Monthly Archives: May 2017

Red Flag Memories: Combat Pilot Explains How RF Has Evolved And Why The F-35 Is A Real Game Changer In Future Wars

Red Flag is not a “joke” as some critics have said. It’s an exercise that continues to evolve to replicate the most modern scenarios, where 5th Gen. aircraft are pivotal to the final success.

Red Flag is one of the biggest high-intensity exercises in world. It is designed to simulate the first 10 days of a conflict with hundreds of assets involved. A friendly force (Blue Air) against an enemy force (Red Air) in a scenario designed to provide pilots with real combat experiences so that they can improve their skill set before heading into actual combat. Something evident in the Red Flag motto as well: “Train as you fight, fight as you train”.

I took part in RF twice during my career: in 2002, I was at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for a “standard” RF, whereas in 2010 I deployed to Alaska for the so-called Red Flag-Alaska (read here about the epic transatlantic flight we undertook to take six Tornado bombers back to Italy after RF-A..).

RF has the ability to bring the pilot into a unique realistic scenario, and is also a place where new tactics are born, developed or put to test.

I remember more than 70 aircraft scheduled to depart from Nellis AFB one morning; one big COMAO per day with a scenario featuring different type of threats (Surface-to-Air and Air-to-Air), targets and ROE (Rules of engagement).

Believe me, RF is much more than a normal large-scale exercise!

Ever-changing scenarios

After attending two RFs I can assert I’ve seen scenarios changing a lot throughout the time.

In 2002 we had a well-defined set up, we knew where the enemy was, how it would react to our presence, where the threats were located etc.; in 2010, we faced a “border line” scenario with enemy elements embedded in friendly forces or civilian population, where CDE (Collateral Damage Estimation) was extremely important, where target VID (Visual IDentification) or  EOID (Electro Optical IDentification) were the main success factors in the simulated air campaign. In other words, 8 years apart, the RF scenario had evolved to adapt to the ever-changing “combat environment.”

The most recent RFs prove that the exercise continues to change.

For instance, while maintaining the standard coalitions scheme (Blue and Red forces), RF 17-1 had the two teams involved in a “crisis” instead of a war situation. On top of that, not only does the scenario has introduced the latest and most sophisticated and capable threats that require a change in tactics, but it has also moved on a higher level, focusing on the importance of  “battlefield information management,” a kind of task the much debated F-35 is going to master.

Today, taking part in a RF means joining pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators, for testing and training operations at Nellis as well as the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas.

All the participants have only one goal in mind: working together to FITS “Find, Identify, Track and Strike” the adversary, to attack forces in a multi-domain battlefield which is based on what we have encountered so far in theater and what we may expect to find in the future wars. This is the real core business and the big change of the most recent RFs.

A RF mission is usually made of 20-25 adversaries: not only aircraft, but also ground-to-air threats, moving and unknown threats etc. In other words, the old fixed scenario has become much more “dynamic” requiring a real-time “combat battlefield” coordinator.

Therefore, the most recent RF scenarios aim to develop the ability to fuse all the combat capabilities. In this context, the F-35 brings to the package the ability to penetrate deep into the most complex and “unknown” environments providing the “overall control” of the battlefield. The F-35, as well as any other modern aircraft with similar sensor fusing ability, can also work in a complementary fashion with the 4th generation fighters, sharing the information with all the other “players” while providing its own amount of fire power to the team.

Stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th generation features (i.e. superior information management), were pivotal to achieve the overall RF’s mini-campaign results.

Maintainers from the 419th and 388th Fighter Wings conduct conducts preflight checks on an F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 24, 2017. Airmen from the active duty 388th FW and Air Force Reserve 419th FW fly and maintain the Lightning II in a total force partnership, capitalizing on the strength of both components. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

Although the reliance on a single capability or asset will not be enough to succeed in the future scenarios, the F-35, as a “combat battlefield” coordinator, is a “game changer”: it brings new flexibility, new capabilities and, above all, helps enhancing the “survivability” of the coalition packages.

In a “crisis” situation, the coalition needs to timely react to a fast evolving scenario. With the ability to collect, manage and distribute intelligence data, during RF 17-1 the F-35s were able to geo-locate the threats and target them with the required (simulated) weaponry. Even when the F-35s had expended all their ordnance they were requested to stay in the fight and assist the rest of the package by collecting live battlefield data and passing it to older 4th generation fighters via Link-16.

This is the value-add of 5th generation fighters: their ability to suppress enemy targets while contributing to dominate the air and battlespace supporting “legacy” aircraft.

Believe me, it’s not easy to be fighter, striker and tactical battlefield coordinator at same time! So whatever the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) or the role of the F-22 that teamed with the F-35 were, the 20:1 kill ratio against the aggressors is a pretty impressive achievement.

Analysing the RF 17-1, it is quite impressive (at least from an old-school fighter pilot’s standpoint) to hear that the F-35 flew right on top of the threat, did its job performing successful strikes and providing command and control tasks to other COMAO assets, before returning home unscathed.

The Red Flags I attended in the past did only feature “conventional” fight with no 5th generation asset involved. My job as wingman was to keep visual contact with my leader, follow him while he managed the air-to-air picture and, if everything went well, reach the TGT (target) area, using terrain masking, without being targeted by the red air or ground-to-air systems . Less than a decade ago, the friendly forces did not have the capability to target advanced surface-to-air missile threats with an aircraft like the F-35A and exercise planners were obliged to simulate the engagement of the most heavily defended targets with long-range “standoff” weapons – like Tomahawk cruise missiles – a kind of air strike that would require an outstanding intelligence coordination and would not fit too well in case of moving targets.

An Italian Air Force Tornado takes off at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska on June 18, 2010 in support of training exercise Red Flag – Alaska. More than 1,300 personnel including members of the Italian Air Force and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force have deployed to Alaska to participate in RED FLAG-Alaska 10-3. U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

That changed significantly with the advent of new generation aircraft. The wingmen flying 5th gen. aircraft today, act as air battle managers who are able to “see” the battlefield in a way an F-15 or an F-16 pilot will never see, whereas their leaders can drop PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) on ground targets or engage enemy fighters.

In 2002, everybody came in into fight, moving from BVR (Beyond Visual Range) and eventually to WVR (Within Visual Range) for a big merge; today, the adversaries roughly know where the stealth fighter *could* be, but they don’t know exactly where they are, how they will approach the target or maneuver to engage the enemy.

Summing up, the real added value of 5th Gen. aircraft (both during RFs and in case of real wars) is their ability to perform information distribution, real-time battlefield management, and dynamic FITS (Find, Identified, Track and Strike) reducing the risk of attrition or collateral damage.

 

A Highly-Modified Boeing 757 Pivotal To Enhance The F-22 Raptor 5th Generation Stealth Aircraft

The Flying Test Bed routinely flies with real F-22 Raptors both at Edwards and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada in order to gain an early look at F-22 mission software.

N757A is a highly modified and instrumented Boeing 757 that has been retrofitted to act as an F-22 flying laboratory. Also referred to as the Flying Test Bed (FTB), the aircraft (the first B757 ever produced), is used to perform flight test of F-22 avionics and sensors in an open-air, operationally representative environment.

The weird 757 Flying Test Bed was used to test the Raptor’s avionics in flight, before the first Raptor ever flew: this was critical to speed up the development of F-22’s avionics – “more highly integrated than anything in existence” – enabling extensive in-flight testing, evaluation and troubleshooting while reducing risk and costs.

The test avionics are operated from a simulated F-22 cockpit installed in the cabin that embeds primary and secondary F-22 displays, as well as a throttle and stick. According to Boeing, the FTB has room on the aircraft for up to 30 software engineers and technicians who can evaluate the avionics, identify anomalies and, in some cases, resolve problems in real-time. Moreover, additional modifications to the 757 include installation of an F-22 radar housed in the forward fuselage section of the quite distinctive nose of the plane, and installation of a sensor wing on the crown of the plane immediately behind the flight deck.

Since the F-22 continues to grow as new software releases make new features, sensors and capabilities available, the FTB, routinely flies with F-22 Raptors both at Edwards AFB, California, and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada: these joint missions provide the testers an early look at F-22 mission software before the code is released to developmental flight testers, mainly at Edwards.

