Above the Russian tarantulas of the Baltic

“Ah, another tarantula!”: On the screens of the operators lined up in the cabin of the Atlantic 2 appears the silhouette of the Russian Tarentul-class corvette, which sails in concert with its sisters among many NATO buildings in the Baltic, under the eye of the French Navy aircraft.

“It’s teeming”, continues the soldier, while the proliferation of signals proves that the objective of the mission of the maritime patrol, “to locate vessels of Russian interest”, will be fulfilled.

The plane took off early Thursday morning from the Lann-Bihoué naval air base in Brittany, and after a stopover in Germany at Nordholz, headed north to cross much of this strategic sea for Russians and Westerners and where the balance has just been upset by the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

Barely past the town of Sassnitz, on the island of Rugen, site of the famous Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, now frozen, concentration seizes the faces of the 14 soldiers, 12 men and two women, who form the crew of the 21F flotilla aircraft.

On an order from the captain, Lieutenant Commander Guillaume, the radome that houses the radar emerges from the bowels of the twin-engine propeller with its retro silhouette but stuffed with the latest equipment.

Even if the sea is calm and the weather is mild, there is excitement in a small area of ​​about thirty nautical miles in radius (just over 50 kilometers) between Sweden and Poland.

You have to “quickly classify friendly / neutral / suspicious buildings in order to be able to clear your way”, explains the captain. Indeed, the instructions prohibit both entering certain territorial waters, flying too close to Russian buildings to avoid escalation, and entering certain potentially dangerous areas where specific military activities are taking place, announced upstream by the countries. residents.

This agitation coincides with the end of the NATO Baltops exercise on Friday, and the one the Russians launched to give them back their own coin. It is an illustration of the stakes of this sea: not to give way and to navigate many warships which gauge themselves in the middle of the very many merchant ships and pleasure sailboats.

– Well-oiled mechanics –

Well-oiled machinery gets underway in the plane. The radar operator, Chief Petty Officer Maxime, picks up the signals, the “tracks”.

Sitting right next to it, the tactical coordinator, the Tacco, Lieutenant Alain, the real leader of this orchestra in sand-colored flight suits, selects those that interest him. For example, he targets the tracks of ships that have not activated their automatic identification system (AIS, mandatory for civilians) and points them out to the camera operator on his right, Chief Petty Officer Christopher.

He directs the Wescam, another protuberance under the device. It allows you to see clearly for tens of kilometers. Then, with his two colleagues in charge of detection, the masters Roxane and Nicolas, they frantically consult their various databases to formally identify the building.

“There’s a weird crane out front,” Chief Petty Officer Christopher notes, zooming in on a civilian-looking building that has puzzled them for several minutes. “Yes, yes, it’s the Moma class!”, replies the master Roxane, who validates the identification of the Russian hydrographic boat (suspected of being used for intelligence gathering). Then the Tacco labels the runway on its “AXRU” tactical situation screen, for Russian auxiliary building.

DDG UK, PBF LT, MLE FI, FFL SE, so many blue acronyms on the screen for Western buildings: British, Lithuanian, Finnish and Swedish. And the Russians are in red, like the many Tarentul or Parchim class corvettes seen today.

-Kaliningrad-

Arrived in a slightly quieter area, the Tacco gives a sheet to the Roman Chief Petty Officer, responsible for electronic warfare and radio. He will sit at the back of the aircraft in front of another console and transmit the main information to the French and NATO armies via a chat system. A complete summary will be made upon return from the mission.

“There are a lot of people in a short space, it shows the interest that each other has,” explains Lieutenant Henri in the din of the plane. Because the Russian attack against Ukraine on February 24 precipitated things here. Sweden and Finland have asked to join the Alliance, which will further isolate Russia, for whom the Baltic is of strategic importance for its access to ocean waters.

The plane maneuvers, turns, skims the proscribed area of ​​Kaliningrad to try to glean information on what is in the port of this highly militarized enclave, then heads back north, where things are calmer.

Arrived approximately at the latitude of Riga, the plane turned around, reviewed the Russian ships in the southern zone, then returned home in the evening after having traveled nearly 7,000 kilometers and identified a dozen Russian ships. , including the Sedov, the magnificent navy school sailboat.

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Above the Russian tarantulas of the Baltic