Monthly Archives: December 2017

U.S. F-22 Raptor Allegedly Interfered With Russian Su-25s Over Syria And “Chased Away” By Su-35S, Russian MoD Claims

A close encounter between an F-22, two Su-25s and one Su-35S occurred over Syria some weeks ago. Many things about the incident are yet to be explained though. CENTCOM: “There is no truth to this allegation.”

Several Russian media outlets are reporting an incident that involved a U.S. F-22 and some Russian aircraft over Syria, to the west of the Euphrates on Nov. 23, 2017. Some details of the close encounter were unveiled by the Russian MoD’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, who described the episode “as yet another example of US aircraft attempts to prevent Russian forces from carrying out strikes against Islamic State,” according to RT.

According to the Russian account, a Russian Su-35S was scrambled after a U.S. F-22 interfered with two Su-25s that were bombing an Islamic State target. Here’s Sputnik news version:

An American F-22 fighter actively prevented the Russian pair of Su-25 attack aircraft from carrying out a combat mission to destroy the Daesh stronghold in the suburbs of the city of Mayadin in the airspace over the western bank of the Euphrates River on November 23. The F-22 aircraft fired off heat flares and released brake shields with permanent maneuvering, imitating an air battle.”

At the same time, he [Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesperson] noted that “after the appearance of a Russian multifunctional super maneuverable Su-35S fighter, the American fighter stopped dangerous maneuvers and hurried to move into Iraqi airspace.”

Many things are yet to be explained making the story really hard to believe:

  • it’s not clear why the F-22 was flying alone (most probably another Raptor was nearby);
  • why did the stealth jet release flares and perform hard maneuvering (lacking a direct radio contact, was the American pilot trying to catch the Russian pilots attention using unconventional signalling)?
  • was the F-22 mission a “show of force”?
  • what are the RoE (Rules Of Engagement) in place over Syria?
  • were there other coalition aircraft nearby? Where? Did they take part in the action?
  • how was a Su-35 scrambled from Hmeymim airbase able to chase away the F-22? Did the Flanker reach the area in time to persuade the Raptor to leave?

Update Dec. 10, 06:53 GMT: we have just received an email from CENTCOM CJTF OIR PAO with their version of the alleged incident that denies and debunks the Russian MoD claims:

There is no truth to this allegation. According to our flight logs for Nov 23, 2017, this alleged incident did not take place, nor has there been any instance where a Coalition aircraft crossed the river without first deconflicting with the Russians via the deconfliction phone line set up for this purpose. Of note, on Nov 23, 2017, there were approximately nine instances where Russian fighter aircraft crossed to the east side of the Euphrates River into Coalition airspace without first using the deconfliction phone. This random and unprofessional activity placed Coalition and Russian aircrew at risk, as well as jeopardizing Coalition ability to support partner ground forces in the area.

Any claims that the Coalition would protect Daesh, or hinder, a strike against Daesh are completely false. We strike them hard wherever they are found. What we can tell you is that we actively deconflict the airspace in Syria with the Russians to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh in the region. We will continue to work with our SDF partners, just as we will continue to deconflict with the Russians for future Coalition strikes against Daesh targets in Syria.

Anyway, the (alleged) episode reminds the incident that occurred on Jun. 18, 2017, when an F/A-18E Super Hornet belonging to the VFA-87 “Golden Warriors” and piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Michael “Mob” Tremel,” shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter near the town of Resafa (40 km to the southwest of Raqqa, Syria), after the pro-Assad Syrian Air Force ground attack aircraft had bombed Coalition-friendly SDF positions. In the official statement released from the Coalition about the incident the Combined Joint Task Force stated, “The Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition partner forces from any threat.”

If confirmed, the one on Nov. 23 would be the first “official” close encounter between F-22 and the Su-35 over Syria.

