February 06, 2019

2019-01-26: NORAD intercepted two RuAF long range aviation Tu-160 bombers over the Arctic.

Two Tu-160 "Blackjacks" Photo Credit: Unknown
(2019-02-08 edit added at the bottom)
On January 26th 2019 Russian Air Force Tu-160 bombers took a spin around the Arctic and drew out a welcoming party of two F-22s and two CF-188s; NORAD announced the incursion into their self-assigned "Air Defence Identification Zone" or ADIZ for short. The ADIZ is international airspace, but serves as a buffer where unidentified or suspect planes are intercepted, to make sure they don't get too close to Canada or the United States in case they have hostile intentions. While too close is subjective and the ADIZ arbitrary, potential hostile aircraft should be intercepted before they are within sovereign airspace, which only extends 12 nautical miles out to sea.

These intercepts happen routinely, anywhere from none, to fifteen times in a year
(per official NORAD numbers between 2007 and 2016 (incl.))

Here is NORAD's initial tweet from Saturday January 26th, 2019:

Subsequently, on Monday, January 28th 2019, NORAD issued this longer statement:
An E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System, two F-22 and two CF-18 fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command positively identified two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019.
NORAD employs a layered defense network of radars, satellites, and fighter aircraft to identify aircraft and determine the appropriate response. The identification and monitoring of aircraft entering a US or Canadian ADIZ demonstrates how NORAD executes its aerospace warning and aerospace control missions for the United States and Canada.
“NORAD’s top priority is defending Canada and the United States. Our ability to protect our nations starts with successfully detecting, tracking, and positively identifying aircraft of interest approaching U.S. and Canadian airspace,” said General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the NORAD Commander. “NORAD is on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
Operation NOBLE EAGLE is the name given to the military response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and applies to all air sovereignty and air defense missions in North America. NORAD is a binational command focused on the defense of both the U.S. and Canada, the response to potential aerospace threats does not distinguish between the two nations, and draws on forces from both countries. -NORAD Public Affairs (source)

FACTS


Here is a summary of the facts, derived from the original text displayed above, which you won't see on Fox, VOA, or Axios. These are the facts conveyed by NORAD themselves. Anything beyond the above details you just read came from somewhere other than two public official NORAD statements; one Saturday (Twitter), and one Monday posted to the NORAD web site. Did the journalists speak with NORAD? Did they say so? Did they cite their source? If not, they may have made it up, or maybe their editor made it up. Call them out for it.
  • The Russian planes were in the ADIZ
  • (at least) 5 NORAD planes were involved
    • 2x USAF F-22 Raptors 
    • 2x RCAF CF-188 Hornets, and 
    • 1x E-3 Sentry (aka AWACS)
  • 2 RuAF planes were "Positively identified" by NORAD; which suggests they intercepted, then flew alongside the RuAF Tu-160s, which were always in international airspace, for a period of time, until they were satisfied they were not a threat. However, I'm extrapolating my understanding from what little they said.

To Recap:
  • 2 RuAF Tu-160s were "positively identified" in the ADIZ by 4 NORAD fighters.
That is the whole story.

SPECULATION

  • Additional USAF refuelling aircraft were likely providing gas to NORAD thirsty travellers, but that is unconfirmed. 
  • It is unlikely all four planes were escorting the Tu-160s the entire time. There would likely have been a "hand off" from one pair to the other at some point.

FALSEHOODS

  • "Russian bombers buzz North American coastline" was coined by Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) and Fox News producers. I can't say that a NORAD person never said those words to Lucas and his editor/producer, nor does Lucas claim they did, or quote them - someone editorialized what NORAD said. However, the statement is unlike anything I've ever heard from anyone at NORAD I've ever spoken to. "Buzzed" would imply proximity to the shore or "coast". NORAD's statement specifically said they had not entered sovereign airspace, which extends 12 Nautical Miles from shore; so factually, citing NORAD, I can tell you they were not "Buzzing" the coast, and that Fox has deliberately mis-characterized the flight for the sake of sensationalist reporting; for propaganda even.
    https://www.foxnews.com/world/russian-bombers-buzz-north-american-coastline
  • Unfortunately, other media outlets and bloggers jumped on this "coast" narrative and made it the news of the day, regardless of the facts. I hope journalists and editors realize they were used by partisan politics in propagandizing the routine flight in international airspace and will be more wary next time, but have little hope that will be the case.