Although not as much as the F-35, the F-22’s 5th generation capabilities are mostly “software-defined.” For instance, an initial air-to-surface capability, including that of dropping the GBU-39 (a 250-lb multipurpose, insensitive, penetrating, blast-fragmentation warhead for stationary targets equipped with deployable wings for extended standoff range, whose integration testing started in 2007) was introduced on the U.S. premiere air superiority fighter with the software increment 3.1 back in 2012. Then, with the latest upgrades the F-22s have become a real multi-role platformsthat can drop 8 GBU-39 small diameter bombs (while previously limited to carry two 1,000-lb GBU-32 JDAMs – Joint Direct Attack Munitions) in the internal weapon bay, and the AIM-9X Sidewinder, that was first introduced operationally on Mar. 1, 2016 by the 90th Fighter Squadron.

Two F-22 Raptors from the 411th Flight Test Squadron fly over Edwards Air Force Base, California. (Courtesy photo by Chad Bellay/Lockheed Martin)

Noteworthy, the FTB visited Edwards earlier in May to examine the F-22 Raptor program’s upgraded mission software, a U.S. Air Force release states.

“This particular FTB deployment provided an excellent training opportunity for the FTB test team, as well as members of the F-22 CTF, while reducing risk to the F-22 3.2B (software) program by allowing us to have an early look at some prototype mission software planned for the final 3.2B software delivery,” said Rachel Kitzmann, Boeing Agile Integration Laboratory F-22 lead test director. “Our F-22 mission equipment is completely segregated from the 757 flight controls, so we can fly with prototype software that has not gone through a formal Equipment Operational Flight Clearance process. This allows us to have an early look at developmental software and problem fixes prior to release to the 411 Flight Test Squadron here at Edwards.”

Interestingly, FTB has the ability to load different software in real-time during flight, allowing multiple configurations to be tested during early developmental testing in pretty long missions, lasting up to seven hours. When not in flight, the FTB is connected to Boeing’s Agile Integration Ground Laboratory, which allows the company to add additional hardware, instrumentation and test equipment required to perform system-level integration and development testing.

“The FTB saves money and reduces the F-22 modernization timeline,” said Kevin Sullivan, 411th FLTS F-22 avionics lead. “It provides risk reduction because it’s easier to fly, fix, fly more quickly instead of having software certified and loaded into an actual F-22. It allows us to look at the avionics software in an F-22 representative hardware and software environment and is capable of acting like an F-22, which can integrate with our F-22s here during test sorties.”

The FTB has been supporting the development of F-22’s mission software well before the Raptor’s first flight (image credit: LM)

The FTB is based at St. Louis Missouri, since May 5. Previously it operated from Boeing Field in Washington where it had been based since 1999.

Top image credit: Sunil Gupta/Wikimedia

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Russian Activity In The Baltic Region Leads To Spike In Alert Scrambles By NATO Interceptors Supporting BAP Mission

The NATO fighter aircraft supporting BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission in the Baltic States conducted six alert scrambles to identify and escort Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea in one week.

The Ministry of National Defence Republic of Lithuania has just released some interesting data about the activities conducted by the NATO fighter aircraft deployed to the Baltic States in support of NATO BAP mission.

According to the Lithuanian MoD, in the week between May 22 and 28, allied aircraft were called to perform six alert scrambles to identify and escort Russian combat planes flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea.

On May 22 interceptors were scrambled to intercept one An-26 of the Russian Federation flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad Oblast in international airspace over the Baltic sea. The Russian transport plane was flying according to a pre-filed FPL, maintained radio contact with the ATC agencies but had its onboard transponder switched off.

On the same day, another Russian An-26 flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad was intercepted over the Baltic (once again and as usual in international airspace) because the submitted flight plan did not correspond to the actual flight and, although the aircrew had radio contact with the ATC, the transponder was switched off.

On May 23 NATO fighter jets were directed to intercept one Tu-134 of the Russian Federation in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The twin-engined, narrow-body, transport aircraft was flying inbound to Kaliningrad with the transponder switched off: although the ATC had bilateral radio contact with the Tu-134 (NATO reporting name: Crusty) the flight plan for the aircraft had been submitted behind time.

