First the rumor: I have heard from several people that supposedly Ukraine has sent two brigades of its best troops to the SE border opposite Russia’s Glukhov province, and that the Russians are now pushing force to their side of the line. Absolutely no media reports, however, past news said the two brigades were in motion. So that might be something to watch.
As to other developments, some of you will have heard that NATO decided yesterday to send AWACS planes to fly the alliance’s eastern frontier. The planes doing the job will fly from one base in Germany and one base in England, and the route will be the Polish and Romania borders.
For those of you who haven’t, the AWACS is a Boeing 707 crammed with the spiffiest radars and detection equipment the western military industrial complex can manage. Think of it as an airborne electronic listening platform. It isn’t just radars; there is video imaging and this spiffy function where what the AWACS sees can be beamed down to the ground in real-time.
Officially, an AWACS can detect a low-flying aircraft or cruise missile, or something else in the air and not easy to spot because it’s so close to the ground, at a range of 320 kilometers. Also, provided there is line of sight, it can spot large metal objects moving on the ground or sea. Boeing is the manufacturer and the company literature is not clear on the detection range for that but the elint (military term for electronically-collected intelligence) blogosphere seems to think that the reach could be at least twice that if it were a big airborne object high in the sky – for instance a transport plane carrying troops from Moscow to Simferopol.
The key factor here is speed of information. For instance, the US military satellite network can detect missile launches over the Black Sea – we know this because in 2001 the Ukrainians were practicing air defence in Crimea, fired a missile, and shot down a Russian airliner by accident by the Georgian coast. The Ukrainians lied about the accident until the Pentagon said, no, sorry guys, we watched that SA-6 missile from launch to impact.
What the AWACS will do is give NATO a view of pretty much everything that is flying over Crimea, the movement of most vessels bigger than a rowboat around it, and the location of at least the larger Russian military road columns – in real time.
You may say: wait, most of the Russian troops are arriving over the Kerch isthmus, and there are mountains and towns and forests; surely AWACS can’t get a good angle from over the Danube Delta all the way to the Kuban? And you would be right.
Except for one thing: remember that US destroyer that transited the Bosphorus a couple of days ago, the USS Truxtun? Well, it’s not just any old warship but an “Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers built around the Aegis Combat System and the SPY-1D multi-function phased array radar.” In other words, this is a ship designed to watch airspace around aircraft carriers, to plug into the air defense network around aircraft carriers, and loated with spiffy radars and detection equipment so it can do that. I don’t know where it is exactly except that it was supposed to go to Romania. If the Truxtun turns up in the middle of the Black Sea or the eastern part, then consider the next news item.
This is a report about how the Russians are running a great big air defence exercise at a training area near Astrakhan, which is at the mouth of the Volga River by the Caspian.
Between the AWACS and the Truxton, there are two things going on: (1) NATO has begun watching the Crimea closely (better late than never) and were there to be a military response intelligence collection is the first step. Every time one of those Russian warships moves, or a road column transmits on radio, NATO will triangulate the location, take pictures, analyze and in general compile target lists. This is standard NATO drill, they did it in Serbia and the Russians know it. So message sent there.
Also, since there is a big Russian air defense training exercise on, NATO has a big incentive to collect intelligence on that: and the AWACS and the Truxton are now well-placed to do that too. So NATO is killing two birds with one stone a little