Monthly Archives: December 2017

DPRK Situation Report: North Korea Prepares New HS-15 Orbital Launch, Tests Anthrax Weapon on ICBM Amid Officer Disappearances.

Western Media Has Been Quiet About North Korea This Week, But North Korea Has Not Been Quiet And Prepares New Tests.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, populated headlines in the west and especially the United States for several weeks until recent, sensational domestic events replaced concerns over Pyongyang’s weapons programs and rhetorical threats. But the news from North Korea has become no less significant even though western media has momentarily shifted its attention away from the DPRK.

Orbital Launch of HS-15 ICBM Over Japan Possible.

The most recent intelligence gleaned from open sources suggests the DPRK may be preparing to launch its new HS-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) two-stage missile to put a satellite into orbit soon. The Hwasong-15, or “HS-15”, was first confirmed flight-worthy on Nov. 29, 2017. During that test launch the missile flew a high trajectory flight profile reaching 4,475 kilometers in altitude and landing in the ocean 950 kilometers from its launch site off the Korean coast between Japan and Korea. This new suggestion of an orbital attempt is significant since, if an object were boosted into orbit atop an HS-15, it would overfly Japan and likely parts of the U.S. during its orbit. The potential payload for a possible orbital launch has not been revealed by North Korea or U.S. intelligence sources.

Hwasong-15 on its mobile launch platform prior to November test launch. (Photo: 38North)

Anthrax on ICBM could reach U.S.

A media report released Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 revealed that North Korea was conducting testing on a biological weaponized anthrax warhead for its long-range ICBM program. The report follows the first successful test launch of North Korea’s new longest range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15 on Nov. 29, 2017.

This development is significant since some western analysts diminished the significance of the successful Hwasong-15 long-range ICBM launch test by suggesting the missile could not carry a large enough warhead to significantly threaten the U.S. Analysts said that North Korea could not develop miniature nuclear warheads for Hwasong-15. If those analysts are correct the diminished threat of nuclear attack by long range ICBMs may now shift to include biological attack by ICBM.

The news of the tests was published in the Japanese Asahi newspaper and attributed to a secret South Korean intelligence source. “North Korea has started experiments such as heat and pressure equipment to prevent anthrax from dying even at a high temperature of over 7,000 degrees generated at the time of ICBM’s re-entry into the atmosphere,” the report said. “In part, there is unconfirmed information that it has already succeeded in such experiments.”

Last week, the White House echoed the Japanese reports when it released its U.S. National Security Strategy saying that North Korea is “pursuing chemical and biological weapons which could also be delivered by missile.”

Japanese media reports voice continued concern over North Korean weapons proliferation, most recently, this report about biological weapons on ICBMs. (Photo: AsahiNews)

North Korean Leadership Disappearances.

An examination of North Korean events suggests that the disappearance of top officials often pre-dates significant events in the country. Two top generals have disappeared in North Korea recently.

A high-ranking North Korean official named Park In Young was purged and executed following delays and now reported problems with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Mr. Young was reported to be director of North Korea’s Bureau 131, the part of the Central Committee that oversees the nuclear test facility and Punggye-ri, North Korea. Mr. Young also oversaw operations at the Sohae Satellite Lauching Station according to reports that originated from a recent North Korean defector.

Some reports suggest multiple catastrophic problems at North Korea’s nuclear test facilities, including landslides and earthquakes resulting from underground nuclear tests. One report cited “200 dead” in a landslide following an underground test.

A week before the reported disappearance of Park In Young another high-ranking North Korean military official, General Hwang Pyong-so, also disappeared. General Hwang Pyong-so was the Vice-Marshall of the Korean People’s Army. He also held a political post as Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.

Few news reports, official or otherwise, have reported on the specific locations or activities of the two high-ranking officials since their disappearances. A Dec. 17 report in Newsweek magazine said that Mr. Park In Young, the former nuclear boss, had been “executed”. Possibilities range from official sanction and banishment from government office to even punishment as severe as prison or execution.

Failures in nuclear testing may have led to the sanctioning and even execution of top North Korean officials according to media reports. (Photo: 38 North)

Submarine Launched Missile Test Advances.