The Su-35 is a 4++ generation aircraft characterized by supermaneuverability. Although it’s not stealth, it is equipped with a Irbis-E PESA (Passive Electronically-Scanned Array) and a long-range IRST – Infrared Search and Tracking – system capable, (according to Russian sources…) to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers.

The Su-35S was deployed at Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia in Syria at the beginning of 2016, to provide cover to the Russian warplanes conducting raids in Syria in the aftermath of the downing of a Su-24 Fencer by a Turkish Air Force F-16. During the Syrian air war the aircraft carried Vympel R-77 medium range, active radar homing air-to-air missile system (a weapon that can be considered the Russian counterpart of the American AIM-120 AMRAAM) along with R-27T (AA-10 Alamo-B), IR-guided air-to-air missiles.

Shortly after being deployed to Syria the Su-35S started shadowing US-led coalition aircraft: a German Air Force spokesperson explained that the Russian Flankers were among the aircraft used by the Russian Air Force to shadow the GAF Tornado jets carrying out reconnaissance missions against ISIS; a VFA-131 video that included footage from the cruise aboard USS Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq showed a close encounter with what looked like a Su-35S Flanker-E filmed by the Hornet’s AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod.

Aviation analysts have long debated the tactical value of the Russian Su-35S supermaneuverability displayed at airshows in the real world air combat environment. Are such low speed maneuvers worthless to fight against the U.S. 5th Gen. stealth aircraft, such as the F-22, that would engage the Su-35S from BVR (Beyond Visual Range) exploiting their radar-evading capabilities?

It depends on several factors.

The F-22 is a supermaneuverable stealth aircraft. Raptor’s stealthiness is maintained by storing weapons in internal bays capable to accommodate 2x AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, some AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missiles (the number depending on the configuration), as well as 2x 1,000 pound GBU-32 JDAM or 8x GBU-39 small diameter bombs: in this way the Raptor can dominate the airspace above the battlefield while performing its mission, be it air superiority, OCA (Offensive Counter Air), or the so-called kinetic situational awareness “provider”. Moreover its two powerful Pratt & Whitney F-119-PW-100 engines give the fifth fighter the ability to accelerate past the speed of sound without using the afterburners (the so-called supercruise) and TV (Thrust Vectoring), that can be extremely useful, in certain conditions, to put the Raptor in the proper position to score a kill.

All these capabilities have made the F-22 almost invincible (at least on paper and mock engagements). Indeed, a single Raptor during one of its first training sorties was able to kill eight F-15s in a mock air-to-air engagement, well before they could see it.

In its first Red Flag participation, in February 2007, the Raptor was able to establish air dominance rapidly and with no losses. As reported by Dave Allport and Jon Lake in a story which appeared on Air Force Monthly magazine, during an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) in 2008, the F-22s scored 221 simulated kills without a single loss!

Still, when outnumbered and threatened by F-15s, F-16s and F-18s, in a simulated WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfight with particularly limiting ROE, the F-22 is not invincible. For instance, during the 2012 Red Flag-Alaska, the German Eurofighters not only held their own, but reportedly achieved several kills on the Raptors.

Even though we don’t know anything about the ROE set for those training sorties and, at the same time, the outcome of those mock air-to-air combat is still much debated (as there are different accounts of those simulated battles), the “F-22 vs 4th Gen aircraft” is always a much debated topic.

In fact, although these 4th Gen. aircraft are not stealth, they are equipped with IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track).

Indeed, F-22s and other stealth planes have extremely little radar cross-section (RCS) but they do have an IR signature. This means that they can be vulnerable to non-stealthy planes that, using their IRST sensors, hi-speed computers and interferometry, can geo-locate enemy LO (low observability) aircraft.

Indeed, there are certain scenarios and ROE where IRST and other tactics could greatly reduce the advantage provided by radar invisibility and this is one of the reasons why USAF has fielded IRST pods to Aggressors F-16s in the latest Red Flags as proved by shots of the Nellis’s Vipers carrying the Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42. According to some pilots who have fought against the F-22 in mock air combat, the IRST can be extremely useful to detect “large and hot stealth targets like the F-22″ during mock aerial engagements at distances up to 50 km.

