Author Archives: Tom Demerly

North Korea Conducts First Missile Test in Two Months

Missile Test Reported to have Landed in East Sea Between Korea and Japan.

Defense sources and the Japanese Prime Minister’s office have confirmed the launch of a new North Korean ballistic missile test. The test, which took place within the last several hours from South Pyongan Province early Wednesday Nov. 29 local time, is now being reported across international media.

“We confirm that we have detected a North Korean ballistic missile launch. The missile is still travelling towards the direction to the East Sea, as we are monitoring right now,” a South Korean military official told media in South Korea several hours ago. Other unconfirmed sources indicate the missile has since landed in the sea.

Sometime after the first mentions began to appear in Asian media the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office tweeted, “A missile was launched from North Korea which appears to have landed within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. As soon as new information comes in, we will let you know.”

The Pentagon tweeted, “We detected a probable missile launch from North Korea. We are in the process of assessing the situation and will provide details when available.”

Several U.S. intelligence gathering aircraft were airborne during the test, including an RC-135S Cobra Ball.

The last North Korean ballistic missile test took place in September 2017. That missile was identified as a Hwasong-12, referred to in the U.S. as the KN-17. The Hwasong-12 has an estimated range of between 2,300 and 3,700 miles (3,700-6000 kilometers).

The type of missile in today’s test has not yet been reported.

Reports from earlier this week from U.S. intelligence sources to Reuters news agency suggested North Korea intended a missile launch test “within days”.

Today’s test is the first North Korean missile test since September 15, 2017. (Photo: Phoenix777)

This latest reported missile test is significant since it follows a brief period of relative calm in the region since the September 15, 2017 test that may have provided the opportunity for new back-channel communication via China in the interest of maintaining stability in the region.

Top image: File photo of previous North Korean missile test from 2017. (Yonhap)

Are We Seeing B-21 Raider Development and Testing Activity at Area 51?

With New Projects in Development, and New Construction, The Area is Ramping Up.

We’re not sure what is happening inside (and close to) the restricted Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), but after visiting the area earlier this month, we are reasonably certain something significant is taking place right now. The massive area, reported to be 4,531 square miles, is one of the most secure national security sites and is closed to the public.

Earlier this month we drove the remote roads along the perimeter of the NTTR between Las Vegas, Nevada and Beatty, Nevada on the way to and from the Jedi Transition low-level flying area in Death Valley National Park. While this is one of the emptiest, most barren stretches of paved highway in the U.S. in just a few hours we made a number of interesting observations.

Sometime after 3:00 AM across from Creech AFB we saw a military-aged male with a beard in civilian clothes and a medium-sized piece of luggage or large lunch box board an airport-style shuttle bus and drive away on Highway 95 west of Creech. The vehicle drove a significant distance west and north on the highway before we lost sight of it. There is almost nothing out there. On the trip back that night we saw an F-117 fuselage covered by a tarp being transported on a flatbed truck in the dark west-bound on Highway 95. Earlier in the day someone had gotten photos of it by the side of the road.

In less than 24 hours, on one stretch of road at the outskirts of a massive 4,000+ mile testing range, we saw that much activity.

Moreover, the following day, on Nov. 14, an authority on the area referred to only as “G” of lazygranch.com, shot photos of an F-117 flying with a two-seat F-16. The very same day, in the afternoon a similar (or maybe the same with a diffirent configuration) two-seat F-16, carrying the Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42, an IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) pod (theoretically capable to detect stealth aircraft by their IR signature), with sparse markings was photographed flying through the Jedi Transition. The photo was good enough that we could identify a patch worn on the right shoulder of each of the aircraft’s flight suits. The patches suggest the crew are associated with the famous “Red Hats” opposing forces test unit and the 53rd TEG Det 3, the unit thought to have replaced the 4477th “Red Eagles”, another opposing force simulation and testing unit.

Separate and additionally from those sightings near or around Tonopah Test Range, journalist Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone, has been a keen observer of the Nevada Test and Training Range. Rogoway reported on the appearance of several new construction projects at Area 51, notably, a new “U” shaped taxiway, vehicle roadway and most interestingly, a large aircraft hangar.

