On Aug. 28, a U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber flew through international air space over the Black Sea. Russian air force Su-27 fighters rose to the meet the B-52, zooming so close to the lumbering bomber that the fighters’ twin afterburners rattled the American crew.
American officials objected to the “unnecessary” harassment of their bomber. But the joke was on the Russians. For the B-52 was merely bait in an elaborate, and ongoing, intelligence trap.
Look closely at the transponders in the air at the time of the Aug. 28 intercept. While the Su-27s were needling the Stratofortress, two four-engine RC-135V/W Rivet Joint electronic-intelligence planes—which the U.S. and U.K. air forces use to surveil enemy air-defenses—were loitering nearby, presumably scooping up all kinds of useful data on Russian sensors and communications.
Exactly a week later, the Americans and their friends did it again. Today at least one B-52 flew through Ukraine and skirted the edge of the Black Sea just miles from Russian forces on the Crimean Peninsula. Two other B-52s were exercising over Ukraine around the same time, according to U.S. European Command. It’s unclear whether all three flew the same track near Crimea.
A pair of RC-135V/Ws meanwhile flew over the Black Sea, close enough to Crimea—and to the B-52—to intercept signals from any Russian radars tracking the bomber.
All this is to say, it’s clear that the United States and its NATO allies aren’t just showing off. The Stratofortress-Rivet Joint missions are helping the alliance to gather strategic intelligence on Moscow’s forces in and around Crimea. In wartime, this information could help planners determine how to suppress or destroy Russian air-defenses in the region.
Of course, the intelligence gambit also represents an opportunity for the Russians. It’s not every day that the Kremlin gets a chance to practice detecting, tracking and intercepting American bombers flying practice runs on Crimea.
The B-52s probing the Black Sea are part of a contingent of six bombers that deployed from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to the Royal Air Force base at Fairford on Aug. 22.
The eight-engine bombers flew over the Arctic—where the Russian navy recently staged a mock amphibious landing—around the same time as a rarely-seen U.S. Navy submarine, USS Seawolf, also passed under the North Pole ice.
Six days later on Aug. 28, four of the bombers at Fairford plus two more in the United States flew over all 30 NATO countries in a single day.
Two bombers took off from Minot and flew north into Canada. Of the United Kingdom-based B-52s, one flew over NATO’s Nordic members. Another headed across the Baltic region. A third flew west to cross over Portugal and Spain. A dizzying array of alliance fighters joined up with the bombers.
The fourth B-52, call-sign “NATO01,” headed for the Black Sea, which since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 steadily has become more dangerous. Russian warships and fighters crisscross the sea. Russian air-defense systems ring it.
Understanding those Russian defenses is top job of NATO intelligence. Which apparently is why, when NATO01 flew through international air space over the Black Sea, the two RC-135V/W were close by.
The U.S. Air Force has just 17 RC-135V/Ws. The Royal Air Force has three. That NATO has devoted at least two of its 20 Rivet Joints to a single operation speaks volumes about that operation’s importance to the alliance—as does the duration of the operation.
The Russians know they’re being watched. After all, the B-52s and the RC-135s are flying with their transponders on, meaning they show up on civilian air-traffic-control screens. It’s possible—likely, even—that additional NATO surveillance aircraft have joined in the intel effort without switching on their transponders.
But the Kremlin hasn’t opted to go quiet. During the second major probe by a B-52 on Friday, one of the Russian air force’s five Tu-214 radio-relay planes took off at its base near Moscow and flew to the Black Sea.
The twin-engine Tupolev was in the region around the same time the American bomber and its Rivet Joint shadows were. The Tu-214 probably helped to manage the presumably busy radio traffic between Russian forces tracking the NATO planes.
Eight Russian fighters—four Su-27s and four Su-30s—sortied to keep tabs on the B-52.
That Russian troops are willing to chatter away in the presence of the NATO spy planes could indicate that, for Moscow, the experience its forces gain from mobilizing their air-defenses is worth more than the information these same forces surrender to alliance analysts in the process.
The so-far week-long Stratofortress-Rivet Joint gambit clearly represents a major intelligence-gathering effort for NATO and a major air-defense exercise for Russia.
Now consider who else might benefit from the data NATO gathers.