May 20, 2022:
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24
, NATO surveillance and intelligence collecting aircraft began operating over NATO nations adjacent to Ukraine. The most obvious of these aircraft were NATO AWACS (Aircraft Warning and Control) aircraft operating near the Ukrainian border to detect and track hundreds of aircraft in the air up to 400 kilometers away.
This was primarily to warn of possible Russian aerial threats to NATO. AWACS and other surveillance aircraft operating over Romania could also cover the Black Sea. AWACS could monitor most of the primary combat zones and pass the information on to the Ukrainian forces. This is also done with photo satellite surveillance but the AWACS data is real-time while the satellite photos are hours or days old. More specialized monitoring aircraft included the RC-135 (electronic surveillance), E-8 (ground surveillance). P-8 (maritime surveillance). U-2 (classified intel missions) and UAVS like the MQ-9 and RQ-4.
All this aerial surveillance soon became part of the NATO military assistance to Ukraine, but was not publicized as such. The Russians soon figured this out because it became apparent that Ukraine had a much better view of the battlefield than Russia. The Russians responded with all their systems designed to disrupt surveillance. No one wants to provide details on how this worked out but the Ukrainians continued to have the edge in surveillance while Russian troops complained about the poor performance of their surveillance UAVs and fighting in the dark. Ukrainian troops could apparently see everything and listen in on Russian communications.
Then there was the new American P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, which apparently provides the Ukrainians with accurate enough real-time position data on Russian ships to damage or destroy a growing number of Black Sea Fleet combat, amphibious and support ships. The Ukrainians use their own Neptune anti-ship missiles for this, or artillery if the Russian ships are close enough to the coast. Ukraine has requested the American Harpoon air-ship missile, which has the best electronic countermeasures to get past warship electronic defenses.
The Black Sea Fleet now operates with much more care when it goes to sea, and tries to stay out of range of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. This is not possible while supporting the Russian garrison on Snake Island, which is near the entrance to the Danube River and the Ukrainian coast. Russia has had about ten amphibious and assault ships destroyed or damaged trying to resupply Snake Island, as well as evacuating wounded and bringing in troop replacements. Hundreds of Russian troops have been killed or wounded on Snake Island. Russia could just abandon Snake Island but that is seen as another defeat at a time where there were too many of those on land.
The Black Sea Fleet was supposed to be a key element in seizing Odessa, the last major Ukrainian port on the Black Sea coast. Taking Odessa is essential if Russia is to cut Ukraine off from all access to the sea. Russia is going to run out of amphibious and combat ships before Odessa is captured. Russian ground forces have been unable to take it from the land side and are currently being pushed away from coastal territory Russia already holds. Russia can’t get additional warships in the Black Sea because Turkey, which controls the only entrance to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, has closed it to warships in accordance with a 1930s treaty that stipulated warship access during war and peace.
NATO and Russia now have an accurate and detailed assessment of who has the most effective aerial surveillance forces. Other nations don’t have the details but do note that Russian capabilities are clearly inferior to those of NATO nations. This is useful information for nations that have bought Russian surveillance or electronic warfare equipment, which has caused some orders for such equipment to be canceled.