Tag Archives: Aeronautica Militare

We have flown one of the world’s most advanced jet trainers: the M-346 of the Italian Air Force

Chosen by Italy, Israel, Poland and Singapore to prepare their pilots to the 4th and 5th Gen. fighter jets, the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master” is considered one the world’s most advanced jet trainers.

The never-ending evolution of the front-line warplanes that operate in a hi-tech battlefield with new generation avionics, PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), EW (Electronic Warfare) suites and several hi-tech sensors, has called for the redesign of the training syllabus: rather than learning to fly fast jets, at a certain point of their training process, student pilots are required to become proficient at employing modern weapons systems in complex missions, in high-threat/high performance environments.

M-346 8

The Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master” is a dual-engine LIFT (Lead-In to Fighter Trainer) jet selected by Italy, Poland, Israel and Singapore for advanced pre-operative training, the latest stage of a fighter pilot training, which aims to develop the information management and aircraft handling skills of future pilots before they are assigned to the OCUs (Operational Conversion Units).

The “Master” couples cutting edge equipment with impressive performance for a plane of its type: the jet features a high thrust-to-weight ratio, supersonic speed at high altitude, and a maneuverability similar to those of the leading combat aircraft. It is equipped with a HUD (Head Up Display), HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick), VCI (Vocal Control Inputs), and a Helmet Mounted Display system built around a lightweight HGU-55P helmet, with a night module that can to be fitted to the standard NVG eyepiece kit that works by overlaying the HMD symbology to that of the NVG imagery. In other words, it is equipped with all the “accessories” pilots can find in the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F/A-18 Hornet, the Dassault Rafale or the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

M-346 6

Furthermore, the M-346 can replicate the capabilities of the frontline aircraft in challenging tactical scenarios: the pilots can learn to use the radar, drop LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) on moving ground targets designated through an Advanced Targeting Pod, and shoot radar-guided enemy planes in dissimilar air combat, even if the plane is not equipped with any of these systems: while interacting with the other aircraft or ground stations via datalink, the on-board computer generates the required HUD and radar symbology, offers a different weapons load out, in accordance with the training needs of the mission. The real-time mission monitor can even inject new allied and enemy planes into the system via Link 16, so that the threats will show up in the radar and on the HUD. This means, a flight of two M-346 in the air can perform a simulated intercept on a “virtual” enemy plane or attack a convoy on the ground generated by an IP (Instructor Pilot) on the ground.

M-346 1

Needless to say, along with the training mission, such a plane can be used for operational roles, thanks to Electronic Warfare System Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) and a Chaff & Flare (C&F) dispensing sub-system and to seven hardpoints that enable the aircraft to carry a wide variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, including the AIM-9L and IRIS-T air-to-air missiles, a 12,7 mm Gun Pod, and BRD (Bomb Rocket Dispensers).

The aircraft is so advanced that it is considered one of the best candidates for the T-X program, to replace the U.S. Air Force Northrop T-38 Talon, even though the future of the T-100, the T-38 replacement offering based on the M-346, is unclear after General Dynamics has withdrawn itself as the prime contractor for the bid.

M-346 2

Recently we had the unique opportunity to take part in a training mission from the back seat of an Italian Air Force M-346 “Master”. And we did it from Lecce Galatina airbase, in southeastern Italy, home of the 61° Stormo (Wing), where Italian and international aircrews are trained, by far considered one the best candidates to become the European Air Training Center, a multinational flight school responsible for the training of allied pilots in accordance with NATO’s “pooling & sharing” concept: share the best assets in order to save money.

M-346 7

Four T-346A jets (as the M-346 is designated in accordance with the Mission Design Series of the Italian Air Force) are assigned to the 212° Gruppo (Squadron), one of the three squadrons (the other ones being the 213° and the 214° GIP) of the 61° Stormo. The task of the 212° Gruppo is to provide a training tailored to the needs of the frontline squadrons. “The courses delivered here at Galatina on the T-346A aim to bring the student pilots to the skill set required by the three Italian Air Force OCUs: the 101° OCU for the AMX, at Istrana; the 102° for the Tornado, at Ghedi; and the 20° for the Eurofighter, at Grosseto,” says Col. Paolo Tarantino, commander of the 61° Stormo.

