Map the Russian army nearby.

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Two of the US Air Force’s top surveillance planes flew over eastern Ukraine on Monday less than 40 miles of territory controlled by the Russian-backed separatists.

The two-jet mission, involving an E-8C ground surveillance aircraft and an RC-135V signals intelligence aircraft, is one of the first missions the USAF has openly carried out in Ukrainian airspace and comes nine months after Russia built up a potential invasion force along the border with Ukraine.

This force, comprising around 100,000 troops, 1,200 tanks and dozens of specialized vehicles, has dwindled slightly in recent days as 10,000 troops completed what Russian officials called a long-planned exercise and returned to their bases.

But more than enough Moscow forces remain in position for an attack. The US State Department warned Americans in mid-December against travel to Ukraine. “American citizens should be made aware of reports that Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine.”

A diplomatic resolution is always possible. Following a phone call in early December between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Biden warned Putin of potential economic sanctions in the event of an invasion of Russia, the US and Russian governments agreed talks in January.

In the meantime, Washington has stepped up its support for Kiev. The United States has transferred billions of dollars in anti-tank radars, patrol vessels and missiles to Ukraine. A US military team recently visited Ukraine to assess the country’s air defense network. And now the Americans are collecting intelligence on Ukraine and presumably sharing it with the Ukrainians.

The E-8C and RC-135V make a compelling team. The E-8C is equipped with a suspended radar with a capability known as a ‘Ground Moving Target Indicator’, or GMTI, which means it can repeatedly search for vehicles over time, giving operators an idea of ​​the direction of travel and the speed of vehicles.

The RC-135V is a Signal Intelligence, or SIGINT, aircraft whose sensitive receivers pick up enemy transmissions. An E-8 and an RC-135 working together could “cross”. The first detects tanks and other vehicles. The latter records their communications. A few passes from the duo could give commanders an overview of Russian forces.

There is a risk. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the Biden administration that “the deployment of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of our borders will have the most serious consequences”.

The threat did not deter the White House. The E-8s and RC-135s are usually only visible to the public when they are flying with their transponders on, which means they appear on one of the many flight tracking websites. The USAF could have ordered the crews to turn off their transponders for Monday’s mission.

This is not the case. The mission was more than an effort to monitor Russian forces. It was a statement from the Biden administration to the Putin regime.

Monday’s outings also underscored the sophistication and fragility of the US military’s surveillance apparatus. Few countries have the same mix of GMTI and SIGINT capabilities. The Royal Air Force did this before, until it decommissioned its Sentinel radar planes – its main ground sweeping aircraft – and sold them to the US military.

But the USAF is on the verge of abandoning most of its GMTI fleet. Having decided that the big, slow E-8s cannot survive near enemy air defenses in wartime, the Air Force is phasing out this guy. The service plans to sell four of its 12 remaining E-8s in 2022.

As the military builds up its own ground sweeping force, that of the air force is expected to decrease until there are only 10 Block 40 Global Hawk drones equipped with GMTIs left. Monday’s cross-surveillance mission to Ukraine was important. It could become more difficult in the years to come for the Pentagon to reproduce the feat.

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