RC-135 Surveillance Jet Flies Unprecedented Mission Over Moldova

A U.K. Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint today conducted a very unusual sortie inside Moldovan airspace, while other surveillance aircraft patrolled on the Romanian side of the border. These flights are very likely connected with the European Political Community (EPC) Summit in Moldova, which involves 47 heads of state and government, and comes as the country becomes one of the latest to receive European Union candidate status.

At the same time, Moldova, a small nation located between Romania and Ukraine, has found itself increasingly trapped in a war of words between Moscow and Kyiv since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Online flight-tracking websites caught the RC-135W, which has the serial number ZZ664 and was using the callsign RRR7201 at the time, departing RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom earlier today. The aircraft then flew east over the English Channel, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, before continuing over Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, thereafter finally crossing the border into Moldova. Once there, it began to fly racetrack patterns along the Moldovan side of the border, with the capital, Chisinau, falling roughly in the middle of this pattern, albeit further to the east. The EPC Summit is taking place at Mimi Castle, southeast of Chisinau.

The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, which serves with the U.S. Air Force as well as the Royal Air Force, is a highly capable signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform.

A variety of onboard sensors allow the Rivet Joint to hoover up communications emissions, as well as gather details about air defense radars and other signal emitters, and pinpoint locations. Perhaps most relevant to the mission over Moldova today, the Rivet Joint can intercept communications, which can then be processed and analyzed by onboard linguists fluent in relevant languages. These aircraft also play an important role in generating “electronic orders of battle,” which detail potentially hostile capabilities in a certain area.

A graphic offering a general overview of an RC-135V/W aircraft's internal layout, crew composition, and capabilities. <em>USAF</em>” title=”A graphic offering a general overview of an RC-135V/W aircraft’s internal layout, crew composition, and capabilities. <em>USAF</em>“/><figcaption class=A graphic offering a general overview of an RC-135V/W aircraft’s internal layout, crew composition, and capabilities. U.S. Air Force

As well as the RAF RC-135W, other NATO surveillance aircraft have been active today on the Romanian side of the border, including a U.S. Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint, serial number 64-14846, with the callsign JAKE 17, and a NATO E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, with the callsign NATO 03.

Keeping an eye on what was going on in Moldova during this high-profile meeting, as well as potential threats emanating from beyond the country’s borders, would have been an important task for these different ISR aircraft, with the E-3 on hand to provide airspace surveillance.

At the center of the EPC Summit is Moldova’s possible entry into the EU. In June last year, EU leaders granted candidate status to both Moldova and Ukraine, in a move that was widely seen as signaling support to both these countries as they face different pressures from Moscow.

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, (center) poses with fellow European leaders for a photo ahead of the European Political Community (EPC) Summit near Chisinau, Moldova, on June 1, 2023. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

While Ukraine has been fighting to drive invading Russian forces out of its territory, Moldova faces a problem of a different kind.

Moldova is the second poorest country in Europe and its leaders have grown increasingly concerned that it could be the next target of Russian aggression, especially if Moscow’s forces prevail over Ukraine.

A key flashpoint in Moldova is the pro-Russian region of Transnistria — also known as Trans-Dniester — located between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border. Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1990.

Although its claims of independent status are barely recognized internationally, Transnistria has since received economic and military support from Moscow, including around 1,500 Russian ‘peacekeeping’ soldiers stationed on Transnistrian soil.

Since Brussels has expressed its willingness to admit Moldova into the EU, the tensions in the country have only increased, fueled by the war in neighboring Ukraine and by Chisinau increasingly moving into a pro-Western orbit.

Moldova's location in the region. <em>Google Maps</em>” title=”Moldova’s location in the region. <em>Google Maps</em>“/><figcaption class=Moldova’s location in the region. Google Maps

Simultaneous with the EPC Summit, material support is also being provided to Moldova by EU allies. Today, Mariusz Kamiński, the Polish Minister of Interior and Administration, announced that his country was supplying a “huge shipment” of weapons, ammunition, and equipment to the Moldovan Police, transported in two Polish Air Force C-130 Hercules and four C295 transport aircraft.

Earlier this year, the Kremlin declared that it was worried about the situation in Transnistria and has begun to push the narrative that Ukraine is poised to make a military move against the region, without any evidence to back those claims.

The Kremlin has also accused Ukraine and its European allies of stirring up the situation in TransnistriaAs the rhetoric has ramped up, Moscow has also reiterated that any attack on Russian troops in Transnistria would be considered an attack on Russia itself.

Transnistria — officially, Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) — troops cross the street in Tiraspol, Moldova. Photo by Sander de Wilde/Corbis via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Moldova has continued to express its concerns about Russia’s ambitions for the republic, with the country’s pro-European president, Maia Sandu, earlier this year accusing Moscow of plotting a coup against her government.

This was not the first claim of its kind from President Sandu, who also accused Moscow of attempting to take control of her country’s government, last fall. Sandu said that local security forces prevented a Russian attempt to seize control of the country, in which pro-Moscow factions were using protests about rising energy prices to bring down the government.

Moldova has also experienced more tangible examples of fallout from the war in Ukraine, including an incident last December when a missile component landed on its territory. Local authorities said they found the component in an orchard about a mile and a half from Ukraine and there were reports that it was identified as part of an S-300 air defense missile. However, it was not immediately clear whether it had come from a Russian missile used against Ukraine in a surface-to-surface capacity, or a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile that had been fired against a Russian weapon.

The previous October, there were also reports of at least three Russian missiles flying over the territory of Moldovaaccording to Ukrainian Pravda.

Moldova has also been affected by Russian missile attacks on Ukraine that have disrupted the Ukrainian power grid, to which it is linked.

All in all, Moldova’s situation is highly complex. Not only lying in the sometimes physical crossfire of the war in Ukraine, it has also become an increasingly important factor in the war of words between Kyiv and Moscow, while local authorities continue to fear that it, too, could become a target of Russian aggression. Molodva’s road to EU membership, should that come to pass, will also be a complicated one and is only likely to draw more ire from Russia. With that in mind, this may well not be the last time we see an RC-135, or other NATO surveillance asset, patrolling Moldovan airspace.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com