That said, the F-22s remains the world’s most advanced air superiority aircraft and would be able to keep an edge on an Su-35S at BVR (Beyond Visual Range): even though AAMs (Air-to-Air Missiles) are still somehow unreliable and jamming is sometimes extremely effective, the U.S. stealth jets (as well as the F-15s and F/A-18s operating over Syria) rely on a superior intelligence and tightly integrated one another. This means that the F-22s would be able to arrange the engagement based on a perfect knowledge of the battlefield; a true “information superiority” that is probably more important than the aircraft’s peculiar features. However, if forced to closer range (within range of the IRST) to comply with limiting ROE or for any other reason, the F-22 would find in the Russian Su-35S a fearsome opponent, and would have to rely mainly on the pilot’s experience and training to win in the aerial engagement against Moscow’s top supermaneuverable combat aircraft.

Top image: Anna Zvereva/USAF

“We Did Barrel Rolls Around Tu-95s At The Request Of The Soviets”: F-4 WSO Explains The Story Of The Phantom Upside Down Near Bear

Here are some memories from the Weapon Systems Officer who shot the famous photograph of the F-4 flying inverted near a Soviet Tu-95 Bear bomber.

Last week we have published a blurry shot of a U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom flying inverted during an intercept mission on a Russian Tu-95 Bear. The photograph went viral and reached Robert M. Sihler, the author of the shot, who was so kind to provide some interesting details about the image that brought to mind one of the most famous scenes in Top Gun movie.

“Although I don’t remember the exact date, the mission occurred in either late 1973 or early 1974.  The F-4C belonged to the 57th FIS at Keflavik NAS.  The mission was a standard intercept of a “Bear” by two F-4s after the alert crews were activated,” Bob wrote in an email to The Aviationist.

In June 1973 the F-4s replaced the F-102s at Keflavik. (All images: R. Sihler)

“I was a Navigator, or in the F-4, a Weapons System Officer. I entered the USAF in Oct 1969. On active duty, I spent a couple of years at Norton AFB, CA in C-141s. From there, I trained in the F-4 and spent one year at Keflavik, Iceland. Following that, I went back to C-141s at Charleston AFB, SC from 1974 to 1977. I left active duty and spent the next 14 years in C-130s at Andrews AFB, MD and Martinsburg ANGB, WV. I retired as a Lt Col in Dec 1991. The assignments to Iceland were generally either one or two years. I elected to do one year without my family accompanying me there. Others chose to bring their families for two years.”

Dealing with the close encounters with the Tu-95s:

“At that time, we probably averaged two intercepts of “Bears” per week. They were the only aircraft we saw while I was there. Generally, the intercepts occurred on Fridays and Sundays, at the “Bears” flew from Murmansk to Cuba on training and, we guessed, “fun” missions. Generally, we did these barrel rolls at the request of the Soviet crewmembers.  They gave us hand signals to let us know they wanted us to do it.  They photographed us as well.  The Cold War was winding down and the attitudes on both sides had improved,” Sihler explains.

When asked whether the barrel roll was difficult or unsafe maneuver, Bob has no doubts: “Not really!  The Soviets, at the time, gave us hand signals asking us to “perform” for them. The rolls were not dangerous at all.”

The famous shot of the inverted flying F-4 Phantom (the aircraft was actually ending a barrel roll).

An F-4C from 57th FIS escorts a Tu-95 intercepted near Iceland in the early 1970s.

The same 57th FIS F-4C that performed the barrel roll around the Tu-95 depicted during the same intercept mission.

A Tu-95 as seen from a Phantom’s cockpit.

A big thank you to Robert Sihler for answering our questions and providing the photographs you can find in this article.

NATO Special Operations Command: Taliban “Red Unit” Commander Killed in Air Strike. Here’s The Video.