“With the M-346, the training syllabus can be split into ground and air segment: half of the flight hours are flown in extremely realistic simulators and the remaining half is flown on the actual plane. Furthermore, the induction of a new trainer with an in-flight sensor and scenario simulation can “download” forefront combat planes’ workload to less expensive but highly advanced trainers with a significant cost reduction.”

M-346 break

On Apr. 16 this Author had the opportunity to be the first journalist to fly in the ItAF T-346A and here’s a brief report of the mission.

“Dragon formation”

It’s Apr. 15 and I’m on the backseat of one of the four T-346A already assigned to the Italian Air Force.

In the front seat, currently talking on the radio, there’s Maj. Alessandro Olivares, commander of the 212° Gruppo, an IP with 2,500 flight hours and a wide experience in real operations flying the Tornado fighter bomber. In front of us, there are two T-346As waiting for the clearance to line up on the runway: the plan is to take off in sequence, rejoin and proceed to a working airspace located off the coast to the southwest of Lecce. Once in the area, we will split from the other two 346s and work a bit on the air-to-air mode to shoot some (virtual missiles) against them.

The cockpit is quite large, with a HUD in front of me showing the relevant flight parameters, radio channel, distance from the selected bullseye, attitude indicator and any other information required to fly the plane while looking outside. The front panel includes digital instruments and three MFD (Multi Function Displays) that can be arranged at will, to show the nav menu, the system status, the engine status, the moving map, etc. The visibility is excellent from the backseat.

“Dragon, line up and wait, runway 32”.

Ok, it’s our turn.

We enter the runway and prepare for take off. We complete the run-up bringing the engine power to the 80 percent. The two T-346As start the take off run with a separation of 10 seconds. Once the stopwatch reaches 20 seconds, Olivares brings the throttles to the maximum power and we start rolling as well.

The acceleration is simply impressive; comparable to those of fast jets equipped with afterburner. In 11 seconds we reach 120 knots and rotate. We are airborne.

M-346 11

We soon reach 2,500 feet, at 400 knots and we rejoin with the rest of the formation to head towards the operative area. The position of the two T-346s is clearly shown on the map thanks to the datalink.

M-346 4

We transition to the working area briefly joined by an MB.339A and an MB.339CD, the other two types flown at Lecce, and once on the pre-planned breaking point, we split to work a bit with the radar.

M-346 10

Now the datalink provides the information that the on-board computer translates into a radar picture. We can work on both TWS (Track While Scan) and RWS (Range While Search) radar modes and, using the button on the throttle, select any of the tracks to lock the target.

Using the buttons on the throttle, we can select the scale and aperture of the radar.

High G turn

What is more, the datalink can be used to send encrypted messages or to provide information about the other planes’ configuration: in this case, the two M-346s carry 2 AIM-9L and 4 AIM-120 AMRAAMs.

We select TWS to scan the airspace from ground to 42,000 feet and we lock one of the two distant targets: the HUD symbology reacts accordingly showing the locked “enemy”. Distance to the target, closure speed, missile range are shown until the message “shoot” appears, stating that we are ready to fire our simulated air-to-air missile. After a couple of turns we terminate the engagement and reposition for another one.

Once again, we find the target on the radar, lock it, wait until at the right distance for using the AAM and this time, we shoot a missile. “M346 hit” message appears shortly thereafter on the MFD providing a real-time kill notification.

The aircraft provides the pilot with the same “user experience” as if he was using an APG-80 radar. Awesome.

After some more air-to-air activity, we engage another working area for some free flight, during which Olivares shows me the maneuverability of the plane. The autotrim feature is quite useful, while the way the engines react to the throttle is pretty impressive. I’ve also the opportunity to taste the flight controls and HOTAS to perform some basic maneuvers. A breathtaking 280°/s aileron roll (performed by the pilot in the front seat) ends this part of our flight.

