July 05, 2016

Why are the Russians intercepting USAF planes over International Waters?

Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint - 62-4131 (same as was intercepted)
Photo taken: October 25, 2015 - Mildenhall Air Force Base
Photo Credit: Simon Mortimer / JetPhotos.net
Blair Gertz's article on aggressive Russian posturing should make people wonder, what the hell are they doing?  There has been little (no) editorials written (that I've seen) about what would make Russia harass the US Air Force or US Navy in or above international waters.  Where are "International Waters" anyway?
"Territorial waters, or a territorial sea, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state." -Wikipedia
On April 14th 2016 an RC-135W, call sign HOWL77, registration 62-4131, (reportedly) had its transponder on, and was met by at least one Su-27 over the Baltic Sea.  I presume the plane was near, and clearly targeting, Kaliningrad Oblast with it's sensor suite, or was on a flight path that made the Russian expect they would be.  After all, why else would you fly a spy plane in the Baltic?  As a reaction, the RuAF sent a fighter or two to intercept and shoo away the Americans.

Kaliningrad Oblast, is part of Russia, although it does not have a land bridge to Russia.  Kaliningrad Oblast extends about 250 km inland; I've marked 22 km on the map below so the distance can be appreciated.  That doesn't look very far, because it's not.

Consider this; due to the curvature of the earth, the higher up you are, the farther you can see before the horizon limits your view.  If you had a 100 Meter tower, you'd be able to see ~35 km from the top of that tower to the horizon.  If you had two 100 Meter towers, you could see between the tops of the towers ~70 km away from each other.  This is how terrestrial microwave repeaters work; you take two towers, put directional antennas (dishes) on them that point at each other, and you can beam a signal ~70km away.  If you keep putting towers up in a line, you get a trans-continental microwave network like the one built across Canada in 1959... but that's another topic.

So what are the planes the US are flying in "International Waters"?  The RC-135, part of the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron flying out of RAF Mildenhall, England, has been hitting the news, but I wonder if the E-8C JSTARS flying out of  Geilenkirchen NATO Air Force Base in Germany are also flying around.
"The RC-135 Rivet Joint is an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) collecting reconnaissance aircraft that has the ability to detect, locate and identify emitting mobile targets with its Automatic Emitter Location System (AELS)" - US Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies (link)
"The E-8C JSTARS aircraft is a battle surveillance platform that employs its on-board AN/APY-3 system to detect and track mobile ground forces. The AN/APY-3 is a SideLooking Airborne Radar (SLAR) that incorporates SAR and MTI capabilities. Its MTI/Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) capability detects, locates, and classifies slow moving vehicles. The MTI technique that is used allows differentiation between wheeled and tracked vehicles. The MTI/Sector Search (SS) mode provides enhanced image resolution and attack guidance. Other operating modes may include an enhanced SAR for ‘super’ resolution imagery and an inverse SAR for target recognition" - US Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies (link)
Both of these quotes are from the year 2000; it's hard to find information on reconnaissance aircraft for some reason.

The RC-135 has a ceiling of 50,000 ft according to the US Air Force.  Even at 40,000 ft, the horizon would be 715 km away; making Kaliningrad Oblast, all of it, in full view if you looked out the window of the plane.  Back in the Cold War, the U2 spy plane flew over Russia with downward facing wet film cameras; that was the technology of the time.  The U2 was also famously shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960; it was clearly in the Soviet's right to do so, as it was over their territory.  But what if you flew high, and angled the camera diagonally, staying over international waters?  You could achieve almost the same effect, but get better resolution than a satellite flying high over the objective, without the distortion of the atmosphere, and with the moral high ground that you're not flying over the sovereign territory of the country you're spying on; you're over "international waters".

In 1991 during the Gulf War, the E-8C's AN/APY-7 radar could track 600 targets and cover 50,000 km2, at a range of 250 km in a 120 degree field of view.  I'm going to guess they've improved the technology since 1991, so consider that the worst it could do. (data based on "Activity-Based Intelligence: Principles and Applications" by Patrick Biltgen, Stephen Ryan)  The capabilities of the system continue to improve.

The RC-135 is a SIGINT/ELINT platform fitted with all sorts of antennas to be able to listen to, and tell what direction any electronic emission is coming from.  Listening to everything transmitting wirelessly in all of Kaliningrad would be the objective of flying near Kaliningrad, I'd think.  As a reconnaissance aircraft that's spying (diagonally) at their territory, I'm not very surprised the Russian Air Force is playing mind games with the US Air Force and "buzzing" them with fighter jets.

How about the Russians?  Aren't they flying near the US with their bombers and long range reconnaissance planes?

Why yes they are, once or twice a month, but the closest they've come in decades is 39 miles from the California coast, on July 4th 2015, off the coast of California, over International Waters (there's that term again...).

"two U.S. F-15 jets intercepted the Russian bombers on July 4 as they flew as close as 39 miles from the coast of Mendocino County, north of San Francisco." -Blair Gertz, Washington Free Beacon

39mi is 63km, which is almost three times farther as the RC-135 was from Kaliningrad in April.

Why is it when empty Russian bombers are antagonizing the Americans off the coast it's war games, and when the US is antagonizing the Russians off their coast with bleeding edge spy planes, listening to, and exploiting emissions, it's just a little good fun?

The language of the outrage used in US vs Russian press releases, and biased news reports, needs to be critically studied constantly in order to see through the spin.

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