Air Strike Hits Vehicle of Taliban Commander in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The NATO Special Operations Component Command, Afghanistan has announced that the Taliban “Red Unit” (special operations) commander in Helmand province, Mullah Shah Wali, alias “Haji Nasir”, was killed in a coalition air strike in Musa Qal’ah, Helmand on Dec. 1, 2017. One of Wali’s deputy commanders and three other insurgents were also killed in the strike.

The insurgent vehicle Wali was riding in was hit by what appears to be a single air-delivered weapon while moving at speed across open country. Although no information about the platform or weapon used in the strike was released, it is likely a precision guided weapon employed either from a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or a manned combat aircraft possibly loitering at a distance while a remote asset such as an RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) or other aircraft provided target designation and terminal guidance.

As commander of the Taliban “Red Unit”, a high-level intelligence and planning cell within the insurgent hierarchy, Mullah Shah Wali planned suicide bombings, IED attacks and special operations assaults according to a news release attributed to the Afghan Intelligence Service and quoted in “The Hill”, a Washington D.C. based news outlet. He was also “directly responsible” for coordinating operations and resupply of munitions, explosives and materials for the Taliban throughout Helmand province, where the Taliban runs opium cultivation operations to provide funding for terrorist operations. An Afghan Army special forces commander told media the terrorist “Red Unit” uses “advanced weaponry, including night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and US-made assault rifles.”

U.S. Army General John Nicholson, Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and commanding officer for the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan since March, 2016, told media the strike will, “disrupt the Taliban network, degrade their narcotics trafficking, and hinder their ability to conduct attacks against Afghan forces.”

While the strike on Mullah Shah Wali and the other ranking members of the so-called Taliban “Red Unit” is likely significant during the short-term in the region, the insurgent leadership has proven they can adapt to leadership losses in the past and maintain their tempo of operations. According to data compiled and reported by FDD’s Long War Journal, the Taliban currently still control “six of the [Helmand] province’s fourteen districts”.

This Video Shows A Russian Su-30SM Almost Getting “Into” The Cargo Bay Of An Il-76 Airlifter Involved In Air Drop Over Syria

An armed Russian Su-30SM gets much close to a UN Il-76 over Deir Ez Zor, Syria.

The video in this post was reportedly filmed during a mission over Deir Ez Zor, Syria.

It shows an armed Russian Air Force Su-30SM jet, escorting an Il-76 involved in an air-drop from high altitude, getting much close to the cargo bay of the airlifter after the pallets are dropped.

We don’t know when the footage was shot. However, it must have been filmed during one of the +250 UN agency World Food Program’s airdrops of humanitarian aid to Syrians: indeed, starting from Feb. 24, 2016 to September 2017, WFP has conducted air-drops in the Deir Ez Zor area, using an Il-76, to deliver vital food and humanitarian suppliesto trapped families in the besieged city in northeastern Syria.

A screenshot from the Russian TV showing the Il-76 escorted by a Russian Su-35 during the first air-drop in 2016.

Flying from Amman, Jordan, a white-colored Il-76 with UN markings (RA-76780) flew to the airdrop area escorted by Russian Air Force aircraft deployed to Hmeymim airbase, including the Su-35S, and the Su-30SM shown in the video.

The UN aircraft could be tracked online using ADS-B on Flightradar24.com during these missions.

The Su-30SM is a multirole derivative of the Su-27 Flanker. It’s a special variant of the thrust-vectoring Su-30MKI and MKM produced by the Irkut Corporation for the Russian Air Force. It’s a 4+ Generation twin-engine, two seat supermaneuverable multi-role aircraft equipped with improved avionics, the Bars-R radar and a wide-angle HUD (Head Up Display).

H/T Vladimir Konovalov and Trevor Siders for the heads-up

The Israeli F-35I “Adir” Declared Operational. So What’s Next?

Little less than a year after the first two aircraft were delivered to Israel, the Israeli Air Force F-35s have achieved IOC (Initial Operational Capability).

