Monthly Archives: October 2017

First F-35B Assembled Internationally And Destined To The Italian Air Force Has Completed Its First Short Take Off And Vertical Landing

The first Italian F-35B has performed its first STOVL test flight.

On Oct. 30, the first Italian F-35B, the first assembled outside the US, carried out its first flight in short-take and vertical landing mode (STOVL) from Cameri airfield, home of the Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility, in northwestern Italy.

According to an official LM release, during the flight, a Lockheed Martin test pilot performed perfectly all STOVL mode operations, including hovering on the runway, reaching another milestone for the F-35 program in Italy. The test pilots will perform other tests before the official BL-1 aircraft is delivered to the Italian Air Force: this is worth of note since a previous release stated that the first Italian F-35B would be taken on charge by the Italian Navy. Indeed, Italy plans to procure 90 F-35s, 60 F-35As for the Air Force and 30 F-35Bs for both the ItAF and Italian Navy. Therefore, the Italian Air Force will operate a fleet of CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) and STOVL stealth jet with the latter considered to be pivotal to operate in expeditionary scenarios: a decision that has long been debated, with some analysts considering the STOVL variant unnecessary for the ItAF given that the the F-35 CTOL features a longer range and a reduced logistic footprint than the F-35B, especially in the TDY scenarios.

The aircraft, designated BL-1, had successfully completed its maiden flight on Oct. 24.

After delivery to the Italian MoD, scheduled by the end of the year, the Air Force will transfer the aircraft to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, early 2018, to obtain the Electromagnetic Environmental Effects certification.

Image credit: Sergio Marzorati via LM

Here Are Some Interesting Details About The Way U.S. B-2 Bombers Trained Over The U.S. To Strike North Korea

Some unusual activity took place in the skies over Missouri a couple of weeks ago. Including B-2s referring to air strikes on DPKR target on the radio. Just routine stuff or a message to Pyongyang?

What appears to be a medium size exercise, involving several different assets, took place over CONUS (Continental U.S.) in the night on Oct. 19 and Oct. 18, 2017.

Tons of military traffic, including B-2s and B-52s bombers, E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft supported by KC-10 and KC-135 tankers were involved in a series of simulated air strikes on little airports all over Missouri. Radio comms over unencrypted UHF frequencies as well as the use of Mode-S and ADS-B transponders allowed milair airband listeners in the area to monitor the operations and to catch some interesting details. Besides the rather unusual amount of traffic (at least according to people who have been monitoring military air traffic through radio scanner for the last 15 years), what is really interesting is the fact that, during one night, one of the aircraft radioed a message about a “possible DPRK leadership relocation site” whose coordinates pointed to a hangar located at the Jefferson City airport.

This is what one of our readers wrote to us:

On the evening of Oct. 17, my wife and I where sitting outside by a fire enjoying the evening.

Around 8pm we saw three B-2s and what appeared to be a KC-135 fly over on a heading of roughly 080 and an altitude of 25,000 or below. It was after dark but at that altitude B-2s are easily identifiable if they have navigation lights and strobes on from directly underneath. We get quite a few military aircraft in eastern Kansas and this was nothing unusual.

I have been monitoring military air-air communications as a side hobby for a number of years so B-2s as well so the overflight prompted me to run and grab a handheld scanner. Shortly after turning on the scanner I heard the B-2s working Kansas City center using “BATT” [a previous version of this article referred to the c/s as “Bat”, however, Spirit pilots pointed out the right c/s is “Batt”] callsigns (most of the time they tend to use REAPER or DEATH).

After about 30min had passed, I picked up the B-2s and other aircraft on another frequency where they where using military brevity. It was clear they where simulating some kind of battle. They where talking to another callsign MOJO getting tasking to drop GBUs on different targets. They read some target Lat/Lon over the radio: quickly plugging one into Google Maps I found they where dropping bombs on a hanger at Jefferson City, MO, airport going as far as discussing the fusing time for best effect on target.

The next evening I was ready if the exercise continued with more receivers in place and proper recording software. About the same time (roughly 8pm) they started up dropping bombs on targets with tasking from MOJO and WOLVERINE. One of the targets, consisting of several Lat/Lon sets, was the runway and hangers at Osage Beach, MO airport. At one point they called friendlies in contact and proceeded with a danger close 150m airdrop at the same hangar at Jefferson City airport as the night before.

This is the first time I have heard a exercise of this magnitude over this area.

The first night they tried to use HAVE QUICK frequency hopping and I heard several timing pulses but they couldn’t seem to get all of the members of the net setup properly (that could have been planed to practice contingency plans). They also didn’t employ any encryption that I could hear so the whole exercise was broadcast for the world to hear in plain old analog UHF AM. The most interesting part was when they radioed “a command post possible DPRK leadership relocation site” but when this was said I had not started recording it yet.

My opinion is that the Missouri Ozarks look a lot like North Korea, but we have no way of telling if something is planend or they are just preparing in case things go south.

The amount of money spent and the number of national assets involved sets this far above anything I have heard around here.”

Here below you can hear what this reader has recorded during the above drills. It’s just a 5-min audio file cut from a longer +30min version. However it gives pretty much an idea of what was happening on Oct. 18.

Was the exercise aimed at simulating a raid on a North Korean “VIP”?

Most probably yes. This is something that is being planned for months. Night missions of three-ship B-2 flights (using the very same callsign “Batt”) are standard practice as our recent story of three Spirit stealth bombers refueling over southwest Missouri few days before the above exercise was monitored proves.

What is weird is the fact that radio comms included a clear reference to a DPKR target. Indeed, it’s no secret that thousand radiohams, aviation geeks, aircraft spotters etc. use radio transmission to track military air traffic. For this reason, real ops are always conducted with a strict radio discipline, so that no detail is leaked to the “enemy” (or anyone who should not have the right to listen) and encrypted radio frequencies or frequency hopping techniques are used. However, the whole exercise was carried out on very well known unencrypted frequencies. This could have happened because of a mistake (usually names of enemy nations are never specified during radio comms) or on purpose, to let the word spread that the B-2 are preparing to attack North Korean targets. A sort of subliminal message such as the one sent with a video that showed, for the very first time, a Spirit bomber drop a 30,000-pound MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) “Bunker Buster” bomb or one of the various show of force missions flown from the U.S. (or Guam) to the Korean peninsula.

Dealing with Mode-S transponders, these made some of the aircraft involved in the ops, visibile on flight tracking websites. However, this is far from being unusual: despite the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders many aircraft, including RC-135s, Global Hawks and other strategic ISR platforms operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Okie 33 was a KC-135 supporting the B-2s during their simulated air strikes.

An E-3 Sentry also supported the Spirit bombers during their simulated air strikes.


Top image: Todd Miller

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Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Claim They Have Shot Down A Saudi Eurofighter Typhoon Over Yemen

Yemeni media outlets are reporting that a Royal Saudi Air Force Typhoon was shot down over Yemen yesterday. However no pictures have been released to back Houthi rebels claims, so far.

According to several still unconfirmed media reports, a RSAF Typhoon fighter was shot down by Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels on Oct. 27. The fate of the pilot is unknown at the time of writing. No images of the wreckage or any other kind of evidence have been released so far.

“Yemen’s air defense unit told the country’s Arabic-language al-Masirah television network that the aircraft had been targeted with a surface-to-air missile as it was flying in the skies over Nihm district east of the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a on Friday evening,” Yemen Press reported.

For the moment there haven’t been comments by the Saudi-led coalition over the Houthi claims. Still, Saudi sources, including popular Saudi military aviation expert @MbKS15, deny the accident has occurred, saying it’s just propaganda.

Earlier this month, on Oct. 1, a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down over Sanaa: footage filmed from several different locations (the UAV was over the capital in daylight conditions when it was destroyed) depicted the incident from start to finish.

If confirmed, this would be the second Saudi Typhoon lost over Yemen while supporting Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led air war on the Houthi rebels in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula: indeed, a RSAF Eurofighter crashed into a mountain in Al Wade’a district on Sept. 13. Back then, the cause of the crash was an alleged technical failure during a CAS (Close Air Support) mission. The pilot, identified as Mahna al-Biz, died in the accident.

Anyway, provide the reports are accurate and a Typhoon has really been shot down, the accident would be the fourth crash of a Eurofighter jet in one a a half months: along with the already mentioned RSAF Typhoon combat aircraft that crashed in Yemen on Sept. 13, 2017, on Sept. 24, an Italian Air Force Typhoon crashed into the sea while performing its solo display during the Terracina airshow killing the test pilot, whereas on Oct. 12, a Spanish Air Force Eurofighter crashed into the ground while returning to Albacete after taking part in the National Day Parade over Madrid.

We will update this post as soon as new official details/confirmation/denial emerge.

Top image credit: Alessandro Fucito

B-52 At Edwards AFB Sports Nose Art That Commemorates Its Past As “Mothership” In Top Secret D-21 Drone Test Program

A B-52 from the 419th Flight Test Squadron was given a new nose art to commemorate the Buff’s involvement in a top-secret test program.

An interesting image has been released by Edwards Air Force Base 412th Test Wing Public Affairs. It shows B-52 #60-0036 with a new nose art completed by renowned aviation artist Mike Machat to celebrate the involvement of the bomber in the top-secret test program named “Tagboard” about 50 years ago.

All manned flights over the Soviet Union had been discontinued by President Dwight Eisenhower after Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down May 1, 1960. Since satellites were still years away from being able to gather the required intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency determined unmanned drones could fill the gap until satellites became viable.

Tagboard program involved testing the D-21, a ramjet-powered reconnaissance drone that could reach Mach 3 speed. In fact, the D-21 required a mothership that could air-launch the drone at a certain speed so that the ramjet could activate.

In the beginning, an M-21 (essentially a modified SR-71 Blackbird) was used to air launch the D-21 drone from its back. The idea was that, after conducting its intended spy mission, the drone would eject a hatch with photo equipment to be recovered either mid-air (by a JC-130B, as it was lowered by a parachute) or after the hatch landed.

M-21 carrying D-21 in flight (Credit: CIA)

However, as the official release recalls, “on the fourth flight test, the D-21 experienced an “asymmetric unstart” as it passed through the bow wake of the M-21 causing the mothership to pitch up and collide with the D-21 at Mach 3.25. Crewmembers Bill Park and Ray Torick ejected from the M-21, but Torick’s flight suit became ripped and filled with water when he plunged into the ocean where he drowned.”

A video of the incident, filmed by an accompanying Blackbird can be found here.

After the accident, the M-21 launch program was cancelled and Lockheed Martin decided to launch the drone from B-52Hs, one being #0036. The new code name for the D-21 project became Senior Bowl.

A D-21 reconnaissance drone is on display at Blackbird Air Park at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The D-21 was a ramjet-powered reconnaissance drone that could reach Mach 3 speed. Ideally, the drone would air launch from a mothership and after conducting its reconnaissance mission it would eject a hatch with photo equipment to be recovered either mid-air or after the hatch landed. (Courtesy photo by Danny Bazzell/Flight Test Historical Foundation)

“After several failed launch attempts, the first successful D-21 launch from a B-52 occurred June 16, 1968. The drone flew 3,000 miles at 90,000 feet. After a few more flight tests, the CIA and the Air Force decided to conduct four operational launches that all ended in failure in some way. Two flights were successful, however the imagery could not be recovered from the D-21’s hatch. The other two operational flights ended with one being lost in a heavily defended area and the other D-21 simply disappeared after launch.”

The D-21 program was cancelled July 15, 1971, and both B-52s used for the program were returned to operational Air Force units.

The B-52 #60-0036 is currently assigned to the 419th FLTS at Edwards, where it arrived in 2001; it has been used as a test bed ever since.

A B-52 currently used for testing by the 419th Flight Test Squadron, sits on the flightline at Edwards Air Force Base Oct. 16. The bomber, tail# 60-0036, was used in a top secret test program that began with the code name Tagboard. The program involved testing the D-21, which was a ramjet-powered reconnaissance drone that could reach Mach 3 speed. The D-21 would be launched from underneath the wings of the bomber. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kenji Thuloweit)

Considered the type of tests conducted at Mach 3 with the M-21 or the B-52 and D-21 drone some 50 years ago, one may guess: what is being secretely tested today?

Chinese Stealth Goes Operational, Carrier Program and Export Initiatives Accelerate

China Has Emerged as a Preeminent Global Strategic Super Power: What Does It Mean?

During the past five years China’s defense programs have not accelerated, they have increased by multiples into segments the Chinese had not previously been involved in. The introduction of a developmental aircraft carrier program, the fielding of an operational stealth fighter, the deployment of the world’s longest range ICBM and several new state-sponsored defense programs including tactical aircraft and helicopters intended specifically for export sale signal a parallel emergence of China’s global defense doctrine along with their dominant economic influence.

But what are China’s strategic and tactical air capabilities and, more importantly, what can we theorize about their intentions not only in Asia, but around the world?

China’s new defense and aerospace initiatives are a strategic necessity to provide foundational security for their rising economic influence globally.

Two years ago, in 2015 The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked China as the number one economic superpower in the world. That year China surpassed the United States based upon the purchasing power parity of GDP indicator (gross domestic product). The IMF reported that China produced 17% of the world gross domestic product in 2014 passing the U.S. GDP of 16%. China’s increased global influence has inspired low and middle income countries to emulate China’s approach. These Chinese allies now engage in partially state-sponsored rapid economic growth including the Latin American countries, Brazil, Argentina and Columbia as it emerges from a protracted drug war. India and Pakistan are now also aligned with China on several significant defense and economic initiatives.

While the subject of China’s emerging military is vast, there are several standout defense aerospace programs that provide an insight into China’s global motives.

China’s Operational Stealth Fighter: The J-20

China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter has just officially entered active service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF): “China’s latest J-20 stealth fighter has been officially commissioned into military service, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Wu Qian told global media in a September 28, 2017 press release on the Xinhua.net and the official state defense media website.

Analysts suggest the J-20 is likely a medium-long range interceptor roughly analogous to the interceptor role of legacy aircraft like Russia’s older MiG-25 Foxbat, albeit much more sophisticated, and comparable to a Gen. 5 fighter.

There have also been comparisons to the U.S. F-22 Raptor, although the F-22 has emerged in combat in Syria as a precision strike low-observable aircraft in addition to its air superiority role. Western observers have suggested the primary low-observable capability of the J-20 is from the front of the aircraft, but perhaps not at other aspects, suggesting the J-20 is optimized for the interceptor role at least initially.

At different times, both in 2016 and 2017, there were unconfirmed reports that China may sell the J-20 to Pakistan in what would be the first-ever sale of a stealth air superiority specific Gen 5 aircraft in the export market (the multinational F-35 is described as a multirole Joint Strike Fighter, not exclusively as an air superiority interceptor like the J-20 or the U.S. F-22, which has not been exported outside the U.S.

Given this and more information about the J-20 it can be reasonably suggested that this aircraft is intended primarily for defense of Chinese air space and, if exported, some of its border allies. Sharing air defense with friendly border countries makes sense since China shares a border with a staggering 14 different countries. The U.S. only borders 2.

Flypast of the Chengdu J-20 during the opening of Airshow China in Zhuhai (Imate credit: Alert5/Wiki)

China’s DF-41 ICBM: Global Strike Capability in World’s Longest Range ICBM.

Contrasting China’s regional defense initiative with its J-20 aircraft is the global nuclear strike capability of the Dongfeng-41 solid-fuel, portable launch platform Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

The Dongfeng-41 or DF-41 is an impressive and menacing missile system. It has the longest range of any ICBM in the world, surpassing the U.S. LGM-30 Minuteman III by a significant margin. Various sources quote the U.S. LGM-30 as having an approximate strike range of nearly 8,000 miles. But the Chinese and external analysts suggest the range of the DF-41 exceeds 9,000 miles.

The DF-41 ICBM, developed beginning in late July, 2012, takes a page from Israeli ICBM development on their Jericho 3 ICBM by being so fast it is likely impossible to intercept. The DF-41 flies at Mach 25 or 19,000+ M.P.H. enabling it to strike nearly every target in the world in less than an hour.

Another advantage to the DF-41 ICBM system is its launch platform. As with many Russian systems, it is launched from a wheeled, mobile vehicle platform making its launchers difficult to track and target.

Finally, the DF-41 carries up to 12 large nuclear Multiple, Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads, increasing its effectiveness against multiple large, hardened targets and decreasing the ability to intercept it after re-entry into the atmosphere during its terminal attack phase.

By any measure the DF-41 ICBM with its stealthy, mobile launch platform, extremely long range, massive payload and very high speed position China as a preeminent global nuclear force with the attendant diplomatic might that capability wields.

China’s massive DF-41 ICBM has the longest range of any nuclear missile. (Photo: RT)

The Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon: China’s Joint Strike Fighter?

The Shenyang J-31 Falcon Eagle or Gyrfalcon (or “FC-31 fifth Generation Multi-Purpose Medium Fighter”), is China’s second stealth fighter jet.

The first prototype of the aircraft performed its maiden flight on Oct 31, 2012, and made a public appearance on Nov. 12, 2014 at Zhuhai Airshow.

Gyrfalcon is China’s multirole, (claimed) low-observable tactical aircraft roughly analogous, in mission if not in capability, to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It is intended for export to partner nations, it boasts a supposed low-observable configuration, is slated to be built in a naval/aircraft carrier (although not STOVL) and is claimed to be able to perform both the precision strike and air-to-air role.

The aircraft may have had some teething problems in early development.

The vertical stabilizer configuration was completely reworked from early versions that seemed to mimic the twin tails of an F-22. The J-31 has since been seen in its newest version with a swept-back twin tail.

The latest version of the J-31 was seen last year on December 26, 2016, during its first flight: it was significantly re-worked, heavier (three tons more) and at least 20-inches longer than the early prototypes according to most sources.

The latest J-31 variant appears to be a more completely developed tactical aircraft with an Infra-red search and track ball passive sensor (IRST ball).

The wings have been re-worked into a claimed lower radar cross-section shape and new engines have been installed that provide greater thrust to compensate for the additional weight. The new engines are also smokeless, a significant tactical necessity. There are also claimed improvements to its search and targeting radar. Chinese officials and media have hinted at some sensor-fusion capability to hand-off targets to other aircraft and perhaps weapons assets, as with the F-35s capability to direct weapons. Perhaps the most significant claimed future capability project for 2019 is re-engining the J-31 with indigenous WS-19 turbofan engines, providing supercruise capability without afterburner. The U.S. F-22 has supercruise but the F-35 does not.

Finally, the J-31 Gyrfalcon is a twin-engine aircraft to the F-35s single engine.

A new carrier-based variant of the developmental J-31 may be in the works. (Photo: O+Nil)

The Chinese Aircraft Carrier Program: From Buying Used to Building at Home.

That China has even embarked on an aircraft carrier program speaks volumes about their future role in global security. Aircraft carriers are about power projection. They operate beyond a country’s borders to secure its interests around the world. While the idea of having a U.S. aircraft carrier on station anywhere in the world is normal, the deployment of Russia’s only carrier in support of operations in Syria made headlines. When Chinese carriers visit India, Africa and South America the impact will be significant.

China is not new to an aircraft carrier development program. Their research into aircraft carriers dates back to at least 1985. In November of 2016 the Chinese declared their completely refitted 67,500 ton ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, a Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier built in Russia, as fully operational. It was re-commissioned the Liaoning (CV-16) type 001 aircraft carrier.

Most recently they have installed a new Z-8JH heavy rescue helicopter on board Liaoning expanding its role from power projection to humanitarian aid.

The Liaoning carries eight Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark multi-role tactical aircraft on board. They bear a strong resemblance to the Russian SU-27 aircraft family. Currently the J-15 launches using a ski-jump arrangement as with Russian and soon UK aircraft but at least one modified J-15 was photographed with a catapult bridle on its nose wheel for land-based testing of a new magnetic catapult system likely to be used on the next Chinese aircraft carrier, the yet-to-be-named CV-18, Type 002 aircraft carrier of entirely Chinese indigenous design to be built by the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

Chinese Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark aircraft on board the carrier Liaoning (CV-16). (Photo: Xinhua)

Chinese Gunships: A New Category for A New World Order.

On May 18, 2017 China’s new Z-19E attack helicopter built by the state-owned AVIC Harbin Aircraft Industry factory made its first public flight. State news agency Xinhua said the Z-19E is built for both the domestic and export market.

The Z-19E is the first modern helicopter gunship for the Chinese. It features the usual gunship mix of helmet-sight cued cannon mounted in winglet pods, missiles and rockets.

The aircraft uses a covered Fenestron-style internal tail rotor borrowed from the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin helicopter. The cockpit is armored and the crew seats are energy-absorbing for enhanced survivability.

The Z-19E will likely be an affordable alternative for countries not shopping from the United States or Russia for an import attack helicopter solution. This likely includes several potential customers on the African continent as well as Asia and South America.

The Z-19E is a cost-effective attack helicopter solution for export. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese RPA’s, Already an Export Success with New Models Coming.

China has already sold remotely piloted aircraft, RPAs, to Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Their newest RPA, the CH-5 CaiHong (Rainbow) flew for the first time this summer on July 14 in Hebei Province.

Jane’s Defense quoted Shi Wen, chief engineer of the CH series RPAs, as saying that the CH-5 outperforms all Chinese RPAs when it comes to endurance and payload. “The UAV is as good as the US-made General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper: a hunter-killer drone often deemed by Western analysts as the best of its kind,” Wen claimed.

Also aiming for export buyers, China has boasted that the new CH-5 is “Less than half the cost” of the U.S. built General Atomics MQ-9 according to journalist Stephan Chin of the South China Morning Post. China claims the CH-5 can stay aloft for “up to two days” and is configured to carry up to 16 guided air-to-ground weapons.

Not for export is China’s secretive “Sharp Sword” stealth drone. The advanced jet-powered RPA is designed to carry a heavy weapons load of over two tons. It is 33-feet long with a wingspan of 44-feet.

The Sharp Sword has more than a passing resemblance to the U.S. X-47B drone and the British Taranis UAV. Initially, analysts suggest the Sharp Sword will be used in the reconnaissance role over dense air defense networks along with maritime surveillance. Follow-on versions will be configured as first-strike weapons against heavily defended targets for a “first day of war” scenario. As with the U.S. jet-powered stealth drones there is planning for a carrier launched version also.

The secretive Chinese Sharp Sword jet powered long range stealth drone is not for export. (Photo: Xinhua)

This is just a brief overview of some of China’s vast expansion in modern defense and aerospace projects for its domestic and newly expanding export market. Given China’s industrial capacity and new global economic dominance we are likely to see many more.