RUSSIAN VS NORAD STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION:


~4 hours before NORAD tweeted about the intercept, the Russian Military TV Channel "Star" broadcast the Tu-160 story, from their point of view.

Saturday
(2019-01-26 16:48 Moscow (13:48Z)
"Два стратегических ракетоносца Ту-160 выполнили плановый полет в воздушном пространстве над нейтральными водами акваторий Северного Ледовитого океана, Баренцева, Лаптевых и Карского морей.
Продолжительность полета составила более 15 часов. В ходе полета экипажи Ту-160 отработали дозаправку топливом в воздухе."
or, Google Translated...
"Two strategic missile carriers Tu-160 performed a planned flight in airspace over the neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, the Barents, Laptev and Kara seas.
The flight duration was more than 15 hours. During the flight, the crews of the Tu-160 worked refueling in the air."
https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201901261648-gd93.htm

2019-01-26 19:40 Moscow (16:40Z)
"Плановый полет прошел над нейтральными водами акваторий Северного Ледовитого океана, моря Лаптевых, а также Баренцева и Карского морей."
or
"The scheduled flight took place over the neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, Laptev Sea, and the Barents and Kara Seas."
https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201901261936-by3o.htm

2019-01-26 12:40 EST (17:40Z) NORAD releases statement via Twitter
"An E-3 AWACS, 2x F-22, 2x CF-18 fighter jets from NORAD positively identified 2x Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019. Bombers remained in international airspace and did not enter sovereign territory"

2019-01-26 23:59 Moscow (20:59Z)
«Полет был для нас более обычным и привычным. 16 часов – это не максимум, который мы летали»
or
“The flight was more ordinary and familiar to us. 16 hours is not the maximum that (we've flown)” -Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Zheludkov, RuAF
https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201901270001-dnlk.htm

Sunday
2019-01-27 03:59 Moscow (00:59Z)
"Опубликованы кадры ночной дозаправки Ту-160 над водами Арктики"
or
"(Zvezda) Published footage (of) night refueling of the Tu-160 over the waters of the Arctic"
https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201901270401-u447.htm

2019-01-27 04:44 Moscow (01:44Z)
"Пять военных самолетов США и Канады подняли по тревоге из-за Ту-160"
or
"Five military aircraft of the United States and Canada raised the alarm because of the Tu-160"
https://tvzvezda.ru/news/vstrane_i_mire/content/201901270444-ly6v.htm

Whereas TV Zvezda is the Russian military TV network, and usually provides original Russian-sourced information, Sputnik usually mirrors what is being broadcast in the United States with an alternative view from a Russian angle (mileage may vary); take this post which could have referred to Russian sources, but instead reported on American sources in English, and added what sort of weapons loadout they could have (not what weapons they *did* have, because all indicators point to the plane being empty).

2019-01-27 11:07 Moscow (08:07Z)
US, Canadian Jets ‘Identified’ Russian Bombers in Airspace Near Canada - NORAD
https://sputniknews.com/world/201901271071857898-us-canada-tu-160/

Monday
2019-01-28 Zulu
"An E-3 Airborne Early Warning and Control System, two F-22 and two CF-18 fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command positively identified two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019."
http://www.norad.mil/Newsroom/Press-Releases/Article/1741730/norad-identified-russian-aircraft-entering-canadian-air-defense-identification/


I think it's quite possible they intentionally schedule the flight when they expected the least response from NORAD Public Affairs and he public; my impression is these get more coverage on weekdays rather than weekends. I could be wrong.

