Some US troops are on standby as the world waits to see if Russia will invade Ukraine, but US Air Force involvement in the conflict is already well underway.
US and allied reconnaissance flights in the region have been underway since at least Dec. 24, sending several types of military aircraft to act as additional eyes and ears over Eastern Europe.
On Wednesday alone, aviation radar tracking sites showed at least eight American and Swedish planes flying over Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Baltic. They included two RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft equipped to listen for communications signals and an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone that collects high-altitude imagery and other data via various sensors.
The Global Hawk may have watched a string of Russian troops piled up along the border it shares with Ukraine, as well as in the south of the tiny country, expert analysis published online suggests.
“This is the second RQ-4 flight to perform this model in the past week, using the same airframe,” said aviation tracking enthusiast Amelia Smith. tweeted monday. “It is possible that we will see the return of daily RQ-4 flights over and around Ukraine.”
She noted the visit of an MQ-9 Reaper drone to Russian-occupied Crimea in southern Ukraine on January 21. Twitter user @ZaesADSB, another flight tracker, caught an E-8C Joint STARS aircraft – designed to track the movement of ground targets – also heading east over Ukraine three days earlier.
They were joined by Rivet Joints, E-3 airborne target-tracking aircraft, P-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft and other military airframes flown by NATO, the UK, the US. Germany and the United States Army and Navy. Spokespeople for U.S. European Command and Air Force officials in the region did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“One of the main tasks of this command is to provide guidance and warnings on military developments to the leadership of our country and we also contribute to NATO’s common understanding of developments in Europe,” said the carrier. EUCOM spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Russ Wolfkiel told Air Force Times when contacted about the US response to a similar reinforcement of Russian troops last spring. “In terms of US activities, I can tell you that we have been following the situation in Ukraine very closely and USAFE’s contributions with Airborne ISR are essential to maintaining a consistent picture of ongoing developments. However, in the interest of operational security and as a matter of principle, we do not provide details of specific missions.
Although they are not flying missions over Ukraine, Air Force assets that could be called in for strike operations are nearby.
F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, arrived in Estonia on Wednesday to enhance NATO’s air policing efforts in the Baltics. These missions deploy offensive and defensive aircraft to fend off aircraft attempting to enter NATO airspace without clearance and have become more frequent since Russia last used major force against Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but sides with the Western military coalition and receives aid from these countries. Russia is pushing NATO to permanently ban Ukraine from joining the coalition, which would extend the protection of its mutual defense pact. General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said the organization will respect each country’s decision whether or not to apply for membership.
Experts have speculated a foray could serve as a step toward rebuilding a Soviet-like bloc, as well as bolster Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity ahead of a 2024 re-election bid.
Brig. General Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Military Times in November he thought Russia would launch an attack in early February. This could involve airstrikes, artillery and armor attacks, as well as air and amphibious assaults across the country, Military Times previously reported.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said tuesday the former Soviet republic expects to soon receive a fourth shipment of arms and other military equipment from the United States.
the The US Air Force released photos of airmen loading shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles, launchers and other supplies manufactured by Lockheed Martin onto commercial jets on January 21 and 22. These units, the 60th Aerial Port Squadron and the 436th Aerial Port Squadron, are based at Travis Air Force Base in California and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, respectively.
“Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $5.4 billion in total [security and non-security] assistance to Ukraine,” the Air Force said in the captions for photos showing the ordnance journey from Dover. “The United States reaffirms its unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in support of a secure and prosperous Ukraine.”
The US Air Force is also pursuing a plan to equip two airbases in west-central Ukraine with navigation systems, including one that helps determine a plane’s position relative to its destination and another that offers precision guidance for runway landings. A tender posted on federal procurement website Calls for proposals from December 21 before February 10.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine in recent months, prompting backlash from Western countries and stoking fears of war in Europe. The Pentagon responded by putting 8,500 troops from undisclosed units on heightened alert in support of NATO’s multinational response force.
“We once again call on Russia to immediately de-escalate the situation,” Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. “NATO strongly believes that tensions and disagreements should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, not by force or the threat of force.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .