Monthly Archives: September 2011

On board a modern stealth Anti-Air Warfare destroyer

According to the US DoD, the term “Anti-Air Warfare” is used to indicate the action required to destroy or reduce to an acceptable level the enemy air and missile threat. It includes measures such as the use of manned interceptors, bombers, AAA and guns, SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) and air-to-air missiles and electronic attack needed to destroy the incoming threat or to reduce its effectiveness.

Do you remember the missile that exploded 2 km from the frigate “Bersagliere” 15 miles off Libya, on Aug 3? Or the the four Scud missiles fired in the Sirte area towards Misratah and intercepted before they were due to impact on the city by missiles fired by a USN cruiser operating in the Gulf of Sirte? These episodes show that vessels can be targeted (even by accident) by missiles and that the presence of AAW warships is extremely important in current maritime operations.

The “Caio Duilio” is a brand new Anti-Air Warfare destroyer belonging to the Horizon Common New Generation Frigate (CNGF) programme, which involves cooperation between Italy and France for the construction of two vessels for the fleet of each national Navy. The ship was taken on charge by the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) on Apr. 3, 2009 and is equipped with a Sylver vertical launcher for 48 Aster 15 and 30 missiles, autonomous Command and Control capabilities, LRR S-1850 M long range radar, and PAAMS (Principal Anti Air Missile System) based on Windows 2000 software with an EMPAR multi-function radar. Interestingly, it was designed with straight lines that give the unit some stealth (low observability) capabilities.

In 2009, during the Armed Forces Days, the Italian Navy offered guided tours of the ship at Civitavecchia harbour with some interesting photo opportunities. Images below were taken by Maduli during that visit.


The ship is named after Gaius Duilius  a Roman politician and admiral involved in the First Punic War, who lived in the 3rd century BC and gave the Ancient Rome the dominion of the sea.

On Sept. 22, 2011, at Gaeta, the “Caio Duilio” AAW frigate received the battle flag, which marked its official entry into the fleet. The ceremony was attended by the Italian Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. Biagio Abrate; by the Italian Navy Chief of Staff, Adm. Bruno Branciforte; by the Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno; and by the ship commander, Capt. Paolo Pezzutti.

The first ship of the same class, the “Andrea Doria” has been already employed in the enforcement of the maritime embargo in Libya and in anti-piracy operations.

Giovanni Maduli attended the ceremony at Gaeta and boarded once again the “Caio Duilio” AAW destroyer to take the following pictures.

Laser strike against a Police helicopter caught on tape

Using a laser pointer against an aircraft is never a good idea and it can lead to an immediate arrest, especially if you strike a Police helicopter equipped with an IR TV camera.

The following video, released by the FBI, was taken on the night of Apr.27, 2010, when a 24-year old guy, Justin Stouder, was testing a laser pointer with a friend from his suburban St. Louis yeard. He was aiming at a distant tower when a Metro Air Support helicopter appeared 1.5 miles away. Few seconds later Stouder pointed the laser at the chopper and within minutes, police officers converged on his home and arrested him.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Doug Reinholz, who was piloting the helo with St. Louis County Police Sgt. Dan Cunningham on the FBI website says:

“People don’t realize by the time the laser hits us, the beam of light has grown, it’s no longer a pinpoint. And the plexiglass on the helicopter disperses the light even more. It was very disorientating.”

According to those who have suffered a “high light intoxication” on one eye, the laser appears in the cockpit as a flash of a camera in a pitch black car at night.

Interfering with a flying aircraft in the US can lead to a maximum of 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release, and pay a $250,000 fine.

In January 2011, the FAA announced that more than 2,800 reports of lasers strikes on aircraft have been recorded in 2010. In Italy, during the second half of 2010, 264 occurrences (involving both civil and military planes) have been recorded.  In the UK someone dared to point the laser to some AH-64 attack helos.

However, such kind of events have become quite frequent all around the world and laser attacks against planes during landing have been occurring almost daily.