On Dec. 6, 2017, the Israeli Air Force has declared its first F-35 Lightning II jets, designated “Adir” (“Mighty One”) by the Israeli, operational.

“The declaration of the squadron’s operational capability is occurring at a time in which the IAF is operating on a large scale in a number of fronts, in the constantly changing Middle East”, said Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, Commander of the IAF in an official blog. “The operational challenge, which is becoming more and more complex each day, receives an excellent aerial response. The ‘Adir’ aircraft’s operational status adds a significant layer to the IAF’s capabilities at this time”.

The Israeli Air Force has so far received 9 aircraft that have been assigned to the 140 Sqn (“Golden Eagle”) at Nevatim airbase. The first two aircraft were delivered on Dec. 12, 2016. Five have been chosen for the assessment that has been conducted to declare the fleet IOC. As a side note, the status of the F-35 was grounded after suffering a birdstrike last month, sparking speculations that it might have been hit by the Syrian Air Defenses during a covert air strike, is unknown. Anyway, the Israeli F-35 is the first outside of the United States to be declared operational, preceded only by the U.S Marine Corps and U.S Air Force. The Italian Air Force, that has received 8 F-35s so far, has not declared IOC yet (at least officially).

“The inspection examined missions and scenarios that include all of the operational elements required to fly the ‘Adir’, from the ground to the air”, shared Lt. Col. Yotam, Commander of the 140th (“Golden Eagle”) Squadron, which operates the “Adir”. “I am confident in the division’s capability to reach operational preparedness and feel that the pressure is positive and healthy”.

What does IOC mean? Using U.S. Air Force lingo, it means that the IAF has enough operational aircraft, trained pilots, maintainers and support equipment to conduct operational missions using program of record weapons and missions systems. In simple words, it means the aricraft are capable of flying actual combat missions.

Throughout 2018, the “Golden Eagle” Squadron is expected to integrate six more fighters, while the next aircraft are scheduled to land in Israel early in the summer.

“We have yet to complete our acquaintance with the aircraft. We still have tests, development of combat doctrines and extensive learning before us”, concluded Lt. Col. Yotam in the official statement. “We haven’t stopped learning thinking and developing upon being declared operational. The establishment of the division doesn’t end with this inspection, it just begins. Will the ‘Adir’ participate in the next military campaign? I have no doubt. An aircraft like this brings capabilities to the IAF that it didn’t have before; it is an important strategic asset”.

An Israeli F-35A departs Nevatim. (Credit: IAF)

The IAF has always been enthusiastic and vocal about the fifth generation aircraft: “As the Middle East grows more and more unstable, and as groups that threaten to destroy us race to stockpile weapons, we need to stay a step ahead of the game. The F-35 gives us the edge we need to take on groups and armies with even the most advanced technology,” said the IDF in a blog that preceded the delivery of the new aircraft.

In a farewell interview with Haaretz, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, former IAF Commander said: “Not everything is perfect […] There are some things you only learn on your feet. This happens with every plane that we add. But when you take off in this jet from Nevatim [IAF base], you can’t believe it. When you ascend to around 5,000 feet, the entire Middle East is yours at the cockpit. It is unbelievable what you can see. The American pilots that come to us didn’t experience that because they fly there, in Arizona, in Florida. Here they suddenly see the Middle East as a fighting zone. The threats, the various players, are in short range as well as in long range. Only then do you grasp the tremendous potential this machine has. We already see it with our own eyes.”

“This jet brings us everything we’ve dreamed of doing, in one package,” said another senior air force source, speaking on the condition of anonymity to Al-Monitor media outlet earlier this year. “It’s all concentrated on one table for us. As we all know, the F-35 can reach places in a way that others can’t. But in addition, it integrates high-level operational capabilities as well as the ability to read and analyze a battle map. The earlier, fourth-generation jets are excellent at maneuvering and activating sophisticated weapons systems, but they are not able to collect intelligence and independently analyze battle movement. The F-35 can do all this by itself in real time, with only one pilot sitting in the cockpit. We have never had such an operational capability until today. Until now, attack aircraft were operated independently of air support aircraft. The former waited to receive analysis of the battle picture that came from the latter. But in the F-35, everything is on the same platform, and this is no less than amazing. When you connect that to several aircraft, you receive strategic capability for the State of Israel.”

