What was unknown is that at least one secretive U.S. Army Dash 7 surveillance aircraft, designated EO-5C, has operated in the skies of eastern Libya, the same region where the U.S. has recently identified camps hosting a couple hundred ISIS militants.
The presence of an Army aircraft packed with sensors, known as ARL (Airborne Reconnaissance Low), is usually kept obscure: the aircraft does not wear military markings and some of its sensors can be retracted making the airplane a regional liner rather than a special operations plane on clandestine mission.
But photos of the aircraft overflying Benghazi on Nov. 29 have appeared on Twitter.
The Navy’s ARIES II also seen operating over Benghazi is a highly modified version of the P-3C used to perform SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) missions. This variant of the Orion maritime patrol aircraft became famous on Apr. 1, 2001 when one such planes and its crew were detained for 11 days following a collision with a Chinese J-8IIM fighter (that crashed causing the death of the pilot) and the subsequent emergency landing at Ligshui airbase, in Hainan island.
One of these Navy aircraft was spotted over Libya in 2012 when there were rumors that it might be involved in operations aimed at detecting and tracking smuggled weapons travelling towards Egypt and destined to Gaza.
In this case, the U.S. Navy spyplane, along with the Army EO-5C was probably seeking ISIS militants. Image credit: Stoah News Agency
During Libya air war, you could track Canadian tankers circling over the Mediterranean Sea while they refueled allied planes heading to bomb Gaddafi. Three years later, nothing has changed.
Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder are two famous Web-based services that let aviation enthusiasts, curious people, journalists and, generally speaking, anyone who has an Internet access on their computer, laptop or smartphone, track flights in real-time.
The ADS-B system uses a special transponder that autonomously broadcasts data from the aircraft’s on-board navigation systems about its GPS-calculated position, altitude and flight path. This information is transmitted on 1090 MHz frequency: ground stations, other nearby aircraft (thus enhancing situational awareness) as well as commercial off-the-shelf receivers available on the market as well as home-built ones, tuned on the same frequency can receive and process those data.
Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder have a network of several hundred feeders around the world who make the flight information received by their home kits available for anybody. Obviously, only ADS-B equipped aircraft flying within the coverage area of the network are visible.
Actually, in those areas where coverage is provided by several different ground stations, the position of the position of the aircraft can also be calculated for those planes that do not broadcast their ADS-B data using Multilateration (MLAT).
MLAT (used by FR24) uses Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA): by measuring the difference in time to receive the signal from aircraft from four different receivers, the aircraft can be geolocated and followed even if it does not transmit ADS-B data.
Although the majority of the aircraft you’ll be able to track using a browser (or smartphone’s app) are civil airliners and business jets, military aircraft are also equipped with Mode-S ADS-B-capable transponder.
But, these are usually turned off during real war ops.
US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757 operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks), American and Russian “doomsday planes”, tanker aircraft and even the Air Force One, along with several other combat planes can be tracked every now and then on both FR24.com and PF.net.
Obviously, Web-based flight tracking services have become so famous and easy to operate, that air arms around the world know very well how to deal with them. Or at least they should know it.
Three years later, little has changed even though many pilots have confirmed that they are well aware of the above mentioned websites and for this reason are instructed to turn off their transponders when involved in real operations.
A U.S. plane possibly supporting ground troops in Afghanistan acting as an advanced communication relay can be regularly tracked as it circles over the Ghazni Province. As we explained in August, the aircraft did not broadcast its mission callsign, but based on the hex code FR24 could identify it as a Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft, an advanced ultra long-range business jet that has been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accommodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.
The presence of the orbiting E-11A (the last one monitored on Oct. 12, see the below FR24.com screenshot) could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operations.
Few days ago, during one the very first British air strikes on ISIS in Iraq, the RAF A330 Voyager tanker that accompanied the RAF Tornado GR4 fighter bombers could be tracked on Planefinder.net well inside Jordan’s airspace (see below), exposing its route from RAF Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus. No big deal, until that route overflies countries that are not happy to let the world know they are somehow supporting the US-led coalition.
Since the first appearance during a combat mission the RAF tanker has disappeared from “Internet” on the following days, a sign that the ADS-B “show” was a single mishap.
Anyway, FR24.com, PF.net or home-made kits are extremely interesting and powerful tools to investigate, study and learn about civil and military aviation (in a legal way); air forces around the world have only to take them into proper account when executing combat missions in the same way other details, such as radio communications policies and EMCON (Emission Control) restrictions, are while planning war sorties.