WHAT? NO MAP?

Unfortunately, unlike the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces who post a summary of Russian air movements in their air-defence zone, NORAD does not give us any context where the flights took place. This obfuscation is said to be for "Operational Security" reasons, but I don't quite understand that, since we're referring to Russian planes who know they were intercepted.

Japanese Joint Chiefs of Staff Press Release (via Twitter) including map of Russian operations near Japan; you've never seen anything like this issued by NORAD because they've never done so.



I can't see why NORAD would seem to feel releasing the above Japanese-style map would compromise national security, but it would greatly improve the understanding of NORAD operations for the public at large, and neuter any attempts at disinformation efforts that would portray the event as something more than it was.

FINE, HERE'S AN UGLY MAP

This is a screenshot of OpenStreetMaps which shows you the 12 nautical mile limit as a thin purple line. Please note that between the coast of Russia, and the line; that's Russian airspace. Between the Alaskan coast and the purple line; that's American airspace. That's all of it; 12 Nautical Miles. It's not very far at all, especially by plane.

Here we have an FAA-data driven Google Earth image showing the ADIZ. If a Russian Air Force plane flies through the green zone shown below, NORAD may send an interceptor to say Hi. They might not. The idea is to keep the Russians guessing regarding when and where they are detected by coastal radar or other national technical means. Did they, or didn't they see them flying by? You'll notice that the ADIZ is mostly over international waters, which is where you'd need to be to intercept a Russian bomber, before it unloads ALCMs at CONUS; that's the idea anyway.

Most of the time people do not see the earth from the top, and do not appreciate that Russia is just on the other side of the pole. I believe people know they are there, on the other side, but just never see what that means, like this, over the top - withe the ADIZ in green:



Exactly where the Tu-160 took off from and landed was not published, but they did say they travelled over the Arctic, Laptev, Barents, and Kara Sea - and always in international airspace; which is easy to do, since it's all international airspace past 12 nautical miles from shore.

I can hope that someone at NORAD sees my butchery of Google Earth maps / the ADIZ and demands they publish better maps so they never have to be subjected to my graphics "prowess" again.

THERE'S VIDEO?


Unfortunately Lieutenant-General Sergey Kobylash, the commander of long-range aviation of the RuAF isn't a Twitter guy, so I don't think I'll be able to ask him any specifics on the mission, but here are the videos they published of the flight (the same flight) as NORAD announced. You may not be aware, but NORAD has no obligation to Canadians or Americans to tell us every time they perform one of these interceptions; they only release the information if the Russians publish something about it, or if someone at the Pentagon leaks it to the press, forcing their hand.

As an aside; it sure would be nice to get 1080p or 4k NORAD footage, wouldn't it?







The news media routinely make the same mistakes, with clickbait headlines about intrusions into North American airspace, every single time one of these flights takes place, but NORAD every single time diligently tells the public no national airspace was crossed, and the bombers were never in sovereign airspace. Why editors and producers of the news ignore this can only be because of clicks, because it certainly isn't from being accurate. Kudos to you journalists who didn't fall for the "buzz the coast" narrative, and a finger wag to those of who who spread the story in that "Fake News" light.

2019-02-08 Update


Thank you to the mystery person (and people!) who are monitoring the Russian HF radio networks the bombers talk to each other (unencrypted, old school, voice comms) while performing operations, live tweeting it for the world to read as it happens. I completely missed this thread on Twitter, and several side-bar threads of people I follow, and who follow me on Twitter; so I profusely apologize to them for not noticing and not including the information they had put out there while the action was going on.



We knew the Russians said they were doing refuelling up over the Arctic on their 15 hour training flight, but now we know the composition of that effort.
  • 2x Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers (58401, 58402)
  • 1x Tu-160 strategic bombers acting as a communication relay (58403)
  • 4x Ilyushin Il-78 refuelling planes (90722, 90723, 90724, 90725)
That's a pretty impressive sortie, I'd say.