The new, large finished hangar within the square taxiway. (Photo: Ufo Seekers)

If you compare satellite imagery of Area 51 beginning in 1984 you see a progression of small changes followed by the significant addition of a long, second, parallel runway. Work on the second runway began in 1990 and seemed complete in about 1992. From 1999-2000 several new buildings appeared in satellite photos. In 2001-2002 an intermediate vehicle road connecting taxiways and runways was built. And most recently, in 2013, a major new construction project began at the southwest corner of the area. Soon after, in July 2014, the U.S. Air Force issued a request for proposal for a new, long range, low-observable strike aircraft. The project became the LRS-B. From 2014 to 2016 a large, new hangar was built at the southwestern corner of the facility. The structure appears to be nearly large enough to house an aircraft the size of the current B-1B Lancer bomber.

The latest satellite photos show what appears to be new engine test facilities, and most significantly, the southern taxiways and hangar in new-looking condition. Comparing the satellite photos of the facility going back to 1984, the two most significant, visible expansions are the second runway in 1990 and the new southwest square taxiway and hangar building beginning in 2014.

An analysis of satellite images over time reveal the major construction projects at Area 51/Groom Lake since 1984 including the most recent hangar and taxiways. (Photo: GoogleEarth)

The following video takes you on a “sightseeing tour” of Groom Lake from Tikaboo Peak:

Noted aerospace imaging expert Al Clark told TheAviationist.com, “In the general Groom Lake image our best reference is one of the F-16s parked on the west side of the base. The F-16 length is approximately 50-feet. Building number one, which is almost directly west of the F-16s is approximately 120’x120’. It looks to be an engine test/run-up hangar. The building that is more interesting is approximately 250-feet wide by a length of 275-feet. This is interesting because the B-2 wingspan is only 172-feet, so this is [possibly] designed to house large aircraft, in my opinion possibly the B-21 Raider. To the southwest of that structure it looks like what could be a weapons storage facility. The smaller bunker is approximately 75-feet long by 30-feet wide, and the larger bunker is approximately 75-feet wide and 100-feet long. Those are fairly large weapons bunkers. The general placement of the munitions depot tells me that there is something pretty volatile in it because they are keeping it away from the main base at Groom Lake.”

Is what we are seeing evidence of the LRS-B program development and the B-21 Raider? While there are likely several other major developmental programs underway including a new manned or unmanned reconnaissance and strike platform (the RQ-180 spy drone is one of them), LRS-B and B-21 are the most mature and most talked about in official channels and, as a result, most conclusions point to something related to their development out at Area 51 in the new hangar.

Prior to her departure from the office, former Air Force Secretary Deborah James told media, “Our 5th generation global precision attack platform will give our country a networked sensor shooter capability enabling us to hold targets at risk anywhere in the world in a way that our adversaries have never seen.” Her comments about the LRS-B program and B-21 acknowledge both the capability and necessity of the program, and may suggest the urgency of it as the Air Force maintains its small fleet of B-2 Spirit low-observable long range strike aircraft against a growing demand for its unique capability.

That might mean we are seeing the B-21 Raider development program take shape right under our noses at Area 51. Or this is what they want us to believe.

A Serious Look at the History of Inappropriate Contrails Made by Pilots

The Social Media Sensation from Last Week’s Penis Drawn in the Sky Isn’t the First.

The opportunity for puns and social media memes from last week’s giant penis drawn in the sky by Navy pilots over Okanogan Highlands in Washington state was massive. But despite the jokes that spread like wildfire on social media and the opportunity for tongue-in-cheek headlines, the U.S. Navy isn’t laughing.

You likely already know from social media feeds that an EA-18G Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “The Zappers”, of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is responsible for the giant phallic contrail executed with remarkable accuracy, and no small measure of masculine embellishment. But the spread of the now famous photos across Facebook, Instagram and every other contributory media comes at a terrible time for the U.S. Navy and for the military in general.

An EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), “The Zappers” of NAS Whidbey Island who drew the inappropriate contrail. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Media reports indicate the pilots responsible have been grounded from flight operations pending the outcome of an official investigation.

Last week the U.S. Air Force celebrated its 70th birthday at the Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis AFB in Nevada. The theme for the expo was “Breaking Barriers since 1947” and showcased the gender inclusive doctrine of the U.S. Air Force across all of its job fields. For the U.S. Navy to suffer this very public embarrassment is contradictory to the official message of inclusion and non-discrimination the other services, like the U.S. Air Force, have spent millions portraying to the public. In effect, one incident by one flight crew sent a sexist message that reached more people via social media than the massive, official public affairs efforts of the other services including the Air Force that espouse gender inclusion.

