Author Archives: Todd Miller

We Encountered The B-2 Stealth Bomber At Night in Stormy Skies To Get These Crazy Cool Photos. Here’s How It Went.

Close Encounter With Two Ghostly B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers At Night.

“It’s go time!” The crew announcement snaps me from my sleep. It’s near zero hundred and we fly in dark skies over western Missouri. The anticipation amps up on FORCE 26, a 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) KC-10 from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ (JBMDL). I hurriedly gather my camera equipment and follow the crew to the refueling station.

FORCE 26 skims the top of a storm front, slipping in and out of clouds. The KC-10 rattles, thumps and bounces in the bone jarring turbulence. I struggle to get seated and configure my camera for a hopeful, if not mercilessly difficult shot. I can see nothing but heavy grey clouds below and deep black skies behind. Unseen, three thirsty Spirits are surely closing quickly.

To my right the boom operator, Senior Master Sergeant Carl Wise buckles in. Wise has 10 years on the boom but an eighteen-month hiatus requires his requalification. Tonight, is his check ride. To his right sits active instructor and assessor, Tech Sergeant Adam Sochia. Sochia watches closely as Wise moves through system checks. An audible alarm sounds and warning light flashes. Oh no, not possibly now… No additional drama required, but tonight we have it in spades.

Outwardly Wise and Sochia appear calm, proficient and thorough, but the tension in their voices is palpable. Radios crackle between Wise and the flight crew in the KC-10 cockpit. They too have noted the alarm, and together discuss appropriate action. Despite years of experience Wise is now tested by the system and the conditions. His decision making and skills evaluated during in-flight refueling with the USAF’s most prized asset – in turbulent air at visibility limits. Wise extends the boom and verifies complete movement and control. Check. Proceed.

Eyes outward, I am only peripherally aware of their challenges. I have my own. I frantically move through camera settings – looking for something, anything that will work in darkness beyond what I had imagined. Autofocus is out of the question, ISO settings through the roof, lens wide open, shutter speeds impossibly low…. I am out of time. BAT 71 draws near at constant speed, her strobes flashing and command module glowing. Is she beast, or some machine from the future? Whatever the case, these are her skies and she rises through the fog like a wraith to take …. our fuel.
Before she can connect we slip into the clouds. I discern her outline a mere 100 ft off the boom, some 150 ft away. Enshrouded in cloud she stops and holds position, as if to study her prey before moving in. We cut in and out of cloud catching glimpses of her dark and mysterious form. Wisps of cloud flash eerily over her wings like flowing grey hair. City lights reappear as the jagged robe of her trailing edge passes by. We bounce and rattle through the skies, while BAT 71 glides smoothly behind. This unearthly Spirit is at home in the dark and turbulent skies.

The Spirit comes… BAT 71 B-2 from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) incoming on FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Sights like this may be common for boom operators, but leave a word defying imprint on me. Surreal, Supernatural, Magic – no word, no description is adequate. Yet make no mistake, in another place and at another time encountering three wraiths can only mean one thing – the impending doom of someone or something. The B-2 Spirit is both the ultimate global deterrent and Grim Reaper.

Bouncing through the clouds and turbulence just after midnight and BAT 71 a 509th BW B-2 Spirit (Whiteman AFB) holds just off the boom of FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

Radios crackle, “Kansas City Center, FORCE 26, request climb to clear weather.” “FORCE 26, Kansas City Center cleared to climb and work airspace block 23 – to 28,000 ft.” “Climbing to work airspace block 23 – 28,000 ft. FORCE 26”

The KC-10 starts upward and BAT 71 follows as if suspended just off boom. Breaking free from the clouds we find smooth, clear air. Wise, now in control of the refueling operation clears BAT 71 to connect. The Spirit slides forward. Though close to her home at Whiteman AFB, MO the B-2 Spirit has been aloft for near four hours and requests thousands of pounds of fuel.

Small talk non-existent, gas and go with a B-2 is often done with no words exchanged. In the best conditions an air to air connect is no simple task. It is a choreography of dance between aircraft of all types and sizes – the two platforms briefly becoming one. The team on both sides of this boom are seasoned professionals and make this connect look as easy as walking up and shaking hands. BAT 71 is on the boom and I ponder her mystery.

Operated by the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB the B-2 is the premier platform of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). Invisible by night, the stealthy B-2 bomber can penetrate heavily defended airspace and deliver a punishing knock-out blow. Traveling around the globe from Whiteman AFB, the Spirit is well-known to fly missions of over 24 hours. Earlier this year the B-2 recorded a mission of over 30 hours requiring 15 aerial refuelings!