Indeed, what makes the F-35 one of the world’s most advanced aircraft is its high-end electronic intelligence gathering sensors combined with advanced sensor fusion capabilities to create a single integrated picture of the battlefield. However, electronic intelligence capabilities similar to those that the Israeli aircraft can put in place to get a pretty detailed view of the Middle East, can be used by neighbouring nations to spy on their fifth generation jet.

According to the same sources who talked to Al-Monitor, the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern: the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.

In fact, tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft are built to defeat radar operating at specific frequencies; usually high-frequency bands as C, X, Ku and S band where the radar accuracy is higher (in fact, the higher the frequency, the better is the accuracy of the radar system).

However, once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold and causes a resonant effect, LO aircraft become increasingly detectable. For instance, ATC radars, that operate at lower-frequency bands are theoretically able to detect a tactical fighter-sized stealth plane whose shape features parts that can cause resonance. Radars that operate at bands below 300 MHz (lower UHF, VHF and HF radars), such as the so-called Over The Horizon (OTH) radars, are believed to be particularly dangerous for stealth planes: although they are not much accurate (because lower frequency implies very large antenna and lower angle accuracy and angle resolution) they can spot stealth planes and be used to guide fighters equipped with IRST towards the direction the LO planes might be.

For these reasons, in the same way the U.S. spyplanes do with all the Russian Su-35S, Su-30SM, S-400 in Syria, it’s safe to assume Russian advanced anti-aircraft systems are “targeting” the Israeli F-35s and its valuable emissions, forcing the IAF to adapt its procedures and leverage the presence of other aircraft to “hide” the “Adir” when and where it could theoretically be detected. “This has created a situation in which the IAF is adapting itself to the F-35 instead of adapting the jet to the air force. The goal, they say at the IAF, is to use the F-35 to upgrade the fourth generation jets that will fly around the F-35,” commented Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit.

An Israeli “Adir” flies alongside a “Sufa”

Although it was just declared operational, it will take a few years to “completely” understand and exploit the stealth jet’s capabilities. Even more so, considered that the Israeli F-35s will have some domestic modifications and components provided by Israeli companies, that the IAF has not even begun the process of installing and integrating on the jet. Indeed, the IAF F-35As will be different from the “standard” F-35s, as they will employ national EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, C4 systems etc.

Meanwhile the Israeli F-35s will probably see some action, validating the tactical procedures to be used by the new aircraft, fine tuning the ELINT capabilities of the “Adir” to detect, geolocate and classify enemy‘s new/upgraded systems, as well as testing the weapons system (and the various Israeli “customizations”) during real operations as part of “packages” that will likely include other special mission aircraft and EW (Electronic Warfare) support.

But only if really needed: the Israeli Air Force “legacy” aircraft have often shown their ability to operate freely in the Syrian airspace, using stand-off weaponry, without needing most of the fancy 5th generation features; therefore, it’s safe to assume the Israelis will commit their new aircraft if required by unique operational needs, as already happened in the past (in 1981, the first Israeli F-16s took part in Operation Opera, one of the most famous operations in Israeli Air Force history, one year after the first “Netz” aircraft was delivered and before all the F-16As were taken on charge by the IAF).

As we have already reported, IAF may also purchase some F-35Bs, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the Joint Strike Fighter, that would allow the Israeli to have a squadron or two of multirole aircraft able to take off and land from austere/dispersed landing strips should Iran be able to wipe out IAF airbases with precision weapons.

So, Israel’s “journey” with the F-35 jet has just begun.