Satellite imagery from commercial intelligence gathering satellites has shown consistent activity at the Nampo Navy Shipyard in North Korea. Photos taken from orbit on Nov. 11, 16 and 24 and reported on the website 38 North show a second submersible ballistic missile test stand. The underwater stands are used to test submarine launched ballistic missiles.

Specifically, the two submerged barges are reported to support the testing and development of the Pukguksong-1 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) as well as the new SINPO-Class ballistic missile submarine.

Accidental Engagement: The Greatest Threat.

Despite threatening rhetoric from both North Korea and the U.S. many analysts still suggest the most likely solution to the North Korean problem will be diplomatic. Considering the cost of life and the potential damage to the global economy most reasoning suggests neither the U.S. or North Korea has much to gain from initiating military aggressions.

Even with sensational saber-rattling both countries likely understand the cost of an armed conflict and the lack of strategic benefit from a war. However, with the U.S. and Japan both maintaining a high state of readiness and bolstering forces in the region and North Korea expands its test and development activity the chances of an accidental engagement at sea or in the air likely pose the greatest threat to further destabilizing the region and touching off a larger conflict. If forces in the region can maintain their readiness while avoiding an unintentional engagement the diplomatic solution may continue to develop against this volatile background.

North Korea continues weapons development and testing despite risks of accidental conflict and diplomatic instability in the region. (Photo: 38 North)

Top image: The new long-range Hwasong-15 during its first November 29 launch test. (Photo: 38North)

The Impressive Chinese AG600 Maritime Patrol Flying Boat Makes First Flight in Zhuhai, China.

It’s the second largest amphibious aircraft in the world after the Beriev A-40. Mission Includes Maritime Security, Search and Rescue and Firefighting.

The impressive AVIC AG600 long-range maritime security and patrol amphibious aircraf made its first flight from land at the Jinwan Civil Aviation Airport in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China on Dec. 24, 2017. The large, four-engine turboprop aircraft, with a wingspan of 127-feet, flew for about one-hour according to Chinese state media. It is comparable in size the jet-powered twin-engine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft but adds the capability to land and take off in the open ocean, even in relatively heavy seas. The take-off was broadcast live on television in China. The aircraft returned to significant fanfare including planned celebrations to publicize the event.

The AG600 continues the long history of flying boats in the Asian region. (All photos: Xinhuanet)

Large, long range “flying boat” amphibious aircraft have a history of utility and success in the region, with Japan often leading the way with flying boat designs since WWII and continuing into modern aviation with their recent large, four-engine ShinMaywa US-2 and previous flying boat, the Shin Meiwa US-1A maritime patrol aircraft. Because of the region’s dependence on maritime trade and territorial disputes over small islands, the role of these aircraft has become particularly relevant. In civilian culture the aircraft and their crews take on mystic relevance because of their guardianship of sailors at sea and their ability to swoop down from the sky and save doomed men adrift in the open ocean.

China’s, Xinhua news agency broadcast that the aircraft was the “protector spirit of the sea, islands and reefs,” attesting to its security role along with an increasing environmental surveillance role to protect endangered reef areas from poaching of sharks and pollution.

The aircraft can also fill large onboard water tanks when floating on surface for fighting fires both onboard ships and on land. The aircraft can fill its onboard firefighting tanks with 12-tons of water in only 20 seconds.

The AG600’s chief designer, state aviation engineer Huang Lingcai, was quoted in the official China Daily earlier this month as saying the aircraft can make round trips without refueling from the southern island province of Hainan to James Shoal, a disputed area claimed by China but located close to Sarawak in Malaysia.

There are currently 17 outstanding orders for the AG600 from Chinese government departments and Chinese companies. Long un-refueled operating range and endurance is a key selling feature of the AG600, with a maximum flight range of 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tons. It can carry a large passenger and crew compliment of up to 50 personnel.

Russia’s Su-57 Stealth Fighter Completes Engine Upgrade and Continues Development Amid Business Concerns

Program Technically on Track, But Will Logistics and Finances Ground New Russian Superfighter?

