NATO air forces have beefed up surveillance of the Atlantic Alliance’s southeastern frontier in recent weeks with the rare deployment of E-3A Sentry AWACS surveillance aircraft to airspace over eastern Romania.

The most recent sortie, on Wednesday, May 8, probably missed watching a major Russian missile strike on Ukraine in real-time by a matter of hours.

The first-ever flight by an E-3A Sentry AWACS into airspace over southern Romania since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 took place on April 3, Kyiv Post research of open-source flight tracking platforms like FlightRadar showed.

Subsequent sorties were flown by the $227 million aircraft crammed with radar, listening, and communications gear into that airspace on May 2 and May 8, open-source data showed. According to NATO doctrine, the Sentry’s primary mission is to serve as a powerful “eyes in the sky” platform and airborne command post that monitors airspace to identify all aircraft, including both friendly and possibly hostile aircraft, and to enable efficient defenses and attacks by mission commanders flying NATO combat aircraft.

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Ground crew member gives from the USAF’s 31st Fighter Wing uses hand-and-arm signals during NATO’s Astral Knight 21 air operations exercises at Turkish military airfield. Photo by US European Command.

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First signed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact in 1990, the treaty limits the number of tanks, combat aircraft and other military equipment that can be deployed between the Atlantic and the Ural Mountains.

NATO flies E-3A Sentry surveillance missions almost daily, most often along Poland’s eastern border and over the Baltic states, and less frequently in eastern Scandinavia. Before April, the air battle command plane had not been spotted in Romanian airspace by open-source air traffic monitors.

On May 8 Russia launched a major missile and kamikaze drone strike against Ukraine, firing a mix of ballistic, “hypersonic” and cruise missiles totaling 59 weapons, and an additional 21 kamikaze drones, targeting energy infrastructure and civilian homes and businesses, official Ukrainian sources said.

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That same day, according to flight tracking data some eight hours after the Russian missiles had struck or been shot down, a NATO E-3A Sentry flown by a Royal Netherlands Air Force crew appeared in airspace over Bulgaria, flew to eastern Romania and circled there for close to two hours, and then flew to Belgium.

Civilian plane-spotter image of a Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS jet operated by NATO taking off from Krakow airport in Poland. According to open-source air traffic data this plane with airframe identifier LX-N90456, possibly was in the airspace over eastern Poland at the time of a massive Russian missile attack against Ukraine on May 8. August 2020 photo published by EPKT Spotters.

It was not clear from data published by planefinder.net and other air traffic platforms where the AWACS with the call sign NATO11 took off from or how long it had been in the air before it became visible to civilian radars.

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Had the NATO AWACS been in Western Black Sea airspace at the time of the Russian strikes – which seems possible but unlikely from the air traffic data – then the crew would almost certainly have been uniquely placed to observe the Russian strike in detail, monitoring every aircraft and missile in real-time.

The NATO decision to deploy – or if earlier flights had been surreptitious then to make visible to open sources – the alliance’s premier air battle intelligence and command planes in airspace over Romania, where the spy planes had not flown before, came against the background of major air defense exercises at the other end of alliance territory.

On Monday NATO kicked off a multi-national air defense exercise, called Astral Knight 2024, involving more than 50 aircraft and more than 5,000 service personnel from Lithuania, Poland, Britain and the US. The main objective of the two weeks’ training is to practice air defense coordination, aircraft and missile detection, and intercepts, and to deter aggression against NATO nations, a Brussels statement said.

“The US invested in advanced sensors, radars, and surveillance technologies, and integrated them with Allies and partners to develop a comprehensive and accurate common situational awareness picture. Such capabilities allow for effective detection, tracking and identification of potentially hostile airborne and missile threats,” the statement said in part.

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Route of the NATO surveillance aircraft NATO11 on May 8, according to the open-source air traffic tracker platform planefinder.net. The plane appeared in airspace over Romania about ten hours after Russia launched a major missile strike against Ukraine.

The Polish General Staff in a May 8 statement said “a key role” in the integration training was being played by officers and soldiers from the regional air battle control units 83rd Air Operations Group (AOG) and the Air Operations Center. The exercises would develop cross-nation air combat coordination and strengthen interpersonal ties, the statement said.

In March, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Szejna told Polish radio station RMF FM that NATO along with Poland was considering using the alliance air defense systems to intercept Russian missiles aimed at Ukraine. Kyiv officials said they would welcome the help but officially neither Warsaw nor Brussels have endorsed the idea.

Russia on Monday announced the start of drills of its own to practice the use of tactical nuclear weapons and, separately, training for mass launches by non-nuclear missiles fired from Russia’s southwestern regions. Kremlin “news” platforms said the Astral Knight exercises were provocative and evidence of unjustified Western hostility towards Russia. The Sputnik news agency called the NATO training “saber-rattling.”

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The milblogger Starshe Eddy, a vehemently pro-Russia platform, according to reports operated by the Russian media manager German Kulikovsky, in a May 8 write-up on the Astral Knight exercises said that NATO intends to prepare for an air war against Russia in a battlespace stretching from Turkey to northern Norway, with intervention against Russia already a reality for alliance planners.

Kill claims published by the Ukrainian Air Force on May 8 following a major Russian missile and drone strike on targets across the country. Kyiv claimed Russian warplanes and ground platforms launched a total of 55 missiles, of which air defenses shot 39 down. A US Air Force E-3A Sentry AWACS plane in the airspace over Romania potentially watched the entire attack from start to finish.

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“As I have said before, the NATO Air Force is the only force, the use of which could really, seriously change the course of hostilities for the Ukrainian (fight against Russia). For the moment, however, NATO is limiting itself to the territories of its own countries. At the same time, the topic of air defense/missile defense is becoming one of the main ones, showing that a possible clash with Russia is indeed viewed as an urgent threat,” Kulikovsky wrote.

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