The 305th AMW and their force of KC-10 tankers at JBMDL enable the Global Reach of the USAF. On this mission we fly with crew from the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) with the clear and accurate motto “Linking the Continents.” It is a simple fact, without units like the 305th AMW the Global Reach of the USAF would be severely diminished.

The importance and value of the mission is not lost on boom operators like Wise, who comments “a boom operators job offers instant satisfaction. Every time we refuel an aircraft we enable it to complete its mission, whether in training, combat, or humanitarian relief.” This job satisfaction explains why I find myself with 3 very experienced boom operators. All three are Instructors, including Master Sergeant Jessica Stockwell with 11 years’ experience. The three are passionate and have found tremendous rewards in service. Stockwell notes that it is an incredible team effort from the maintenance group to the entire crew on the aircraft. As it relates specifically to her role as in-flight refueler she says, “during preparation and flight the 2 pilots and flight engineer are responsible for everything that happens in the cockpit, the in-flight refueler is responsible for everything that happens outside the cockpit, air to air refueling, cargo, people and more. It is very rewarding to have that mission responsibility.”

BAT 71 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Buffeted by turbulence BAT 71 drops briefly off the boom. As the turbulence subsides she slides back making another connect look effortless. This Spirit is not leaving without getting all her intended fuel. The entire encounter speaks of planning, precision and the utmost professionalism. Dropping off the boom a final time, BAT 71 disappears into the night. Under duress, SMSgt Wise passes his review and moves forward toward instructor requalification.

BAT 71 – 509th BW B-2 Spirit head on as seen from FORCE 26 – 305th AMW KC-10 just after midnight in the skies over southwest Missouri.

Sochia and Stockwell fuel BAT 72 & BAT 73. Time passes too quickly. Their thirst satisfied the bombers disappear into the dark skies to destination(s) unknown. This was a training mission. In the same fashion, the Spirits loaded with deadly ordnance could be destined to strike a target on the other side of the globe. As happens, cable news quick to broadcast pictures of the impact of their undetected visit.

B-2 Spirits are each identified with a unique U.S. State, such as “The Spirit of Missouri.” I always considered the name “Spirit” in such context. Zero Hundred, October 3 has forever changed my perspective. “Spirit” as perhaps was always intended, is; “one emerging from the clouds, lights glowing, hair flowing, mysterious, ghostly – and most certainly, deadly.”

BAT 72 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the 305th AMW, the 32nd ARS, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs Team Shaun Eagan, SrA Lauren Russell, A1C Zachary Martyn, the exceptional team of in-flight refuelers and entire flight crew of FORCE 26! All professionals through and through in the finest sense.

Salva

Salva

Up Close And Personal With Textron’s Scorpion Light Attack Jet During Weapons Separation Testing

Textron’s Scorpion Aces Weapons Separation Testing.

Going five for five in the complex, methodical and engineering-driven military aircraft test regimes is rare. Weather, range logistics, recording equipment, aircraft readiness or one of any other number of details typically conspire to scrub a test flight.

This past July the Textron Aviation Defense Team of two Scorpion jets (production airframes P2 and P3), three Test Pilots, two Flight Test Engineers and 12 support staff (ground, weapons, maintenance, program) descended on NAS Patuxent River, Maryland for weapons separation testing. Five scheduled flight tests in five different configurations over five flight days with 100% completion on time and target enabled the team to achieve “Ace” status, of sorts.

The test plan was aggressive and put the credibility of the three Textron test pilots at risk – all graduates of the US Navy Test Pilot School at Pax River.

Textron Aviation’s Scorpion Jets form up in the skies over Wichita, Kansas. The four Scorpions (developmental aircraft in the foreground with production aircraft 1-3 ) are maintaining heavy utilization rates expanding the flight envelope, performing weapons testing, making demonstration flights to a variety of interested customers and participating in the USAF light attack experiment.

Textron Chief Test Pilot Dan Hinson (23 years in the F/A-18) was humbled to be back among the professionals where he had served and honed his skills. Hinson noted the tremendous respect for both NAVAIR and the Navy’s VX-23 developmental flight test organization, the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron affectionately known as the “Salty Dogs.” The entire test regime was carefully coordinated with NAVAIR, the Naval Test Wing Atlantic (NTWL) and VX-23 with protocols followed in the same fashion as is done for military aircraft tests.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rockets during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

Weapons separation may appear simple; however, it is complex testing that is rigorously documented. One Scorpion functioned as “chase“ aircraft while the “tester” was outfitted with high speed cameras on the nose, wing and tail. Every aspect of the release was closely monitored with scores of data points captured.
This was the first time the Scorpion had achieved rack separation. Weapons such as the HMP-400 .50 Cal guns and LAU-131A/A rocket launcher were monitored for hot gas ingestion into the intakes. Operational modes were tested and wiring configurations were evaluated.
Weapons tested included:

