Top military aviation stories of 2011: drones up and downs, stealth projects exposed and Libya's 7-month-long war.

Dec 28 2011 - 4 Comments

Update, Dec. 28 21.35 GMT

A quick look at the main events and news I’ve covered on this blog during 2011 helped me to identify the topics that can be used to characterize the year that is coming to an end.

Before I start, please let me spend a few words about this blog.

Articles on these subjects, along with many more blog posts for a total of 231 articles in the last year only, were read on average by more than 3,200 daily unique visitors worth +1,200,000 unique visitors from all around the world in 2011!

Thank you all for reading my articles (not only on the website but also on “traditional” magazines) and for you continuous support. The impressive amount of visitors and their demand for both updates and the usual professional analysis of the most important aviation and defense news  will probably lead me to seek the help of some additional writer….

“Libya Air War”, “F-22 grounding”, “Stealth Black Hawk down”, “Captured RQ-170 drone in Iran”: these are the headlines that more than any other have may have changed the perception of military aviation we had at the beginning of the year; an year that has sent us some interesting “messages”:

There’s an increasing need for drones. Robots are cheaper than conventional planes (as their hourly cost is about a fifth the cost of a manned plane), expendable, persistent and effective, especially in Libya-like scenarios  (read below for more info on this subject…) where they do not face hi-altitude anti-aircraft missiles. They are not only useful in combat, they are also used to perform reconnaissance and surveillance in areas hit by natural calamities or along the borders for national security purposes. That’s why air forces and other operators have drones on the top of their shopping lists.

Drones are vulnerable. The virus that infected the Predators’ Ground Control Station has demonstrated that even the most important assets, those that are isolated and not interconnected to public networks, are not immune to the same malware that travels on the web. But, as we have learnt with the recent capture of the stealthy Sentinel drone in Iran, combat robots face also many known threats to their Position, Navigation and Guidance system, such as jamming and spoofing, even thought it still not clear whether the CIA-operated “Beast of Kandahar” currently in Iranian hands (that could possibly study it to reverse-engineer its on board systems) crash landed some 250 km from the Afghan border for a complex cyber attack or (most likely) because of a technical glitch.

Drones are remotely controlled by humans. Hence, they often fall becaused of pilot errors. In fact,  although their pilots don’t risk their lives they lack some motion-induced feelings that manned platform pilots have and can react to quickly. Furthermore, airmen who remotely fly attack drones have been experiencing emotional stress caused from long hours of work and ever-increasing workloads to such an extent that there are many on the edge of mental illnesses.

Black projects and advanced stealth tech are not only speculation: the existence of a Stealth Black Hawk helicopter whose designation is not MH-X (and most probably of a Stealth Chinook too), was exposed in May 2011 by the first images that circulated on the Internet of the tail part of one of the helicopters involved in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, at Abbottabad, Pakistan. Black projects, supposed to remain secret, are now a reality and they not only live in conspiracy theories and rumors. They exist and take part in special operations “behind the enemy lines”.

Advanced stealth tech is not only U.S. stuff: with the “epic fail” of the RQ-170 and the Stealth Black Hawk’s tail survived to the destruction, chunks of stealth tech and an entire once secret drone are in the hands of some of the worst U.S. friends/enemies: Pakistan, Iran, China and maybe Russia. Probably, not a big deal. Surely, a leap forward in their knowledge of American wartech.

It was a tough year for Lockheed Martin’s stealths. Targeted also by the Iranian satire for losing a CIA drone, LM has had a bitter year, that was made a little sweeter by the decision of the Japan’s Ministry of Defense to select the costly and troubled stealthy F-35 as the future fighter of the JASDF. The F-22 fleet was grounded for four months since May, after an accident a worrying series of disorientation and hypoxia-like syntoms complained by 14 pilots. In spite the root cause of the air-deprivation episodes was not fully identified, and the on board oxygen system was under suspiction before pilot error was blamed for a Raptor crash in Alaska, the next generation fighter plane, believed to be able to face outnumbering Chinese fighters in the future, returned to normal activity at the end of October and will be next year’s only single-ship demo team of the U.S. Air Combat Command.

War against Iran is already started. Even if some observers think that the U.S. is on the verge of a conflict with Iran after Tehran’s regime threatened to stop ships moving through the Strait of Hormuz, a covert war on Iran’s nuclear program, involving computer viruses, drones and PSYOPS is already in progress.

Wars can come unannounced and air forces can’t be found unprepared for that. The air campaign in Libya from March to October 2011 eventually led to the declaration of the full liberation of the country by the National Transitional Council but the way it was planned and executed by a coalition of NATO and non-NATO members has raised many questions. From various reasons, Operation Unified Protector  seemed more an opportunity to promote specific air forces and their weapon systems rather than a means to achieve a clear military objective.

For this reason it lasted much more than expected, in spite of the total lack of threat posed by the Libyan Arab Air Force and the extensive use of  legacy as well as brand new technologies, including drones, new generation fighters and EW assets, stealth bombers on Global Power missions and cruise missiles.

