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A French C-160G "Gabriel" spy plane surveyed the preparations for the Russian "Zapad 21" exercise

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A French C-160G "Gabriel" spy plane surveyed the preparations for the Russian "Zapad 21" exercise

09/09/2021 by Laurent Lagneau

Read the original article in French on

Like every four years, Russian and Belarusian forces will take part in the "Zapad" manoeuvres, organised near the Baltic States and Poland, starting on 10 September.

In 2017, Moscow announced that that year's exercises would involve 12,700 soldiers, below the threshold for international observers to be invited to attend, according to the Vienna Document, adopted under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which provides for the presence of international observers.

However, according to the US Army Commander in Europe, General Ben Hodges, at least 40,000 Russian and Belarusian troops took part at the exercise. "The trick was to compartmentalise Zapad 2017 into a series of smaller exercises. But from a military point of view, they were all connected," the officer explained. Moreover, these manoeuvres consisted of "simulating an attack from Russia against all the Baltic countries".

What about the 2021 edition of Zapad? On September 3rd, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued that "Russia must behave in a predictable and transparent way", especially as "what we have already seen is that the number of troops participating in the exercises far exceeds the announced numbers".

According to the French company Preligens, which offers artificial intelligence solutions for the intelligence world, Zapad 21 is expected to mobilise a total of 200,000 soldiers, 80 aircraft, 300 tanks, more than 10 ships and up to 800 armoured vehicles. "Each time the ZAPAD exercise is held, tensions between the Moscow-Minsk axis and the neighbouring countries, especially the Baltic States, increase significantly. This year again, these tensions, leading to a dynamic of escalation, should mobilise the international community," it believes.

While waiting for their launch, these manoeuvres are obviously attracting the interest of some NATO members and neighbouring countries. According to air traffic monitoring sites, several intelligence aircraft were on patrol near the area where Zapad 21 will take place on 7 September.

The Swedish Air Force sent a Saab S-100 Argus [radar watch and reconnaissance] and a Gulfstream S-102 Korpen [electronic intelligence], the latter focused on an area off the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

The US Air Force sent an RC-135U Combat Sent, whose mission is to collect data on radar systems. Like the Swedish S-120, it flew mainly in the vicinity of Kaliningrad. The German Navy sent a P3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft to the same area.

Finally, one of the two Transall C-160G 'Gabriel' of the 1/54 'Dunkerque' Airborne Electronics Squadron [the F221] also operated. But, unlike the other aircraft, it made loops between Estonia and the Gulf of Finland. He was particularly interested in the Pskov area, where a part of Zapad 21 should take place.

Without going into too much detail, the C-160G Gabriel is equipped with the EPICEA listening system, electromagnetic intelligence gathering systems, four antennas and two OMERA-51 cameras.

[*] Preligens offers a follow-up of Zapad 21 manoeuvres

Photo © Sirpa Air

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