  • LAU-131A/A 2.75” unguided/guided rocket launcher
  • HMP-400 .50 Cal machine gun pods, (two flights with single and simultaneous firing)
  • GBU-12 Paveway II 500 lb. bombs
  • BDU-50 (500 lb. practice bomb)

As aggressive as the schedule for the weapons testing was, it was completed four days early. Hinson and team relished the tremendous professional support of NAVAIR, NTWL and VX-23 and departed with the Navy’s great respect for their test efficiency and rigor, fortified. The completed tests took place just in time to open the weapons delivery envelope in support of the USAF OA-X Light Attack Experiment taking place at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

Textron Scorpion drops a 500 lb GBU-12 Paveway II during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

The aircraft utilized for testing were of the production standard (P1-P3) differing from the original developmental aircraft (D1) in the following ways;

  • P1-P3 all feature an all trimmable tail – enabling improved flight performance.
  • The large internal payload bay has been reconfigured to house deeper payloads.
  • The landing gear has been updated to a trailing link gear configuration with larger brakes.
  • P1-P3 utilize a full Garmin G3000 Avionics suite.

Given all the attention the attack component of the Scorpion has received in the press, it is often overlooked that the aircraft is built around a payload bay. The modular payload bay is impressive with great volume, electrical and cooling capacity for a wide variety of payloads/sensors. One example is the L-3 Wescam MX-25 – now capable of full retraction into the payload bay. The MX-25 is L-3 Wescam’s largest electro-optical/infrared camera. For comparison purposes, the US Navy P-8 Poseidon utilizes the slightly smaller L-3 Wescam MX-20.

Textron Scorpion with HMP-400 gun pods overflies NAS Patuxent River during recent weapons trials. The TEXTRON team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-400 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

Aside from great payload flexibility, the Scorpion is night vision capable and both the front and rear cockpits are prepared for use with the Thales Visionix Scorpion Helmet Mounted Cueing System.

Textron’s Scorpion summer of 2017 has been a resounding success. The 4 aircraft (D1, P1, P2, P3) were simultaneously tasked at multiple locations (Paris International Airshow, Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT – RAF Fairford), Pax River, MD [weapons testing] and the ongoing USAF OA-X Light attack experiment. All while a production airframe (at times two) continued with envelope expansion testing at Textron’s base in Wichita, Kansas.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests concluding 4 days early.

In a class by itself, the Scorpion offers unique capability to carry the latest ISR sensors, loiter for extended periods of time and prosecute targets at will. Given the aircraft’s sound performance to date, the Scorpion appears well on the way to becoming the solution of choice for economical, intelligent and lethal airpower in the permissive environment or as a component of a large force projection.

Textron Scorpion fires 2.75″ Hydra-70 rocket during recent weapons trials at NAS Patuxent River, MD. The Textron team achieved 100% mission completion rate during weapons system testing. 5 different configurations (LAU-131, HMP-440 Gun pods, GBU-12) were tested over 5 days, with the tests

The Author expresses special thanks to Dan Hinson – Textron Aviation Defense Chief Test Pilot and former NAVAIR PMA-265 F/A-18 & EA-18G Integrated Product Team Lead, Commanding Officer of the U.S. Naval Strike Fighter Weapons School, and graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Class 103.

Photo Credits, as indicated US Navy by Erik Hildebrandt / Released and Jim Haseltine / Released

We Flew Red Air against F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, Rafales and Typhoons in Atlantic Trident ’17. Here’s How It Went.

Flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident 17.

At 21,000 ft “Code” rolls the Talon inverted.  I have just enough time to realize we are inverted – before the Gs started building and we are pointed… down. Straight down.    We are flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident ’17.  Not your normal Red Air vul, today we are facing off against a historic gathering of the most formidable fighter aircraft in the western world.

The United States Air Force (USAF) 1st Fighter Wing located at Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE) hosted the event.  1st FW is responsible for 30% of the USAF Raptor fleet.  Described as “America’s premier Air Dominance wing,” the 1st FW is elite company.  This group (with the help of the 71st FTS) ensures the Raptors under their command are maintained, manned by skilled pilots, and ready to go when and where needed worldwide, at a moment’s notice.

After two days of rain and scrubbed vuls the clouds began to lift.  Didn’t matter, even with clear skies a nasty storm was brewing over the Atlantic, Typhoons, Lightning strikes, with the “gusts of wind / bursts of fire” (Rafale), and the “Bird of Prey” (Raptor) circling over it all.  Not a Hollywood script, this is what awaits the Strike Eagles and Talons of Red Air posing as a variety of MIG threats with specific missile emulations.

The Platforms & Players:

Blue Air: 1st FW F-22A Raptors; Eglin AFB F-35A Lightning IIs; Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons; French Air Force/Armée de l’air Dassault Rafales.

