Monthly Archives: December 2011

U.S. Fifth Fleet vs Iran Navy update: American supercarrier monitored with…binoculars.

Here’s an update to my previous post titled “U.S. supercarrier detected by an Iranian spyplane near the Strait of Hormuz”. Trivial as that could be the last thing that plane will ever detect.

Russia Today has published the alleged video taken by an Iranian maritime surveillance plane of a U.S. supercarrier near the Strait of Hormuz.

Although it is extremely difficult to determine when the video was filmed, it shows the USS Stennis: if you see the video in full screen HD mode you’ll get a glimpse on the “74” code on the flattop’s island that designates the USS Jonh C. Stennis (CVN-74).

As shown by the video, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy Aviation (IRINA) plane gets near the aircraft carrier (whose deck is not as busy as I’d expect…) and one of the most advanced tool used by the crew members of the Fokker F-27 used for maritime patrol to monitor the ship is….a binocular.

Furthermore, the IRNA news agency has published an interesting picture of the “Saeghe” (Thunder) an indigenously modified version of the American F-5 Tiger, whose twin tails and blue colour are loosely reminiscent of the Blue Angels’ F-18s Hornet, carrying two MK-82 Snakeye (?) dumb bombs.

According to the IRNA: “The combat jets bombed the sea areas after processing the data delivered by stealth reconnaissance aircraft.”

Which one?

"U.S. supercarrier detected by an Iranian spyplane near the Strait of Hormuz". Trivial as that could be the last thing that plane will ever detect.

According to the news reported by the Iranian news agency IRNA, an Iranian warplane involved in the Velayat-90 exercise has identified a U.S. flattop near the Strait of Hormuz.

“This shows that the Iranian Navy keeps a close eye on the movements of all ultra-regional forces in the region and checks their activities,” said the Iranian Navy’s Deputy Commander Rear Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi.

The news came the day after the U.S. 5th Fleet, based at Manama in Bahrain, said it would not tolerate any disruption to the freedom of navigation in the area after Iran earlier threatened it will block the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions against Tehran are toughened.

Some western media have added that the Iranian spyplane took some photographs of the U.S. aircraft carrier it detected.

My first comment to the news was that if the situation was really serious, that would be the last thing that the Iranian spyplane will ever detect for various reasons.

First of all, a carrier air wing made of about 60 aircraft. For example, when I visited the USS Nimitz involved in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009, the CVW-11 was made by  20 F/A-18C (VFA-86 and VFA-97), 12 F/A-18Es (VFA-14), 12 F/A-18Fs (VFA-41), 4 E/A-6Bs (VAQ-135), 4 E-2Cs (VAW-117), 4 SH-60Fs and 3 HH-60Fs (HS-6), a “mix” that, with minor differences, can be used as a reference.

Hence, among the aircraft included in an embarked air wing (worth a small autonomous air force capable to perform a wide variety of missions), there are also some E-2C Hawkeyes, aircraft that can perform Air Space Management and Tanker Coordination tasks, to manage and deconflict planes (as done for traffic flying in the Afghan airspace during OEF tasks) and provide the “picture” to the ship’s CDC (Combat Direction Center) that can be literally interconnected to any other AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platform.

The CDC is responsible for the tactical management of all the missions launched by the carrier, by means of fighter and mission controllers whose radar screens can be fed with the tracks discovered at long distance by the Hawkeyes, one aircraft of those is always flying and ready to guide interceptors (both on alert and flying) to the identification of intruders that it can detect from several hundred miles away.

Then, a U.S. Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier does not travel alone (as recently done by the Chinese trainer Varyag) but it is the flagship of a Carrier Strike Group that usually includes two AEGIS destroyers,  a Ticonderoga class missile cruiser, a Perry-class frigate and, although they are not officially attached to the CSG, a nuclear submarine and various supporting vessel, whose task is, among the others, to defend the flattops from enemy aerial or maritime attack.

As you may understand, such a huge force does not go unnoticed. Neither it wants to as its purpose is to deploy the air wing wherever it is needed for a Crisis Support Operation or to “flew muscles”.

So, unless the news is that “an ex-US RQ-170 stealthy drone now remotely controlled by the Iranian military” has identified the USS Stennis approaching the Strait of Hormuz, the fact that a spyplane has spotted or even photographed from a long distance an American nuclear flattop is absolutely trivial.

And will not change the outcome of an eventual war.

Top military aviation stories of 2011: drones up and downs, stealth projects exposed and Libya's 7-month-long war.

Update, Dec. 28 21.35 GMT

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 vulnerable. The virus that infected the Predators’ Ground Control Station has demonstrated that even the most important assets, those that are isolated and not interconnected to public networks, are not immune to the same malware that travels on the web. But, as we have learnt with the recent capture of the stealthy Sentinel drone in Iran, combat robots face also many known threats to their Position, Navigation and Guidance system, such as jamming and spoofing, even thought it still not clear whether the CIA-operated “Beast of Kandahar” currently in Iranian hands (that could possibly study it to reverse-engineer its on board systems) crash landed some 250 km from the Afghan border for a complex cyber attack or (most likely) because of a technical glitch.

