanced scanning technologies, such as radar systems, are the cornerstone of NATO’s reconnaissance drones and electronic reconnaissance aircraft when detecting enemy air defense mechanisms. How does this work? Simply put, the radar systems emit radio waves that are then bounced back by objects within their radar’s range, creating an invaluable map of the surrounding environment. This intelligent mechanism allows for the detection of hidden or camouflaged enemy air defenses. 

In addition, Electronic Support Measures [ESM] are another vital tool in their tech-loaded arsenal. What do these systems do? Well, they intercept, identify, and accurately locate radiated electromagnetic energy — such as radar signals. By decoding these signals, drones or aircraft can determine what type of threat they are dealing with, its exact location, and its capabilities. It’s fair to say: that this kind of information is indispensable when it comes to planning and executing military operations. 

But there’s more. Drones and aircraft don’t just rely on radar and ESM. They also utilize infrared and optical sensors to gain a more comprehensive picture of enemy air defenses. These remarkable sensors detect heat signatures and visual signs, enhancing their knowledge of enemy defenses. For instance, infrared sensors can identify the heat from a missile launch, while optical sensors can physically recognize the characteristics of an air defense system.

Su-27 blocked USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk approaching the Russian border
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman

Data fusion

Once reconnaissance information is obtained by a drone or aircraft, this data must be communicated to other NATO force elements. This communication is achieved through a method known as data fusion and distribution. The data compiled by the drone and aircraft are integrated with information gathered from other sources, such as satellites or terrestrial sensors, thereby constructing a comprehensive visualization of enemy anti-air operations. Once this unified picture is established, it’s distributed among various units, facilitating synchronized action planning. 

Modern communication networks and systems profoundly streamline this exchange of data. These systems ensure secure, real-time transfer of information among drones, aircraft, and ground stations. Consequently, every component of NATO forces is alerted with the most recent and accurate details about enemy air defense units. 

E-3 Sentry AWACS inside
YouTube screenshot

Finally, it’s important to underline that the efficiency of these scanning and data transmission procedures significantly relies on the expertise and training of the personnel managing them. NATO forces are committed to having their staff extensively trained on the interpretation and application of reconnaissance data provided by drones and aircraft. This human factor is a vital aspect of NATO’s air defense intelligence capabilities.

Possible targets

Since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, various key military bases have found a home on the Crimean Peninsula. A key hub for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is Sevastopol Naval Base. Strategically placed and equipped to accommodate a range of naval vessels, the base has particularly become a home for Russia’s formidable Yanes-M class submarines. Another significant naval base on the Crimean Peninsula is the Feodosia Naval Base. Located on the southeastern Crimean coast, this base plays a critical role in deploying Russia’s naval might in the Black Sea. 

Russian Kilo-class sub was hit in Sevastopol - conflicting reports
Photo credit: @MT_Anderson / Twitter

Shifting our focus to air bases, we must mention the Belbek Air Base near Sevastopol. This base is one of the oldest military airfields in Europe and has been operating under the Russian flag since Crimea’s annexation. Notably, it houses a diverse array of Russian aircraft. Another critical base is the Gvardeyskoe Air Base, located close to Simferopol, Crimea’s de facto capital. This base primarily focuses on transport and cargo missions but also serves as a mainstay for Russia’s tactical aviation. 

Finally, the Novofedorovka Air Base, located on the peninsula’s western coastline, is worth noting. Though previously a base for the Ukrainian Navy, it has been renovated post-annexation to cater to the Russian Navy’s aviation needs.

The Crimean Bridge

Kerch bridge is on fire, there are damages - Russia may lose Crimea
Photo credit: Twitter

Ukraine’s armed forces may potentially target Russian air and naval bases situated on the Crimean peninsula. However, the most substantial objective under their scrutiny stands as the Crimean Bridge. Acting as a critical supply route for Russia’s military, its impending destruction has been deemed ‘inevitable’ by sources communicated in an early April issue of The Guardian. 

High-ranking officials from Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence, or ‘GUR’, have revealed plans for a third attack on the structure. According to a senior GUR authority quoted by The Guardian, “We plan to carry this out by mid-2024.” The source adds that Kirilo Budanov, the agency’s chief, already commands most of the necessary resources to fulfill the objective. 

The same source informs us that Budanov is dedicated to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s goal of curtailing Russia’s naval control in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, The Guardian emphasizes that it remains unclear how this offensive phase will transpire, with significant doubts over GUR’s ability to launch a successful operation against such a heavily fortified and conspicuous target. In February, Natalia Khumenyuk, Head of the Joint Coordination Press Center of the Defense Forces of Southern Ukraine, stated that Russia was already anticipating attempts to destroy the Crimean bridge.

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