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About those intelligence gathering flights we hear about

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posted on Nov, 29 2015 @ 09:18 PM
So lately I've noticed that there is a lot of misinformation about the Russian and American intelligence flights that occur around the world. So I thought I'd write a thread about their history, and what's going on during the flights. I'm going to focus on the American side, since I know that side far better.


After WWII both the Soviet Union and the US wanted to know what the other side was up to, but neither had the ability to do so with impunity yet. So they began flying aircraft near and over each other's territory and ships. The US took existing aircraft and modified them into intelligence gathering aircraft, usually using bombers to do it. One of the earliest examples was the RB-29, based on the workhorse of the Pacific Theater, B-29 bomber. Extra crew were added, along with sensors and cameras, and the aircraft flew missions near the Soviet Union. Later on, after the B-29s were modified into the B-50, RB-50s were used. These flights flew into Soviet airspace, and encountered many Soviet fighters, with the loss of a several aircraft, after they were shot down. Multiple types of aircraft were used, including C-130s, with many losses to Soviet fighters.

The US continued to use bombers and modified aircraft, until the development of the Lockheed U-2. The U-2 was designed from the ground up as a reconnaissance platform to overfly Soviet territory and monitor Soviet nuclear tests. In 1960, on May 1st, Francis Gary Powers launched on a mission over the Soviet Union in a U-2. He was shot down during the mission, and captured by the Soviets. This brought a major change to the overflight activity. After the shootdown, US overflights of the Soviet Union ended, until a NASA ER-2 flew over Russia in the 1990s. Other aircraft used by the US include the RC-135, based on the C-135 airframe. It is modified with cameras and other optical sensors, electronic evesdropping equipment, equipment that can monitor radio and telephone calls, and radar monitoring equipment, depending on the version of the aircraft in use.

The Soviet government went a different route. They modified existing aircraft for the most part. The Tu-95 Bear bomber is a popular intelligence gathering aircraft to this day. It has undergone several variations, as new equipment was developed and added to the aircraft. It wasn't until fairly recently that they began using purpose built aircraft, such as variants of the Il-76



By the 1960s both the US and Soviets were developing satellites with camera capabilities. These satellites really came into use in the 1970s. The film canisters had to be returned to earth, but the satellites were able to fly over the other nation's territory with impunity until the film was used up. In addition to this, the US continued to develop specialized reconnaissance aircraft. The SR-71 was developed as a replacement to the U-2 for overflights, but didn't enter service until after the end of the overflights. Instead the U-2 and SR-71 flew close to the border at extreme altitudes, and used side look cameras to look as far into the Soviet Union as possible. In addition UAVs were developed that would fly programmed missions, and be recovered by parachute to analyse the film on board. Flights expanded to Asia as well, over China. The US expanded the U-2 program, training pilots from Taiwan to fly missions over China, losing several aircraft there as well.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the early stages of agreements were started to be hammered out between the Soviet Union and the US. This included how fighters intercepted other aircraft, procedures for how tail guns on Soviet aircraft were to be stowed during interception, and various other procedures. The attempt was to stop the shootdown of other aircraft, and loss of crews.


Airspace is laid out in various ways. In international airspace, there is no real control set up. It's too far for radar to detect aircraft reliably, and radio is unreliable at the ranges involved. Any aircraft is essentially free to fly anywhere in this airspace. As they approach another nation, they enter into what's known as the ADIZ, or Air Defense Identification Zone. This is where aircraft enter National Airspace. They are still free to fly through here, but they require a flight plan and positive identification upon entering this region. Aircraft that don't meet these criteria are intercepted and visually identified before being allowed to continue. After passing through this region, they enter into National Airspace, where they are under positive control by Air Traffic Control.


