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 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.
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.
Even if the news of the once stealthy American drone are slightly fading, on Dec. 26, the Islamic Republic News Agency IRNA, published the images of an electric rone built by students of Islamic Azad University in the city of Heris, East Azarbaijan province.
Similar to a small-scale Learjet business jet (actually, almost identical to the Hondajet as suggested by its markings) sitting on a table, the ultra-light amateur drone is capable of flying 35-minute reconnaissance missions at night, with a maximum speed of 250 km/h and a minimum of 50 km/h. It can cover a distance of 10 km and operate at an altitude of 9,000 feet.
Powered by two electric engines and capable of flying on a single engine, the drone can scan the ground and dispatch the data to a ground station. As reported by the IRNA, according to the Head of the technical team involved in manufacturing the drone, Nasser Nazari Heris, it took only four months to design and manufacture the drone.
In the meanwhile, on Dec. 24, Iran’s Navy launched the massive 10-day naval exercise “Velayat 90” in the area stretching from the east of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden. Iranian submarines, warships, and other naval vessels with their accompanying helicopters are attending the drills. I’ve read no reports about drones taking part to the exercise. So far.
Official statements aside, the only things we can be sure of are the images of the drone showcased in what looks like a gymnasium of a school, made available by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard website.
Whether you belong to the “party” of those who believe the drone is real or you think it is a fake, those pictures ,alongside the footage released by the State TV, are the only proof that the one in Iran is indeed the elusive ‘bot dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar”.
Bjørn Holst Jespersen is a Danish architect who has been following the developments of the saga of the Beast of Kandahar on this blog since the beginning. I’ve asked him to check if the gymnasium where the drone was showcased is compatible with the one pointed out a few days ago by a source as the location where the Sentinel was hidden.
Using perspective drawing techniques, by extending lines and establishing vanishing points to subdivide areas using diagonals, he has studied the photographs of the captured RQ-170 to determine both the building and drone size as well as the orientation of the gym.
Here is what he was able to ascertain from the images.
It seems the gym-space is 36-meter long (6×6 meter sections) and about 20-meter wide. The building/drone size is calculated on the basis of markings on the floor. “The assumptions that I have based the reconstruction on are that the circle in the middle is a standard centre circle for basketball, and that there are markings (white lines) for volleyball” Bjørn says.
“Markings correspond and point to a constructive section being 600 cm centre to centre (this is established by extending the lines until they hit the wall) corresponding with standard size Iranian brick that I googled. This together makes a strong case for the length of the building: the bricks can be larger than standard, but that would make the 300 cm markings for volleyball too wide and also make the 360 cm diameter basketball centre circle too large” the Danish architect explains.
“The width of the building was harder to get a handle on but based on the same assumptions I don’t see the gym-space being more than 20-meter wide. With walls and overhang this would be about 22 meters…unless the court is placed asymmetrically(!).
By establishing the vertical sun-angle the solar-time (using this calculator) can be determined. This gives the compass-direction to the sun. By establishing the horizontal angle of the entering sun, the orientation of the building can be ascertained, giving an AM and a PM value.
“The drawing explains “which ray” I calculate. Since the lengths of the sides of the horizontal triangle is calculated from counting bricks, the brick size becomes irrelevant, but the counting could be wrong as could the estimated “entrance point” of the ray. Furthermore, the calculation is based on the end-wall leaving no gap behind the last steel frame. The further back the wall is, the more the horizontal angle will fit the building pointed out by the source.”
“The vertical solar angle is possibly lower than I have assumed due to 3 layer of bricks being 18 cm instead of 20 as I have used (have done some more googling since). This will set the time of day to 09.33 AM or 02.27 PM. If this is the case (and the horizontal angle is correct) the building pointed out by the source will be only 5 degrees off” Bjørn says.
According to Google Maps/Google Earth the size of the building identified by the source as the one where the drone is/was hidden is significantly bigger than that the architect has found (about 5 meters longer and some meters wider too).
However, as Bjørn says: “I cannot entirely exclude that I have made some error or – less likely – that the building is larger than the gym-space. I cannot even say how precise the measuring on Google Maps is. But if the building only has the gym-space, and the measuring on Google Maps is precise I’m close to excluding it as the right location. The ratio of length vs width looks about right.
Dealing with the orientation of the tiped off building: “compared to my the sun-angle study it seems to be about 5 degrees off at AM. This is more than I would like to accept as a margin, but realistically, it is still quite possible. (PM is impossible unless photos are mirrored).”
The two reference figures inserted in the satellite images at the bottom are not exact in size, only in orientation. The tiped off location is still within the margin of error – even though close to falling outside. Both because of the orientation, but mainly because of the size which seem too big.
So, if the U.S. were studying a raid on this gymnasium near Kashmar to free their drone, maybe it’s better they reconsider it…. :-)
The solution to the mystery of the capture of the U.S. (once) most secret drone could be much simpler than everyone has speculated so far.
Today’s post on the topic will in fact provide some new theories emerged during the last days and a quite simple one that could explain various oddities of the story of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel captured by Iran on Dec. 4, 2011.
Let’s start from the latter.
It comes from the Iranian physician, blogger and political activist Dr Mehdi Khazali, who is also one of the strongest critics of the government of Tehran.