Noteworthy, we make extensive use of the Voice Command (VC), to change radio channels or to squawk “ident” to the Air Traffic Control radar. I can even give it a try: I activate the VC with my left finger on the throttle button and by saying “Radio 2, Channel 19” I instruct the plane to select a new radio frequency.

The VC can be used to know the fuel to bingo (in our case 140 kilograms) or to change the MFD arrangement to show the Map on the central display.

Unfortunately, it’s time to return to the base.

We coordinate with the Approach the exit from the area and head towards the base to fly a straight in approach to runway 32 at Lecce. Once established, with the field in sight, below 250 knots, we extend the landing gear and at 200 kts we lower the flaps.

The final is flown at 120 kts with 8° AOA (Angle Of Attack), following the guidance of the HUD that helps us correcting the wind drift.

After the touchdown at 110 kts, Olivares shows me the aerodynamic braking. The aircraft decelerates to 80 kts and gently lowers the nose.

M-346 touchdown

We have landed after a really interesting 70-minute flight during which we have had a taste of one of about 20-30 air-to-air modes the aircraft can provide.

“Impressive” and “Awesome” are the adjectives that I’ve used the most to describe such an experience. Stay tuned, there is more to say about the T-346A and this flight….

David e Alessandro

The Author wishes to thank the Italian Air Force Press Office, the 61° Stormo and its Commander Col. Paolo Tarantino, and the 212° Gruppo for the support provided in preparing the article. A big thank you to Iolanda Frisina and Alessandro Borsetti who contributed to the report.

 

Impressive video: behind the scenes of world’s largest aerobatic display team. Flying with the Frecce Tricolori 10-ship formation

Even while most people like to attend air shows to see aerobatic display teams performances, they usually don’t know what happens inside the formation, which are the main roles of the team, which are the solo radio calls, and which flight instruments are used during the display.

Last week I was invited to attend the traditional dinner with the pilots of the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Aerobatic Team, organized by the 1° Club Frecce Tricolori, the first of more than 120 fan clubs all around the world, that was born on May 27, 1989 at Pieve di Soligo, in North East Italy.  The event was also interesting because a brand new video, recorded with gopro cameras installed on both the planes, the cockpit and the flight helmets of the Frecce Tricolori,  produced by DeAgostini with the help of the Italian Air Force, was presented for the first time.

Available as a double DVD in a booklet containing information about the team (with excerpts from my official 50th Anniversary book) and stunning pictures, the new video gives a clear idea of what happens behind the scenes of the Italian Air Force’s 50-year old Frecce Tricolori the world’s largest aerobatic display team that can claim credit for five records unmatched by any other aerobatic team in the world.

I’ve seen many Frecce videos, but this one, with 170-minute footage bringing the viewer not only inside the cockpit but also inside the formation in the most unusual attitude, is by far the most interesting and realistic I’ve ever seen.

Here’s a teaser:

For more information about the DVD please visit Aviatorzone.com.

If you want to know something more about the team, here’s some background info for you.

Frecce Tricolori

Based at Rivolto, not far from Udine, in NE Italy, the Frecce Tricolori official designation is 313° Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico (Aerobatic Training Squadron).

The Frecce Tricolori team is equipped with a modified version of the Alenia Aermacchi MB.339A, a single engine tandem seat training and tactical support aircraft. Apart from the overall blue color scheme, the aircraft differ from the standard model by the presence of the onboard colored smokes generation system.

This device is controlled by two buttons: one on the control stick, for white smoke, and one on the throttle for colored smoke. The system is fed from an underwing fuel tank filled with a coloring agent which is discharged through nozzles placed in the jet exhaust. The agent, vaporized in the jet exhaust, produces a colored trail.

The roles

Although every position is key in the overall display, the roles with greater responsibility are the ones of the Commander, the Leader, the First Slot and Solo.

Unlike other display teams, the Frecce’s Commander does not fly with the formation. He is the former Leader and issues instructions from the ground supervising the display both from a technical and a flight safety perspective.