Social media spread thousands of memes about the incident to millions of viewers. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

But this isn’t the first time inappropriate contrails have created an uproar. In November 2014, the Royal Air Force suffered a similar embarrassment when a photo was widely shared that showed phallic-shaped contrails in the sky over RAF Lossiemouth on the western edge of the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, north-east Scotland. The Lossiemouth incident was, in fact, a valid navigational track of a Tornado fighter flying a relatively standard traffic pattern. The incident was more hype than reality and ran in tabloid British newspapers, often known for their sensational content, especially on a slow news day. More recently, in July 2017, a RAF Typhoon aircraft from RAF Coningsby flew what on Flightradar24 seemed to be a phallic route.

The U.S. Navy suffered another, more tangible, embarrassment from sexist misconduct with their Blue Angels demo team in 2014.

The incidents resulted in an official report dated May 16, 2014. The official documents surrounding an investigation of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, The Blue Angels, stated that the “Commanding Officer witnessed, accepted and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic and hostile. The Blue Angels’ Ready Room environment under his command ran counter to established Navy standards and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and dramatically weakened good order and discipline in the squadron.”

Any mention of gender-based misconduct in the U.S. Navy ultimately raises conversation about the 1991 Tailhook Scandal.

The Tailhook Scandal resulted in an official investigation that cited over 80 cases of sexual misconduct by U.S. Navy officers and personnel. The scandal became so widespread throughout the Navy that reports indicate the careers of 14 admirals and “almost 300 naval aviators” were compromised by the incidents.

As with every story, however, there are several perspectives that influence the public perception of the Whidbey Island Penis-Pilots. The U.S. is experiencing a noteworthy increase in the number of sexual misconduct allegations in the media against politicians. They include the current U.S. President. A potential danger with the proliferation of both genuine and spurious claims of sexual misconduct is that people become desensitized to the reports. That creates a dangerous environment where serious, genuine misconduct may go undetected.

There is a further potential anomaly to the story of the inappropriate sky-writing pilots. As proved by the memes about the incidents posted on social media, few people have considered the admittedly remote possibility that one or both of the flight crew responsible for the November 16 skywriting incident last week may have been female. The two crew members involved in the incident have not been identified. While the statistical likelihood is that both members are male gender pilots based on what is likely the ratio of male to female aircrew members at Electronic Attack Squadron 130, there does remain the extremely remote possibility, based strictly on the fact that some female EA-18G pilots do exist in the Navy. At least one female EA-18G pilot was at Whidbey Island that we know of in 2013, albeit in another unit; VAQ-129 as opposed to VAQ-130, the unit attributed to the recent sky-penis.

When we tried to find current pilot rosters for Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), the unit involved in the recent November 16, 2017 incident, we could not locate a current listing to see the number of female pilots in the unit. We were, however, easily able to find record of female EA-18G Growler pilots in the U.S. Navy. One media source, published in July 2013 by the Rapid City Journal and written by staff correspondent Molly Barari cited the career of a (then) Lt. j.g. who said she had not experienced any differential treatment because she’s a woman: “Male or female, you need to have a thick enough skin to accept a lot of criticism.”

Finally, while the official, and practical doctrine of all U.S. military services must be gender equality, this incident perpetuates the lore of the fighter pilot, male and female, as a rule-bending renegade who often flies and fights at the outer limits of acceptable norms. While there is an element of sensation in this image, there is also the history or impropriety and misconduct. To this day, the military services struggle to moderate the extremes of daring-do and wanton sexism unacceptable in any culture.

Top image: The original photo shared widely across social media. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

India Successfully Test Fires “Fastest Cruise Missile” From Aircraft

Multi-Mission BrahMos Cruise Missile Claimed to be Fastest in the World.

The Indian Air Force conducted the first-ever successful air launch of the BrahMos cruise missile from a Sukhoi Su-30 MKI multirole aircraft on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. According to an official statement from the Indian Air Force (IAF), “The IAF is the first air force in the world to have successfully fired an air-launched Mach 2.8 surface attack missile of this category.” The missile is reported to have been fired at test target in the Bay of Bengal.