Image credit: Planefinder.net and Flightradar24.com screenshots
Even though it’s not impossible, it would be at least difficult to successfully execute a 9/11-like suicide attack using one of the airliners allegedly missing in Libya.
In the last few days, media outlets all around the world have reported the news of the threat of a 9/11 type of attack posed by a certain number of civilian jet liners (“about a dozen”) seized by militias that took control of Tripoli airport.
A really interesting story published on NYCAviation has already raised some question about the amount of missing aircraft but what we are going to discuss here is the possibility to launch a suicide attack using one of the airplanes captured in Libya (provided any airliner is really available for such a terrorist action).
Even if a U.S. Department official is, quite obviously, a reliable source and, although a missing airplane is never a good news for intelligence agencies since September 11 2001, there are several things that must be considered to really evaluate the threat of a “renegade” aircraft used as a missile against a ground target.
First of all there’s the difficulty to actually launch the plane. Not easy at all.
“I agree the risks [of a missing plane] are there but I would be cautious in several regards: aircraft condition, availability of actual pilots and airfield conditions, etc,” says Tom Meyer, who’s worked for over a decade in all areas of the airline’s operations with Top US Air Carrier.
In fact, the missing airliner must be hidden somewhere (an kept away from the indiscreet eyes of satellites and U.S. drones snooping on terrorist bases in the desert) but a difficult-to-find airport is quite unlikely an airport capable to serve an airliner.
“Airline Ground Operations will need to include: Ground Power or APU [Auxiliary Power Unit) Availability, Fueling, Weight & Balance, FOD Free Ramp, Clear Taxiways and Runways…If any of the items is missing or done incorrectly, the whole scenario unravels. Sorry, Airline operations are complex,” Meyer explains.
Ok, now let’s assume the terrorists know enough about aircraft servicing, airport ops, etc. manage to launch the plane. What’s next? The aircraft, departed from a remote location, must fly towards its final “destination.” In order to reach the target without being engaged by the local air defense (if any) it will have to fly all (or at least most) of its route at very low-level, thus reducing a lot its range.
Even if a north bound route (towards Italy or a northwestern one towards Spain and France or northeastern one towards Greece or Turkey) would bring the plane closer to the most the rewarding targets, it would also expose the liner to the detection by coastal radar sites and NATO E-3 AWACS aircraft keeping an eye on the Mediterranean and North Africa.
So, a large aerial suicide attack is perhaps unlikely.
A limited attack, targeting a neighbouring nation (or Malta, that is still not too far from Libya and has no combat planes for the islands air defense) or a military base in North or Central Africa, is only a bit more feasible (once again, provided the plane can be launched) just because of the relatively shorter distances.
Free Libya Air Force Mig-21 crashed into city blocks at Tobruk, in eastern Libya.
On Sept. 2, a Mig-21 belonging to the Free Libya Air Force crashed into Tobruk killing the pilot and at least a small boy on the ground.
The entire scene was filmed from a rooftop in Tobruk: the aircraft seems to be initially nose-diving, then the pilot pulls up again and the aircraft overflies the cameraman in what seems to be a climb, just before it dives again and crashes between buildings causing a huge explosion.
Needless to say the reasons of the crash are still unknown even if according to some news reports, sources pointed towards the mechanical failure.
According to RT, the pilot has been identified as Rafa Al-Farani and the he crashed in his Mig-21bis while performing in a memorial flypast for another pilot, Ibrahim Al-Manifi, who was also killed in a plane crash few days ago.
This seems to explain the reason why someone was filming the plane from a rooftop at the time of the crash.
It looks like the aircraft (or most of them) launched from Egyptian airbases (although Cairo has always denied a direct involvement in Libya) with UAE Air Force providing aircrews, attack planes and aerial refuelers.
The first airstrikes hit various Islamist militias positions in Tripoli including an ammo depot. A second round of strikes concentrated in the southern part of the city where vehicles and rocket launchers were bombed.
Libyan authorities were unable to establish which was behind the mysterious airstrikes even if some debris, including a fin of the guidance kit for Mk 82s, pointed towards air forces equipped with aircraft capable to drop GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
Now, American officials have unveiled the U.S. has collected enough evidence to determine UAE planes carried out the attacks.