On May 25 NATO fighters intercepted one an Il-20 Coot spyplane flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The Il-20 intelligence gathering aircraft did not have a filed FPL, did not maintain radio contact and did not use the onboard transponder, a kind of behaviour that has raised some concern in the past, when Russians spyplanes flying in the vicinity of busy airways have almost collided with civilian traffic in the region as happened for instance on Mar. 3, 2014, when SAS flight SK 681, a Boeing 737 with 132 people on board from Copenhagen to Rome almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden.

On May 26 NATO air policing fighter aircraft intercepted one Russian Tu-134 escorted by two Su-27 Flankers that were flying from Kaliningrad to the mainland Russia in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. Although the Tu-134 had a valid flight plan, the onboard transponder switched on and kept radio contact with the ATC,  the two Su-27s that escorted it till the Gulf of Finland and then returned to Kaliningrad over international waters, had no FPL, onboard transponders off, and did not maintain radio contact with the local air traffic control agencies.

On May 28 NATO aircraft intercepted one An-72 and two escorting Su-27s flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad in international waters over the Baltic Sea. The An-72 was flying according to a pre-filed flight plan, kept radio contact and used the onboard transponder. The Su-27 complied with none of these requirements according to the Lithuanian authorities.

The spike in alert scrambles comes after some weeks of calmness with just six scrambles in the period between March 27 and May 22.

The Polish Air Force carries out the BAP mission with four F-16 fighter aircraft from Poznan deployed to Šiauliai, Lithuania, while the Spanish Air Force deployed five F-18 Hornets from Zaragoza Air Base in Spain, to Ämari, Estonia.

H/T @cezarysta for the heads-up. Image Credit: Filip Modrzejewski

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New Video Shows The Last Sea Vixen Jet Performing A Belly Landing At Yeovilton

The last remaining Sea Vixen jet made an emergency landing at Yeovilton, UK. And here’s an interesting video.

As we have already reported, the last remaining Sea Vixen aircraft, XP924 G-CVIX “Foxy Lady”, performed an emergency landing at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, UK, on May 27.

The Sea Vixen, the first British two-seat aircraft type to break the sound barrier in a dive in the early 1950s, was returning to its homebase after taking part in Duxford airshow, near Cambridge, when it experienced a failure that prevented the undercarriage to be lowered, forcing the pilot to perform an emergency gear-up landing.

Steven Canning, a reader of The Aviationist, filmed the successful belly-landing at Yeovilton: the clip shows the pilot releasing the canopy as soon as the Sea Vixen touches the runway (in order to escape the cockpit as fast as possible) and the aircraft sliding up the runway, pretty much under control and closely followed by emergency vehicles,  until it comes to a rest.

Video credit: Steven Canning

“Foxy Lady” first flew on Sept. 23, 1963 and was delivered to 899 Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton on Dec. 18, 1963. It was retired from active service in August 1971.  It is currently operated by Fly Navy Heritage Trust Navy Wings from Yeovilton.

 

Sea Vixen Does Wheels-Up Emergency Landing at Yeovilton

Pilot Uninjured After Excellent Airmanship during Belly-Landing.

The last remaining Sea Vixen aircraft, XP924 G-CVIX “Foxy Lady”, has made an emergency landing without landing gear at Yeovilton, UK, on May 27.

The pilot was uninjured and walked away from the aircraft after jettisoning the canopy upon touchdown on the tarmac.

Mr. Scott Dabinett, 32, of Yeovil, Somerset, UK captured excellent photos of the incident. Here is his account of the incident:

“As always when I have the chance to photograph aircraft I made arrangements with the wife to visit Yeovilton airfield. I arrived early and set up the camera equipment.

Due to possible weather issues the display time had been brought forward and the aircraft would be leaving at 1615. It took off on time as planned. We waited the hour and ten minutes for the flight as planned. A chap had a handheld scanner so we could hear what was going on.

The Sea Vixen prior to today’s incident shot by Paul Smith.