January 25, 2019

The public's ability to use OSINT to track planes should not be underestimated by the RCMP.

( Cropped Pilatus PR Photo - underbelly of the PC-12 NG "Spectre" showing its electro-optical sensor)

At least one RCMP surveillance plane, believed to be outfitted with electo-optical night vision and thermal sensors, circled ~6000-7000ft over Kingston for almost two weeks in January, keeping residents awake, annoyed, and curious, all night long, while they were investigating a National Security case in Kingston.

It turns out the noise was from at least one nondescript, primarily white in colour, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pilatus PC-12, registration number C-GMPB, ICAO Hex C065E0, and a serial number of 1304. C-GMPB departed London Ontario on January 4th headed toward Ottawa. On January 4th a local Kingstonian PlaneSpotter, Neil Aird, heard the plane, and checked his own ADS-B/Mode-S transponder receiver to catch the tail number as it flew overhead and around Kingston.

The same plane seemed to head home on January 7th, then back towards Ottawa January 8th, operating in the area until January 15th when the plane was flown back to Southern Ontario, to the Division "O" headquarters, but not before getting photographed by Neil on January 14th. I speculate the jaunt to London Ontario could have been a crew change, or something similarly practical and mundane.

Let's check in on the capabilities of the plane, which are naturally not mentioned by the RCMP. For cost savings, I suspect the plane is COTS, so we can refer to the marketing material around the two or three PC-12 "Spectre" variants the RCMP purchased. The last official number I could find was two, but I think more have been upgraded/converted or delivered since. The plane would have been outfitted with the top of the line IR/Electro-Optical and Thermal sensors. Here is their brochure; in short, they'll kit it out with whatever sensors you want, or leave you the hook ups exposed so you can customize it yourself. Glossy: here.



Below we have a sister-plane to C-GMPB taking off from Ottawa International YOW/CYOW in 2018. Notice the paint scheme is different from older RCMP planes with rainbow racing stripes.


C-FGMQ|ICAO:C01121|SN:1107

Here is another sister-plane to the aircraft that had been circling Kingston, on and off, from January 4th to January 14th, 2018. Notice the paint scheme; not the usual RCMP colours.

Reg:C-FMPA|ICAO:C02137|SN:1216

What did we learn from this?