The formation Leader (aircraft numbered #1) guides the whole team, dictating timings and managing separations, opposition passes and rejoins, aided by the First Slot (#6), who flies in the centre, and acts as a reference point for speeds and distances.

The Solo (#10) is tasked with displaying to the public the aircraft’s extreme capabilities in periods when the rest of the formation momentarily exits the air show area to prepare for the next maneuver. He flies an almost independent display program, with highly technical manoeuvres in which the aircraft is pushed to the limits of its envelope.

Formation flying

Most people don’t even know the reasons why military (and even civilian) planes fly and perform aerobatics in formation and many questions arise when display teams suffer incidents, like the Blue Angels near controlled flight into terrain or the Red Arrows tragic loss of Aug. 20, 2011 [although not display-related, unfortunately a pilot of the “Reds” was killed in a ground ejection incident on Nov. 8].

Formation aerobatics dates back to the end of the ’20s as a means for improving pilot’s skills, and it is still today one of the most important disciplines in the background of a military pilot. At that time formation aerobatics was used to train pilots to follow the formation leader in dogfights, regardless of the aircraft attitude. Still today, formations are a typical feature of military aviation: they are used in combat, for providing mutual cover or reducing the formation radar footprint, and also during peacetime operations for both training and operational purposes, and also for bringing an unexperienced wingman on the ground during a bad weather recovery to the homebase. That’s why, unless they are launched to check an aircraft subsystems after a maintenance work or to test some specific on board or ground equipment, the majority of tactical planes (“tacair”) missions involve at least two aircraft.

Apart from those phases in which the team splits into two sections, the Frecce fly in a standard diamond formation, in which its elements are arranged in five “layers”. The leader is the highest aircraft (hence it occupies the highest layer) while the second slot (#9) is the lowest. The first left wingman and the first slot are responsible for the set up and constitute the perspective reference to the rest of the aircraft. The Frecce aircraft very close to each other: they use a vertical and horizontal separation appearing almost overlapped to the eyes of the spectators.

Instrument flight is reduced to the minimum. The artificial horizon is used for no more than 20 or 30 seconds during the whole display, this being flown “visually”, looking out, maintaining one’s own position by sighting the specific reference points. For almost all the duration of the performance wingmen and slot pilots, have “only” to follow their leader, almost disregarding their position relative to the ground.

The program

According to the weather conditions as well as the topographic characteristics of the location in which the air show is being staged, the Frecce Tricolori can perform three types of program: “high”, “low” or “flat”.

The “high” program is the most spectacular: it is made by an uninterrupted sequence of some thirty figures (among those the Big triangle formation loop, and the Downward Bomb Burst), the performance of which requires on average some 25 minutes.  After performing the first part of the program with all ten aircraft, the solo display pilot detaches, alternating his own maneuvers with the ones flown by the remaining nine planes.

Even though to the eyes of a spectator displays don’t change during an entire air show season, the way the “Frecce Tricolori” fly may differ significantly depending on the environment in which aerobatics is executed.

“In the case of displays flown over land, the terrain usually offers a multitude of fixed references which assist in the perception of speed, travelled airspace and altitude, such as crop lines, fields, roads, railways, and rivers” Capt. Piercarlo Ciacchi, Frecce Tricolori’s pilot said.

Over the water, however, it is necessary to use buoys or boats to create the reference points for the pilots for the safe execution of all the maneuvers. “Although usually free of significant obstacles, displays flown over water can hide several traps. In those flown over the sea, the sunlight reflected on the surface may reduce visibility. Displays flown over a lake require even greater concentration on behalf of the pilots, since the absence of significant wave motion, low lake bottoms, and different water salinity amplify the reflective characteristics of the surface, causing the problem of spatial disorientation” Ciacchi explains.

The training

The training which precedes entrance in the formation lasts a little less than six months. It begins with single ship sorties and continues with other missions featuring an increasing number of aircraft. At the end of each training phase, the progress made by the new pilot is certified by a senior member of the formation, who is responsible for assessing if the trainee can proceed to the next one.

