Author Archives: Michael Glynn

EUROCONTROL Versus the Drones: The Death of Another UAV Program

European news outlets reported last week that the German Euro Hawk Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) program will be terminated due to the prohibitive cost of modifying the platform to conform to collision avoidance requirements.  If the reports are true, Euro Hawk will join a similar project which had the poor luck to be canceled not due to cost over-runs, performance, or technical issues, but due to Air Traffic Control limitations.

The XQM-93 UAV, code-named Compass Dwell, was conceived by the Air Force in the late 1960’s to fulfill a role extremely similar to the current tasking of Euro Hawk.  Compass Dwell was intended to provide 28 hour endurance at an altitude of 40,000 and deliver persistence surveillance of Warsaw Pact air defense systems.  Euro Hawk is believed to be tasked to provide surveillance of Eastern European military assets.


Image credit: USAF via

Two variants of the project were built, both using a converted Schweizer sailplane.  The XQM-93 airframe was built by Ling Temco Vought and mated to a turboprop power plant.  The other model, built by Martin Marietta and designated Model 845, featured a turbocharged piston engine.  Both airframes flew successfully in 1972, with the Model 845 achieving a flight time of 27 hours and 54 minutes.  The UAVs were intended to target Soviet air defense radars and provide standoff jamming during wartime.

Compass Dwell was intended to operate high above commercial air traffic, but would still need to climb and descend through those altitudes during each mission.  European air traffic controlling agencies refused to allow the XQM-93 to operate in their airspace, and the program was canceled in 1973.

The termination of these two programs demonstrates the unique challenge posed to operators of UAV systems.  Despite the inherent performance benefits in unmanned systems, the limitation of sensors and need to safely de-conflict airspace remain just as much hurdles in 2013 as they did four decades ago.

Michael Glynn for

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Examining Israeli Air Force Weaponeering in the Damascus Strike

For the second time in three days, strike aircraft of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacked targets in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport.  The targets are alleged to have been shipments of Syrian ballistic missiles bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.  U.S. Intelligence sources and open-source reporting have claimed that Israeli jets struck these weapons caches during the first raid without penetrating Syrian airspace.

If it is true that Israeli fighters remained over Lebanon during the strike, it raises interesting questions regarding the choice of weapons used in the raid.  The distance from the Lebanese border to Damascus prevents the use of JDAM series weapons or Paveway series Laser Guided Bombs.  However, by examining the IAF order of battle, it can be inferred that the Israelis likely utilized the Rafael Popeye standoff missile to strike these targets.

The IAF currently utilizes three weapons that possess the range and precision targeting capabilities necessary for the Damascus raid.  The Popeye, with a reported 48 nm range, could easily be launched from inside Lebanese airspace and fly the approximately 30 nm to strike Damascus.  Additionally, the end-game EO/IR targeting and large 750 lb warhead makes the weapon a logical choice.

It is unlikely, but possible, that the Israelis used the Delilah air to surface missile.  Delilah was originally conceived as a low-speed, loitering weapon that could strike moving targets and be reprogrammed after launch.  The loiter capability of the weapon makes it ideal for attacking surface to air (SAM) sites or radars as well as high value mobile targets such as ballistic missiles.  However, the small 66 lb warhead is a poor choice for a large target such as a warehouse.

It is also possible that the Israelis used the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb.  The folding wings of the glide weapon give the requisite range.  However, the small warhead makes the weapon a less attractive choice, unless a large number of the weapons were used.  The GBU-39 uses a JDAM style GPS guidance system and is believed to only have been integrated on the F-15I strike fighter.

Michael Glynn for

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How the U.S. Navy and Air Force will Watch North Korea’s Next Missile Launch

As tensions continue to rise on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are ready to watch upcoming missile launches. The two services use a variety of ground based, sea-going, and aerial assets to gather intelligence on foreign missile tests.

For decades, the U.S. Air Force has relied on its small group of RC-135S missile tracking aircraft, code-named COBRA BALL. These aircraft are based at Offutt Air Force Base, outside Omaha, Neb. and are flown by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron.

COBRA BALL is used to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight.

The aircraft has a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight.

Take special note of the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography.

RC-135S 2

Image credit: ブニョ氏のブログ

RC-135S crews are augmented by several ground based, phased-array radar systems.

The COBRA DANE radar at Eareckson Air Station in Shemya Alaska is used to provide radar coverage over the Northern Pacific. While the system is accurate enough to track small objects in space, its utility depends on the direction, or azimuth, of the missile launch. The last test of a North Korean missile featured a southern trajectory, launching south over the East China Sea.

In the past few days, Korean media outlets reported the movement of Musudan IRBM launchers and vehicles to Eastern portions of North Korea.

These missiles, if launched on a test flight, would likely be launched in an easterly direction, overflying Japan and landing in the Philippine Sea.

To provide additional coverage, the U.S. Navy is able to use its missile tracking ship, the USNS Observation Island (T-AGM-23). The Observation Island features the legacy COBRA JUDY phased array radar system. The ability to position in advance of a launch provides excellent flexibility to place Observation Island in the idea position to gather high quality radar intelligence and telemetry data.

Observation Island is schedule to be replaced in the near future by USNS Howard O. Lorenzen (T-AGM-25). However, Lorenzen experienced significant difficulties during acceptance trials, and has not yet become operational. The new ship will be equipped with an upgraded variant of the legacy radar, code-named COBRA KING.

Michael Glynn for

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WC-135 in action following DPRK test: how the U.S. Air Force Sniffs for Nuclear Explosions

While the world diplomatic community debates sanctions against North Korea following the reclusive nation’s underground nuclear test last Tuesday, U.S. Air Force crews are in action over the Sea of Japan, searching for fallout from the explosion.

