An Offutt-based RC-135V reconnaissance plane has been flying daily missions off of Russia’s Pacific coast for the past week — and the Russian military is letting the world know.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has twice posted videos on social media of encounters with the Rivet Joint jet flying in international waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula — one on April 10 and the second on Friday. They were taken from the cockpit of a MiG-31 fighter jet, which was scrambled from a Russian air base in Kamchatka to intercept it.
“There were no violations of the State border of the Russian Federation,” said the Defense Ministry’s Facebook post of the first encounter.
The RC-135V in the videos is flying its missions out of Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. It flew there April 4 from the Lincoln Airport, the temporary operational headquarters for the 55th Wing while the runway at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue is being reconstructed.
A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Air Forces declined to comment on specifics of the Rivet Joint mission but said in a statement that it will continue to comply with international laws and regulations during flights in international airspace.
“Any intercept that does occur should happen in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize safety of flight,” the PacAF statement said.
Some experts believe the U.S. and Great Britain are upping their surveillance as part of an effort to stay ahead of Russia’s military buildup near its border with eastern Ukraine — even near Kamchatka, which is more than 4,000 miles from Ukraine.
“This is an awful lot of activity, not just near Ukraine, but globally around Russia,” said Robert Hopkins III, an author and historian of U.S. military reconnaissance flights who flew 55th Wing recon missions during the 1980s and early ‘90s.
The bulk of the U.S. Air Force’s 55th Wing’s fleet is equipped as operational Rivet Joint jets, carrying sensitive systems for monitoring voice radio transmissions and other electronic signals on the ground. Language translators working in the aircraft’s mission compartment interpret the transmissions in real time.
The Rivet Joint jets fly every day in or near Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea and China, out of overseas bases in Great Britain, Greece, Qatar and Japan.
But Eielson hasn’t been a common launching point for the Rivet Joint jets since the end of the Cold War, said Hopkins, who wrote “Spyflights and Overflights” a history of U.S. strategic reconnaissance flights from 1945 to 1960.
He said Offutt’s Rivet Joint RC-135Vs have rarely flown missions off of Kamchatka in recent years — until the past week.
“This is classic Cold War ISR,” Hopkins said, using the military acronym for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”
Hopkins said that in the last few weeks, the number of missions by the United States and Great Britain — which also has three Rivet Joint RC-135Vs — appears to have increased near other parts of the Russian frontier as well.
That includes the Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, which is bristling with military sites, and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The reason, Hopkins said, is the massive Russian buildup of military forces in Crimea and along its border with Ukraine — more than 82,000 so far.
Ukrainian, U.S. and NATO officials fear these are preparations for an invasion of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have fought a seven-year insurgency against the Ukrainian army. More than 14,000 people have died, and peace talks have fallen apart.
Russian leaders, though, say the troops have moved into the area as part of a large-scale military exercise that will last another two weeks. Last week, the Russian defense described it as a response to alleged saber-rattling by NATO.
Hopkins said the routine monitoring flights around Russia’s frontiers show U.S. intelligence analysts what “normal” activity is like.
This past week, he said, reconnaissance flights were likely listening for unusual activity at military sites — of which Kamchatka has many — that would be busy if Russia really did have a nationwide military drill going on.
“If the radio traffic is routine, that would let them know there probably wasn’t an exercise going on,” Hopkins said.
David Cenciotti, an Italy-based pilot and journalist who founded the influential military aviation news site The Aviationist, said he attributes some of the apparent surge in reconnaissance flights to new tools for detecting them.
Modern flight-monitoring systems have made it possible for civilians to monitor worldwide air traffic in real time, through websites like flightradar24.com and adsbexchange.com. They depend upon ground-based receivers that have started spreading to new and remote parts of the world.
“This means that what we think is a spike in missions on a certain period is just the effect of a greater visibility,” Cenciotti said in an email.
But he also noted some unusual reconnaissance activity in Eastern Europe, including recent back-to-back flights April 11 and 12 by RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance craft near Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
“I think it’s safe to believe the U.S. and NATO aircraft, as always done since the Cold War, are closely monitoring the activities of the Russians,” Cenciotti said. “Especially those near the border with Ukraine.”
The RC-135V operating out of Eielson, tail number 64-14848, is the same aircraft that caught fire on the runway at Offutt on April 30, 2015. The quick-thinking pilot — flying his first mission as flight commander — aborted the takeoff, and all crew members escaped safely. The plane was grounded for more than two years for $13 million worth of repairs.
Rivet Joint aircraft are in high demand by U.S. military commanders, and Hopkins said the missions during the escalating confrontation with Russia over Ukraine illustrate why.
“These are the kinds of intelligence collection that are so valuable,” he said. “That’s the value of the Rivet Joint in preventing war.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.