U.S. RC-135 Surveillance Jet Has Flown Unprecedented Mission Over Finland (Updated)
U.S. and other NATO surveillance aircraft could become a routine sight over Finland as the country gets closer to joining the alliance.
A U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint has conducted a sortie inside Finnish airspace for the first time, at least in recent memory, flying opposite the border with Russia. These flights look set to become routine as Finland continues to move through the process of joining NATO, something the country's leadership decided to pursue following the Russian military's all-out invasion of Ukraine last year. Today's sortie highlights how the Finnish ascension to the alliance will allow for expanding already robust efforts to surveil Russia from the air.
Online flight tracking websites caught the RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, which has the serial number 62-4131 and was using the callsign Jake 11 at the time, departing RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom earlier today. The aircraft then flew east over the English Channel, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, before turning north.
The plane then turned north, passing over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, before crossing the Gulf of Finland and entering Finnish airspace. Once there, it conducted a number of orbits, particularly in the southeastern end of the country facing Russia's Lake Ladoga and the strategic port city of St. Petersburg, before returning to base.
St. Petersburg is home to the headquarters for Russia's Western Military District and elements of the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet.
With the exception of Finland, all of the other countries that the RC-135W flew over in the course of this sortie are NATO members.
A statement today from the Finnish Defense Forces, or Puolustusvoimat, strongly suggests that this is the first time that a U.S. Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, or any other U.S. military crewed or uncrewed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, has conducted a routine mission inside Finnish airspace in coordination with that country's government.
"The Finnish Defence Forces carries out surveillance flights in Finnish airspace together with key international partners," the statement says. "The first flight will be conducted in cooperation with the United States on Thursday 23 March 2023."
However, the statement does not say what type of U.S. aircraft would be conducting that sortie and that "for operational security reasons, the details of the flights cannot be published."
The specific objectives of the flight are unknown. The War Zone has reached out to the Air Force for more information.
"There have been no changes in Finland's military security situation or environment in the recent past," the Finnish Defense Forces statement stresses.
"Flight operations with international partners is art of normal bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The flights develop the interoperability of the Finnish Defence Forces, improve the common situational awereness [sic] and strengthen national defense," it continues. "The flights show a mutual commitment to developing defense cooperation."
The general structure of 62-4131's flight path today is very much in line with Rivet Joint sorties routinely observed elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other locations around the world. The C-135-based ISR aircraft, examples of which are in service with the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom, are very powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) platforms.
The sensors onboard the Rivet Joints can be used to scoop up communications chatter, as well as details about air defense radars and other signals emitters, and their locations. With regard to communications intercepts, the aircraft carry linguists fluent in relevant languages to begin immediate processing and analyzing them. Other specialists pore over the data on radars and other signals nodes to help build so-called "electronic orders of battle" of enemy or potentially hostile capabilities in a given area.
At least one individual inside the Rivet Joint is also usually tasked with monitoring for usual or unknown types of signals that warrant separate further analysis.
In this particular instance, details about the exact disposition of Russian air defenses and other forces along the border with Finland would be of great interest to the U.S. government, Finnish authorities, and the rest of NATO, among others. Last year, it was reported that the Russian military was withdrawing forces from areas opposite Finland in order to bolster units fighting in Ukraine.
However, in January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to establish a new "army corps," typically a very large ground formation in Russian parlance with thousands of troops, in the country's semi-autonomous Republic of Karelia along the Finnish border. How much progress Russia's military, which has struggled to make up for major personnel losses in Ukraine over the past year or so, even with the help of partial mobilization, has made toward actually standing up this unit is unclear.
Other potential security threats exist along the border between Finland and Russia, which became a prominent destination for Russians seeking to flee mobilization orders last year. Finnish authorities subsequently imposed significant restrictions on Russians crossing the border legally and have moved to put up new physical barriers.
All told, despite the Finnish Defense Force's statement that this flight isn't in response to any recent events, the country clearly has concerns about its eastern neighbor. What does now appear to have changed is the granting of at least more regularized access to Finnish airspace to U.S. and other foreign ISR aircraft, which is significant.
From Finnish airspace, the Rivet Joint could have gathered intelligence about defenses and military activities in and around the Gulf of Finland, as well. This waterway is the only link for Russian naval vessels between St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea, from where they can then move out into the North Sea and then the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead of Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine, a number of Baltic Fleet amphibious ships were notably redeployed to the Black Sea. Turkish authorities have since put a blanket ban on naval vessels from any country entering the Black Sea.