The newly assigned pilots enter the formation occupying the rear positions, considered easier and more comfortable to fly.

Mini-Drones, SAMP/T, Storm Shadow and a Lotus "Evora" at the Italian Armed Forces Day

The Italian Armed Forces Day exhibition, held each year in Rome inside the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo), always provides an interesting opportunity for a close look at the most interesting equipments of the four Armed Forces [Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), Marina Militare (Italian Navy), Esercito Italiano (Italian Army), and Carabinieri (Military Police)], and of the Italian Armed Corps, as the Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) and the Guardia di Fin

Operation Unified Protector (was Odyssey Dawn) explained: Final Report

Previous debriefings: Archive

Second and last part of the report can be found in this post: Top military aviation stories of 2011: drones up and downs, stealth projects exposed and Libya’s 7-month-long war. .

As I’m writing the final chapter of my series of debriefs about the air war in Libya, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector is not officially ended as it will end on Oct. 31. However, everybody knows by now that on Oct.20 Gaddafi has been captured, wounded and killed and his death has marked, more than any other official statement, the end of the war started on Mar. 19.

Gaddafi was trying to flee Sirte on a large convoy made of around 75 vehicles. The convoy was attacked at 08.30AM LT by a French Mirage 2000 that was called into action by a RAF E-3D AWACS. Gaddafi’s vehicle was intercepted by rebel fighters on the ground and he was killed (after being wounded) as he was being transferred.

Most probably, his decision to escape using such a large convoy was his last mistake. I can’t understand how someone could think that so many vehicles can move unnoticed from the many reconnaissance and intelligence gathering platforms still flying within a No-Fly Zone (increasingly permeable to civilian traffic). Even if almost all the NATO and non-NATO contingents taking part to Unified Protector were reduced during the last months, as the number of strike sorties flown on a daily basis shows, the number of SIGINT assets has remained almost constant.

It was one of these extremely important platforms to intercept a phone call made by Gaddafi in the days preceding the last attack on Sirte.

Even if the bombs dropped by the French combat jet didn’t destroy the whole convoy (two armed vehicles and several accompanying cars), they were decisive to halt it.  Therefore, a French plane can claim to have started and (virtually) finished the war in Libya.

Later on Oct. 20, the Pentagon disclosed that a US Predator took part in the attack, firing its Hellfire missiles. Initially it was not clear whether it was the American drone or the French plane to have fired the last (?) weapon of the war but does it really matter?

The last attack

This is how the last strike mission in Libya took place: a Predator monitoring Sirte movements spotted a convoy attempting to flee the city.  The convoy was identified as being pro-Gaddafi while attempting to force its way around the outskirts of the city. Since the vehicles had some mounted weapons and ammunitions, the US drone attacked it with Hellfire missiles. As a result of the first attack, only one vehicle was destroyed but many others dispersed in different directions. Shortly after the disruption, about 20 vehicles regrouped and tried to proceed in a southerly direction. NATO again decided to engage these vehicles. Orbiting nearby there was a mixed flight of a Mirage F1CR and a Mirage 2000D that were immediately directed to strike the target. The Mirage 2000D dropped a GBU-12 on the convoy, destroying 11 vehicles.

According to the official statement issued by NATO, at the time of the strike, NATO did not know that Gaddafi was in the convoy and “NATO’s intervention was conducted solely to reduce the threat towards the civilian population, as required to do under our UN mandate. As a matter of policy, NATO does not target individuals.”

As a policy NATO does not divulge specific information on national assets involved in operations. However, as the above text shows, some commanders were more than happy to let the details about their service’s involvement in the “decisive strike” leak.

This brings me to the first of a series of key points and Lessons Learned of this war:

1) Unlike the more effective Allied Force in Serbia and Kosovo, Unified Protector represents an example of how an air campaign should not be executed. As I’ve pointed out many times in the previous debriefings, the way the air campaign was conducted and planned, transformed what could have been a quick victory into an almost deadlocked battlefield.

