WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence experts say Soviet Aeroflot airliners regularly carry out spying duties such as overhead photography and monitoring radar signals, and other national airlines do the same thing.
The Civil Aeronautics Board banned Aeroflot from flying to the United States for one week, beginning Saturday, because two flights had deviated from their regular off-shore routes and had flown over 'the interior of New England.'
An administration source gave a partial list of the defense installations the unauthorized Aeroflot flights passed over or near: Loring Air Force Base, Maine; Groton, Conn., submarine base; Otis AFB, Mass.; Hanscome AFB, Mass.; plus several highly classified electronic installations in the Boston area.
The suspected Aeroflot spying missions took place when the Trident-class submarine USS Ohio was undergoing its early sea trials near Groton.
One defense intelligence expert, Ralph Ostrich of BDM Corp., McLean, Va., believes the timing of the Aeroflot missions was dictated by the knowledge inexperienced U.S. air traffic controllers, training to fill in for the fired strikers, might not be alert enough to catch on.
'It's analagous to a football game,' Ostrich said. 'When a new linebacker comes into the game, the offensive quarterback runs the first play right over him.'
Maj. Gen. George Keegan, retired chief of Air Force intelligence, said, 'We know the Aeroflot planes are equipped with a multitude of intelligence devices, such as cameras, radar detectors, radio receivers and infrared detectors.'
What is collected, said Keegan, is 'fine-grain, high-resolution' information that supplements the much more general long-distance intelligence mosaic picked up by satellites and other means.
Ostrich said the Aeroflot operation has to be considered only part of a worldwide use of civilian transport by the Soviets for intelligence. The greatest quantity, he said, comes from Soviet freighters and trawlers, 'some of which are floating intelligence laboratories.'
The Aeroflot planes the Soviets fly twice a week to the United States are generally Il-76s, which have a plexiglass 'navigator's compartment' in the nose that can be used for high-resolution photography.
Ostrich said one member of the Aeroflot crew, usually the navigator, has the task of switching on the 'black boxes,' which monitor U.S. radar and radio transmissions.
One administration source said electronic intelligence, ELINT in military jargon, is probably more useful than the photographs in pinpointing radar installations for possible use later for jamming or evasion.
The Soviets are not the only ones that use such methods for intelligence collecting.
'The Israelis,' Ostrich said, 'are probably the world's best at it and when they went into Entebbe (Uganda, in the 1976 rescue mission), they knew exactly what they were getting into because they had been flying near that air space for years.
'We do it too,' Ostrich said, 'or at least I hope we do.'
U.S. airliners no longer fly to the Soviet Union. Pan American had the right to it, but gave it up because the Moscow route proved unprofitable.