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War in Ukraine: Russian sniffer planes operating in Ukraine and the Baltic Sea

They are the eyes and ears of Russia in the Ukrainian sky, but also at the gates of NATO countries.

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War in Ukraine: Russian sniffer planes operating in Ukraine and the Baltic Sea

They are the eyes and ears of Russia in the Ukrainian sky, but also at the gates of NATO countries. French mirages 2000 intercepted one this Wednesday in the Baltic Sea, for the third time since the start of the war in Ukraine. An Ilyushin Il-20M was indeed intercepted off the Lithuanian coast, after the incidents in November 2022 and January 2023, this time managed by German fighter planes near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and above the Baltic sea.

These planes, designed and produced in the 1960s, carry electronic warfare systems with them. Concretely, they can intercept electromagnetic signals and are therefore intended to capture enemy communications.

“They can triangulate in order to determine the position of our radars, which is valuable in planning a possible attack,” explains Xavier Tytelman, aviation specialist and former French army pilot. “They carry out intelligence missions to establish the opposing system, which the Western Awacs do for their part, for example in international airspace in the Black Sea,” adds General (2S) Olivier Kempf.

They also have a radar under the fuselage which allows terrain to be mapped, as well as cameras. They have an autonomy of up to 5,000 kilometers and would, in their modernized version unveiled in 2016 via Russian press agencies, have the capacity to jam modern Western Awacs systems.

Russia also has Beriev A-50s, equivalent to Awacs (Airborne Warning and Control System), clearly identifiable by their radar attached to the top of their fuselage. Moscow has lost two copies since January. If we are still far from a scenario like Tom Clancy who imagined in Red Storm, in 1986, the destruction of the entire A-50 fleet by American stealth planes, the loss of these aircraft was a hard blow for Moscow.

By comparison, France has Awacs aircraft which have the dual capabilities of surveillance and electronic warfare. And the Ministry of the Armed Forces has approved a program called Archange which must provide the French air force with a new modernized aircraft based on a Falcon 8X.

“In reality, Russia is dramatically short of these aircraft, both A-50 and Ilyushin II 20-M,” reports Xavier Tytelman. According to figures available in open sources, the Russian army has 10 A-50 aircraft available as well as 14 Il-20s, according to the latest edition of Military Balance. “We can also add the 2 Tu-214Rs which are reconnaissance and electronic intelligence devices,” explains Benjamin Gravisse, author of the defense blog Red Samovar and specialist in the Russian army. By comparison, the United States has 30 Awacs planes plus 15 stationed in Europe within the NATO framework.

“The destruction in flight of the A-50U is another serious blow to the potential and capabilities of Moscow,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in February after shooting down one of the Russian planes. .

“The collapse of the USSR was the limiting factor in the development of the fleet,” explains Benjamin Grasse. “The A50s were pure products of the Soviet industrial machine, with a cell produced in Uzbekistan, electronics in Ukraine and Russia, etc... in short, when the USSR disappeared the entire industrial house of cards was wiped off the map. Since then, Russia has tried to catch up, in particular by developing a new model, the A-100, even if this is made complicated by Western sanctions.

The loss of the two A-50s is therefore a serious blow to the Russian air forces, “with no possibility of rapid replacement even by capitalizing on the inactive airframes stored at Ivanovo-Severniy, which makes this loss much more painful than all the losses. Sukhoi lost since the start of the conflict between the two belligerents,” says Benjamin Gravisse.

Also read: Vladimir Putin's speech to the Nation: “The Russian Empire cannot exist without war”

In Ukraine, this lack of reconnaissance aircraft and electronic warfare is felt. The Russian air force has reportedly lost one military plane per day for two weeks. kyiv announced that it had shot down 10 Su-34 bombers, two Su-35 fighters and an A-50 detection and surveillance plane since February 17. “The Russians are no longer able to know when an S-300 radar is on,” reports Xavier Tytelman. On the other hand, the lack of reconnaissance aircraft may also allow Ukraine to take off its fighters with less danger. Russian dominance in the skies is clearly contested.

“Ukraine managed to handicap the ground-air defense of the Crimean peninsula, which forced the Russians to release the A-50s to complete radar coverage,” explains Olivier Kempf. Despite everything, Russia is still far from blind. “There are several ground radar installations which can (partly) compensate for the loss of aircraft, even if the operational flexibility offered by the Awacs is a major tactical advantage,” recalls Benjamin Gravisse.

*The Mirage 2000 planes are designed by the Dassault group, owner of Le Figaro

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