France’s eye in the sky: Tracking Russian ships in the Baltic

The cluster of dots on Atlantique 2’s screens may seem like a confusing mess to the untrained eye, but not to the crew of the French naval surveillance plane tasked with distinguishing friend from foe in the Baltic Sea.

“Another tarantula,” says an operator as the Russian Tarantul-class corvette comes into view, traveling in a pack with other Russian ships as several nearby NATO ships also cruise the placid sea off northeastern Europe.

The French Atlantique 2 aircraft, in service since the 1980s to detect surface ships and submarines, has been sent to track Russian and Russian-allied ships, a task that became key after President Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin.

– ‘Quickly distinguish’ –

The patrol plane took off from Brittany in western France early in the morning and stopped in Germany before heading north to tour much of the Baltic, now a strategic focal point for Western and Russian forces.

The plane’s most senior officer, Lieutenant Commander Guillaume, who according to French military tradition gives only his first name, gives the order for the protective radar cover to emerge from the plane’s hull.

The sea is calm and the weather is clear, but the frenetic action is visible in a zone about 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide, between the Swedish and Polish coasts.

French forces are under orders to avoid flying too close to some coastal waters and Russian ships to prevent any escalation, or entering potential danger zones where Baltic rim countries may have flagged military activities.

– ‘A strange crane’ –

The flurry of activity coincides with the end of NATO’s annual BALTOPS military exercise, to which the Russians responded with their own exercises.

A well-rehearsed procedure begins. The radar operator, Chief Petty Officer Maxime, observes the signals, known as “tracks”.

Alain shares his observations with Petty Officer Christopher, to his right, who operates the Wescam camera placed on the bottom of the aircraft and which produces a detailed image of targets even tens of kilometers away.

“It has a strange crane near the bow,” Christopher says as he approaches a ship that has caught his eye despite appearing civilian at first glance.

Acronyms are not lacking: DDG UK, PBF LT, MLE FI and FFL SE designate British, Lithuanian, Finnish and Swedish ships.

– ‘Pretty crowded’ –

The Russian ones are marked in red, like the Tarantul or Parchim-class corvettes identified in this flight.

The latter is in charge of electronic warfare and transmissions and sends the plane’s observations via a dedicated chat system to French and NATO command centers. A full report can wait until you return.

The Baltic is where Russia’s attack on February 24 has caused rapid geopolitical change.

“The Baltic will in effect become a NATO lake,” said Robert Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency FOI.

The plane changes direction to fly near Kaliningrad’s no-go zone to catch a glimpse of military activity in the highly militarized enclave, then heads north.

The day job? Almost 7,000 kilometers of flight and around a dozen Russian ships identified, including, to the delight of the crew, the impressive sailing training ship Sedov, the largest sailing ship in the world still in operation.

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