Platforms like ADSBExchange.com, FlightRadar24.com, and FlightAware.com compile real-time flight information from various sources, including commercial and privately owned sensors, to track the movements of commercial, civilian, and military aircraft across the world operating continuously 24/7.
Global civil aviation authorities initiated the deployment of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) in the early 2000s. ADS-B comprises transponders installed on aircraft, transmitting real-time data such as the aircraft’s position, velocity, heading, and a distinct transponder code assigned to each plane. This data, displayed on a map, enables pilots and ground controllers to swiftly comprehend their immediate airspace conditions, covering vast areas worldwide.
ADS-B Exchange combines ADS-B data with publicly available information concerning military and civilian aircraft on a global scale. Individual aircraft are charted onto OpenStreetMap, utilizing color-coded icons denoting altitude, spanning from smaller aircraft like autogyros and Cessna 182s to colossal planes such as Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s.
Military aircraft, including U-2s, KC-135 Stratotankers, and C-17 Globemaster IIIs, are represented as well, though fighter jets generally feature a more generic icon. Clicking on these icons provides detailed spatial data, including ground speed, altitude, location, and ADS-B signal strength. Additionally, it offers aircraft registration details, and country of registration, and often includes a photograph or thumbnail of the aircraft.
The Pentagon has agreements in place with the FAA and other international air navigation service providers to turn off ADS-B when it is deemed necessary. But to help facilitate the safe and efficient movement of air traffic, U.S. military aircraft routinely transmit via ADS-B and other transponder types.
Here’s how you can track military aircraft in FlightRadar24:
Military aircraft regularly broadcast their ADS-B data but maintain the option to disable it when necessary. The Pentagon acknowledges that aviation enthusiasts and potential adversaries monitor ADS-B data, leading to instances where aircraft abruptly vanish from tracking systems.
The tracking of military aircraft online through ADS-B data not only offers insights into their movements but also raises pertinent considerations about transparency in operational activities. This accessible data presents both enthusiasts and observers with a unique vantage point into the otherwise discreet domain of military aviation.
A high-ranking Pentagon official recently stated that the increasing accessibility of publicly available flight tracking data poses a challenge for the U.S. military.
“The Department of Defense considers open-source flight tracking and data aggregation on our aircraft a direct threat to our ability to conduct military air operations around the world,” the Air Force said in a statement responding to National Defense’s questions. It cited a “senior Defense Department aviation policy expert,” who it declined to name.
The Pentagon aviation policy expert said operational security is always a top priority. “DoD carefully monitors” open source flight tracking, “taking it into account when planning and exercising military operations. This topic is a top priority during frequent discussions across military and civilian aviation organizations on a daily basis.”
However, the Defense Department has never contacted ADSBExchange.com, said the site’s president and founder Dan Streufert. The U.S.-based outlet has been in operation since 2016 and reveals as much live data on U.S. military aircraft globally as any flight tracking website.