The US has taken the hugely provocative action of sending a pair of reconnaissance aircraft over Ukraine amid accusations Russia has mustered some 100,000+ troops near the border in preparation for an incursion into Donbass. The flight happened early in the week and was revealed Wednesday.
It's being described as "a first" for the Pentagon: "In a first for the US military, the US Air Force flew an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft designed to gather ground intelligence over the eastern part of the country on Monday, a US European Command official told CNN Wednesday," Business Insider writes.
An RC-135V Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft was also reported as joining the surveillance mission. The recon flights mission were carried out with the cooperation of Ukraine's government, which a subsequent US military statement described as part of supporting "various US and coalition intelligence objectives."
It came soon after Russia's military announced the withdrawal of at least 10,000 troops from near the Ukrainian border back to their permanent bases, and ahead of Thursday's Biden-Putin phone call. The US and Russia have also agreed to hold security talks over the question of NATO eastward expansion on January 10.
The surveillance flight appears an attempt of the US to gain a more precise and accurate assessment on the potential battlefield situation below, on both sides of the border, and to gain a count of Russian forces and armaments:
The plane's long, side-looking phased array antenna in the radome offers a 120-degree field of view and can gather information on ground forces across roughly 20,000 square miles, according to the Air Force. As CNN noted, an E-8C flying over Ukraine would potentially be able to observe military activities on both sides of the country's border with Russia.
A senior Biden administration official recently described that after Biden and Putin last spoke by phone on Dec.7, "we continue to be gravely concerned about the nature of the Russian troop presence there" and "the capabilities that they have."
Watchers of flight-tracking data reported the mission Monday near Russian-occupied territory. It involved an E-8C battlefield surveillance plane and an RC-135V Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft, data showed.https://t.co/hCKeHgGaVv— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) December 29, 2021
There was a follow-up reconnaissance flight on Thursday reported as well...
The US Air Force flew another spy plane over eastern Ukraine on Thursday morning to gather intel about the Russian military situation on the ground, per source. It was the second time this week that the US carried out such a mission & came just hours before Biden's call w/Putin.— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) December 30, 2021
This week the US also pledged to assist Ukraine with border security related to the lengthy Russian border, including more funding - to the tune of about $20 million - to purchase video recording systems, drones, and personal protective equipment for Ukraine’s border guards.