The BrahMos is a large, 28-foot long (8.4 meter), 5,500-pound (2,500 kilogram), two-stage solid fuel and ramjet powered cruise missile. The SU-30MKI that launched the BrahMos had modifications to landing gear, hard points and airframe to support the extra weight of the missile. One report suggests that up to 50 SU-30MKIs will be modified or built to carry one of the 200 air-launched BrahMos in the next years.

The air-launched variant of the BrahMos on display at MAKS 2016 outside Moscow. (Photo: Allocer)

According to a quote from Indian defense officials in a story published Wednesday, Nov. 22, by the India Times, “The integration on the aircraft was very complex involving mechanical, electrical and software modifications on the aircraft. The IAF was involved in the activity from its inception.”

The BrahMos cruise missile is a joint development of Russia and India. In various versions the large, fast cruise missile can be launched from surface ships, submarines and now from combat aircraft. Russia is responsible for a reported 65% of the missile’s components, with India providing the majority of the remaining missile components. The design of the BrahMos is based on the Russian P-800 Oniks sea-skimming cruise missile.

Performance of the BrahMos includes a quoted air-launched range of 250 miles (400 kilometers) and a warhead weighing 660-pounds (300-kilograms). This combination of range and payload makes the weapon a significant threat to large surface ships such as aircraft carriers and fortified land targets. The fast speed of the missile may mean anti-missile systems, especially shipboard ones, may have a difficult time intercepting the BrahMos. The BrahMos is also reported to be “nuclear capable”.

The BrahMos missile and Wednesday’s air-launch demonstration send a clear message to other regional powers (such as Pakistan) as well as countries that already have and are developing aircraft carrier capability, most notably China, following the introduction of a Chinese aircraft carrier program in 2011 and subsequent commissioning of their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (CV-16) Type 001 aircraft carrier, in 2012.

Relations between India and China, the two most populous countries on earth with the two fastest growing economies, are generally constructive but have been strained over a regional dispute in Bhutan, a country between China and India in the Himalayas. The dispute does not threaten the two countries strategic relationship given their co-dependence on trade.

India does have a massive coastline to its south that lies above major strategic sea lanes for the transport of nearly every commercial and military commodity moved by sea. It is also a major route for oil tankers. Because of the strategic importance of the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, the BrahMos cruise missile is an important asset in the Indian arsenal and especially relevant in its new air-launched variant.

Everything We Know About The Hunt for Missing Argentine Submarine

U.S. Navy Maritime Patrol Aircraft along with several other assets race against time in dramatic search.

The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have dispatched a large number of transport and maritime surveillance aircraft along with specialized personnel and submarine rescue equipment in an attempt to help locate the missing Argentine submarine A.R.A. San Juan (S-42) off the southeastern coast of South America.

The submarine disappeared on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 when last communication was received. The first problems were reported that morning around 7:30 AM when the captain radioed that the submarine was having “battery problems” in heavy seas. Following the report, the submarine was ordered back to port. Communications were lost shortly after. The submarine was last seen over 200 kilometers off the Patagonian coast of Argentina. Bad weather with waves of 26 feet and 45 MPH winds initially hampered search efforts both on the surface and with sensors searching underwater for the submarine.

The missing A.R.A. San Juan in an official Argentine photo. (Photo: Argentine Navy)

The A.R.A. San Juan (S-42) was on an ecological surveillance mission to interdict illegal fishing boats off the coast of Patagonia. She was patrolling from a naval base in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost point of South America and the gateway to the Straits of Magellan. The area is considered among the most dangerous seas in the world. Its destination was Mar Del Plata, 2,800 kilometers farther north along the Argentine coast.

The A.R.A. San Juan is a TR-1700 class diesel-electric submarine with a crew of 44. Her crew includes the first-ever female naval officer on board a submarine in the Argentine navy. She was manufactured by Thyssen Nordseewerke of Emden, Germany and commissioned in November, 1985. The TR-1700 is a proven undersea warfare platform operated by Israel, South Africa and Argentina. It is among the fastest diesel-electric submarines in the world and boasts a strong safety record.

Among the U.S. Navy’s search assets dispatched to the area in the increasingly urgent search are two Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft from Maritime Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45), “The Pelicans”. Their home base when not deployed to the region is Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. The Boeing P-8A Poseidon is the U.S. Navy’s newest and most advanced anti-submarine surveillance and attack aircraft. It contains sensors that can detect magnetic anomalies in the ocean, monitor undersea communications and deploy specially equipped sonobuoys by parachute that sink into the ocean and send sonar signals into surrounding seawater then transmit findings back to the aircraft.