As pointed out by some visitors of the site, he has deleted a report he had published in the aftermath of the “downing” of the drone, in which he explained that the U.S. drone crash landed unnoticed by anyone in the desert and was spotted some days later by sheep-keepers who were afraid to get closer so they reported the airplane’s presence to the police that reported it to the Revolutionary Guard.
Obviously, upon arrival on the scene, the IRG seized all mobile phones from people who had recorded films of the American spy-robot.
He has deleted his report from his website but the original post is still available on Google cache and answering to viewers’ questions about deleting the post about the U.S. drone, he said that he has been pushed to delete them because of Iran National Security Issues.
At the beginning, the U.S. decide not to disclose the information because the robot may have crashed in the mountains, where no one will ever find it, or have suffered extensive damage that will make it useless in the hands of the Iranian analysts. And, by giving the news, they would admit they have undertaken spy missions in the Iranian airspace, thus confirming they have joined Israel in the covert war on the Iranian nuclear program.
However, a shepherd finds it almost intact and the news spreads, forcing the U.S. to admit the loss. Iran has the great opportunity to show it and to make some propaganda “advertising” some of their (most probably existing) capabilities in the Electronic and Cyber Warfare fields.
Needless to say, this is just one of many theories that have emerged since the drone’s first pictures appeared on Iran’s State TV as the “Beast of Kandahar” was showcased in a school’s gymnasium. Quite simple, not involving any jamming, GPS spoofing, satellite-link encryption breaking and control link spoofing. While acknowledging the skills and progress in these fields of the Iranians, and the vulnerabilities of the U.S. drones, some of them were a bit far fetched.
We should also not forget that any army capable to detect a drone, because it is using a Syntetic Aperture Radar, with Infrared, visually spotted, or because it always flies the same route, would probably try to down it first with an interceptor or a surface to air missile than dare to take over control of it.
Ok, now let’s get back to the last post about the mysterious hatch, that among other things (speculation on!) could have been used for a recovery chute.
According to Bernhard “b”, those lines along the access hatches could be tape.
“That would explain the not very straight lines and the “wheel grinder cut mark” which isn’t one. We do know that on the B-2 as well as on the F-22 radar absorbing tape is used to mask any gap at the seem of access hatches” he commented.
“In the original B-2 design, specially formulated tapes and caulks were used to cover gaps on the surface such as those near maintenance access panels. These materials have to be removed each time maintenance is performed, then reapplied and allowed to cure before the aircraft can be returned to service” he added mentioning the following website.
Another visitor, Jaime Maia, provided a possible explaination to the wavering and other artifacts of the close up picture of the hatch: “if it was grabbed from a video, they would be produced by Discrete Cosine Transform of the image compression algorithm.”
That said, I still believe the drone is real and not fake. Maybe it was repaired or cleaned (and probably the hatch has nothing to do with a recovery chute) but I think it’s authentic. In addition President Obama has requested it to be returned.
However many experts, aviation enthusiasts and journos don’t agree with me.
Mark McGrath, a military aviation photographer, believes “the drone in Iran is a 1:1 scale fibreglass replica of an RQ-170, which is unpainted hence the colour difference. The Iranians say they have captured other US & Israeli drones – this may or may not be true, but the US may want to investigate how capable the Iranian EW is with a view to developing countermeasures & jamming for it. They build a replica drone that they know will be “lost” over Iran & fit it out with some sensors that relay the EW attack on it to a real drone over Afghanistan.”
I forgot to add a detail about the story recalled by Kazhali. He says that weapons were found on the drone. Since we know the RQ-170 is unarmed, unless we assume a sensor was reported by someone as a bomb, this detail seems to discredit the Iranian blogger’s story.
However, two new pictures published on Dec. 2011 issue of Combat Aircraft before the drone was “downed”, show a new kind of sensor under the fuselage and the evidence of a ventral weapons bay. Now connect the dots: the recent mysterious blasts in nuclear sites in Iran and a bomb carried by a stealth drone… Intriguing but unlikely, since Iran would let the world see the PGM if the drone carried it.
The amout of contribution I receive each time I publish a blog post on the stealth drone now part of Iran’s asset is amazing. For instance, yesterday, few minutes after publishing the Infographic that I used to explain how the drone was captured (a theory based on the known facts to date), I got an email from Dave Krakow with an interesting drawing he sent me to show how the mysterious hatch on the top of the RQ-170 Sentinel, it’s not up to the typical American Aerospace standards. “The details are imprecise, nothing like Lockheed Martin products.”
Image courtesy: Dave Krakow
Dave believes the thing shown by Iranians was possibly constructed previously, for radar signature research, with details added in a hurry for cameras. “A lot of the commentary on the web regarding general accuracy assumes Iranian intelligence has only the same photos we have on the internet, and thus they could only know certain details if they had an original. I don’t think this is a reasonable assumption” he wrote to me.
For sure, as highlighted in the above image, the mysterious “top hatch” (that I supposed could be used to deploy a recovery chute) features some oddities. Some of them in particular, raise questions. However the angle of the camera, the effect of the zoom, and many other contributing factors (lights, shadows, image compression etc) may have affected the quality of the footage shown on Iran State TV rendering, for example, fasteners seemingly randomly spaced.
Furthermore, there’s still a chance that Iranians worked on the Sentinel after they recovered it: maybe they tried to get access to the internal hardware, removed panels to inspect lenses, memories to look for interesting data or to disable any self-destruction mechanisms or Emergency Locator-like systems, in order to prevent the Americans from locating or destroying it.