Flying just outside Ukraine, NATO’s sentinel planes warn of Russia’s battlefield moves


As the army pilots on board one of NATO’s airborne warning and command planes skirt just inside Poland’s border with Ukraine, the true motion is going on metres behind them. Surveillance operators and weapons controllers crowd round one of the multitude of radar screens peering deep inside wartime Ukraine.

They wouldn’t describe what was taking place, as a result of delicate nature of real-time intelligence on Russian army moves. But it’s clear they’ve noticed one thing utilizing the huge radar dome mounted to the E-3, a airplane the dimensions of a business airliner however full of superior surveillance and communications tools.

“We are in a position to detect and establish all the pieces flying round us in a extremely massive circle,” mentioned Sgt. Joao, who, like practically all of the crew, supplies solely his first title for safety causes. 

In mid-October, CBC News was granted uncommon entry on board the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane, one of 14 in NATO’s Germany-based fleet that routinely gathers intelligence by means of radar and different surveillance applied sciences of land sea and air, offering NATO allies with a view of the battlefield throughout fight. 

Inside an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane, NATO personnel peer at a categorized radar display screen exhibiting Russian positions throughout Ukraine. CBC News was granted uncommon entry on board one of the 14 planes in NATO’s Germany-based fleet in mid-October 2022. (David Common/CBC News)

As Ukraine takes again territory in its combat with the invading Russians, it’s clear western intelligence has been a key element to their success, together with the massive image provided by the AWACS.

Commanders did acknowledge the unclassified capabilities of the system, which may “see” no less than 400 kilometres past the plane, monitoring Russian warplanes as they method Ukrainian airspace, navy ships positioning for assault, and Russia’s bigger drones. Even, in some circumstances, the actions of tanks and different army autos.

The AWACS plane can decide the paths of missiles, in addition to plane, says professor Walter Dorn of the Royal Military College of Canada. “In truth, its decision is such that it could actually observe flocks of geese.”

Greatest exercise now in Ukraine’s south

“In Crimea now, we see quite a bit of exercise,” mentioned Sgt. Joao, acknowledging the efforts by Russia to push again a surging Ukrainian counter-offensive within the south.

Officially, the data is instantly despatched to solely NATO nations. However, it’s broadly acknowledged that some amongst them rapidly share the intelligence with Ukraine’s Armed Forces, which may use it to counter an incoming assault and to higher perceive Russia’s broader moves throughout the whole battlefield.

An E-3 plane with a massive radar dome mounted on top is seen at an airfield.
NATO and allied nations function near-24 hour surveillance of Ukraine’s battlefield, utilizing a large radar mounted on specialised plane. (David Common/CBC News)

“Essentially, the Western intelligence knowledge supplies Ukrainian planners with a close to real-time image of Russian forces, which in flip allows Ukrainian planners to prepare environment friendly fight operations,” mentioned Andrew Rasiulis of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The categorized nature of their work limits the data the crew can share — and the radar photos CBC News was in a position to {photograph} — however one long-serving member on the plane described it because the “most helpful work of my profession.” 

Another described sending alerts as Russian planes approached Snake Island within the Black Sea on a bombing run this summer time. The island holds great symbolism for Ukrainians after its troopers posted there radioed an attacking vessel to “F–k off, Russian warship.”

More not too long ago, the airborne command planes have been early sentries to the departure of Russian fighter jets from Crimea after Ukrainian forces punched by means of the Russian entrance traces within the south, a transfer that would finally threaten Russia’s occupation of the strategic peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Three men wearing military uniforms and headsets sit in front of radar screens and keyboards on an AWACS aircraft.
Officially, NATO solely shares the intelligence it gathers with member nations of the army alliance. But it’s broadly identified that some of these nations instantly cross on the data to Ukraine’s Armed Forces for rapid use. (David Common/CBC News)

Watching as Russian signatures disappear

Although vastly outnumbered, Ukraine’s Air Force continues to perform, attacking Russian warplanes and floor targets.

One AWACS crew member described “Russian radar signatures disappearing,” both after dogfights with Ukrainian fighter jets or engagement by a floor to air missile.

None would elaborate on their very own position in such actions, citing the sensitivities of NATO allies offering real-time intelligence to Ukraine, itself not a member of the alliance.