Two U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft from Maritime Patrol Squadron 45 (VP-45), “The Pelicans” have joined the search for the A.R.A. San Juan. (Photo: US Navy)

The first U.S. Navy P-8A was dispatched on Saturday as part of the U.S. Navy’s Southern Command. The U.S. military’s Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) conducts combined U.S. military operations in the Caribbean, Central American and South American theatre.

A second P-8A aircraft was added to the search on Sunday. The two U.S. Navy P-8As join a large number of search aircraft and ships from several nations already on station in the southern Atlantic conducting the urgent search. The two P-8A Poseidons flew from a deployment at El Salvador’s Comalapa Air Base to Bahia Blanca, Argentina to support the search and rescue effort. The aircraft are temporarily based in El Salvador in support of ongoing anti-narcotics operations.

On Nov. 19, the Argentine Navy released details about the rescue efforts and search area.

The U.S. Navy also announced on Sunday that it has deployed unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) to join in the search for the A.R.A. San Juan. The additional search equipment includes one Bluefin 12D (Deep) Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) and three Iver 580 UUVs. These remotely-operated mini-subs are operated by the U.S. Navy’s recently-established Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron 1, based in Keyport, Washington.

Both types of UUVs are capable of deploying quickly and searching wide areas using Side-Scan Sonar, a system that is used to efficiently create an image of large areas of the sea floor. The Bluefin 12D is capable of conducting search operations at 3 knots (3.5 mph) at a maximum operating depth of almost 1,500 feet for up to 15 hours, while the Iver 580s can operate at a depth of up to 325 feet, traveling at 2.5 knots (2.8 mph) for up to 5 hours.

U.S. Air Force C-17s and C-5s from Travis Air Force Base, Calif. and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, airlift equipment from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge)

There is also a NASA P-3 research aircraft currently supporting the ongoing search efforts over the submarine’s last known location.

A NASA P-3 Orion was diverted north from Antarctica to help coordinate the search for A.R.A. San Juan. (Photo: NASA)

Radar tracks show the NASA P-3 (N426NA) aircraft was diverted north from Antarctica to join the search on Nov. 19. At the time of writing the aircraft has returned to its usual task and is no longer involved in the search.

NASA P-3 supported the search and rescue efforts on Nov. 19.

Also on Sunday, the Royal Navy told England’s Daily Telegraph that the elite Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG) was flying to the region to join the hunt. The specialized rescue team is famous for their capability to parachute into the sea from search aircraft to join a submarine search and rescue, although that capability is unlikely to be employed during this search and rescue mission. Members of the team include specially trained medics, engineers and undersea escape specialists. The team is on notice to respond to a submarine emergency anywhere in the world in hours. For this operation, the SPAG team will operate from the Royal Navy’s HMS Protector (A163), a modern, specially designed ice patrol ship built in 2001 and already on station in search area.

A member of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG) in a demonstration. (Photo: Royal Navy)

On Sunday, additional assets from California and Hawaii, as well as other local nations, have been dispatched to scan the sea floor for in the search and rescue effort.

As hours tick by the search effort becomes increasingly urgent. Dr. Robert Farley, a lecturer at the University of Kentucky was quoted by the BBC World News as saying, “The outer range [of survival] appears to be ten days if they were well prepared.” On Wednesday, the search effort enters its seventh day. At least the weather is better than before and it should help a bit in the hunt.

During the last few days there have been several false alarms:

  • Seven failed satellite calls made to naval bases on Saturday turned out to come from another phone
  • Noise (resembling bangs on the sub’s wall in Morse code) picked up by a sonar was found not to have come from the missing vessel
  • White flares reported on Tuesday, were most probably not fired by the missing submarine

 

Ironically, the very same characteristics that make the submarine A.R.A. San Juan (S-42) so effective also make it difficult to find in a search effort. The San Juan is a stealthy diesel-electric submarine that is extremely quiet underwater and gives off few detectable emissions, especially if some of its systems may be disabled.

An anti-submarine warfare expert and former U.S. Navy submariner told TheAviationist.com that it is “Like trying to find a hole in the water”.

The current search area for the missing A.R.A. San Juan. (Argentine Navy)