Red Air: 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38A Talons; 391st FS “Bold Tigers” F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home AFB, ID.

Given operational security, some of the following flight details are principally correct.

The six participating Talons flew in two flights of three, “Vodka” and “MIG”.  The Strike Eagle flights “Marlin” and “Dagger” combined to form another 6 aircraft.  12 Red Air with E-3A Sentry support, against 16 Blue Air.  Given Blue Air was farthest from JBLE and launched first, they enjoyed tanker support from the Armée de l’air KC-135, as well as US tanker units (including at one point a KC-10 from the 305th AMW Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

What could we expect of the vul?

Red Air understood that Blue Air was tasked with a strike mission (target location unknown to Red Air) using the Rafale and Raptor as strikers.  While some might think the F-35As should have been the strikers, Raptor was the word and Raptors do have a very effective strike capability. The rest of Blue Air, Typhoons and Lightning IIs (and perhaps a mix of Raptors) were flying escort protecting the strikers.

Blue Air was challenged to employ “total force integration” across nationalities and platforms to form a multilayered, overlapping sphere of impenetrable “armor.”  Certainly, Blue Air would utilize their superior sensors to create a 3D picture of the battle space and their state of the art weapons to “destroy” Red Air well beyond visual range (BVR).

Red Air would utilize dissimilar threats against Blue Air coming from a multitude of directions and altitudes.  The Talons and Strike Eagles primary goal: to find the Blue Air strikers (call sign “Rogue”), fight through the escorts to get within an effective (emulated) missile envelope and realize a kill.  However, even if a visual on a Raptor or Lightning II was realized (and Red Air had the radar capability) they would still be “chasing a mirage” and could not expect to get a lock. Great.

Total force integration of the Gen 5 and 4.5 platforms creates a nasty dilemma for a real adversary.  At the best of times target fixation is deadly, add 5th Gen assets in the mix – fatal.

While the scenario sounds like a futile effort for Red Air, it is key to understand that this exercise is not a game where the highest kills wins.  Rather, the primary purpose of the exercise is to ensure Blue Air (our collective nations fighting edge) refine Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs).  With common, familiar TTPs, the coalition will quickly come together in the face of a future conflict and be effective, day one.

The coalition of Blue Air was challenged to maximize their mix to most efficiently use each aircraft’s exceptional capabilities, weapons loads and available fuel.  The best efforts of Red Air would test the tactics of Blue Air, to ensure they overlook nothing, and responded correctly to the dynamic of the fight.  If a Blue Air participant required a learning lesson – it was up to Red Air to provide it, and this is the right time and place to do so.  Perhaps in the “fog of war” an area of the formation would be left uncovered, and Red Air would get a leaker through to do some damage.

The 71st FTS “Langley Adversaries” fields young pilots preparing for the Raptor as well as seasoned Raptor pilots and pilots with plenty of experience in alternate platforms.  One look at the markings on the F-15E Strike Eagles of the “Bold Tigers” and it was clear there is plenty of combat experience in those cockpits.  No question, this group of pilots had the ability to take down a Blue Air player.  In a previous visit to the 71st FTS I met one of the T-38 pilots who had done that very thing.  I expect it was a lesson that resonated with the Raptor pilot.

Waiting in open cockpit at the end of runway (EOR) Blue Air completes their launches, and our teammates in F-15Es thunder down the runway in glorious afterburner.  Following MIG flight, Vodka flight of Talons launches last, one at a time in rapid succession.

We form up at 2,000 ft before punching through the clouds in formation.  I’m back seat of Vodka #3 flown by “Code,” (1st Lt.) in tight our flight lead #1 “Shim” (Maj.) and #2 “HOTAS” (Maj).  Within seconds we break through the clouds and the Talons look like beautiful black darts in the blue sky.  The SR-71 Blackbird clearly established that “black jets” are the coolest, so we are in good company.  The aircraft are stable and the pilots smooth. We stay in formation as we climb to altitude on the way to the fight.

T-38As of Langley Adversaries, 71st FTS “Ironmen” Vodka 1 & Vodka 2 during Atlantic Trident ’17 range bound. Flying out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

MIG flight is now far to the southeast working the opposite flank.  Marlin and Dagger are well above us in their own airspace blocks working the higher altitudes.  Red Air is tightening the noose. At altitude and nearing our block, Vodka 1 indicates he will run in on Blue Air from 10,000 ft below us.  The Talon drops away so fast my perspective is forever altered.  A high-performance aircraft allows the pilot to carve the sky at will shrinking time and space in ways grounded mortals cannot know.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

With “go time” quickly closing in, Vodka 2 moves some distance from us.  Flying almost parallel we form a wall approaching Blue Air.  Red Air is attacking in numbers from many different directions and altitudes.  Perhaps Blue Air will miss one of us as we close rapidly and a striker will fall!

