The cluster of dots on the Atlantique 2’s screens may seem like a confusing mess to the untrained eye, but not to the crew of the French naval surveillance aircraft tasked with telling friend from foe in the Baltic Sea.”Another tarantula,” says an operator as the Russian corvette of the Tarantul class becomes visible, travelling in a pack with other Russian vessels as several nearby NATO ships also criss-cross the placid northeastern European sea.
“It’s busy down there,” the soldier observes.
France’s Atlantique 2 aircraft, in service since the 1980s to detect surface vessels and submarines, has been dispatched to track Russian and Russia-friendly ships, a task that became key after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The patrol aircraf took off from Brittany, western France, early in the morning and stopped over in Germany before heading north to scour much of the Baltic, now a strategic focal point for Western and Russian forces.
Once the aircraft passes the island of Ruegen — where work for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany was abruptly frozen — the eyes of the 14-strong crew (12 men and two women) become focused.
The plane’s most senior officer Lieutenant Commander Guillaume — who according to French military tradition gives only his first name — gives the order for the radar’s protective shell to emerge from the plane’s hull.
The equipment may look old-fashioned, but it is full of state-of-the-art technology.
The sea is calm and the weather clear, but frantic action is visible in a zone, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) wide, between the Swedish and Polish coastlines.
“We have to be able to rapidly distinguish between friendly, neutral and suspicious vessels so our forces can find the best navigation path,” said Guillaume.
The flurry of activity coincides with the end of the annual NATO military exercise BALTOPS, which the Russians responded to with manoeuvres of their own.
Both undertakings demonstrate a determination on both sides not to give up any areas, even if it means sending huge numbers of warships into the Baltic where they co-exist with countless merchant ships and pleasure boats.
A well-rehearsed procedure kicks off. Radar operator Chief Petty Officer Maxime watches the signals, known as “tracks”.