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix atmospheric collections aircraft is used to detect the radioactive particles that result from a nuclear detonation.

The WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support aircraft. Ten of these aircraft have been operated since 1963, two of which remain in service today. The aircraft are operated by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.


Image credit:

South Korean newspapers reported that WC-135 crews had been operating from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa as early as Jan. 31, 2013 in anticipation of the most recent North Korean Test.

While the underground test likely utilized a series of tunnels, blast doors, and baffles to trap fallout, any radioactive particles that did escape will be useful to analyze the type of warhead and relative sophistication of the design and detonation mechanism.

The sophistication and size of the warhead help analysts determine whether North Korean nuclear technology is advanced enough to build a small warhead that can be delivered by missile.

Michael Glynn for

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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Here’s how Coalition Patrol Planes Hunt Somali Pirates in the Horn of Africa

DJIBOUTI – The shipping lanes of the pirate-infested Somali basin have faded somewhat from the headlines in the past year as attacks and successful hijackings have dropped significantly.  The decrease is due in part to the continued efforts of several coalition air forces to patrol the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden in a continuous, coordinated way.

The Aviationist took an in-depth look at the forces and methods involved to help fight piracy from the air.

The former French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti has become a hotbed of military activity as Western forces have waged a protracted but largely secret campaign against extremists in the hinterlands of Somalia, Yemen, and the waters off East Africa.  Predator and Reaper drones fly daily from the base, striking targets in restive northern Yemen and Southern Somalia.  The airbase is also home to a contingent of maritime patrol aircraft from a variety of nations.


Image credit: U.S. Navy

Since the early 2000’s, Djibouti has hosted P-3 Orion patrol aircraft from the U.S. Navy (USN), Spanish Air Force, and German Navy.  In 2009, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) Orion crews made history when they began the nation’s first deployment abroad since the end of World War II.  While the humanitarian aspect of anti-piracy operations blunt some criticism, the reality of the JMSDF deploying aircraft far from home is not lost on either Japanese nationalists, yearning for a return of an assertive, interventionist military, or critics of the nation’s conduct half a century ago.  In 2010, Singapore marked a first when it deployed Fokker F-50 patrol aircraft, following the hijacking of a Singaporean cargo ship.

The P-3’s fly daily from Djibouti, working in concert with a task-force of warships from multiple nations to provide over-watch and real-time updates on the position of suspected pirate vessels.  The geography and lack of assets are challenges for the naval task force.  As countermeasures have increased and pirates have gained experience, aggressive captains have pushed out further and further from their home waters in hopes of hijacking a vulnerable cargo ship and earning a hefty ransom.  In recent years, attacks have been recorded as far as 800 nautical miles off the Somali coast.  The distances and areas involved demand close coordination between all aircraft and ships involved.

While military spokesmen declined to comment, observers have noted that the Orions fly their anti-piracy sorties unarmed.  The aircrews rely on information to neutralize the threat of piracy, rather than escalating the situation with weapons.  While counter-intuitive, understanding the motives of pirate crews helps to explain the desire to deescalate a potentially deadly situation.  The goal of Somali pirate crews is to board a relatively helpless cargo ship, overpower the crew, and steam as rapidly as possible towards the Somali coast.  Once the ship is near the coast, the crewmembers are brought ashore, taken inland and hidden, to prevent a rescue attempt.  The owners of the ship are then contacted and negotiations begin to ransom both the ship and the crew.  The vast majority of hijackings end with the crew and vessel returned safely to their owners following a ransom payment.  Any attempt by military forces to stage a rescue or use violence against the pirates ultimately imperils the crew and other hostages.

P-3 2

Image credit: U.S. Navy

With weapons removed from the playing field, aircrews use surveillance equipment and simple physics to their advantage.  The crews aim first to identify suspected pirate vessels and warn nearby merchant ships to alter course.  Somali pirates use medium sized fishing dhows as “motherships”, allowing them to sail far out to sea and lie in wait for weeks on end.  When the mothership notices a cargo ship approaching, several small skiffs are launched.  These speedboats are quick, but cannot sail far or handle heavy seas.  As a result, in order to catch a cargo ship, the mothership has to effectively be out in front of the target.  A merchant ship steaming at 20 knots can use its speed advantage to disengage and prevent the mothership from getting close enough to launch her skiffs, if given enough warning to change course and disrupt the engagement.

The challenge of differentiating motherships from innocent fishermen is made a bit easier by visual clues used to spot potential pirates.  Skiffs on the deck, extra cans of gas, and boarding ladders are simple signs that a dhow is probably on the look-out for something other than fish.  A fishing dhow cruising the Indian Ocean shipping lanes without any nets is also an easy signal that trouble is in store.  Orion crews take note of suspected pirate motherships and broadcast warning messages to merchant ships in the area.

USN Orion crews have been involved in several high-profile piracy incidents, including the hijacking of the M/V Maersk Alabama and dramatic rescue of her captain in April 2009.  A P-3C from USN VP-8 was the first aircraft or ship on the scene following the hijacking.  VP-8 crews provided surveillance during the negotiations and were overhead sending real-time imagery to commanders during the attack that lead to the death of the remaining pirates and the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips.  USN Orions also provided support following the hijacking of the sailing vessel Quest in Feb. 2011.  Sadly, the crew of the Quest was killed by hijackers before negotiations could be successfully completed.

While attacks and hijackings have decreased, the patrol plane presence has not.  The JMSDF is currently building a hanger and support facilities to allow a continuous detachment to operate from the Djibouti-Ambouli airfield.  Likewise, western naval forces show no signs of departing from this strategically located African base.

Michael Glynn for

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