We now appear to be alone in the sky, a single gunslinger in the expanse with weapons armed and ready against impossible odds.  Focus and activity keep the thought at bay, the controllers voice a clear reminder that we are part of a much greater force and we do not fight alone.

“Fights On!” and we fly our vector like an adversary, oblivious to the invisible danger that lurks unseen in the distant (or near) sky. The next 45 minutes is something of a blur.  The controller calls a heading, we turn – someone turns, there is a lot going on in the skies.  The tempo increases, the radio crackling with voices.  Controllers in the E-3A are busy directing and working what sounds like play by play of an intense play-off game.  An intense play-off between warfighters.

Through the intercom, Code warns “G’s!”  I have split second to prepare for a snap turn and the onset of G’s.  Code is kind, the G’s are short-lived and light – well under 3.  Within moments I hear the radio crackle, “Vodka 1 you’re dead,” followed by “Vodka 2 you’re dead.”  Our flight is being picked off like tin cans on fenceposts.   I wait to hear Vodka 3 you’re dead – but silence.  I’m thinking, c’mom Code, this is our chance let’s press, I could use a kill on my resume.  Marlin 1, Dagger 2 No, No – not the Strike Eagles!  The comms crackle in warfighter shorthand, best deciphered by those who speak in this language.   With a sense of the inevitable, I hear it “Vodka 3 you’re dead.”  No sympathy, just cold, matter of fact.  It is done.  I don’t know what killed us, but we were shadow boxing with a lethal foe.

As we turn to regenerate it is clear this is not a fair fight. But that is the point, and why the tremendous investment in the 5th Gen aircraft.  The USAF has no intention to fight fair, they have built their force to dominate the air.  They who own the air will find it much easier to own the ground and sea.  Looking straight up far above us I see a silver spec blazing across the sky contrail in tow at what appears to be supersonic speeds.  A Raptor? It flies with impunity, we are mere spectators.  If this was a real fight, seeing such a sight would be a great signal to RTB (return to base).  Quickly.

After regen we return to the fight flying a designated vector.  Code rolls the Talon inverted, and pulls briefly into a vertical descent and then a great diving arc.  I had about as much as 1/10th a second to prepare for that, and 1/5 a second to enjoy it. Thank-you very much.

The fight is on! Red Air inverted and going for a 10,000 ft drop with the 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38 Talon flown by Lt. S. Harlow, “Code.”

At some point, we pull near 4G, and the prospects have my undivided attention; will I weight 1,000 lbs today, or just 750?  I am told the pilots generally do not notice the physical, it is muscle memory that kicks in while their mind is focused on the battle.  I am glad to hear that, I’d certainly hate to lose my train of thought in such a time and place.  The Talon bottoms out 10,000 ft below where the maneuver started, and we climb all the way back to 20,000 ft.  It takes a minute to perform the massive maneuver.  And then I believe I hear music – “Rogue 1” you’re dead.  Did we get a Blue Air Striker?  Perhaps for all the Red Air jets that fell – perhaps we got one…

45 minutes’ pass in the vul, and we break for RTB.  Code directs me to the right, where descending from much higher airspace, four F-15Es of the 391st FS.  In tight formation, the Strike Eagles of Marlin and Dagger flights bob up and down like joined parts of a living being.  Magic.  Magic always ends leaving you wanting more, that’s how you know it is magic.

Some Atlantic Trident ’17 Red Air – F-15Es of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” (Marlin & Dagger Flights) and T-38A of the 71st FTS “Ironmen” (Vodka Flight) RTB after vul.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

Some may ask, “What is it like to fly adversary against the most lethal integrated fighter force on the planet?” My answer, “You just die. Sight unseen. You just die.”

Bury your pride, and get used to dying.  But do not forget, your “death” serves a greater purpose. 

The seemingly futile fight and subsequent “deaths” are critical to ensure the readiness of the cutting edge of our warfighters, and “Total Air Dominance.”

For Previous Report on Atlantic Trident ’17 including compelling comments by 1st FW Commander Peter “Coach” Fesler Click Here.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the 71st FTS, pilots, support, medical and others were beyond exceptional hosts. The entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, we can but hope to capture and share a small reflection.

 

Atlantic Trident 17 brought together in type and capability the most formidable combination of fighter aircraft ever assembled.

Atlantic Trident 17 Drives a Higher Level of Integration.

The exercise held April 12 – 28 at Joint Base Langley-Eustice (JBLE) included a “Blue Air” force of USAF F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing (FW) JBLE and F-35 Lightning IIs from Eglin AFB, Typhoons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Rafales of the French Air Force/Armée de l’Air (FAF).