But some had been permitted to debate latest incidents, together with Senior Master Sergeant Elissa, an American on the multinational crew.

“When we watch Ukrainian fighters taking off, defending their airspace and going after Russian fighters,” mentioned the surveillance operator in entrance of an illuminated display screen plagued by lots of of symbols monitoring Russian positions on the bottom and air, “they’re combating again and taking management of the nation they love.”

The back of a woman's head is seen as she wears headphones and watches a radar screen aboard an AWACS aircraft.
The AWACS operates particularly to observe plane in a battle zone, however has highly effective surveillance instruments permitting it to see in nice element greater than 400 km away. They can observe drones, tanks and way more — offering real-time data and a broader sense of what Russia is planning over time. (David Common/CBC News)

Intelligence sharing just half of West’s position

Russia has loudly criticized the switch of weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, and has threatened to reply. One crew member on board the AWACS mentioned sometimes Russian warplanes have flown straight towards it at excessive velocity – whereas sustaining a large distance.

“It is certainly a distinct scenario,” mentioned Major Wayne, the plane’s commander.

He has labored adjoining to battle zones prior to now with the U.S. Air Force, together with the Middle East the place “they did not have a succesful air drive menace that we had been involved about, whereas right here there’s a a lot larger menace.”

A man in a military uniform stands in front of the cockpit of an AWACS aircraft.
All these aboard are cautious about what they disclose. ‘Foreign intelligence agencies can take things that we say, things that are reported, as puzzle pieces,’ says Major Wayne, the plane commander on this NATO flight. (David Common/CBC News)

The NATO airplane has restricted defensive capabilities, however does sometimes fly with fighter jet escorts. There aren’t any publicly identified incidents when Russian plane have crossed into NATO airspace to harass the AWACS airplane through the Ukraine battle.

On Thursday, Britain’s defence minister mentioned a Russian fighter jet had launched a missile close to an unarmed British spy airplane much like NATO’s plane because it patrolled in worldwide airspace over the Black Sea on Sept. 29. Defence Minister Ben Wallace instructed Parliament it was an obvious accident and never a deliberate escalation of tensions, noting that the Russians had investigated and blamed a technical malfunction.

Rasiulis identified that the Russians now view the battle as a de facto battle between NATO and Russia, harkening again to the darkest days of the Cold War.

“The key was at all times, and stays so at the moment, to keep away from direct fight between the U.S./NATO and Russia.”

The AWACS usually stays airborne for 12 or extra hours, refuelled in flight by a U.S. Air Force tanker. Combined with related surveillance plane operated by multinational crews within the United States, France and others, they keep a close to round the clock image of the Ukrainian battlefield.

And not just on land.

​”AWACS also can observe ships within the Black Sea, giving Ukraine each warning and concentrating on data,” famous Dorn. “The maritime monitoring also can assist implement Western sanctions on Russian merchandise.”

After years of workout routines, one crew member on board the airplane who could not be named as a result of of constraints by his house nation described, “feeling that we’re making a distinction towards the enemy.”

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Maintaining a near-constant watch of battle

The lone Canadian on the AWACS plane is Capt. Colin Wiley.

As the surveillance controller, all detections are routed to him for affirmation and rapid transmission to ground-based operations centres.

Wiley has watched many occasions on his display screen as a Russian plane, “goes down low-level, pops again up,” in what was almost certainly a bombing run. 

A man in a military uniform with a Canadian flag patch on his right shoulder wears headphones and watches a radar screen on an AWACS aircraft.
Capt. Colin Wiley of the Royal Canadian Air Force is posted to the NATO AWACS base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, for no less than three years. He is airborne because the surveillance controller no less than as soon as every week, watching over huge areas of Ukraine and the actions of Russian army tools and troops. (David Common/CBC News)

It’s a surreal activity, he says. 

“I get up within the morning in my mattress, fly orbits over right here on the jap flank, after which I’m going again house and sleep in my mattress at evening, and it makes me take into consideration those that cannot depart [the war].”

Even because the AWACS turns again to its base in Geilenkirchen, Germany, after a mission that started earlier than dawn and ends after sundown, one other NATO surveillance airplane is already airborne, sustaining a near-constant watch of Ukraine’s skies and way more. 


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