Russia’s contribution to the 5th Generation of air combat super-fighters moved ahead tangibly in early December with the successful flight of the first Sukhoi Su-57 using its new, upgraded Izdeliye-30 turbofan engine.

The first successful test flight with an Su-57 using the new Izdeliye-30 took place on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The 17-minute test flight by Sukhoi chief test pilot Sergei Bogdan was launched from the M.M. Gromov flight test center, in Zhukovsky, Russia about 25 miles outside of Moscow.

The new engine replaces the former NPO Saturn Izdeliye 117, also referred to as the AL-41F1. These original Izdeliye 117s were reported to be underpowered for the Su-57s 55,116 pound reported take-off weight. The Izdeliye 117 was never meant as a permanent powerplant for the Su-57 and its use drew criticism, some of it unwarranted, from western analysts.

The developmental engines on the PAK-FA were a consistent source of criticism, especially following a sensational compressor stall incident at the MAKS 2011 airshow. (Photo: Rulexip via Wikipedia)

The new Izdeliye 30 engines increase the Su-57 thrust to 11,000 kg without afterburner and 19,000 kg in afterburner according to reports. The engines also have fewer components and resulting lower maintenance costs and reduced maintenance schedule. The engine is claimed to have better fuel economy. As with most modern Russian fighters, the Izdeliye 30 is a thrust-vectored engine and has supercruise capability, enabling the Su-57 to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburner achieving longer range and better fuel economy at high speeds. Claims for higher efficiency published by subject matter expert Piotr Bukowski suggest the new engines are “17 to 18 percent more efficient than the [older] 117 engines.” As Bukowski pointed out in his recently updated reference book on Russian aircraft, “Russia’s Warplanes, Volume 1”, there was no definition offered for the what the specifics of “more efficient” meant in terms of performance.

One area many analysts have missed in terms of advantages for the Su-57 is cost. The price tag of an Su-57 is quoted as approximately $54M USD. If accurate, those costs are roughly one-third to one half the cost of the two operational U.S. fifth generation fighters, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Perhaps even more significantly, the Su-57 is also half the cost of China’s unusual looking J-20 Mighty Dragon 5th gen. fighter. China is also testing the J-31 Gyrfalcon, a 5th generation aircraft more intended for export than the Chinese point-defense J-20. Oddly, there do not appear to be any accurate published estimates of cost for the J-31, likely due in part to the degree of Chinese state subsidy of the program for any prospective buyers, a number influenced heavily by diplomatic and commercial relationships with China.

The first flight of the re-engined Su-57 in low overcast from December 5. (Photo: UAC Russia)

There has been a consistent populist trend of “bashing” or somehow diminishing the capability and progress of the Su-57/PAK FA program in western media. Most western criticism of the Su-57 program has been centered on the logistics of the program and its lack of commercial export success. While those factors are real, they miss the key insight that the Su-57 could emerge as a highly capable Gen 5 fighter platform at a third the cost of its contemporaries. This lower-cost business model for Su-57 could facilitate the historical Russian penchant for subverting quality to quantity on the battlefield. Not to suggest that the Su-57 is somehow inferior to other 5th gen aircraft, it may not be, but if the financial capability to field twice as many Su-57s as F-35s exists, this numerical superiority represents an interesting strategic argument for the new Russian combat aircraft.

Top image credit: Sukhoi

Five Companies Interested In Poland’s Next Generation Fighter Program “Harpia”

Contenders could be F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen, Advanced Super Hornet and second-hand F-16 jets.

According to a news piece published by Dziennik Zbrojny today, five entities have expressed their will to participate in the market analysis initiative concerning the potential procurement of new fighter aircraft, referred to as “Harpia” (harpy eagle).

The operational requirement for this program is defined as “Enhancing the capability to carry out missions within the framework of offensive and defensive combat against the enemy air power, as well as missions carried out for the purpose of supporting land, naval and special operations – “Multi-Role Combat Aircraft” and “Airborne Electronic Jamming Capabilities.”