The adversaries or “Red Air” included USAF F-15E Strike Eagles of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID and T-38A Talons of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) “Ironmen” based at JBLE.  Additional assets included the E-3A Sentry from Tinker AFB, OK and a variety of tankers, including a FAF KC-135 and KC-10 of the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ.

Aside from the primary training objectives the exercise also provided the opportunity to commemorate 100 years of aerial combat cooperation between the French and US stemming back to WWI.

From the outside, looking in the lethal capabilities of Blue Air appeared to be overwhelming, with Red Air offering little challenge.  However, one must consider that the 71st FTS “Ironmen” fly daily as adversaries against the Raptor and possess pilots with Raptor experience.  These factors (along with the sheer numbers of Red Air fielded and their ability to “regenerate” on range) provide Red Air with the best likelihood to exploit any vulnerabilities or errors with Blue Air’s tactics – regardless their impressive platforms.

Towards the end of the exercise The Aviationist sat down with Colonel Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 FW Commander to discuss the exercise and the evolution of air combat in the context of 5th Gen aircraft.

Fesler noted that Atlantic Trident ’17 took integration beyond historical practice. On a tactical level integration historically involved a serial employment of aircraft (such as a Combat Air Patrol of RAF Typhoons) or geographical deconfliction of aircraft (such as FAF assets attacking ground targets in a designated area).  However, as Fesler explained starting with Red Flag 17-1 integration has gone deeper, involving a variety of platforms in the same airspace at the same time.  Integration between platforms also considered the various loiter time and weapons load/type for a given platform over a given vulnerability period (vul – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm).

RAF Typhoons on the ramp with Strike Eaglesat Joint Base Langley-Eustis during Atlantic Trident ’17.

While not being specific, it is not difficult to envision a mixed strike package of Rafales and F-35s, a combat air patrol (CAP) of Typhoons and Raptors (or mix and match on any given mission set).  This level of integration leads to big challenges for an adversary who may easily be fixated on attacking a detected Gen 4.5 aircraft, while getting blindsided by a 5th Gen platform or be distracted by a 5th Gen threat “sensed” in the area and get bounced by a very capable Typhoon or Rafale. Hesitation in such air to air combat will most likely be punished with an ending in a ball of flames.

Dassualt Rafales of the Armée de l’air – French Air Force on the ramp at JBLE during Atlantic Trident ’17

The abundance of information available on the battlefield today drives a much higher level of integration.  Fesler noted that multiple people/assets may be involved with the finding, identifying and targeting portion of an air to air encounter. The pilot may take care of the final step and fire the missile that kills the target, but wouldn’t have found their way to that merge unless the assets got them there.

Atlantic Trident ’17 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the advancement of aircraft, tactics and integration is driving change in the function of the fighter force.  For many years, the F-22 Raptor has utilized its superior sensors and SA to take the role of “quarterback” during a vul.  Given the integration of the F-35 and with the capabilities of the Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a “single quarterback” is changing.  Frankly, per Fesler, the quarterback notion is starting to become almost a misnomer now in that we have multiple quarterbacks and it’s less about one individual directing everything and more about multiple nodes of information being able to provide the key pieces of information at the right time to influence the fight.  It is a foreboding thought for an adversary who now faces a team, where every position has the intelligence/capability of a hall of fame quarterback, even while performing their specific role at the highest level.

F-22 Raptors of the 1st FW JBLE wait for launch clearance at the EOR during Atlantic Trident ’17.

Performing at a high level is one thing, altering the playing field is another.  The 5th Gen aircraft has done that very thing, altering the classic air to air engagement in a fundamental way.  Fesler noted, the classic approach of shooting ones missiles and turning before the adversary can get a shot is predicated on the fact that the adversary sees you.  In the 4th gen world that is the case.  Ideally the pilot would like to be able to shoot, let their missile do the work and get away before the adversary can get a missile off.  In the 5th Gen world, the adversary doesn’t necessarily know where you are coming from.  The 5th Gen pilot may shoot a missile and monitor to make sure it is effective.  If the missile misses for any number of reasons, they are in good position for a follow-up shot.

F-22 Raptor of the 1st Fighter Wing JBLE taxis towards launch during Atlantic Trident ’17.

That is one of the fundamental difference between 4th Gen fighters and 5th Gen fighters.  In general, in the 5th Gen world the adversary doesn’t really know where you are coming from.  They may have a general idea but not a lot of specifics.  For 5th Gen pilots it’s a good place to be, to be able to roam around the battlefield faster than the speed of sound in an airplane that is largely undetectable all while your airplane is building a 3 dimensional picture of everything within a couple hundred miles of you. Ouch.

F-35A from Eglin AFB moves towards launch for a vul during Atlantic Trident ’17 exercise held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.