Russia's maritime movements around Europe continue to draw particular attention due to persistent concerns about the potential for increased aggression elsewhere in the region. For instance, a series of still largely unexplained underwater explosions seriously damaged multiple natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea in September 2022. Though widely assessed to have been the result of a deliberate attack, there is no hard evidence to date that conclusively points to any specific actors as being responsible.
As a more general example of Russia's aggressive behavior outside of Ukraine, and toward Western ISR platforms specifically, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone crashed into the Black Sea on March 14 after a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet collided with it. American officials said this was the end result of a pair of Flankers conducting a "reckless" and "unprofessional" intercept of the uncrewed aircraft, as you can see in the video below and read more about here.
There are clear indications that kinds of flights by U.S. Air Force Rivet Joints, and potentially other ISR platforms, will become increasingly commonplace.
"Similar flights in Finnish airspace will be carried out in the future as well with different types of aircraft, both unmanned and manned," the Finnish Defense Forces statement said. "The flights are carried out under national direction and supervision, in accordance with Finnish national laws and regulations."
Routine Rivet Joint flights in this region could be especially valuable given the aforementioned types of intelligence the aircraft can collect from inside Finland. As the flight tracking data shows, regular access to Finnish airspace could conceivably enable new routes for even broader future missions. For example, an RC-135V/W aircraft, could conceivably, gather intelligence along a single 'line' that runs from Finland all the way down through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, on a single sortie – and 62-4131 may well have even done so to some degree in this case. The Baltic Sea region, which includes Russia's highly strategic, heavily fortified, and geographically separated Kaliningrad enclave, is of great significance militarily and economically.
Providing access to U.S. and other NATO ISR aircraft could be a major boon to Finland, specifically, given its own relatively limited aerial intelligence-gathering capabilities. The core of the Finnish Air Force's dedicated ISR capability appears to center on one CASA C-295 twin-engine turboprop configured for SIGINT missions, according to the 2016 edition of The Military Balance from the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. It also has three Learjet 35 business jets that can be employed for more general survey-type aerial surveillance, as well as maritime surveillance.
This is all in line with Finland getting ever closer to being a formal member of NATO. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö signed the requisite laws just today to pave the way for the country's ascension to the alliance. All that remains now is for the current members of the bloc to give their unanimous approval.
Turkey and Hungary have been blocking Finland's efforts, as well as those of neighboring Sweden, to join the alliance for various geopolitical reasons. Turkish and Hungarian officials last week that they would move to allow Finland's ascension, which followed extensive negotiations.
“We believe that Finland’s membership will strengthen the NATO alliance, contribute to the alliance’s burden-sharing against threats as well as to NATO’s deterrence, to regional security, and to our determination to fight terrorism,” Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Burak Akcapar said today.
Finland opening its airspace to U.S. military ISR aircraft is one very tangible example of how this is happening already.
UPDATE 8:10 P.M. EST:
It has come to our attention that a U.S. Air Force news item from 2021 mentions the aerial refueling of an RC-135W Rivet Joint over Finland on October 15th of that year. However, the exact circumstances of that event are unclear.
There is available flight tracking data of what may be the sortie in question, but it does not appear to show the aircraft spending any time in Finnish airspace. The flight looks to have been a relatively standard mission for U.S. and U.K. RC-135s over the Barents Sea.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has now confirmed that this was the first time an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint has flown over Finland, calling it "a demonstration of U.S. European Command’s shared commitment to enhancing readiness and providing training opportunities to improve interoperability with Finland."
"Flying at the invitation of the Finnish Defense Forces, the aim of the flight was to further defense cooperation between Finland, the U.S. and NATO," EUCOM added in a press release today. "These types of sorties support agile combat employment concepts and enable participation in regional exercises that ensure interoperability of NATO Allies and partners in the region."
"The operational readiness of U.S. forces across all domains is critical to building partnerships, responding to crisis, providing deterrence and supporting Allies and partners. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is one of the U.S. Air Force's core missions," the release adds. "Along with Finland and NATO Allies, the ISR mission is integral to global vigilance and enables the operational agility needed in a dynamic security environment."
Finnish Rear Admiral Juha Vauhkonen, currently the Finnish Defense Forces' Defense Command Chief of Intelligence, had also Tweeted out that this was a first-of-its-kind flight yesterday.
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