The intelligence flights that are reported on, are designed to test response time and methods, as well as gathering whatever communications and radar data that they can. The flights approach the ADIZ, and enter into them. With no flight plan or positive identification, fighters are frequently scrambled to identify the aircraft. AFter flying into the ADIZ, the flights turn and exit the airspace, returning back to their origins. Sometimes when flying near the US, the flights are not intercepted, due to identification by other means, such as radar tracking from the origin of the flight.

While the ADIZ is techincally the airspace of the country it borders, it's not considered National Airspace, but a buffer zone around the nation. The flights do not enter into National Airspace, but only into the ADIZ. A lot of information can be gathered by performing these flights, and it's not required to enter into National Airspace to get the information.

edit on 11/29/2015 by Zaphod58 because: (no reason given)

posted on Nov, 29 2015 @ 09:18 PM

The media frequently misrepresents these flights, the few times that they do report on them. They frequently report that they entered the airspace of the nation they are flying near, or even more outlandish claims. During a flight of Russian Tu-95s near Guam, the media reported that they were nuclear armed. These flights are frequently ignored by the media, as they are so routine, and nothing more than pilots waving at each other usually happens. During the height of these flights, pilots, especially Soviet pilots, were known to frequently try to trade phone numbers, and even Playboy centerfolds while flying near each other. There is even a famous, if very little known, picture of an F-14 crew intercepting a Russian Bear bomber while wearing an ape mask. Pilots were frequently known to joke with each other during these flights.


These flights continue to this day, with some changes. The attitudes of the pilots involved have changed somewhat, and there are more risks taken at times. The flight procedures remain the same however, and they continue the same way as they did in the past. The flights remain outside National Airspace, and in the ADIZ, as they always have. With relations being what they are between the nations involved, it's amazing that more incidents haven't happened, but is a sign of the professionalism of the pilots involved that they haven't.

While there have been many near miss incidents, or incidents where the aircraft will depart the ADIZ in a hurry to get away from interception, the only really serious incident was the EP-3C that landed on Hainan Island. And even that appears to have been more accidental than deliberate.

posted on Nov, 29 2015 @ 10:39 PM

Very informative.

I always thought that the SR71 did overfly the USSR. Learn somethin' new everyday.

posted on Nov, 29 2015 @ 10:52 PM
a reply to: seagull

The A-12 first flew in 1962, and the SR-71 in 1964. Both were several years after overflights were stopped. They skirted the border and pushed the limits as to what exactly constitutes an overflight, but they never actually crossed the Soviet Union like the U-2 did.

posted on Nov, 30 2015 @ 11:57 AM
a reply to: Zaphod58

If you get chance, the movie Bridge of Spies, covers the diplomatic side of the Gary Powers issue. It was a very good movie.(IMHO)

posted on Nov, 30 2015 @ 11:59 AM
a reply to: network dude

I'm torn on how I feel about it. It looks like a good movie, but I can't stand Powers. He was an arrogant jackass from everything I've read and heard about him.

posted on Nov, 30 2015 @ 12:22 PM

originally posted by: Zaphod58
a reply to: network dude

I'm torn on how I feel about it. It looks like a good movie, but I can't stand Powers. He was an arrogant jackass from everything I've read and heard about him.

Then I think you would enjoy this movie. You won't be disappointed.

posted on Dec, 1 2015 @ 05:01 AM
a reply to: Zaphod58

I don't trust things you write due to your political NATO leanings

Just an objective opinion
edit on 1-12-2015 by LastInLine1 because: (no reason given)

posted on Dec, 1 2015 @ 11:28 AM
a reply to: LastInLine1

Of course it is.

Then do your own research. You will find that everything in here is accurate.

posted on Jan, 13 2017 @ 06:45 AM
No source can be trusted anymore, you never know where the "news" is coming from

posted on Jan, 13 2017 @ 08:05 AM
a reply to: Terry123

Again, do your own research.

posted on Aug, 4 2017 @ 02:47 PM
a reply to: Zaphod58

Great information Zaph....ty for helping put these flights in some perspective

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