The companies that expressed their interest in the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft portion of the initiative include: Saab AB, Lockheed Martin, Boeing Company, Leonardo S.p.A. and Fights-On Logistics. Meanwhile, the Airborne Electronic Jamming segment of the procurement would see involvement in case of three potential contractors: Saab AB, Elbit Systems EW and SIGINT – Elisra Ltd., and Griffin working together with Elta Systems Ltd, as Tomasz Dmitruk of Dziennik Zbrojny reports.

When it comes to multi-role combat aircraft, the only true versatile platform operated by the Polish Air Force is the F-16: 48 jets of this type have been used by Poland for more than a decade now; MiG-29 Fulcrums are used primarily in an air-to-air role, while Su-22 Fitters are tasked with air-to-ground missions. Dziennik Zbrojny suggests that the new aircraft sought by the Armament Inspectorate of the Polish MoD (Polish armament procurement organ), would replace the legacy Soviet designs heading towards the ends of their life-cycle, with replacement of the Su-22 being more critical.

It seems that the participants would offer the following designs to the Polish Air Force: F-35 (Lockheed Martin), Advanced Super Hornet (Boeing), Eurofighter (with Leonardo leading the consortium bid), Gripen (Saab AB), and second-hand F-16s.

However, putting the matter into a wider perspective, we cannot think of procurement of new fighter aircraft to be certain in Poland. The Polish military still needs to enhance its air/missile defense systems, within the scope of Wisła, Narew and Noteć programs, for instance. Wisła program has a price tag of whooping 10.5 Billion USD, defined as the maximum procurement value by the US DSCA agency which deals with the FMS (Foreign Military Sales) procedure management.

Furthermore, the Polish MoD is also looking forward to acquiring Orka next generation submarines, Homar rocket artillery systems, attack and multi-role helicopters – even though no procurement has been launched with regard to these requirements, this does not mean that the need disappears.

If one adds Płomykówka (SIGINT) and Rybitwa (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) procurements to the list, it seems that the priority shall not go first to the multi-role combat aircraft. And the above programs are just the tip of the iceberg – as land forces and newly-established Territorial Defense service of the Polish military also have significant equipment-related requirements.

Taking all of the above factors into account, it remains probable that Harpia would be significantly delayed, and we will not be seeing new fighter assets in the Polish Air Force anytime soon. If acquisition of new multi-role combat aircraft is accelerated, then this should be done with the use of funding provided outside the Polish defense budget (as happened in case of the F-16s a decade ago), or priorities ascribed to the ongoing procurement initiatives shall be redefined and evaluated once again. For instance, Warsaw would have to resign from acquiring helicopters or submarines, to have funds that would be sufficient to procure the new jets.

Image Credit: Filip Modrzejewski / Foto Poork

The Blackbird NASA Used For Validating The SR-71 Linear Aerospike Experiment Configuration

The iconic SR-71 was used by NASA to undertake a series of experiments. To carry out some of these testing activities the Blackbird was installed an interesting pod.

According to official records, NASA has operated a fleet of seven Blackbirds:

YF-12A (60-6935) – December 1969 to November 1979
YF-12A (60-6936) – March 1970 to June 1971
SR-71A/YF-12C (61-7951/“06937”) – July 1971 to December 1978
SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) – January 1995 to June 1996
SR-71A (61-7967) – August 1995 to January 1996
SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) – July 1991 to October 1997
SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) – September 1992 to October 1999

The last SR-71 flight was made on Oct. 9, 1999, at the Edwards AFB air show. The aircraft used was NASA 844 that flew to 80,100 feet and Mach 3.21 in the very last flight of any Blackbird. Actually, the aircraft was also scheduled to make a flight the following day, but a fuel leak grounded the aircraft and prevented it from flying again. The NASA SR-71s were then put in flyable storage, where they remained until 2002. Then, they were sent to museums.

Throughout their career at NASA, Blackbirds have served as test beds for a series of high-speed and high-altitude research programs:

“As research platforms, the aircraft can cruise at Mach 3 for more than one hour. For thermal experiments, this can produce heat soak temperatures of over 600 degrees Fahrenheit (F). This operating environment makes these aircraft excellent platforms to carry out research and experiments in a variety of areas — aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies, and sonic boom characterization,” says NASA Dryden’s Blackbird website.

