Two Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jets escorting a RC-135 strategic surveillance aircraft flew a rare reconnaissance mission closely approaching and probing air defenses in the Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula on Thursday, open-source air traffic data reviewed by Kyiv Post showed.

The three British aircraft appeared to have left their transponders on constantly during the two hours spent in international air space west of Crimea. There were no reports of Russian ground or air forces’ interfering with the RAF planes flying at times within 200 kilometers of Russia’s main Black Sea military base Sevastopol.

In a fumbled Kremlin intercept of an unescorted British RC-135 Rivet Joint in roughly the same air space on Sept. 29, 2022, a Russian Air Force Su-27 fighter fired an air-to-air missile at the unarmed Royal Air Force reconnaissance plane, but missed, according to reports by BBC and other major British media.

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The Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint is designed to listen in on radio communications and find the locations of ground-based units like air defense radar units and headquarters by intercepting their transmissions. It is a key national asset-level airborne intelligence collection platform for NATO air forces.

Based on open-source air traffic data, NATO usually operates an RC-135 sweep of the Atlantic Alliance’s southeastern flank once a week. Routes flown by the $135 million electronic warfare surveillance platform and its 30-member crew usually stay over land above eastern Romania’s Danube delta and are almost always flown without fighter escort.

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The Thursday all-RAF mission appeared to depart from that routine with an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft call sign RR7227 flying well out to sea 200-250 km east of the normal patrol area for such flights, escorted by at least two FGR.4 Eurofighter Typhoons.

The RC-135 launched from Mildenhall Air Base in southeast England, and the two Typhoons call signs Nightwing 11 and Nightwing 12 lifted off from the major NATO air defense hub Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constansa, Romania, air traffic data showed.

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The BAE Eurofighter FGR.4 Typhoon is a first-tier fighter aircraft comparable or superior to all military aircraft operated by Russia in combat against Ukraine. Most independent analysts rate Royal Air Force pilot and other aircrew skills, and the NATO air defense network backing them, as certainly outclassing their Russian counterparts’.

Kyiv Post screen grab of Thursday air traffic data published by the open-source platform Flightradar24 showing the approach of a Royal Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane and two British Eurofighter Typhoons near the Russia-occupied Crimea peninsula. The flights stayed out of airspace claimed by the Kremlin as Russian sovereign airspace, but flew 200 kilometers further east over the Black Sea than NATO-operated manned reconnaissance flights usually go. The US flies Global Hawk and Triton drone aircraft closer to Russia-controlled territory in the region.

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The previous two RC-135 surveillance flights along NATO’s southwest flank, both unescorted by fighters per flight tracking data, took place on June 10 and June 17.

The last time NATO air operators flew a fighter-escorted Rivet Joint reconnaissance sortie well out over the Black Sea similar to the Thursday operations was in the first week of May, and previous to that in mid-March, Kyiv Post review of open-source flight tracking data found.

Baku-based military analyst Agil Rustamzade in Thursday comments noted the unusual relatively close approach to Crimea by the British reconnaissance plane with two almost-certainly armed fighters flying as escorts and said that all three aircraft having their transponders turned on meant the mission may have been as much about messaging the Kremlin as for collecting intelligence.

“This event should be considered as a military-political step on the part of [the UK] designed to confirm its determination to carry out special tasks in the Black Sea,” Rustamzade said.

Russian officials and milbloggers have repeatedly accused NATO, particularly the US and the UK, of launching manned and remotely piloted surveillance planes toward airspace around the Crimea peninsula to collect targeting data which is then passed on to the Ukrainian military.

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Ukrainian forces on June 24 launched a massed strike using ballistic missiles and drones to destroy Russian air defenses at multiple locations in Crimea. The Kremlin later said the attacks would have been impossible without direct US help to Ukraine.

There was no early direct official Russian comment on the British reconnaissance flight. Russia’s vice Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, in a midday statement published by TASS as the British aircraft were still in the air off Crimea’s western coast, said that Moscow already was responding with “asymmetric measures” to punish the US for its part in the June 24 strikes against Sevastopol and elsewhere in Crimea.

“Washington should feel the extreme risks [it is taking] in this context,” Rybkov said in part.

Russia’s Presidential press spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday in comments about the Ukrainian strikes against Crimea said the US would “face consequences,” without saying what they might be.

Russian milbloggers, even ones vehemently supporting the Kremin’s Feb. 2022 invasion of Ukraine, were quick to lampoon Moscow officials like Rybkov and Peskov for threatening the US and its allies over assistance to Ukraine in military operations against Crimea but taking no serious action.

“So far, [the US], isn’t ‘feeling’ anything,” the popular milblogger Dva Major complained to his 750,000-plus followers in a Thursday response to Rybakov’s declaration. “In no small part, because [the US] no longer is taking declarations by ‘respected’ Russian institutions seriously. It’s like in the fable about the boy who cried wolf.”

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By midday on Friday, another RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance platform, this time a US Air force aircraft call sign Jake 17 flying out of Mildenhall Air Base in Great Britain, had taken up station firmly in NATO airspace over eastern Romania. Open-source air traffic trackers showed no fighter escort.

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