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US flies historic spy mission over eastern Ukraine near Russian troop buildup

E-8C Joint STARS (Ken H / @chippyho/WikiCommons)
December 29, 2021

This week, the U.S. flew a reconnaissance mission over eastern Ukraine for the first time. The historic flight took place amid a massive ongoing Russian military buildup on its border with Ukraine.

Flight data trackers were among the first civilians to notice the U.S. reconnaissance flights. On Sunday, one Twitter user first noted a U.S. Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft took off “out of Souda Bay, [Greece] currently tracking over Mykolaiv, [Ukraine].”

On Monday, a second Twitter user tweeted, “Two United States Air Force [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] aircraft, an E-8C [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System] and an RC-135V Rivet Joint, are currently up over the eastern half of Ukraine: 01-2005 #REDEYE6, 63-9792 #HOMER19 Also shown: Ukraine Air Force Ilyushin Il-76MD reg.76697.”

Lt. Cmdr. Russ Wolfkiel, a spokesman for US European Command (EUCOM), told CNN on Wednesday that Monday’s flight is the first time an Air Force E-8C has flown over the region.

Both the RC-135V and E-8C both serve as reconnaissance aircraft. The RC-135V serves as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft, detecting and intercepting signals.

The E-8C serves as an airborne air-to-ground battle management system, which can detect the approximate numbers of vehicles across a wide area and determine their location, speed, and direction of travel. According to the Stars And Stripes, an E-8C can detect ground targets up to 150 miles away and primarily sends information to ground commanders for targeting and attack planning.

In recent weeks, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border. Last week, Ukrainian defense officials reported about 265,000 Russian troops are deployed within 250 miles of the border, including 122,000 troops within 125 miles of the border.

A senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. remains “gravely concerned about the nature of the Russian troop presence there and the capabilities that they have.”

Monday’s reconnaissance flights came two days after Russia announced it would withdraw about 10,000 troops from the Ukrainian border and send them back to their home bases throughout Russia.

The U.S. reconnaissance flights also came a day before Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reportedly ordered the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) and the accompanying warships of the Truman Carrier Strike Group to extend their deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, placing the strike group within a relatively close distance of Ukraine, Russia, and the Black Sea region. The carrier strike group had reportedly planned to relocate to the Middle East, but one defense official who spoke with USNI News said Austin ordered the strike group to stay in the Mediterranean to reassure European allies of U.S support for security in the region.