  • The RCMP have sixteen Pilatus PC-12 planes, and the same type of plane has several different configurations, with potentially overlapping duties. There is a surveillance variant called the "Spectre" and the RCMP has 2 of those on the books. I believe it's one of those that caused the din above Kingston. I have not been able to conclusively pick out the registration numbers of the two "Spectre" variants out of the 16 plane fleet, yet. (specs)
  • Singled out as being the only single engine plane circling for over a week over a city makes you "overt", not "covert". Kingston has ~125,000 people, and more than a few noticed the RCMP was circling overhead and kept them awake all night for days; that's overt, not covert surveillance. I was contacted by a couple of people in Kingston who'd seen me written up previously (here, here, or here), but I really didn't think there would be such a paper trail for an RCMP surveillance aircraft, I thought they would have been super-stealthy. I guess not!
  • Even before we knew the tail number from Neil's work, the plane operated all night long, that's a very specific behaviour. I ask you rhetorically, who else would possibly be flying, at 3 am, over Kingston in the cold. I live near the Carp Airport (CYRP) and twice a year helicopter pilots get re-certified for night operation or some other paperwork. They fly helicopters over the neighbourhood until ~10pm, and then go home - because they're human and have families to go home to. There is no activity, other than LEO, that would keep employees circling that long at that time in that pattern. I speculated it could be something corporate, doing some sort of survey,... but realistically, no. It's really likely any circling plane at 3am over any town of 125k people is some variety of LEO; local, provincial, national, or border services.
  • The plane was circling for hours. Again, this is a behavioural tell.
    Take an example.. Sightseeing biplanes take off from CYRP; depending how much you want to spend, you can get a short tour, or a long tour of Ottawa. Either way, you're taking off from CYRP, flying around, and returning during the daytime, within a short-ish period. Minutes, not hours. There isn't anything that would justify circling for hours and days on end. The pattern of the plane's movement, the time, the altitude, this all paints a picture, but I still don't know why a white van parked across the street (yeah I know it's a movie trope) wouldn't be sufficient? SURE the plane is nice, but was it necessary? I don't know. That's past what I can realistically criticize, since they won't say why they needed the plane to begin with (even after today's 1pm press conference).
  • Initially many wondered if it could have been military? With CFB Trenton so close, it seemed like it could have been, but Trenton has a transport squadron, and while there are other people who I'd rather not mention in the area, none that would do reconnaissance from a small plane that fits that description, that I'm aware of. I liked the idea they were testing a drone's optics or something, but that didn't pan out either. Early distant photos of the plane showed it was a small plane, that looked like a PC-12, but was not confirmed at the time.
  • On January 4th the public (Neil in this case) knew that an RCMP operation was going on from the noise coming from their not-so-covert platform circling at < 7000ft for hours at night, by checking for the closest transponders that were beaconing in the area. The operational security implications of this are huge, as organised crime could easily look for all RCMP planes' presence in the future. I'm sure there are reasons why Mode-S has to be used, rather than being turned off entirely, which gives away the location of the plane, but shouldn't there be something they can do? Use a different mode? Neil is one of the good guys, and expecting the bad guys to not notice an RCMP plane circling overhead when they can precisely triangulate their position with < $1000 of computer gear bought off Amazon.
Why am I bringing all this up? Because nothing changes if you leave it alone. The RCMP is performing surveillance with a plane that's (figuratively) screaming "HEY! I'm with the RCMP and you're within line-of-sight of this transponder that's on a plane overhead, else your laptop wouldn't be able to hear me!", over 1090 MHz, over and over, as it circles all night long, if you're listening. I believe this was a good use case for why the RCMP needs a Predator-sized drone, which could fly higher, see farther, and loiter longer - drones don't eat or sleep. If the plane hadn't been noticed from its sound, nobody would have looked it up and tried to piece it together with relatively easily available present hobbyist technology.

Here's Global News talking with Neil, who's really the Plane-Spotter hero of this story, in my opinion.
Also, the title of the report should be "MYSTERY SOLVED!". Neil nailed it, and Steph Crosier first reported it in The Whig January 22nd 2018.

Appendix:

Snapshot of all Pilatus PC-12 planes in the RCMP inventory, per the Canadian Government. (source, source)
BrandModelRegistrationICAOSerial
PilatusPC-12/45C-FMPBC02138283
PilatusPC-12/45C-GMPYC065F7311
PilatusPC-12/45C-GMPPC065EE374
PilatusPC-12/47C-FMPFC0213C768
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPMC065EB1011
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPXC065F61017
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPEC065E31073
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FMPKC021411092
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FGMQC011211107
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPVC065F41181
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPOC065ED1197
PilatusPC-12/47EC-FMPAC021371216
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPAC065DF1262
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPQC065EF1268
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPBC065E01304
PilatusPC-12/47EC-GMPWC065F51336


News:

2019-01-22 "Kingston's mystery plane captured on camera" (Kingston Whig Standard)
https://www.thewhig.com/news/local-news/kingstons-mystery-plane-captured-on-camera

2019-01-22 "Mystery plane that keeps flying over Kingston in the dead of night baffles citizens" (National Post)
https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/mystery-plane-that-keeps-flying-over-kingston-ont-in-dead-of-night-baffles-citizens

2019-01-23 "Kingston mystery plane solved?" (Global News)
https://globalnews.ca/video/4881340/kingston-mystery-plane-solved