Odyssey Dawn represented just a series of independent national missions: the US, French, British and Italian contingents were not fully integrated, to such an extent that each one had to have its own tankers. When NATO took over and the US stepped back to a support role withdrawing its attack planes, it took 2 months to understand that it was better to start targeting Gaddafi’s capacity to resupply his forces on the front rather than attacking each single vehicle on the frontline. Furthermore, coalition planes went after a large number of ammunition depots throughout the whole air campaign. Since there were 4000 in Libya, a wiser move would have been to attack the most important ones in the early stages of the air campaign, in order to prevent loyalist forces from being able to fight for about 7 months. Consider that 80 days since the beginning of Odyssey Dawn (then Unified Protector) NATO still had some fixed targets (like C2 sites, national intelligence centre, State TV antennas, and so on) to attack even if these targets should be hit in the very early phases of any offensive air campaign.

For this reason, in spite of the official statements, NATO has been criticised by the rebels and by many analysts for being too cautious. In my opinion this was caused by a series of reasons: a UN Security Council Resolution that was open to different interpretations and that prevented the alliance to strike Gaddafi forces if they were not threatening civilians; caveats and strict ROE imposed by those partner nations facing internal struggles and that could not “afford” the risk of collateral damages (UAE AF took part to the air strikes even if the news was initially kept secret but only attacking fixed ground targets); the need to provide cover to the “freedom fighters” in a typical TIC (Troops In Contact) scenario without troops on the ground; and the lack, especially at the beginning, of a direct contact and a standard communication protocol with the rebels.

By comparison, in 78 days of air strikes in Serbia in 1999, NATO flew 38.004 sorties, 14.112 of those were strike sorties. During Allied Force, on average, 487 sorties were launched each day, 180 being strike sorties, even if during the beginning phases 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 sorties every day with roughly one third being bombing missions. These figures shows how the operation in former Jugoslavia focused on a quick achievement of the air superiority and a subsequent intense use of the air power against the ground targets. A successful approach that was not followed in Libya.

To date, in more than 200 days of air operations, Nato has flown 26.323 sorties, including  9.658 strike sorties.

2) Some nations contributed actively to the Libyan air war, whereas others took part to Unified Protector almost only on paper. Furthermore, a war 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.  However, along with “operational” purposes, there can be “propaganda” purposes too. Some services have seen their budgets cut over the last few years to such an extent that entire fleets have been grounded with (modern) aircraft retired earlier than initially planned. Intense and successful air ops during the Libyan air war have given them the opportunity to ask for the budget needed to save some planes from defense cuts.

For example, the RAF Sentinel R1 spyplane have provided important data about enemy movements in Libya, helping planners to choose among those targets detected by its onboard sensors. However, the Sentinel will be phased out in 3 years, when British troops will return from Afghanistan, merely 8 years after it was taken on charge. Given its good performance in Libya, the decision to withdraw from service the Sentinel so early might be reviewed.

I’m sure that many readers of this blog remember my article titled “RAF Tornados firing 900K Euro missiles in 8-hour round-trip mission from the UK: is the war in Libya a marketing campaign?” following the Royal Air Force’s proud annoucement of a Long-Range Libya mission from RAF Marham involving six Tornados carrying state-of-the-art (and costly) Storm Shadow missiles. It was extremely weird that such kind of weapon [whose unit price is about 900.000 Euro (£790,000 = 1.3 Milion USD)] was still needed in Libya after more than 100 days of air campaign, after the enemy’s air defenses both manned and unmanned (missiles) had been completely wiped out and that the mission was conducted from the UK instead of using some of the 16 Tonkas already deployed in Italy. Wasn’t the RAF trying to show that the lack of aircraft carriers does not limit the UK’s capability to project its firepower at long distance?

