Russian President Vladimir Putin said rather unexpectedly during his visit to Finland in early July that he is willing to discuss switching on the transponders of Russian warplanes flying over the Baltic Sea that would render the former visible to civilian aircraft. People breathed a sigh of relief in Estonia and elsewhere and wondered why it took Moscow so long to arrive at the rather sensible idea. It now turns out, however, that Russian military aircraft do not have transponders.
The problem of Russian warplanes flying over the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland to which civilian radars are «blind» has become serious in the past two-three years. While Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland would not pose a major threat in terms of security as such, there exists the risk of collisions with civilian airliners that simply cannot see the warplanes on their radars.
Even though civilian and military planes usually fly in different corridors and at different altitudes, several cases have been documented where Russian warplanes have, probably by accident, strayed dangerously close to civilian planes over the Baltic Sea. The Estonian foreign ministry has emphasized in corresponding diplomatic notes that Russian planes that violate the Estonian airspace always do so with their transponders switched off.
It is important to note that warplanes with transponders switched off are only invisible to civilian aviation. Military radars, including the ones in Estonia, can spot all aircraft, irrespective of the power state of transponders.
Let it be settled
So it came as good news when President Putin ordered Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu to fix the transponderless flights problem after meeting with his Finnish colleague Sauli Niinistö.
One of Estonia's leading Russia experts, Kadri Liik, wrote on the pages of Postimees that things often start moving in Russia only after the president pays attention, which is what the Finns managed to achieve this time.
This is all well and good, except for one tiny «however».
Russian warplanes cannot switch on anything to make them visible to civilian air traffic controllers and aircraft. Even if the order comes directly from Putin. Russian military aircraft simply do not have identification devices which civilian aviation refers to as transponders.
The lack of such equipment was confirmed by one of Moscow's better-known independent military experts Pavel Felgenhauer, Hero of the Russian Federation, test pilot Aleksandr Garnayev, and a Russian officer who chose to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to give comments to the media.
What is not there, is not there
Modern identification devices on passenger aircraft, or transponders, transmit the plane's identifying letters and/or numbers, call sign, the transponder's serial number, altitude, air speed, and heading, as well as GPS coordinates. The presence of transponders makes the data public and available in addition to pilots and air traffic controllers to everyone with an internet connection.
«No Russian military aircraft, old or new, have anything of the sort on board, nor have they ever,» Felgenhauer told Postimees.
«Transponders are not installed on Russian warplanes,» Garnayev echoed.
Russian military planes are equipped with transmitters that automatically transmit data to Russian military radars. Felgenhauer said that all these transmitters are encoded and operate within a «friend/foe» security system from 1977 called Password. Felgenhauer added, however, that the system is unable to act as a transponder to provide information to civilian aviation. These systems cannot be made «visible» by turning a dial, and their regularly changing keys constitute a strict state secret.
«The system was created in Soviet times and a condition where the entire airspace belonged to the military, in which passenger aircraft could only fly along certain corridors where they would not disturb military aircraft. The logic was that the military could fly where it pleased, meaning there was no need for an identification system,» Felgenhauer said. «The airspace is still owned by the military in modern Russia. Russian civilian air traffic controllers cannot see military aircraft either.»
The word «transponder» is missing entirely from the two main public documents on Russian military aviation: flights regulations, and the navigation service regulations.
«Our aircraft simply cannot switch on transponders when flying over the Baltic Sea,» Felgenhauer summarized.
Defense Minister Shoygu was forced to very cautiously reply that «the ministry is working on technical possibilities» and will launch talks with NATO.
When Reuters reported a dangerous encounter involving a warplane and a passenger airliner in December of 2014, then commander of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev said that Russian and NATO practice does not prescribe the use of transponders.
Former commander of the air forces of Russia's Baltic Fleet Viktor Sokerin has said that there is no international agreement governing the use of transponders on military aircraft. «Back in the day we had to comply with Lithuania's demand to fit three An-26 military transport planes with transponders as they were regularly flying (from Kaliningrad) over Lithuania to Russia,» Sokerin said.
This spring, Russian portal Vzglyad published an interesting interview with a former Russian military pilot who had been a part of the air forces brass and preferred to remain anonymous. He talked openly about strategic bombers with the ability to carry nuclear weapons «flying blind».
«Heavy aircraft, for example missile carriers and bombers Tu-22M, Tu-160, and Tu-95 do not have on-board radars that would help them identify objects in the air. Including equipment that would allow the crew to identify incoming civilian aircraft,» the former pilot said. «The function of these aircraft was to act against ground and sea targets. This means they not only had trouble spotting civilian aircraft, they couldn't even «see» friendly military aircraft when flying missions in 30-plane regiments.»
Information available to Felgenhauer suggests Americans, whose planes now frequently fly at high speeds in the busy skies over the Baltic Sea, have the means to make their aircraft visible to passenger traffic. While their identification system is of course encoded and normally visible only to military radars, it allows pilots to render the planes visible also to civilian radars.
We can only guess at Putin's motivation behind addressing the transponder problem and giving orders that cannot be followed. Was it a spur of the moment impulse after meeting with the Finnish president, a safe topic to display good will while not giving ground to the West? Or had he been given false information concerning transponders? Or perhaps it was a willing lie to test the reactions of Baltic Sea states? Especially considering the rather pointless invitation extended to these countries to come discuss the matter in Moscow that followed.