Sion airshow: warbirds, aerobatic display teams and the usual MMRCA contenders

The Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale combat planes haven’t missed a chance to display their capabilities during the last year. Aero India 2011, Le Bourget, Royal International Air Tattoo, Operation Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector are only some of the public events or operations that saw the two fighter planes virtually dogfighting in a marketing campaign marked by a series of breathtaking air displays and many interesting press releases and war stories.

In fact, as almost everybody know by now, the French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon were shortlisted for the big MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) tender worth about $10 billion USD (“the biggest fighter aircraft deal since the early 1990s” for +126 planes) whose winner should be announced next month. However, they hope to get orders also in Brazil, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bulgaria and Greece, countries where they face the fierce competition of other advanced “hardware” as the Boeing F-18E Super Hornet, the JAS-39 Gripen, and F-16 Block 60.

There are also export chances in Libya, where a deal for 14 Rafales was almost closed in 2008 with Gaddafi and there will be the need to re-equip the Free Libya Air Force in the future; and in Switzerland, whose Schweizer Luftwaffe is in the need to replace its old-fashioned F-5 Tiger planes.

Therefore, the Breitling Sion airshow 2011 (Sept. 15-17), this year’s largest Swiss airshow, provided another chance for a “show of force” of the two European fighter planes in front of potential customers.

Anyway, along with the Rafale Solo display team and the GAF Typhoon, the Sion airshow was attended by many other interesting warbirds as the following pictures, taken by Alessandro Fucito, show.

BTW if you want to know something more about the condensation clouds surrounding some aircraft during some hi-speed maneuvers, read Sonic booms and condensation clouds (explained).

The mysterious E-6B orbits over UK on the night Osama Bin Laden was killed

The first thing I did when Lee Armstrong told me to give a try to Planefinder‘s new search feature was to look for some E-6Bs, which are among the most interesting military planes to advertise their position on the Web using full ADS-B. They can be seen flying around the main operating base of Tinker AFB, or near the two alert bases on the West and East coasts (respectively, Travis AFB, California, and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland) under the bogus callsign “GOTO FMS”.

Since I found four of them overflying the U.S.  I ironically tweeted:

There are at least four E-6B doomsday planes over the US now. One of them on an intriguing route across Nevada (Tonopah range -> Las Vegas)

Many of my followers reacted to my tweet with questions and retweets. I explained them that the E-6B TACAMO (“TAke Charge And Move Out”) is not only used transmit instructions to the fleet ballistic missile submarines in case of nuclear war but that they are also used as back up of the four E-4Bs NAOC (National Alternate Operations Center), operating as ABNCP (Airborne Command Post) platforms.

Everybody know E-4Bs are extremely important. In the event of a war, a terrorist attack, an alien invasion and so on (hence the “doomsday plane” nickname), these aircraft are destined to keep the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other “decision makers” alive to direct nuclear (and conventional) forces, by receiving, verifying and relaying EAM (Emergency Action Messages).

One aircraft is usually airborne every 12 hours, with another one ready for departure with a 5-minute notice. If national command centers on the ground are attacked or unavailable, an E-4B is immediately scrambled: that’s why a “doomsday plane” was seen orbiting above Washington DC minutes after a hijacked plane had crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

The E-6B Mercury can do the same job. Built on the Boeing 707 airframe and using a B737 cockpit, this aircraft has a range of 5,500 miles, and accommodates 23 crew members. The U.S. Navy has a total fleet of sixteen E-6Bs. It can perform the so-called Looking Glass mission (mirroring the ground-based C3 center at Offutt AFB and relaying orders), it can talk to submarines trailing a 26,000 ft wire antenna, it can launch commands to ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) via Airborne Launch Control System, and can perform C3 (Command Control Communication) operations to forces operating in theatre. For this reason they are often deployed abroad: they were monitored in Iraq and have been deployed to the UK in the past.

An E-6Bs flying over the UK when Osama Bin Laden was killed

Even if I was sure that an E-6 had taken part to the raid at Abbottabad as an ABNCP platform (to such an extent that I had put one these planes in the “crime scene” of my Operation Neptune’s Spear explained article) I had never realized that the one over UK could be linked to the Osama Bin Laden raid. Actually, I wasn’t even sure that the plane deployed to RAF Mildenhall since Apr. 28 was flying when the raid took place.