Anyway, not only the UK’s RAF was involved in this sort of “propaganda war”. Especially at the beginning of the air campaign, there was a “race” to claim the first air strike, the first air strike on Tripoli, the first air-to-air victory that could strengthen one nation’s foreign policy or a particular aircraft’s reputation for export purposes. Indeed I’m not sure the Rafale and the Typhoon would have been so extensively involved in Libya if they were not shortlisted in the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft tender.

Image source: French MoD

The marketing campaign led to some curious or rather embarrassing episodes, like the French Tiger that landed on a beach to pick up a Free Libya flag or the alleged air-to-air kill of Libyan combat planes, that were still on the ground….

For instance, on Mar. 26, French aircraft carried out several strikes around Misratah which, according to the French MoD “would indicate the destruction on the ground at Misratah of at least five Soko G-2 Galeb combat planes”. Various media headlines talked about “7 aircraft shot down” or “Gaddafi’s war planes downed”, even if those could not be considered air-to-air victories.

Later disclosed satellite imagery rendered available by the AAAS website at the following link showed that the French Air Force hadn’t shot down any aircraft and, above all, that those destroyed on the ground were far from being prepared for a sortie in the region as the French MoD press update explained: they were unserviceable Mig-23s originally captured by the rebels on Feb. 24 and then sabotaged, with the removal of their nose before the regime counterattack! Better intelligence, accurate reconnaissance, would have prevented allies from wasting LGBs.

3) If some nations and their air forces struggled to get media attention, others were compelled to keep a “low profile” for internal struggles. Italy is among them: while the RAF, the French and Danish air forces provided daily or weekly detailed bulletin about the missions flown in Libya, the amount of bombs dropped on specific targets and so on, there is very little information about the sorties flown by the Italian AF and Navy. For weeks, almost everyone thought that there was only one aircraft carrier off the Libyan coasts (the French Charles De Gaulle) while there was also the Italian Garibaldi full of AV-8B Harriers performing air strikes as well as NFZ enforcement missions. Even if the Italian MoD has affirmed that Italian contribution to Unified Protector has been second only to the one of the UK and France contingents, the actual amount of flown sorties and PGMs delivered has not been undisclosed. For this reasons, all the info I was able to provide on my debriefs about the Italian commitment was obtained by official sources or from the services’ websites.

Something similar happened for the U.S. whose support to Unified Protector was vital: without American tankers, there would not be any NATO air campaign. Predators and Global Hawks (offen recalled by Washington-centric media) were important as well as some special ops assets (spyplanes, PSYOPS, EW) the actual added value of the American contribution to Unified Protector was the air-to-air refueling capability. Other partner nations contributed with some tankers (Italy, France, UK, Sweden and Canada): not the amount needed by this kind of air campaign.

Anyway, since the U.S. stepped back and handed the leadeship of the air campaign over to NATO, many details of the American intervention were not unveiled, most probably because of the criticism that would accompany a broader involvement in a long lasting war. For example, the Predator drones were already flying over Libya at least two or three days before President Obama announced that the MQ-1s would strengthen NATO’s strike capability.

As many aircraft enthusiasts noticed, the Malta LiveATC.net feed was shut off towards the end of June. Officially, it was a computer problem, however, since the LMML airport was immediately removed from the list of airfields covered by the service, there are rumours that the local feeder was asked to cease “relaying” Malta ACC and TWR comms to the rest of the world using the web. I think that the end of the Malta streaming is more linked to the need to keep some information confidential rather than a concern for the security of the air operations. The Malta feed enabled everybody to listen to the radio comms of many of the aircraft involved in the air campaign as they transited through the Malta FIR (Flight Information Region) contacting Maltase air traffic control. In this way, you could listen to a traffic self-identifying itself as a “MQ-1” (hence a Predator) going tactical while entering the Libyan airspace some days before it became official.
I’m pretty sure that the concern dealt with the risk that such information spread before it was public and for this reason the feed was shut off (temporarily?).

Image source: USAF

4) Some air forces have suffered bomb shortage after dropping few hundred PGMs in the first three months of the war. This is unacceptable. European coalition partners ran out of bombs too early and asked other nations to replenish their almost empy stocks.