“The SR-71 was used in a program to study ways of reducing sonic booms or over pressures that are heard on the ground, much like sharp thunderclaps, when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. Data from this Sonic Boom Mitigation Study could eventually lead to aircraft designs that would reduce the “peak” overpressures of sonic booms and minimize the startling affect they produce on the ground.”

This close-up, head-on view of NASA’s SR-71A Blackbird in flight shows the aircraft with an experimental test fixture mounted on the back of the airplane. (1999 NASA /Photo Jim Ross)

Among the major experiments flown with the NASA SR-71s, there was a laser air data collection system that used laser light, instead of air pressure measured by pitot tubes and vanes extending into the airstream, to determine airspeed, angle of attack, vertical speed, and other attitude reference data.

Another project involved a Dryden’s SR-71 as a platform to film with an ultraviolet video camera, celestial objects in wavelenghts that are blocked to ground-based astronomers. Moreover, the SR-71 was also a testbed in the development of Motorola’s IRIDIUM commercial satellite-based, instant wireless personal communications network, acting as a surrogate satellite for transmitters and receivers on the ground.

Between 1997 and 1998, one NASA Blackbird was used for the Linear Aerospike Rocket Engine, or LASRE Experiment, whose goal was to provide data to validate the computational predictive tools used to foresee the aerodynamic performance of future single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles (SSTO RLVs).

SR-71 #844 taking off for a LASRE experiment. (NASA)

As part of the LASRE experiment, the Blackbird completed seven initial research flights from Edwards. The first two flights were used to determine the aerodynamic characteristics of the LASRE apparatus (pod) on the back of the SR-71 whereas five later flights focused on the experiment itself.

The LASRE experiment itself was a 20-percent-scale, half-span model of a lifting body shape (X-33) without the fins. It was rotated 90 degrees and equipped with eight thrust cells of an aerospike engine and was mounted on a housing known as the “canoe,” which contained the gaseous hydrogen, helium, and instrumentation gear. The model, engine, and canoe together were called a “pod.” The experiment focused on determining how a reusable launch vehicle’s engine flume would affect the aerodynamics of its lifting-body shape at specific altitudes and speeds. The interaction of the aerodynamic flow with the engine plume could create drag; design refinements looked at minimizing this interaction. The entire pod was 41 feet in length and weighed 14,300 pounds.

Two test flights were used to cycle gaseous helium and liquid nitrogen through the experiment to check its plumbing system for leaks and to test engine operational characteristics. During the other three flights, liquid oxygen was cycled through the engine. Two engine hot-firings were also completed on the ground. A final hot-fire test flight was canceled because of liquid oxygen leaks in the test apparatus.

The experimental pod was mounted on NASA’s SR-71 #844. Lockheed Martin may use the information gained from the LASRE and X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator Projects to develop a potential future reusable launch vehicle.

This is a rear/side view of the Linear Aerospike SR Experiment (LASRE) pod on NASA SR-71, tail number 844. This photo was taken during the fit-check of the pod on Feb. 15, 1996, at Lockheed Martin Skunkworks in Palmdale, California. (NASA)

NASA and Lockheed Martin were partners in the X-33 program through a cooperative agreement but the program was cancelled in 2001.

A rendering of the X-33 concept (NASA)

Throughout its career, the high-altitude SR-71s, involved in test flights as well as operative missions, have probably contributed to fuel UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) conspiracy theories. For instance, according to CIA high-altitude testing of the then new and secret U-2 led to an increase in reports of UFOs:

“According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART (SR-71, or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States. This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive national security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later conspiracy theories and the coverup controversy of the 1970s. The percentage of what the Air Force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4 percent in 1956.”

Flash forward to 2017, we can’t but notice that, among the theories surrounding the footage of an unidentified flying object (UFO) filmed by an F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2004, there is also the one that the weird “capsule-shaped” object might have been some sort of secret aerial vehicle during a test mission rather than an alien spacecraft…. And it would not be the first time.