Several online news outlets, including the British Newspaper The Guardian, have been running news articles stating that British exchange pilots in the U.S flew armed American Predator drones during the Libyan conflict. The disclosure had slipped out during a parliamentary answer, some 10 months after the end of the conflict, during which the British Government had insisted that no British armed drones had been used. Whilst technically still true the MOD (Ministry of Defence) has since admitted that RAF personnel on an exchange program had indeed flown the armed predators during the conflict whom became a key part of the air war.
During the conflict, between April and October (2011), the Predators performed some 145 air strikes according the figures released by the Pentagon; it remains unclear how many of those air strikes were flown by British personnel. The Guardian quoted a RAF source as saying that the British pilots would have followed British ROEs (Rules Of Engagement) rather than U.S. ones. “If they were asked to go beyond their own nation’s rules, then they would refuse to do so.”
The Defence Minister Lord Astor had “let the cat out of the bag” on Tuesday Jul. 26 during questions and said “Her Majesty’s government do not use armed remotely piloted air systems against terrorist suspects outside Afghanistan. However, UK personnel flew armed remotely piloted air systems against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011, in support of the NATO humanitarian mission authorised under UNSCR resolution 1973.”
The MoD was quick to make a statement on the subject: “There were no and are no UK remotely piloted air systems operating outside of Afghanistan. The UK armed forces routinely embed UK personnel with allied nation units (and vice versa) via exchange programmes. As confirmed by Lord Astor, UK personnel embedded within a US unit flew armed remotely piloted air systems missions against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011,” the spokesman said to The Guardian.
In 2007, to operate its MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) drone alongside the USAF in support of UK ground forces in Afghanistan, the Royal Air Force formed 39 Sqn at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
British Reapers provide real-time video imagery to ground commanders, with the capability to attack ground targets if required.
Iraq’s Navy has already purchased U.S. drones to protect its southern oil platforms, from where most of the OPEC nation’s oil is shipped.
This is what an official from the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, which is part of the U.S. embassy, said to the Reuters on May 21.
Although no more details about the number of the purchased drone have been disclosed, what it’s certain is that they will be used to protect the oil infrastructure, that went under Iraqi forces responsibility since 2005 and are without a proper aerial surveillance since the U.S. has left the country in December 2011.
With crude exports forecast expected to reach 2.85 barrels per day by the end of the year, the oil infrastructure, and the oilfields around Basra, remains one of the main insurgents’ targets. That’s why the Iraqi Government has bought the robots and started training its engineers to be able to operate them by the end of 2012.
There are various reasons why “Act of Valor”, the movie released on Feb. 24, 2012, is interesting from the military geek point of view.
First of all it features the Navy SEALs some of which are not actors but regular guys, active duty military that have taken part to the most dangerous U.S. special operations all around the world; missions that, as the movie clearly shows, are often (if not always) supported by cargo planes, helicopters, combat planes, and drones.
The movie opens with footage of a High-Altitude Low Opening (HALO), a type of airborne jump that is repeated another couple of times during the story, during daylight and at night. As they did during a recent operation in Somalia.
Noteworthy, unlike it happened during Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, the SEALs assault on a riverside compound is not performed using fast-rope and stealthy Black Hawks choppers. However, the exfiltration of the hostage involves two MH-47G Chinooks of the 160 SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) carrying SOC-Rs (Special Operations Craft – Riverine), high speed boats used for insertion/extraction ops and fire support into a low-to-medium threat environment in a riverine area.
During the exfil operation the SEALs use a RQ-11 Raven drone, a man-portable UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) controlled directly by the ground troops. The Raven is a relatively small bot whose ability is to automatically follow a moving target that was selected by touching the screen of the ROVER-like ground control system. Even if I’m not sure that the kind of imagery delivered to the end user and the targeting features are exactly as portrayed in the movie, the system should work in this way: once a series of pixels was selected, the systems tracks the movements of those pixels on the ground.