Indeed, beyond the marketing slogans of the manufacturers, eager to put their products under the spotlight, and the statements of the high rank officers of some services involved in the air campaign (often with the only task of performing endless orbits above the desert to wait for an enemy fighter that never showed up), Operation Unified Protector was an example of how the Air Power should not be used.

So, which were the “lessons identified” in Libya by coalition members that will hopefully become “learned” in the next few years?

1) The need for more drones to perform ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) as well as strike missions.

2) The need for more tankers: along with 80% of all the special operations planes (RC-135s, U-2s, E-8 Joint Stars, EC-130Js providing Electronic Warfare, SIGINT, PSYOPS, etc.) more than any bomber, the real added value of Washington’s contribution to the Operation Unified Protector were the obsolete KC-135s and KC-10s which offloaded million pounds of fuel to the allied planes.

3) The need for more bombs in stock: many air forces involved in the air strikes ran short of bombs after the first 90 days of the war.

4) The need for light bombs that can prevent collateral damages. Even if the Paveways and the French AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire  – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) performed well, the war reinforced the need for lighter weapons as the dual-mode Brimstones, small guided missiles with a range of 7.5 miles, a millimeter wave radar seeker, a semi-active laser (SAL) that enables final guidance to the target by either the launching platform or another plane, that proved to be perfect for small targets, individuals and fast-moving vehicles.

4) The need for low-cost combat planes: even if the multi-role Eurofighter Typhoon and the “omnirole” Dassault Rafale were at the forefront before, during and after the war because they were shortlisted in the India’s Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft “mother of all tenders”, the war in Libya reinforced the need for cheaper planes (as the Italian AMX) to contain the cost of prolonged operations.

Above image courtesy of Nicola Ruffino

5) Helicopters must be used in combat within strike packages, i.e. the French way.

British Apaches on board HMS Ocean flew in pairs and completed roughly 25 combat sorties striking 100 targets in the coastal areas of Brega and Tripoli. Another 40 missions were cancelled due to insufficient intelligence information and the residual threat posed by Libyan anti-aircraft systems.

On the other side, French combat helicopters flew within strike packages and conducted 90% of NATO helicopter strikes in Libya destroying more than 600 targets, including what was left of Gaddafi’s armored and mechanized forces. French helicopters were crucial to the successful take of Tripoli and the final victory.

Back to the UK’s AH-64s embarked operations exposed several shortcomings of the Apache, such as the  need for both a floating device and a new canopy jettison system that could improve the crew’s survival probability in the event of ditching.

6) As happened in Serbia, an air campaign must focus on a quick achievement of the air superiority and a subsequent intense use of the air power against the ground targets. The way the air campaign was conducted and planned in Libya, contributed to transform what could have been a quick victory into an almost deadlocked battlefield: during the whole operation, no more than 100 air strike sorties were launched on a single day, with the daily average of 45.

By comparison, during Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, on average, 487 sorties were launched each day, 180 being strike sorties, even if in the opening stages of the war and towards the end (when the air strikes against the Serbian ground forces became more intense), the alliance flew more than 700 daily sorties with roughly one third being bombing missions. A modern war  in such a low-risk scenario is always an opportunity for air forces to show their capabilities, to test their most modern equipment in a real environment and to fire live ordnance.

Successful results during the Libyan air war have given them the opportunity to request the budget needed to save some planes from defense cuts and the RAF Sentinel R1 saga’s happy ending can be considered a confirmation of this.

However, some sorties led to some curious or rather embarrassing episodes, like the French Tiger that landed on a beach to pick up a Free Libya flag,  the alleged air-to-air kill of Libyan combat planes that were grounded and unserviceable, or the very difficult to explain RAF Tornado’s Storm Shadow missions from the UK.

As mysterious as the real shape of the Stealth Black Hawk.

Other interesting 2011 topics (based on pageviews)

Utøya island attack: another example of news helicopters faster to the scene than police choppers

Blue Angels’ almost crash: the risk of Controlled Flight Into Terrain during formation aerobatics

After the Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa crazy flyby the Argentine AF A-4AR’s fuel tank disintegrating after a high-G maneuver….

NATO Tiger Meet 2011: a real exercise with some interesting “hardware” rather than a gathering of friends

  • http://aviadoresdelacruzdelsur.blogspot.com/ Anibal Baranek

    I started reading your blog since the crisis in Libia and have been following you since. Most of the stuff you published was very interesting and always a joy to read.
    Looking forward to reading you on 2012.
    Have a great year!
    Anibal
    (from Argentina)

  • bjoern holst jespersen

    Happy New Year David

    Your insights during the Libyan uprising was great. And also thanks for giving the oppertunety to share my thoughts on the “Stealths incidents”.

    All the best from Bjørn (Denmark)

  • nico

    I am a new reader, think wonders of your site. Looking forward to all the events upcoming in 2012.

    Happy New year 2012 David!

  • http://theaviationist.com/ David Cenciotti

    I’d like to thank you all for your support and contribution.

    Many readers send me comments and emails, with useful information, head ups etc.

    Then, I’m just keen and curious enough to publish things I know I would be interested too if I was a reader.