The Russians use the aircraft today to monitor U.S. nuclear weapons as part of arms control agreements between both countries. The Russian planes, according to U.S. officials involved in the dispute, contain a new sensor package that would allow Moscow to surveil American nuclear assets with a level of precision and detail that makes U.S. military and intelligence leaders deeply uncomfortable.
A letter first published by the Weekly Standard on April 13 from two Republican and two Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said the Russian Federation had just completed construction of aircraft that will “support digital photograph equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared equipment.”
A U.S. official familiar with the dispute and sympathetic to the concerns of the military and intelligence community told The Daily Beast that the worry over the new Russian aircraft is independent of the standoff in Ukraine. “This would have been an issue even if there was no Ukraine crisis,” this official said.