Aside from the exceptional technical aspects that fascinate and draw attention, Felser ultimately notes that his takeaways from Atlantic Trident ‘17 fall back to the human aspect; “fighter pilots are fighter pilots regardless of what their uniforms look like.  Aircraft maintainers are aircraft maintainers regardless of what their uniforms look like.  There are some universal experiences, beliefs and cultures that transcend the national boundaries in this and that’s one of the things I have enjoyed out of both Tri-lateral exercises (2015 & AT ‘17) that we’ve had.  The man in the machine still makes a difference. You can have the most lethal fighter in the world but if you make a mistake a far inferior aircraft can shoot you out of the sky. Training still matters.  If that were not the case, we’d buy the machines, park them and never fly them and when war kicked off jump in them and go and fly. That in fact is not the case and you can lose a war with the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it right, if your tactics aren’t sound, if your skills aren’t automatic, you can still lose.”

F-15E of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID launches from JBLE for Red Air Vul during Atlantic Trident ’17

Atlantic Trident ‘17 reveals the way forward; advanced integration, people making a difference, and high level training.  This rationale drives the Air Force ensuring it is ready with the highest capability for the next conflict on day 1.

Fourth and fifth-generation aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, French air force and Royal air force fly in a training airspace during ATLANTIC TRIDENT 17 near Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 26, 2017. The F-35 Lightning II was incorporated in the exercise, along with the F-22 Raptor and fourth-generation assets to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that can be used during future coalition fights. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the entire 1 FW; the entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, our service people are the finest.

Image credit: Todd Miller, unless otherwise stated.

 

We have joined the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) for an Amphibious Assault

Today’s mission: Gain a beachhead, assault and secure a village with a mixed hostile/civilian population, capture a high value target and secure intelligence. With the 15th MEU at PMINT (PHIBRON [NAVY] & MEU [Marines] Integration.

What does an Amphibious Assault have to do with Aviation? Aside from being supported by Aviation assets, a critical part of the Amphibious Assault is the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) or “Assault Hovercraft.”

LCACs are operated by pilots, and arguably one of the lowest flying, heavy lifting craft in service today. Stretching it – perhaps just a little. In years to come, expect the America Amphibious Ready Group (and subsequent America class of ships (LHA) that forgo their well deck to focus on deploying aviation assets) to redefine Amphibious Assault.

The Aviation component will move troops deep inland in MV-22Bs, with the support of F-35Bs to assault in contested space, and CH-53Ks functioning as ship to shore connectors hauling significant heavy equipment. Today we look primarily at the seaborne component of amphibious assault. No question seaborne assault will remain a/the significant component of amphibious assault. Regardless, the developing aviation component provides the US Marines with many more options to execute their missions.

A trio of MV-22B Ospreys from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element land adjacent village under assault by the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

AH-1Z Viper from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element provides aerial cover for the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

On board the U.S.S. San Diego all briefings are complete and mission execution is all that remains. Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) gather their steroid induced rucks and pack into the tight confines of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV). Three crew, weapons, support equipment and up to 21 Marines in each AAV. It is tight quarters among team.

The smell of diesel fills the air, the clang of metal on metal and slapping of water on the well deck speaks “go time.” On cue, the ramp, and all hatches of the AAV close tightly and the vehicle is readied for launch. Launch? Yes, launch into the deep blue sea off the back of the San Diego with as much grace as 29 tons on tracks can muster.
Any apprehension (and there must be some) is masked by focus on the mission at hand. We are United States Marines, and this is what we do.

This is the defining mission set for Marines. Amphibious Assault.

This forcible entry from the sea recalls revered Marine battles of the past; Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa – fought in conditions we cannot know. Marines immortalized, their qualities of valor and determination to fight through to the finish now awakened in the hearts of this generation of US Marines.

15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) hitting Red Beach during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). 15th MEU Workups, April 13, 2017 Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA.

Today’s mission: Gain a beachhead, assault and secure a village with a mixed hostile/civilian population, capture a high value target and secure intelligence. Location: Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA. The exercise is the culmination of PMINT (PHIBRON – MEU INTegration). The PHIBRON (AmPHIBious SquadRON) consists of the U.S.S. America (LHA-6), U.S.S. San Diego (LPD-22) and U.S.S. Pearl Harbor (LSD- 52), otherwise known as the “America Amphibious Ready Group” (ARG).

The 15th MEU is about 4 months deep in their 6 months of deployment workups. Previous phases of the workups focused on individual skills followed by unit skills and included exercises such as Realistic Urban Training (RUT) (article on the 15th MEUs RUT). PMINT is the stage when the ARG/MEU force integrates as a cohesive team, US Marines and US Navy. Lt. Col Richard Alvarez, Executive Officer of the 15th MEU explained, “the most challenging thing we do is integrating all the assets, making them work as a team. Leaving the ship, coming to shore.”

