French surveillance flights keep close watch on Russia and Ukraine, drawing boundary in European skies

  • A French Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance plane conducted a 10-hour reconnaissance mission over southern Ukraine.
  • The AWACS, part of NATO’s eastern efforts, serves as a deterrent and surveillance against Russian aggression in and beyond Ukraine.
  • Alongside other surveillance tools, the AWACS forms a shield for collective defense within NATO.

Off in the distance, Ukraine, fighting for its survival. Seen from up here, in the cockpit of a French air force surveillance plane flying over neighboring Romania, the snow-dusted landscapes look deceptively peaceful.

The dead from Russia’s war, the shattered Ukrainian towns and mangled battlefields, aren’t visible to the naked eye through the clouds.

But French military technicians riding farther back in the aircraft, monitoring screens that display the word “secret” when idle, have a far more penetrating view. With a powerful radar that rotates six times every minute on the fuselage and a bellyful of surveillance gear, the plane can spot missile launches, airborne bombing runs and other military activity in the conflict.

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As the second anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine nears, The Associated Press obtained rare and exclusive access aboard the giant Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, aircraft. With 26 military personnel and an AP journalist aboard, it flew a 10-hour reconnaissance mission from central France to Romanian airspace and back, peering with electronic eyes across southern Ukraine and the Black Sea to Russian-occupied Crimea and beyond.

Commander of France's AWACS

The commander of France’s AWACS squadron, a lieutenant colonel named Richard, talks to crew members aboard one of the four French surveillance planes as it flies a 10-hour mission on Jan. 9, 2024, to eastern Romania for the NATO military alliance. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

Circling on auto-pilot at 34,000 feet (10 kilometers), the plane with a proud cockerel painted on its tail fed intelligence in real time to ground-based commanders.

Its mission for NATO on the eastern flank of the 31-nation military alliance also, in effect, drew a do-not-cross line in European skies.

The plane’s sustained presence high above eastern Romania — seeing and also being seen by Russian forces — signaled how intensely NATO is watching its borders and Russia, ready if necessary to act should Russian aggression threaten to extend beyond Ukraine.

SHIELDS FOR NATO, PIECES OF AVIATION HISTORY

Regular surveillance flights, together with fighter patrols, ground-based radar, missile batteries and other hardware at NATO’s disposal, form what the commander of France’s AWACS squadron described as “a shield” against any potential spill-over.

The “ultimate goal is, of course, no conflict and deterrence,” said the commander, a lieutenant colonel named Richard. Because of French security concerns, the AP was only able to identify him and other military personnel by their ranks and first names.

“We need to show that we have the shield, show to the other countries that NATO is collective defense,” he continued. “We have the ability to detect everywhere. And we are not here for a conflict. We are here to show that we are present and ready.”

France’s four AWACS are among a variety of surveillance aircraft, including unmanned UAV drones, that gather intelligence for NATO and its member nations. Lt. Col. Richard said the French E-3F-type AWACS see for hundreds of kilometers (miles) with their distinctive black-and-white rooftop radar domes, although he wouldn’t be precise.

E-3s are modified Boeing 707s. The 707 first flew in 1957 but stopped carrying passengers commercially in 2013, so E-3s are also flying examples of aviation history.

“We can detect aircraft, we can detect UAVs, we can detect missiles and we can detect ships. That’s true, for sure, in Ukraine, especially when we are at the border,” Lt. Col. Richard said.

As the plane loitered and scanned, the crew detected a distant Russian AWACS above the Sea of Azov, many hundreds of kilometers away on the Crimean Peninsula’s eastern side. The Russian aircraft also seemingly spotted the French AWACS: Sensors along the fuselage picked up Russian radar signals.

“We know that they see us, they know that we see them. Let’s say that it’s some kind of a dialogue between them and us,” the French co-pilot, Major Romain, said.

HAWK-EYED AWACS ON CALL TO SAFEGUARD THE OLYMPICS

NATO also has its own fleet of 14 AWACS, also E-3s. They can detect low-flying targets within 400 kilometers (250 miles) and higher-flying targets another 120 kilometers (75 miles) beyond that, the alliance says. It says one AWACS can surveil an area the size of Poland; three can cover all of central Europe.

Able to fly for 12 hours without refueling, French AWACS aren’t limited to surveillance, communications and air-traffic control missions for NATO. They expect to be deployed as part of the massive security operation for the Paris Olympics, providing additional radar surveillance with what Lt. Col. Richard called their “God’s-eye view.”

Russian pilots have at times made clear that they don’t like being watched.

In 2022, a Russian fighter jet released a missile near a British air force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft that was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea, Britain’s government said. The U.S. government released video in March 2023 of a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. Air Force surveillance drone. The drone crashed into the Black Sea.

Rivet Joints are particularly capable spy planes, and Russian authorities “really hate” their ability to snoop on the Ukraine war, said Justin Bronk, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute defense think tank in London.

As well as gathering “real-time intelligence that theoretically could be shared with Ukrainian partners,” the planes also furnish “fantastic” insight about “how Russian forces actually operate in a real war,” Bronk said in a phone interview.

“So of course, the Russians are furious,” he said.

IN THE SKIES, REGULAR ENCOUNTERS

NATO also scrambles fighter jets to scope Russian flights. It says allied aircraft took to the skies more than 500 times in 2022 to intercept Russian aircraft that ventured close to NATO airspace. The number of such encounters dropped to more than 300 in 2023, according to the Brussels-headquartered alliance.

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The strengthening of Ukrainian air defenses with Western weaponry may partly explain the decrease, with shoot-downs seemingly making Russian pilots warier. NATO observed reduced activity by manned Russian flights over the western Black Sea last year. NATO says “the vast majority of aerial encounters between NATO and Russian jets were safe and professional” and that Russian incursions into NATO airspace were rare and generally short.

Aboard the French flight, the co-pilot, Major Romain, said Russian planes haven’t intercepted a French AWACS “for a long time” and that if they did, French pilots would try to defuse any tension.

“Our orders are to be, let’s say, passive,” he said. “For a civilian, let’s say ‘polite.’”

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