The movie features also a very well known Predator used for an unusual (or at least scarcely advertised) role for this asset: COMINT (Communication Intelligence) rather than the typical SCAR (Strike Coordination And Reconnaissance). Actually, if I recall correctly, the drone is used in the movie to detect environmental sounds coming from the compound, a task I’m not sure can be achieved with the current available sensors.
The first kill of the movie is worth a mention, since a sniper takes out an enemy sentry and when the dead man falls back into the river one of the SEALs is under the water with his hands above the surface to grab the body before it splashes.
Along with some interesting footage filmed on the flight deck of USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship, another interesting scene is the assault on a yacht and accompanying boats involving a Mark V Special Operations Craft and an HH-60 Sea Hawk using the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES), to let the SEALs descend on the target vessel.
Also interesting is the use of a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV), an underwater watercraft deployed from a submarine to reach the Somalian coast.
Although they can be considered no more than warbirds, the movie also features a white Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplane and an uncolored Douglas DC-3 cargo both landing in the desert.
On a side note: the official Act of Valor poster (the one used in Italy and UK, not sure it is the same in the U.S.) shows an HH-3F Pelican helicopter on the right hand corner: a type of chopper used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force in the Vietnam War and phased out 20 years ago (in the U.S., Italy is still using them, even if it is replacing its ageing fleet with the new HH-139).
At a few minutes past midnight on November 1st, 2011, after radioing a “thank you” to the Malta ATC controller, ‘OUP 355’, an E-3 AWACS of the NATO Airborne Early Warning Component, began an en-route descent to Trapani airbase, in Sicily.
Since the beginning of the NATO operation at 06.00GMT on March 31st, over 26,500 sorties were conducted, including more than 9,700 strike sorties. These figures do not take into account the first part of the war, from March 19th until the Transfer Of Authority to NATO, when assets flew a significant number of missions under their respective national commands within the U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn.
Eventually, the air war in Libya was able to end the systematic violation of human rights and the repression of demonstrators, bringing the declaration of the full liberation of Libya by the National Transitional Council and the consequent stabilization of the region. However, the involvement of some weapon systems over Northern Africa became so well known (and, in some cases, overrated) that many have seen the use of air power over Northern Africa as a way to promote various forms of technology; a sort of really expensive marketing operation spurred by the desire of visibility rather than the need to achieve a quick military objective.
But, beyond the advertising slogans of the manufacturers eager to get export orders and the statements of the high rank officers involved in the air campaign always struggling to preserve their budget from cuts imposed by the global financial crisis, which were the truly decisive weapon systems in Libya?
Capable of silently flying for several hours carrying a wide array of sensors, well above the ceiling of the anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) played an important role in Libya. The first drones to operate in the Libyan airspace were the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the US Air Force, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, the main operating base of the NATO Air Ground Surveillance Global Hawk program. The Global Hawks were the first UAS to be deployed at the beginning of the war when they were used to perform high altitude battle damage assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat.
On April 21, President Barak Obama authorized the Department of Defense to use armed Predators in Libya and MQ-1s began flying strike sorties in the areas of Misratah and Tripoli. During the air campaign, U.S. Predators launched 145 air strikes firing hundred AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and also took part in the operation that led to the capture and killing of Gaddafi in Sirte, when an MQ-1 teamed up with a mixed flight of a Mirage F1CR and a Mirage 2000D and attacked the huge convoy used by the Libyan dictator in his attempt to flee the city. Also conducting some shorter range ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) activity from U.S. Navy ships off the coast were some MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, one of which was lost (for unknown reasons) during a reconnaissance mission over Northern Libya on June 21.