US Navy LCACs loaded with LAVs, HMMWVs & supplies landing on Red Beach during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). 15th MEU Workups, April 13, 2017 Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA.

The amphibious assault represents the culmination of PMINT and the transition to the final two months of workups before the ARG/MEU deployment this summer.

The U.S.S. San Diego draws relatively close to shore and the ramp at the rear of the well deck draws down. Go time. One after another the AAVs “launch,” almost disappearing in the water before bobbing up to “float height.” These AAVs may motor but they certainly don’t fly, in fact they barely seem to float, sitting deep in the water ensuring a low profile if targeted. Two waves, one of 5 the other of 6 AAVs are formed. Quick math, and it is clear, hundreds of Marines are incoming.

U.S.S. San Diego (LPD-22) lowering well deck ramp in preparation for Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) launches. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 will execute the amphibious assault during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Overhead we do see some fliers, the 15th MEUs Aviation Combat Element (ACE) is represented by VMM-161 UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper helicopters. The Venom drops its nose making simulated rocket runs on… us. The Vipers gun turret swivels from side to side – pointing at… us. If the battlefield were real, the outcome of those looks – the last record in your memory bank.

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that a battlefield scenario would include a massive Naval bombardment and airpower strikes – but it is not that simple. The operational situation would define support levels. On the table, everything from that Naval bombardment and fierce air attack to soften up the shore – to a stealthy approach in the dead of night. The full extent of the ACE (not utilized in this specific exercise) provides even more options such as; distributed assault utilizing MV-22Bs where hundreds of Marines can land hundreds of miles inland and CH-53E Super Stallions can sling support equipment to positions of tactical advantage. As the exercise progresses we see those very MV-22Bs and CH-53Es land in an adjacent area down the beach from the village.

CH-53E Super Stallion from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element lands adjacent village under assault by the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

The amphibious assault is just one of 13 mission sets the MEU is “certified” to execute during their deployment. The forward deployed, rapid responding, broadly capable ARG/MEU provide the combatant commander with incredible flexibility and capability. Even if not mission utilized, their mere presence offshore sends a strong message of deterrence.
The AAVs approach the shore and move quickly from the waves, to the beach and on to predefined positions flanking the village. Within moments Marines burst from the confines of the AAVs and move forward with purpose under their own notional covering fire. This assault quickly becomes Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT), it is dangerous and dynamic.

Marines must carefully assess surroundings, dynamic threats, and make life and death decisions in an instant.

Around any corner, in any number of buildings the Marines confront notional combatants both in uniform and civilian clothing utilizing a variety of weapons. In cases hostiles “play dead” only to open fire as Marines close, or use civilians as human shields. Throughout the exercise trainers identify issues real-time and miss steps or misfortune generate notional Marine injuries that subsequently require team support, medical attention and evacuation.

Following amphibious landing, Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 plan their assault on hostile village during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

With the battle raging in the heart of the village “High Speed, Heavy Lifting” Assault Hovercraft -(officially “Landing Craft Air Cushion” vehicles (LCAC)) FLY ashore to unload numerous Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) and High Mobility Multi Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs – generally known as Humvees). Soon, the village is teaming with Marines. AAVs, LAVS, HMMWVs with devastating firepower create a perimeter around the village to defend from counter attack.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 provide notional covering fire during village assault. Action takes place during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration) amphibious assault on hostile village at Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit BLT 1/5 advance while clearing hostile village during PMINT exercise (Navy PHIBRON -Marines MEU Integration). Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 remove weapon from notional deceased hostile. Action takes place during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration) amphibious assault on hostile village. Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Alvarez emphasized that this specific training event mimicked real world scenario, “it puts Marines in a place where they must differentiate and make decisions.” The workup period is high tempo and relentless. Repeated exposure to intense “real world scenarios” discipline Marines physical and mental skills to respond like muscle memory when on mission.

US Navy LCAC unloads LAVs & HMMWVs in support of amphibious assault by the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 on hostile village during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

With PMINT behind them, the final two months of workups remain. 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, Public Affairs Officer of the 15th MEU indicated the next stages as the Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) where the ARG/MEU will exercise assigned mission essential tasks ensuring they are fully prepared for the Certification Exercise (CERTEX). Upon successful completion of CERTEX, the 15th MEU will be officially certified for their Western Pacific (WESTPAC) / Central Command (CENTCOM) deployment with the America ARG.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to: Lt. Col Richard Alvarez, Executive Officer of the 15th MEU; 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, Public Affairs Officer, 15th MEU; BLT 1/5 and the entire 15th MEU; the support team from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the U.S.S. America ARG.