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.

It was a tough year for Lockheed Martin’s stealths. Targeted also by the Iranian satire for losing a CIA drone, LM has had a bitter year, that was made a little sweeter by the decision of the Japan’s Ministry of Defense to select the costly and troubled stealthy F-35 as the future fighter of the JASDF. The F-22 fleet was grounded for four months since May, after an accident a worrying series of disorientation and hypoxia-like syntoms complained by 14 pilots. In spite the root cause of the air-deprivation episodes was not fully identified, and the on board oxygen system was under suspiction before pilot error was blamed for a Raptor crash in Alaska, the next generation fighter plane, believed to be able to face outnumbering Chinese fighters in the future, returned to normal activity at the end of October and will be next year’s only single-ship demo team of the U.S. Air Combat Command.

War against Iran is already started. Even if some observers think that the U.S. is on the verge of a conflict with Iran after Tehran’s regime threatened to stop ships moving through the Strait of Hormuz, a covert war on Iran’s nuclear program, involving computer viruses, drones and PSYOPS is already in progress.

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.

However, some sorties led to some curious or rather embarrassing episodes, like the French Tiger that landed on a beach to pick up a Free Libya flag,  the alleged air-to-air kill of Libyan combat planes that were grounded and unserviceable, or the very difficult to explain RAF Tornado’s Storm Shadow missions from the UK.

As mysterious as the real shape of the Stealth Black Hawk.

Other interesting 2011 topics (based on pageviews)

Utøya island attack: another example of news helicopters faster to the scene than police choppers

Blue Angels’ almost crash: the risk of Controlled Flight Into Terrain during formation aerobatics

After the Argentine Air Force IA-63 Pampa crazy flyby the Argentine AF A-4AR’s fuel tank disintegrating after a high-G maneuver….

NATO Tiger Meet 2011: a real exercise with some interesting “hardware” rather than a gathering of friends

Iran's new (amateur) surveillance drone unveiled

Updated Dec. 27 10.00 GMT

Since Dec. 4, I’ve been constantly monitoring Iranian media for pictures, news releases or statements about the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured by Iran.

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.

Although this drone will remain an amateur project with no military significance, it gives us once again the opportunity to notice that, since it has showed the first (and only) images of the “Beast of Kandahar”,  the regime is stepping up the propaganda war, with frequent statements about Iran’s capability to “hack” and take over remote control of U.S. drones (although the Sentinel may have crash-landed in Iran because of technical failure) or reverse engineer the RQ-170 to build its own drones.

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.

Image source: IRNA

Stay tuned.

This, along with all the previous articles on the Sentinel drone in Iran, can be found at the following link (click and scroll down): https://theaviationist.com/category/captured-stealth-drone/

Typhoons over the Negev: the Italian Air Force and the Israeli Air Force in Exercise "Desert Dusk"

Updated Dec. 25 10.30 GMT

From Dec. 5 to 15, Tornado ECR of the 50° Stormo and Eurofighter F-2000A Typhoon of the 4° and 36° Stormo of the Italian Air Force deployed to Uvda airbase, in Israel, for the Exercise “Desert Dusk”, a small-scale joint exercise with the Israeli Air Force involving 25 planes.

During their 2-week stay, the Italian fighters that have taken part to the Operation Unified Protector in Libya (the ECR as a SEAD asset, the Typhoon flying both in the air defense and in the air-to-surface role – the latter flown only by RAF planes), accompanied by 150 military, launched 100 sorties, including some COMAOs (Composite Air Operations), that gave the Italian pilots (and for the very first time, the Typhoon fleet, that had not taken part to the first deployment in Israel in 2010) to train in high-lethality scenarios, testing the capabilities of the squadrons to deploy “out-of-area” with the support of the KC-767A and the C-130J.

These exercises allow crews to refine procedures and techniques and develop procedural standards that are extremely important to operate in Crisis Support Operations launched in an international cooperation framework.

According to the news release published on the IAF website, during the first week, the Italian flew an exercise with the 115 Sqn “Flying Dragon”, equipped with F-16A “Netz” which specializes in enemy simulation and in the second, they were joined by the 69 Sqn “Hammers”  from “Hatzerim” airbase equipped with F-15I “Ra’am” and the110 Sqn “Knights of the North” from “Ramat-David” airbase flying the F-16C “Barak”.

The “Desert Dusk” came few weeks after the Israeli Air Force F-16s deployed to Decimomannu, in Sardinia, for the Exercise Vega 2011, and in a period of growing tension in the area, caused by the capture in Iran of a U.S. stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone involved in a spy mission on the Iranian nuke program.

Actually, the news of the first Typhoon deployment in Israel came in the same days Eurofigher lost the F-X competition in Japan where the MoD announced the decision to purchase the much troubled and costly Lockheed Martin F-35 as next generation fighter plane for the JASDF. Once again (as in Swiss fighter competition won by the Gripen), a political choice rather than a decision based on merit /capability to meet requirements.

Below you can find some images of the exercise published on the IAF website. Many more interesting pictures can be found here.

Image credit: Israeli Air Force website