Air missions along Russian borders — snapshot of January 2021

This is part of a series on air missions carried in proximity to Russian borders, (NATO members and Sweden), principally intelligence-gathering missions, supported by air tankers.  Flights tracked were mostly either over the waters of the Baltic,  Black and more rarely, Barents Seas. 

The latest briefing follows on an article written back in May 2020, [1] with several visuals included. This time, I have attached graphs showing an overview of the situation, as seen and reported by social media aircraft tracking accounts. 

Figure.1 LOCATION BY TYPE OF AIRCRAFT Data derived from social media aircraft tracking accounts. Graph: 2021
Figure.1 LOCATION BY TYPE OF AIRCRAFT Data derived from social media aircraft tracking accounts. Graph: 2021
Figure.2 FREQUENCY OF FLIGHTS  Data derived from social media aircraft tracking accounts. Graph: 2021
Figure.2 FREQUENCY OF FLIGHTS Data derived from social media aircraft tracking accounts. Graph: 2021

All in all, a total of at least 69 flights were noted by social media aircraft tracking accounts for January 2021 alone, account for 20 days in the month. This list is not exhaustive and there may be more flights than publicly available on aircraft tracking sites, notably, flights in the Arctic and over the Northern Pacific. However, it must be noted that the Russian Arctic borders as well as over the Sea of Japan and Russia’s Far East (Western Pacific) aren't very well tracked by aircraft tracking sites and as such data is sparse and difficult to obtain.

The data compiled for the graphs only includes aircraft carrying out intelligence gathering missions, along with some of the supporting air refuelling tankers.  This list does not fighters, transport or bombers.  

NATO stated that aircraft were scrambled around 350 times  [2] for "Russian jets". This means transport, fighters ( especially those transiting to and fro Kaliningrad to St Petersburg) and also bombers. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu stated that  "In recent years, we have seen an increased level of Russian military air activity close to the Alliance’s borders. The figure mentioned for 2019 was 290 times, (82% difference).

Likewise, the Russian MoD also reported increased activities close to Russian borders, and gave figures during briefings for this back in March and June 2020. "NATO's military activity near our borders increases every year. The Alliance's land and sea units are being built up. NATO membership is expanding. The US global missile defense system is being deployed." Defence Minister Shoigu, 25 March 2020. 

The Russian MoD later reported in November 2020, that Radio-Technical Troops (RTT) of the Russian Aerospace Forces detected and tracked  "approximately 2,900 combat aviation aircraft and more than 1,100 reconnaissance aircraft,” in 2020.  TASS [3] [4]. Russian quick reaction alert (QRA) fighter aircraft were scrambled over 170 times (*) in 2020 to intercept foreign aircraft near Russia’s borders. How many of these were US and NATO aircraft is not known though. However, a glimpse of the action and activities can regularly viewed on social media aircraft tracking sites. 

Previously I compiled the statistics provided by the Russian MoD and Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, as a regular infographic, to obtain an total overview of the figures for 2020, [5], however the consistency of the data wasn't regular several times, so the figures are below those cited by Lieutenant-General Andrei Yudin in November. 

USA military intelligence gathering aircraft have not only kept tabs on the Russian military but are frequently keeping tracks on Chinese, Iranian, North Korea’s various military units and activities. Curiously, very recently, a couple of RC-135, "Rivet Joint" have kept watch on Cuba, in addition to several flights off Venezuela in the past years.

As can seen from the above graphs, the Kaliningrad region gets put under an intense spotlight almost on a daily basis, accounting of at least 39% of intelligence-gathering and monitoring flights by NATO members (and Swedish too, since they seem to be coordinated) along Russian borders. Note: I wrote more specifically about the relevance and importance of the region in a previous article [1].

The Black Sea region was divided up in segments, (Crimea and Southern Russia FIRs, in order to highlight the types of movements of flights.  Noticeably, the Global Hawk drone deployed the farthest and the greatest extent, (from Donbass, right across to Georgia), while air refuelling tankers tended to stay in one area, just in the outer limits of the Crimea FIR.

Part of the air activity in late January was linked to the deployment of two US Navy destroyers, the 'USS Donald Cook' and the 'USS Porter',  in which they "conducted a multi-domain maritime operation with NATO AWACS & US Navy P-8A aircraft. [6]

To sum up, in recent years, both NATO and the Russian MoD report increased military activities along their borders, yet the activities carried by NATO are significantly more intensive due to the probing nature of intelligence-gathering missions and the high frequency of such missions alone. It is highly doubtful that Russia airforces would endeavour or try to carry out anyway near the level of missions, the way that they are have been undertaken by NATO members, the US and its partners around Russia.

(*) This number is significantly less than what NATO reports to have done itself, (350), and reflects the nature of intercepts , principally in response to intelligence-gathering missions.  

Types of aircraft

Sweden- Gulfstream S102B Korpen  (GIV) electronic intelligence (ELINT), heavily-modified Gulfstream business jet.

USA / UK operators- RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence reconnaissance aircraft 

USA / NATO operators- E-3 AWACS airborne surveillance

USA (UK operators)- USN Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime interdiction, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASUW).

UK- Sentinel R-1 long-range, battlefield-intelligence, target-imaging and tracking radar.

US Army- Beechcraft RC-12 Guardrail is an airborne signals intelligence collection platform SIGINT.

KC-135R - The mainstay of the USAF air refuelling capability. 

Denmark - Challenger 604 Surveillance and maritime patrol.





[3] TASS



[6] Tweet

January 28, 2021


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