Alongside the US drones at Sigonella were the French Harfang (a modified version of the Israeli IAI Heron drone) of the Escadron de drones 01.033 “Belfort” from Cognac, while Italy committed to perform unarmed ISR missions using two Italian Air Force Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) drones that were remotely controlled from the Mobile Ground Control Station at Amendola airbase in southeast Italy. Belonging to the 28° Gruppo of the 32° Stormo the Italian drones flew their first OUP sortie on August 10 and were mainly used to conduct sorties deep inside Libyan territory, over targets that could not be easily reached by other assets.
In Libya-like scenarios and, generally speaking, in Crisis Support Operations where they do not face numerous high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles, drones have proved to be both effective and cheap: they ensure the coverage of a vast area of interest with the same amount of weapons as a manned aircraft, but at about a fifth of the cost per flight hour. This is of significant advantage in a period of financial crisis, as some nations could divert their ever shrinking budgets from expensive noisy manned fighters to cheaper silent unmanned aircraft.
Even if the majority of tactical planes involved in the enforcement of the No-Fly Zone and in the air strikes in Libya were stationed in either Southern Italy or Greece, each fighter sortie in support of OUP averaged 8 hours and required five air-to-air refuelings. As a result, at least 6 or 7 tankers were orbiting in the airspace off the Libyan coast at any given time during the war, without taking into consideration those flying to and from their home bases.
More or less one year ago, we were observing an increasing activity of U.S., British, French and Italian military spy planes perfoming information gathering missions along the northern border of the Tripoli FIR (Flight Information Region).
Quite silently, those SIGINT (SIGnal INTelligence) platforms flew in the Maltese airspace to eavesdrop into Libyan communications and signals and to collect the information needed to build up the so-called EOB (Electronic Order of Battle) of the Libyan forces, that would be used to have a better understanding of the situation in Libya, to know where forces were located and to build up a priority target list for the subsequent air campaign.
Presumed to remain (almost) secret, those flights were actually “advertised” by LiveATC.net, whose Maltese feeder (shut down during the war) made the radio communications between Malta Area Control Center and the various EP-3s, RC-135 Rivet Joint, C-160G, British Nimrods R1s etc. transiting the local airspace before operating in “due regard”, public.
Although nowadays we can’t listen to the radio comms of the military traffic in that area as we did in February 2011 and we don’t have the same “evidences” we had one year ago, we can be quite confident that similar activities are being conducted in or around Syria from bases in Italy, Turkey or Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri airbase).
Along with the satellite image released by the US Embassy in Damascus some American defense officials told the NBC that “A good number of American drones are operating in the skies of Syria, monitoring the Syrian military’s attacks against opposition forces and innocent civilians alike”.
The Pentagon was quick to point out that these drones were providing surveillance not for a future military intervention but to gain evidence from both a visual and communications perspective to “make a case for a widespread international response”.
However, the confirmation that U.S. robots are flying inside the Syrian territory does pose the question: what type of drone are being used?
Most media outlets are using stock images of Predator or Reaper drones, but those unstealthy ‘bots would be vulnerable to the Syria SAM (Surface to Air Missile) network, believed to be among Middle East’s most robust ones. Both MQ-1 and 9 are Medium Altitude drones that could be operating in Syria only if flying outside the range of active SAM rings.
Even if Sigonella in Sicily, hosts the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th, Incirlik in southern Turkey, being next to the border, seems to be more suitable for spy missions in Syria. Missions that these days could be aimed at assessing the type of activities conducted by the destroyer Shahid Qandi and the supply vessel Kharg, the two Iranian warships that have docked at the Syrian port of Tartus after passing through the Suez canal.
In fact Egyptian sources as well as members of the Syrian opposition claimed that the two vessels have been jamming satellite telephone communications of the Syrian opposition forces.
According to the same Egyptian sources, Assad’s forces have been finding it more difficult to monitor the oppositors’ communication due to their encrypted nature and someone believes that the Iranian Navy is helping him disrupting these encrypted communications.
A bit far fetched, considered that a land based systems would be less visible than two closely watched warships, but not completely impossible.