If Russian forces invade Ukraine in the coming weeks, some Offutt-based aircrews will be among the first to know.
Two RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft from the 55th Wing of Offutt Air Force Base (plus a third from Britain’s Royal Air Force) are part of a growing wave of US and allied reconnaissance aircraft flying just over the Russian Federation. border flying, watching and listening for signs of war.
Collectively, these aircraft – both manned and unmanned – can pick up many types of electronic signals. The Rivet Joints carry teams of interpreters capable of translating radio communications from the ground at ranges of up to 300 miles, said Robert Hopkins III, who flew RC-135s in the Gulf War and is now a historian of Air Force reconnaissance missions.
“They are the eyes and ears of America’s national command authority — people who live next door in Omaha, Bellevue, Papillion and Plattsmouth,” Hopkins said. “Everyone on the front line will be front and center with what’s happening.”
Since late December, reconnaissance planes from the US, Britain, Sweden, Germany and Norway have made more than 100 flights near the Russian border, especially near Ukraine, where Russia has reportedly mustered up to 100,000 troops for a possible invasion. Rivet Joints have flown at least 19 of those missions.
“There has been a spike in RC-135 operations in Eastern Europe and over Ukraine,” said Rep. Don Bacon, who commanded the 55th wing a decade ago and is now a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Both the frequency and type of aircraft have increased in the past two months, according to aircraft monitors tracking flights via websites such as ADSBexchange.com. There were eight flights Monday and 12 Tuesday, two of the toughest back-to-back days of the past month.
“The frequency has gone from three or four times a week to several flights a day,” said Hopkins, co-author of “Crowded Skies: Cold War Reconnaissance in the Baltic,” slated for publication in March. “Suddenly this is from the south of Europe to the north of Europe; from Yalta to St. Petersburg.”
Russia and Ukraine have a long history of domination and conflict. The area that is now Ukraine has been fought over for centuries by Russia and other powerful neighbors such as Austria and Poland.
Much of Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 17th century and later became a republic of the Soviet Union. The region was a target of Stalinist terror, including a forced famine and large-scale political purges in the 1930s.
Ukraine, along with other former Soviet republics, declared its independence during the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he has tried to put Ukraine back in Russia’s orbit permanently — including by force, such as when he brought about the annexation of Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine with a proxy army in 2014 .
That conflict has simmered ever since, with pro-Russian militias occupying provinces in Ukraine’s far east, as well as Crimea.
In recent months, Putin has demanded that NATO permanently exclude Ukraine. President Joe Biden has said this is a nonstarter. Last week, he predicted that Russia would soon invade, although Putin denied any plans. Earlier this week, Biden warned 8,500 troops that they might be deployed in nearby countries, but not Ukraine itself. He has also promised tough sanctions against Russia and its leaders.
For years, the US has flown routine Rivet Joint missions in the region from forward bases in England and Greece. The routes mainly focused on Kaliningrad (a Russian Baltic Sea exclave with many military facilities) and Crimea (a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea, seized by Russia in 2014).
Recently, the aircraft have expanded routes over Poland, eastern Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
“It’s been slowly escalating in the last few months,” said Amelia Smith, an online airplane tracker who lives near Boston. “It is absolutely new and interesting to see these flights over Ukraine itself.”
Smith, 25, is part of a small army of Internet sleuths who have used the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) network that monitors civilian and military air traffic around the world.
She works for an office supply retailer and has no degree or special training in defense matters. But she has a fervent hobbyist interest in intelligence and aerial reconnaissance — and a knack for digging up information online.
“Open-source intelligence is available to everyone,” she said. “Anyone can do this.”
Smith’s daily updates on reconnaissance flights over Eastern Europe – posted to her Twitter account, @ameliairheart — have gained a following on social media. Her posts charting the flights are attracting hundreds of “likes” and dozens of retweets among her following from military intelligence and aviation enthusiasts — including experts like Hopkins, who she described as “credible and trustworthy.”
Smith is the first to map the surveillance range of each aircraft, using colorful bubbles that indicate the distance their crews can see and hear.
Smith’s records show that 19 of the flights involved Rivet Joints. Hair mail mondayfor example, showed a 55th Wing RC-135 operating from Mildenhall flying a U-shaped orbit around Kaliningrad over Poland and Lithuania.
Earlier today, eight ISR aircraft from the US, UK and Sweden flew over the Baltic States, Ukraine and the North and Celtic Seas: USN P-8A (PK249); US Army ARTEMIS (BRIO68); USAF RQ-4 (FORTE12); USAF RC-135W (JAKE11) Swedish S102B & S100D (SVF623, C604); RAF P-8As (RFR7041, RFR7040). 1/6 pic.twitter.com/0k5F36xJBo
— Amelia (@ameliairheart) January 24, 2022
She has also tracked flights of several other manned aircraft types, including Air Force E-8 JSTARS and E-3 AWACS and Navy P-8A Poseidons, plus unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawks and MQ-9 Reapers.
All of them can intercept different types of electronic and communication signals.
“Rivet Joints and P-8s are ears. E-8 JSTARS are ground eyes and E-3 AWACS are air eyes,” Hopkins said.
The unmanned aircraft can fly at very high altitudes and for a long time.
The military has contributed RC-12X aircraft, along with its new ARTEMIS system, both of which operate at lower altitudes.
Built in the early 1960s for Cold War reconnaissance and upgraded in the 21st century, the Rivet Joints are among the military’s most sought-after surveillance tools because they can provide real-time information about what’s happening on the ground.
“The higher they go, the farther they can see,” Hopkins said. “The Rivet Joints will have the greatest reach. They will be able to hear far into Russia.”
The crews have been conducting continuous missions in the Middle East since August 1990, just days after Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. They have flown many times during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as along the tense border between North and South Korea. These missions are routine for the crews.
Bacon, who has flown these types of aircraft in combat zones, said there is an additional element of risk at the Ukrainian border – a new region for 55th Wing crews.
“These guys probably had to improve their game,” he said.
Hopkins said it would be difficult for crews to forget that in 2014, during an earlier clash between Russia and Ukraine, soldiers in eastern Ukraine used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines jet plane, killing all 298 civilians on board perished.
During the early years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sometimes shot down American reconnaissance flights in the fierce defense of its borders. That’s not the way Russia is behaving now, and Hopkins thinks the chances of a recurrence are slim.
But not quite zero.
“I don’t think the Russians would take any action that would endanger any US or NATO aircraft,” he said. “But you cannot rule out the possibility that a Russian separatist group could arbitrarily shoot down a plane.”
If you’re a crew member, he said, “You can’t just ignore the threat. You have to take it seriously.”
Even without that fear, there is the certainty that war and peace are at stake as the crews of the Rivet Joint carry out their missions.
“There’s a sense of gravitas that isn’t there on a daily basis,” Hopkins said. “They are collecting information with the knowledge that it will go straight to the top and it will be acted upon.”
The world watches and waits.