Wars can come unannounced and air forces can’t be found unprepared to that.

US SECDEF condemned European nations for years of shrinking defense budgets that have forced the US to play, once again, a major role in the NATO operation. With frustration, he said:

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,  yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

5) Coalition planes flew undisturbed over Libya. The residual Libyan Arab Air Force did not pose any threat during the whole air campaign. However, NATO air defense planes flew a lot of Defensive Counter Air missions and the majority of the violations of the No Fly Zonewere made by rebel planes trying to support freedom fighters with isolated uncoordinated, appearantly unauthorized, sorties.

6) British attack helicopters were not decisive whereas French choppers were crucial. Flying in pairs, the British Apaches on board HMS Ocean completed roughly 50 combat sorties striking 100 targets in the coastal areas of Brega and Tripoli. On the other side, the French combat helicopters flew around 300 combat sorties and destroyed more than 500 targets.

The French choppers flew within strike packages that consisted of 2-6 Gazelles armed with HOT-ATGMs, 2 Tigers and 2 Puma, in cooperation with maritime gunfire support.  The French usually deployed their helicopters within the frame of tightly-integrated strike packages, usually consisting of between 2 and 6 HOT ATGM-armed Gazelles, 2 Tigres and 2 Pumas (flying-CP and for CSAR), and in cooperation with naval gunfire support (100 and 76mm calibre rounds). “They have destroyed most of what was left of the regime’s armoured and mechanized forces (what was left after the wholesale destruction of the 32AB near Benghazi, on 19-21 March, and after the failure of assaults on Misurata)” Tom Cooper of ACIG.org commented.

Second and last part of the report can be found in this post: Top military aviation stories of 2011: drones up and downs, stealth projects exposed and Libya’s 7-month-long war. .

Bell UH-1N Twin Huey (Agusta Bell 212) high-altitude training

The first Italian aircraft to be deployed in Afghanistan has been a Bell UH-1N Twin Huey helicopter in a version built under license by Agusta and designated AB-212. Both the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) and the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) have been called to support ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force) multinational force with the AB.212, that can fulfil a wide variety of tasks, from MEDEVAC, to reconnaissance, to personnel transportation, to special forces ops.

The 21° Gruppo of the Italian Air Force has conducted several Tour of Duty in Afghanistan. Since 2005, it is equipped with the AB.212ICO (Implementazione Capacità Operative – Operational Campabilities Implementation) a retrofitted version of the previous AMI-SAR model that was upgraded in anticipation to the deployment to Kabul and surrounding areas, where the high-altitude environment is not suitable with the other CSAR helicopter in ItAF inventory, the old fashioned HH-3F that suffered a tragic incident in 2008. The AB.212ICO is equipped with two manually activated Flares dispensers for self-protection and can carry two MG 42/59 caliber 7.62 mm NATO machine guns on both sides of the fuselage. It wears an armored cockpit and fuselage to protect the 2 pilots and 2 gunners from small arms; noteworthy, the rudder area, vulnerable to bullets shot from the ground because of the observation windows, has been shielded with 3 inches of kevlar.

The new outfit has cost the aircraft half of its original endurance, currently limited to 1 hour and 40 minutes,  and the increased weight, in Afghanistan, at an average height of 7.000 feet AMSL (Above Mean Sea Level), with ground temperature often above 40° Celsius, makes the AB.212 unable to recover a survivor from the ground with the hoist.

To board people, the Twin Huey has to land. A minor problem as the following pictures taken by Capt. Giacomo Andreotti at 9,100 feet, on top a mountain in central Italy, during a routine mission of the 21° Gruppo a proud member of the NATO Tiger Association, based at Grazzanise.

High-altitude can be tricky for rotary wings: first, because of the loss of engine power; second for the loss of rotor lift caused by the thin air. That’s why helicopters suitable for high altitudes need plenty of excess power that can be spent to overcome the reduced lift and engine performance.

The AB.212 will be employed until 2014-2015 when it is expected to be replaced with a CSAR version of the AW-101.