Why was a Norwegian signals intelligence aircraft snooping around the Barents Sea this week?
On 9th September Russia’s official TASS news agency reported that Luftforsvaret (Royal Norwegian Air Force/RNOAF) Dassault Falcon-20 signals intelligence and Boeing P-8S Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft had been detected and intercepted over the Barents Sea. Two MiG-29 (NATO reporting name Fulcrum) series combat aircraft were scrambled to escort both aircraft away from Russian airspace.
What was the Falcon-20 looking for? Russia’s northwest Arctic region has recently received new radars. In 2018 a single Rezonans-NE Very High Frequency (133 megahertz/MHz to 144MHz/216MHz to 225MHz) ground-based air surveillance radar was deployed to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. With a reported range of 594 nautical miles (1,100 kilometres) it provides coverage over air approaches into northwest Russia. These are likely ingress roots for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) aircraft during any future war with Russia.
The region has also received NIIDAR Podsolnukh-E High Frequency (HF: three megahertz to 30MHz) coastal/ground-based air surveillance which have an instrumented range of 243nm (450km) providing low altitude coverage. Plans are afoot to deploy NIIDAR 29B6 Container HF ground-based air surveillance radars to the Arctic. The radar has an instrumented range of 1,619nm (3000km).
Russia has a penchant for HF and VHF radars as they may be able to detect aircraft with low Radar Cross Sections (RCS). While the radars do not provide the necessary precision for surface-to-air missile engagements, they can be used for vectoring fighters towards hostile aircraft.
These radars will be of interest to the RNOAF. The country is buying 45 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning-II combat aircraft. It would be prudent for the RNOAF to gather as much Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) on these radars as possible given their potential to detect low RCS targets like the F-35A.
TASS reported that the RNOAF jets were initially detected by Russian radar. This may have handed the Norwegians valuable ELINT when the radars were activated and revealed the strength of radar coverage. Russian air defenders may be confident that their HF/VHF radars can reduce the low-RCS threat. This does not mean the country’s rivals will not try to collect ELINT on these systems to understand how they could be outfoxed in the future.