According to the information being spread by Chinese Defense forums, a group of 17 Chinese expert would have recently arrived in Iran not only to inspect, but also to collect and bring back to China some key components of the U.S. RQ-170 drone captured by Iran in December 2011.
Indeed, Chinese technical experts had already arrived in Iran only four days after the Sentinel drone had crash landed in Iran during a spy mission. Based on the first surveys (one lasting only 40 minutes, another one four hours) the expert group prepared a list of components they need to further inspect in China in order to reverse engineer the U.S. robot.
The list would include internal hardware components; the fuselage would remain in Iran.
“The expert group composed by 17 people, of which a total of 11 are technical experts from PLA General Staff, General Armament Department and AVIC, as well as others from Chinese foreign affairs ministry and diplomats in Iran” says the China Defense Mashup site.
Although it’s extremely difficult to say whether this information is genuine, I find it extremely likely that China has already inspected the drone and tried to copy some of the technologies of the RQ-170. As already explained when commenting Iran’s claims that they had decoded the stealthy drone, while the internal memories were (probably) automatically erased as a consequence of the loss of control procedure and data will never been recovered, the circuitry, lenses, sensors have probably survived the mysterious crash landing.
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 U.S. Air Force has recently made available two Accident Investigation Board (AIB) reports about mishaps that have become somehow famous in the last year or so.
Until the U.S. Air Force released the investigation report about the mishap involving the F-15E Strike Eagle “Bolar 34” lost over Libya on Mar. 21, 2011, during Operation Odyssey Dawn, the widespread opinion (as well as the official version) was that the cause of the loss was an unspecified technical failure. However, the official report publicly released on Dec. 18 (and available along with many more here: http://usaf.aib.law.af.mil/index.html) found a pilot error as the root cause of the accident.
According to the report, the cause of the mishap was the Strike Eagle sudden departure from controlled flight after exceeding the critical angle of attack during a combat egress maneuver (after GBU-38 release), conducted at a previously untested altitude with unbalanced aircraft.
Although the crash cost the U.S. taxpayers about 48 milion USD, both the pilot and WSO, belonging to the 492nd FS from RAF Lakenheath (temporarily deployed to Aviano AB, Italy), ejected safely and were rescued, while the remains of the plane were bombed in order to prevent someone from inspecting the wreckage (something that the U.S. would have done on the intact RQ-170 drone captured by Iran on Dec. 4).
Pilot error was blamed for fatal loss of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor “Rocky 03” tail number 06-4125, assigned to the 525th Fighter Squadron, that crashed on Nov. 16, 2010, approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
This along with a series of reports of disorientation and hypoxia-like syntoms complained by 14 pilots on 6 different airbases , led to a four-month stand down, lifted just to let the stealthy fighters based at Langley AFB, leave their homebase to escape Hurricane Irene in what was an early implementation of the return-to-flight plan.
At the time, carbon monoxide entering the cockpit OBOGS (onboard oxygen generating system) was considered one of the most likely causes of the hypoxia, a condition of inadequate oxygen supply that can have fatal consequences.
According to the accident report, the mishap was not caused by the OBOGS.
During the RTB (return to base) phase, when the mishap pilot attempted to rejoing with his flight lead at 1,039 knots true airspeed (KTAS) at 38,400 feet (ft), his aircraft suffered a bleed air leak malfunction. As a consequence, the OBOGS did shut down (along with the cabin pressure and other on board systems) and the pilot most probably suffered a sensation of oxygen deprivation or “severely restricted breathing”. He channellized his attention on restoring the airflow to his oxygen mask to mitigate the sense of suffocation he was experiencing and failed to recover from ununsual attitude using the appropriate corrective actions.
While trying to activate the emergency oxygen system he didn’t notice he had rolled the plane inverted and put it in a supersonic steep dive that led to a controlled flight into terrain.
Nevertheless, although the report ruled out the possibility that the accident was caused by the OBOGS, it appears somehow debateable that a mishap starting with a malfunction in the system that brings the air to various systems (including the OBOGS) has nothing to do with several previous F-22 in-flight emergencies by pilots experiencing lack of oxygen.
Image source: US Air Force
Provided that we can consider the F-22 a controlled flight into terrain only caused by a pilot error, both the Strike Eagle in Libya and the Raptor in Alaska crashed because of the so-called human factor.
Even if experience, technology, training and simulators have improved the safety standards, military aviation is still subject to pilot errors because of the type of flying. High speed planes maneuvering close one another in a hostile environment are likely more subject to risk of human error than an airline pilot.
Some believe the extensive use of drones will reduce error occurrences because, by eliminating the stress caused by flying on a conventional asset, drone’s pilot will be able to apply the right emergency procedure at the right time. However, if you look at the AIB reports page for FY11 or FY10, you’ll notice that many documents deal with drone mishaps and that the vast majority blame pilot errors as the root cause of the accidents.
“Pilot’s improper control of aircraft airspeed and AOA that caused the aircraft to enter a stall and spin” (Link 1); “pilot failed to correctly execute the procedure to turn on the aircraft’s Stability Augmentation System” (Link 2); “pilot deviating from check list procedures” (Link 3); “failure of the student pilot and instructor pilot to recognize that the aircraft’s speed was too low for the weather conditions” (Link 4); “pilot error caused primarily by mishap pilot2’s channelized attention away from flying the mishap RPA and an inattention to the high terrain in the MRPA’s immediate vicinity. Furthermore, inattention by both MP1 and MP2 resulted from a perceived absence of threat from the environment” (Link 5); “Loss of aircraft control due to mishap pilot failure to apply stall recovery procedure” (Link 6).
So, the fact that pilots of robots operate inside a ground control station without risking their own life does not reduce the risk of losing the drone because of a human error.
According to a U.S. today report about 30 percent of airmen who control attack robots have been experiencing emotional stress caused from long hours of work.
Looks like pilots and operators who manage U.S. drones working for 50 – 60 hours per week, with an amount of tasks that has quadrupled from 2007 to 2011, complain “of frequent shift changes, “mind-numbing” monotony, strains on families and ever-increasing workloads” to such an extent that there are many on the edge of mental illnesses.
Actually, as reported in the above mentioned article, Lt. Gen. Larry James, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, ruled out the possibility that any of the pilot errors identified as root cause of drone accident were tied to emotional stress.
At least, “in contrast to the job exhaustion rates, researchers found very low levels of post-traumatic stress disorder” the article explains, without forgetting the main difference between an airplane pilot and a drone one: convetional pilots risk their own life each time they make an error.