On board Atlantic 2 above the Baltic Sea (AFP), June 22 – The cluster of dots on the screens of the Atlantique 2 may seem like a confusing mess to the untrained eye, but not to the crew of the French naval surveillance plane tasked with telling friend from foe in the sea. Baltic.
“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 ply the placid sea northeast of Europe.
“It’s busy over there,” observes the soldier.
The French Atlantique 2 aircraft, in service since the 1980s to detect surface ships and submarines, was sent to track Russian and friendly Russian vessels, a task which became essential after the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin.
– ‘Distinguish quickly’ –
The patrol plane took off from Brittany, western France, early in the morning and stopped over in Germany before heading north to cover much of the Baltic, now a strategic focal point for the Western and Russian forces.
Once the plane passed the island of Ruegen – where work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was abruptly frozen – the eyes of the 14-man crew (12 men and two women) concentrate.
The plane’s highest-ranking officer, Lieutenant-Commander Guillaume – who, according to French military tradition, gives only his first name – gives the order to have the protective shell of the radar removed from the hull of the aircraft. ‘plane.
The equipment may seem old-fashioned, but it’s packed with cutting-edge technology.
The sea is calm and the weather clear, but frantic action is visible in an area about 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide between the Swedish and Polish coasts.
“We need to be able to quickly distinguish between friendly, neutral and suspect ships so that our forces can find the best shipping lane,” Guillaume said.
French forces are under orders to avoid flying too close to certain coastal waters and Russian ships to avoid escalation, or entering potential danger areas where countries bordering the Baltic may have reported military activity.
– ‘A strange crane’ –
The flurry of activity coincides with the end of the annual NATO military exercise BALTOPS, to which the Russians have responded with their own maneuvers.
The two companies testify to a desire on both sides not to cede any zone, even if it means massively sending warships to the Baltic where they coexist with innumerable merchant ships and pleasure boats.
A well-established procedure begins. Radarist Chief Petty Officer Maxime monitors the signals, called “traces”.
Next to Maxime sits Lieutenant Alain, the tactical coordinator known as “Tacco”, who identifies the tracks which, according to him, require closer observation, such as the tracks of ships that do not activate their automatic identification system ( AIS), mandatory for civilians. ships.
Alain shares his observations with Chief Petty Officer Christopher, on his right, who operates the Wescam camera placed at the bottom of the plane and which gives a detailed image of targets even tens of kilometers away.
Finally, Christopher and NCOs Roxane and Nicolas frantically check various databases in hopes of correctly identifying the ship.
“It has a weird crane near the bow,” Christopher explains as he zooms in on a ship that caught their eye despite its civilian appearance at first glance.
“Actually, it’s a Moma class,” Roxane replies, confirming that it’s a Russian water surveillance vessel suspected of gathering intelligence. It quickly gets an AXRU tag on the Situation Screen, an acronym for Russian Auxiliary Ship.
Acronyms abound: DDG UK, PBF LT, MLE FI and FFL SE designate British, Lithuanian, Finnish and Swedish ships.
– ‘Pretty crowded’ –
The Russians are marked in red, like the Tarantul or Parchim class corvettes identified on this flight.
As soon as the Atlantique 2 flies over a calmer section, the Tacco hands over its notes to the first master Romain.
The latter is in charge of electronic warfare and communications and transmits the observations of the aircraft via a dedicated chat system to the French and NATO command centers. A full report can await their return.
“This small space has become quite crowded, which shows how much everyone cares about everyone,” says Lieutenant Henri over the noise of the plane.
It was in the Baltic that the Russian attack of February 24 caused rapid geopolitical change.
Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO which, if successful, will further isolate Russia in the Baltic that Moscow needs to access the world’s oceans.
“The Baltic will actually become a NATO lake,” said Robert Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency FOI.
Sweden’s membership in particular would remove a factor of uncertainty, he told AFP, “because the Baltic countries could not be sure how Sweden would act in the event of a crisis”.
The plane changes direction to fly near the forbidden zone of Kaliningrad to catch a glimpse of military activity in the highly militarized enclave, then heads north.
Having arrived at the latitude of Riga, the plane turned around and checked one last time for Russian ships in the southern zone before returning home.
The day’s work? Nearly 7,000 kilometers of flight and a dozen Russian ships listed including, to the delight of the crew, the astonishing sailing school Sedov, the largest sailing ship in the world still in operation.