These days, it appears that anyone with reliable internet access can tap into commercial radar satellites to do their own version of airbase monitoring.
According to H. I. Sutton at USNI News, “more users can monitor Russian bombers in near real-time with improvements in high-frequency coverage, quality of imagery, and diversity of providers.”
He continues: “The monitoring of air bases to assess a potential adversary’s strength and readiness remains an important task for navies and other armed forces. Natural targets include long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, bombers, and strike aircraft. A major way this can be done is by using space-based sensors, which can monitor airfields over time. Many strategically relevant airbases are likely under frequent observation by the myriad of passing satellites.”
The news outlet added that Capella Space recently provided it images of selected Russian airbases, which after tasking a satellite, the results came back in only a few hours.
“One of the targets chosen was a base with Russian Tupolev Tu-142 Bear maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft has been the subject of intercept reports off Alaska, Japan, or Europe. These massive planes, with distinctive swept wings with four turboprop engines, are directly descended from vintage bombers observed at the air display over sixty-five years ago,” Sutton writes.
“The distinctive Bear aircraft showed up very clearly in the imagery. The engines and wings provided were clearly visible in synthetic aperture radar imagery. Some Tu-22M Backfire naval bombers were similarly easy to pick up. The radar reflections vary depending on the relative angles of the aircraft to the sensor, but these aircraft are relatively easy for analysts to identify,” he adds.
Sutton goes on to mention that “maritime reconnaissance aircraft are typically large and unambiguously and not stealthy. Monitoring them, of any navy, is going to be straightforward. Especially where they use dedicated airbases. For example, telling the difference between a civilian Boeing 737 airliner and a Navy P-8 might prove difficult without additional clues.”
In light of this, a more difficult challenge would be to monitor the new generation of stealth fighters out of Russia.
“As seen previously with the Type-022 missile boat in China, vehicles that are designed to be low-observable to radar are not hidden from SAR satellites—including the new Russian Su-57 Felon fifth-generation fighter,” Sutton notes.
The imagery of Russia’s Akhtubinsk Airfield “showed a range of aircraft. In one zoomed-in section, two Sukhoi Su-57 Felons are visible. They can be differentiated from the Su-34 Fullbacks parked nearby. Elsewhere on the base other aircraft included Mikoyan MiG-31 Fox Hound fighters and small Su-25 Frog Foots. The fidelity of the images show that it’s possible to distinguish between different types of low-observable aircraft, even if the aircraft are low-observable. This could be relevant to naval planners as more countries adopt both land-based and carrier-based fifth-generation fighters.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.
Image: Wikimedia Commons