A US Air Force Global Hawk reconnaissance drone got unprecedentedly close to the latest round of Ukrainian missile strikes against targets in Crimea. The rare sortie placed one of the Pentagon’s most capable and expensive spy planes in airspace near Russian-occupied territory at the same time as Ukrainian forces hit targets there.

A Kyiv Post review of open-source flight tracking data found that the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk, call sign FORTE12, arrived on station to airspace southwest of Russia’s main military base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol at least three hours before Ukrainian forces fired missiles at Russian military targets, and the aircraft loitered in the area for about seven hours before flying back to its base in Sigonella, Italy.

A high-tech intelligence collection platform crammed with radars, direction-finding electronics and multi-spectral sensors, the Global Hawk is the US’s premier reconnaissance drone. American flight planners had sent the aircraft over the Black Sea repeatedly, but during past Ukrainian strikes US flight controllers had kept the $200 million-plus aircraft out of Black Sea air space and far from Crimea during actual missile strikes by Kyiv.

A US Air Force Global Hawk long-range reconnaissance jet call sign FORTE12 flies over international waters some 200 km. southwest of the major Russian military base Sevastopol at the moment of Ukrainian missile strikes.

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The combined drone attack hit the command center and ammo/equipment depot of a military base while the Russians were training, a Kyiv Post source said.

 

According to local social media and, subsequently, Crimea occupation authority officials, major explosions initiating at 2:47 a.m. local time Wednesday were audible in the vicinity of Sevastopol city, Saky airfield near the village Fedorivka and the port town Yevpatoriya. The blasts were caused by incoming missiles and lasted about 10 minutes, those accounts said.

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Reports agreed Russian military installations had been targeted, some saying it was airfields and aircraft, and others alleging Russian air defense systems – long a primary target for Ukrainian strike planners – were hit. Social media posts linked to the Sevastopol bedroom community Osypenko, some three kilometers south of a major military airfield, reported smoke smelling heavily of burning petroleum products.

Some accounts claimed at least one Kyiv missile had damaged elements of a Russian S-400 system – the Kremlin’s premier air defense weapon – based near a Sevastopol airfield. Other reports suggested the weapons carrying out the strikes were US-manufactured ATACMS missiles, some with conventional warheads and at least one with a cluster munition warhead. Kyiv Post researchers were unable to confirm the claims conclusively.

A second Ukrainian strike packet appeared to have aimed at logistics or possibly transportation infrastructure in northern Crimea, with explosions reported in the Perekop narrows near the town Armyansk and the village Krasnoperekopsk. Popular Russian milblogger Vladimir Rogov told his 110,000-plus followers the “massive missile strike” hit four locations including an air-defense installation near the port Chornomorske.

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Social media video geolocated to the Sevastopol region showed at least six anti-aircraft missiles firing into a night sky, and at least two missiles detonating, possibly at the end of their flight path.

Images published by Krymsky Veter allegedly showing elements of Russia’s 12th Air Defense Regiment heading out of Sevastopol to sites near Yevpatoriya and Chornomorske.

 

Russian-occupation Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev in a statement said that “all air targets” were destroyed in the air and that there was no damage to people or property. Local emergency response information platforms reported falling missile debris landed in the center of the city.

As the Ukrainian strikes went in at 02:45 local time, Wednesday (11:45 p.m. Tuesday UTC) FORTE12 was 190-200 kilometers from Sevastopol in international air space. The Sigonella-based Global Hawk had been in the air about 7 hours in a sortie lasting some 16 hours, open-source air traffic records showed.

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US Air Force intelligence collection commanders have pushed Global Hawk patrols into air space over the Black Sea for years, following Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The flights typically take place twice a week and per open-source flight tracking data almost never route the aircraft closer than 150 kilometers from Russian-controlled territory.

Russian military analysts have accused the Pentagon of using the flights to collect targeting information that is passed on to Kyiv, and of turning off the aircraft’s transponders off from time to time to allow the spy planes to monitor “Russian” territory more clandestinely. Air Force spokesmen have stated that the flights are not provocative and fully in accordance with international law.

The FORTE12 sortie on June 11-12 flew a figure-eight patrol pattern south of Crimea for about seven hours, and also approached the Russian city of Sochi, a Kyiv Post review of flight tracking data showed.

Satellite imagery strongly contradicts Russian government narratives of Ukrainian strikes against Kremlin air defenses as ineffective. In this shot published by mil-blogger @kiber_broshno on June 12, but originally sourced to Maxar, debris of two S-300 missile launcher systems and a precise grid location are visible.

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During the night June 10-11, during which Kyiv fired off an even more punishing series of strikes against Crimean targets, open-source flight trackers showed no US military or allied aircraft in the air. The Ukrainian missiles fired 24 hours later struck much the same targets, or near them, news reports and official statements said.

Ukrainian-fired made-in-USA ATACMS missiles during the Monday-Tuesday strikes to hit a military installation near the city Yevpatoriya, the Saky military air base, the Chornomorske port and the Perekop Isthmus town Dzhankoi, the US-supported news agency Radio Liberty reported. The primary target objective was damage or destruction of S-300 and S-400 air defense vehicles operated by Russia’s 31st Air Force Division, that report said.

The independent Russian news agency ASTRA said at least two S-300 missile launchers and four radar search stations were demolished in the attacks. Officials, led by Razozhayev, stated those strikes caused no damage and all missiles were shot down.

Radio Liberty cited social media, NASA satellite imagery and independent analysts to support the conclusion that Kremlin claims of no damage following the attacks were unfounded.

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Kyiv Post review of those materials, along with checks via its own sources and available open-source evidence likewise found the Ukrainian strikes were effective and damaged Russian air defense capacity at those locations.

The pro-Ukraine Crimean military information platform Krymsky Veter on Wednesday morning, citing partisan-collected imagery, reported Russian military authorities had ordered elements of Russia’s 12th Air Defense Regiment, a subordinate formation to the 31st Division, out of Sevastopol to sites in Yevpatoriya and Chornomorske, where Ukrainian missiles reportedly had struck hours earlier. Photographs of the high-value Russian systems showed four missile launchers and two targeting radar vehicles heading north.

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