A Russian fighter crew caught a rare glimpse of a secretive French surveillance operation this week.
On Tuesday, the Russian air force sortied at least one Su-30 interceptor to trail a trio of French warplanes flying in international air space over the Black Sea. The French formation included a C-135FR tanker and two Mirage 2000D fighters.
The Kremlin released a grainy video of the encounter.
Note what the delta-wing Mirages were carrying under their bellies alongside their air-to-air missiles. Slim pods containing sensitive electronic receivers for detecting enemy radars.
The French fighters almost certainly were mapping Russia’s defenses in the volatile Black Sea region. While surveillance flights aren’t unusual in the area, surveillance flights by armed, supersonic fighters most certainly are.
When it comes to surveilling Russian forces in the region where Russian forces pose one of the greatest risks to NATO and its partners, the French aren’t messing around.
The Black Sea is a major battleground. On the east lies Russia. On the north, Ukraine. To the south and west lie NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria. The Crimean Peninsula juts into the sea like an unsinkable aircraft carrier.
Russia in 2014 invaded Crimea—then part of Ukraine—as the first move in a broader assault in the region. In the months that followed, pro-Russian separatists launched an insurgency in eastern Ukraine that continues seven years later.
Ukraine still controls much of the fresh water flowing into Crimea. Amid the water woes and deepening hostility between Kiev and Moscow, this spring 80,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine. In response, NATO is staging a sweeping mobilization exercise in eastern and southern Europe involving tens of thousands of troops. American ships even landed a U.S. Army brigade in Albania.
Militaries all around the Black Sea are more active than usual. So it should come as no surprise that the French air force chose this moment to send a couple of fighters on a surveillance mission over the region. There undoubtedly are a lot of Russian radars to check on.
The French air force possesses a wide array of surveillance capabilities. For electronic intelligence, or ELINT, it operates big, slow, planes and small fast ones. Two big twin-propeller Gabriels—modified C-160 transport planes—handle missions requiring hours of endurance. The downside is that a Gabriel, like any unarmed prop plane, is vulnerable to enemy air-defenses.
A small, speedy fighter is less vulnerable—and it can carry air-to-air missiles for self-defense. But a fighter has less endurance than a prop plane does, even after mid-air refueling.
The French air force used to assign fighter ELINT to its single-seat Mirage F-1s carrying a 900-pound Thales Analyseur Superhétérodyne Tactique, or ASTAC, pod. The pod contains the same receivers the Gabriels carry.
The versatile old Mirage F-1s retired back in 2014, so the air force modified its newer, two-seat Mirage 2000s to carry the same pod. Seventy Mirage 2000Ds remain in service in France. In addition to ELINT, the compact fighters handle ground-attack and some air-to-air missions.
Perhaps favoring endurance over self-defense, most air forces strictly use big, slow planes for ELINT. The U.S. Air Force for example invests most of its ELINT capability in a fleet of four-engine RC-135s that themselves are regular visitors to the Black Sea region.
But the wisdom of the French air force’s approach is obvious. A fighter can fight. And in wartime, that might be the only way NATO forces can gather electronic intel over the Black Sea.