However, once again I thought that Planefinder could be of some help. Its new playback feature gives you the opportunity to monitor the traffic from Apr. 1, 2011 onwards. I gave it a try and found that “Iron 18” (registration 164409 – “GOTO FMS” on the Mode-S transponder – a VQ-3 “Ironman” airframe based on its callsign), was flying at 310 Kts, FL260 one of its 8-hour round robin missions (made of some counter-clockwise laps) over the UK around 19.0o UTC on May 1, 2011, at the same time when the Stealth Black Hawk had landed at the Bin Laden’s compound.

Two screenshots showing Iron 18 orbiting over the UK on May 1, 2011 (the previous days’ tracks are not purged by Planefinder’s playback feature so also the inbound track from the US is still visible)

Interestingly, the same aircraft had flown the same mission profile on the previous days, landing more or less at the same time it did on May 1 (at 20.26 UTC), as if it had performed a couple of work up sorties at the same altitutes, speeds and times.

Actually, these kind of orbits over the UK have been flown from some years and communication relay missions take place nearer to the area of operations. However, the mysterious E-6B presence in the British skies while the most important US military operation of the recent time took place can not be a coincidence. The Mercury is capable to communicate on virtually every radio frequency band, on commercial satellites and on the Internet, using also a secure VOIP system.

What if it was orbiting over the UK to exploit a particular geostationary satellite or to act as a back up ABNCP  another E-6B flying in the vicinity of Abbottabad?

There’s also another intriguing hypothesis: “Iron 18” was performing command and control relay to two stealth B-2s that were flying somewhere in the vicinity of the Pakistani airspace, ready to bomb the compound in Abbottabad if the Navy Seals raid on board the Stealth Black Hawk failed to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. In fact, we know for sure that, in March 2011, Obama authorized the U.S. to bomb Osama bin Laden’s compound using two B-2 bombers but changed his mind when he learned the compound would be wiped out and there would be no DNA proof of his death. But we can’t rule out the possibility that an air strike with 2,000 lbs GBU-31 GPS-guided bombs would be the “Plan B” if the Navy Seals raid failed.

E-6B 164409 in a picture taken by Andrew W. Sieber in 2007

Could a satellite falling to Earth hit an airplane?

If you live below the red line in one of the two images below, please consider the 0,9% probability that one of the 26 pieces of debris (from 0,6 to 158 kg) from a satellite could fall on your head between 1.00pm LT on Sept. 23 and 5.00 am LT on Saturday Sept. 24, 2011. So, keep your eye on the sky.

Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), a giant 12,500-pound NASA satellite decommissioned in 2005 is expected to re-enter the atmosphere at 17,000 mph with extremely little chances of striking a person. Actually, objects reenter the atmosphere on a daily basis: satellites gradually fall back due to atmospheric drag and solar radiation pressure and, according to the TIME, an intact spacecraft or launch vehicle orbital stage falls back to Earth once a week. They usually fall in the open seas.

Air traffic authorities in Italy are currently evaluating whether to free the civil and military airspaces and routes interested by the predicted space junk’s path. However, nobody seems to be evaluating the possibility of evacuating fixed “targets” like buildings, hospitals, schools, etc. Why? Are moving targets more vulnerable than fixed ones? Obviously not. Most probably, the reason is that moving targets can be re-routed to nullify any risk of a hit, while fixed targets can’t be moved, and residual risk must be accepted.

I don’t know if there’s a specific analysis about the risk of airliners being hit by orbital junk. An interesting study by William A. Cassidy, of the Dept. of Geology and Planetary Science, on the University of Pittsburgh in 1997 who was asked to study the probability that a meteorite could have brought down TWA flight 800 estimated the expected frequency of hull-penetrating strikes to an aircraft over the U.S. in once in 59,000 – 77,000 years.

Image source: Dipartimento Protezione Civile