The aircraft returned from Duxford and flew up the runway. We then heard radio communications between the tower and the pilot asking for visual of the landing gear. The response was your undercarriage is clean, which means it is still up. After several more passes and discussion between pilot and tower and other emergency personnel, it was soon announced that this was going to be a gear-up belly landing.

The Sea Vixen performing a pass prior to today’s incident (credit: Paul Smith)

The feeling between the few of us standing by was that this does not look good. On the final approach we all crossed our fingers and held our breaths whilst pointing our cameras at the Sea Vixen.

As soon as she touched the runway the canopy was released and engines were shut down. She slid up the runway very smoothly and under control. It was much quieter than I was expecting. Eventually she came to a stop. We kept waiting for movement from the pilot.

The emergency landing as photographed by Mr. Scott Dabinett

The Sea Vixen performs the gear up landing (credit: Mr. Scott Dabinett)

As soon as we saw the pilot was OK we all started breathing again. Everyone was shaking. The emergency guys were on the scene straight away and took control of the situation. I would like to ask people to visit the navy wings website and make donations if possible as it will help repair aircraft like this that otherwise will be lost for good.”

[Editor’s Note: The aircraft is kept flying largely through private donations to the Navy Wings site at this link: https://www.navywings.org.uk/support-us/sea-vixen-appeal-2017/]

This incident might have been caused by a hydraulic problem that prevented extending the landing gear. Interestingly, a similar incident occurred 46 years ago on Sept. 15, 1970 at RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset in the UK when Sea Vixen XJ561 performed an emergency landing without landing gear. That aircraft was written off and subsequently scrapped in 1974.

The incident is somehow alarming in the wake of an unusually high number of airshow accidents early last airshow season in 2016. In June last year there were four serious airshow accidents around the world in only one week. The accidents involved the U.S. Navy Blue Angels who suffered the loss of Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that lost an F-16 aircraft, the Russian Knights aerobatic team that also suffered a fatality and the Swiss demonstration team, Patrouille Suisse that had two aircraft involved in a collision.

Airshow incidents are of particular concern in the UK because of the August 2015 crash of a Hawker Hunter T7 at Shoreham Airshow, Shoreham Airport. There were 11 fatalities from the crash on the ground and 16 injuries. It was the deadliest airshow accident in the United Kingdom since a 1952 crash at the Farnborough Air Show that killed 31 people. Oddly, the show in 1952 continued the next day following the deadly accident.

Sea Vixen XP924 “Foxy Lady” is operated by Fly Navy Heritage Trust Navy Wings. According to information published on the Navy Wings web page:

“Sea Vixen XP 924 first flew on September 23, 1963 and was delivered to 899 Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton on December 18, 1963.  The aircraft suffered several incidents in squadron service.  Tyre bursts, canopy shattering, some engine problems and, while onboard HMS Eagle, an inadvertent release of a practice bomb near the island of Gan in the Indian Ocean.  Retirement from active service sent her to Royal Naval Aircraft Yard at Belfast in August 1971.  The Royal Aircraft Establishments (RAE) at Farnborough and Llanbedr were in possession from 4 June 1973 until August 1977.  Flight Refuelling took over on 11 October 1977 at Tarrant Rushton and converted her to a Drone (D3) with a Red and Yellow paint scheme to improve visual acuity.  In February 1996 she was taken on by de Havilland Aviation and was re-registered as G-CVIX.  In May 2003 she was painted in promotional “Red Bull” colours as a sponsorship arrangement and was subsequently purchased on 18 April 2006 by Drilling Systems Ltd (Mr. Julian Jones) and operated from Bournemouth.  March 2007 saw a return to Naval colours as XP 924 with the 899 Squadron mailed fist logo.  The aircraft was gifted to Naval Aviation Ltd in September 2014 and now operates from the Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.”

The emergency landing as photographed by Mr. Scott Dabinett

The Sea Vixen has finally come to a halt after the successful gear-up landing (credit: Scott Dabinett).

The Sea Vixen is an unusually configured aircraft that first flew in 1951. It was the first British two-seat aircraft to break the sound barrier when it achieved Mach speed in a dive during its operational testing phase in the early 1950’s. It was replaced by the F-4 Phantom in British service.

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