Author Archives: Tom Demerly

Australian EA-18G Growler Jet Damaged in Incident at Nellis Air Force Base

Aircraft Photographed with Smoke from End of Runway. Crew Reported as Uninjured.

A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft is being reported as damaged in an incident that occurred at 10:45 AM local time on Jan. 27 at Nellis AFB, outside Las Vegas, Nevada, according to a statement issued by Nellis AFB and quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The aircraft, one of a contingent of four Australian EF-18G Growlers at Nellis AFB for the Red Flag 18-1 air combat exercise, is part of the 340-person contingent of the Royal Australian Air Force participating in this year’s first Red Flag Exercise.

Red Flag is a large-scale, highly realistic air combat exercise originating from Nellis AFB and taking place over the large air combat training ranges that surround the area.

Early reports in both Australian and U.S. media say the aircraft is from the RAAF No. 6 Squadron who are participating in Red Flag now. There are also reports that the Australian EF-18Gs are “operating alongside US Navy EA-18Gs” at Nellis as indicated in a January 2018 article on Combat Aircraft magazine’s website.

Australian journalist Elena McIntyre of Ten News Sydney reported in a tweet that an “RAAF Growler apparently experienced a critical engine failure during takeoff at Nellis AFB, before skidding off the runway. Pilot and ground crew are safe.”

According to an article in Australia’s Air Force magazine, the first RAAF EA-18G Growler instructor pilot began flying the electronic warfare aircraft in the U.S. at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in the United States in November 2013. Production of the first of 12 RAAF EA-18G Growlers began in 2015. Before that, RAAF flight crews trained on the U.S. EA-18Gs with the U.S. Navy’s Electronic Attack Squadron 129, “The Vikings”, permanently stationed at NAS Whidbey Island, in Washington state.

Photos from the accident that appeared on Twitter show the aircraft sitting upright, intact, with the canopy open and the leading-edge slats and arrestor hook down. There appears to be discoloration on the left vertical stabilizer from dark smoke also seen in photos that appeared on Twitter.

RAAF photos distributed prior to the incident show the four aircraft at Nellis AFB, with one of them painted in a special color scheme with a bright blue and yellow tail and upper fuselage. Based on the photos shown on Twitter the aircraft involved in the incident appears to be one of the other three aircraft without the special color scheme.

EA-18G Growlers from Number 6 Squadron arrive at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for Exercise Red Flag 18-1. *** Local Caption *** The Royal Australian Air Force has deployed a contingent of approximately 340 personnel to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for Exercise Red Flag 18-1, taking place from 29 January to 16 February 2018.
Established in 1980 by the United States Air Force, Exercise Red Flag centres on the world’s most complex reconstruction of a modern battlespace and is recognised as one of the world’s premier air combat exercises. The exercise involves participants from the United States Navy as well as the United Kingdom.
For 2018, an AP-3C Orion, E-7A Wedgetail and a Control and Reporting Centre have been deployed on the complex, multi-nation exercise. Four EA-18G Growler aircraft from Number 6 Squadron have also been deployed for the first time on an international exercise, since being transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force in January 2017.
Training alongside allied nations is critical to the success of Air Force units on real world operations; helping develop further familiarity with foreign terminology, methods and platforms.

The RAAF received their first EA-18G Growlers in 2017. The aircraft are to be operated from the Australian RAAF Base Amberley about 50 km (31 miles) southwest of Brisbane.

So far there has been no official report about the status of the Red Flag 18-1 flight operations following the incident, even though no much disruption is expected.

Myanmar to Buy Six Sukhoi Su-30 “Generation 4+” Combat Aircraft from Russia

Multirole Sukhoi to Become Primary Combat Aircraft of Myanmar Air Force.

Myanmar has confirmed its commitment to purchase six new Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role advanced tactical aircraft. Russian news agency TASS quoted the Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Lt. Gen Alexander Fomin, as saying the new Su-30s will, “become the main fighter aircraft of Myanmar’s air force”.

Myanmar, bordered by China, India, Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh, currently operates a significant number of MiG-29 aircraft, quoted as being around 39 aircraft with little reliable information about how many are combat-ready. According to reports from several Asian and western media outlets including FlightGlobal.com, Myanmar also may have orders for 16 Chengdu/Pakistan Aeronautical Complex JF-17 fighters.

Although no detail about the Sukhoi Su-30 variant that Myanmar will operate has been made public, some sources believe it will probably be a version closely related to the Su-30SME  unveiled at the Singapore Airshow in 2016. When the Su-30SME export version for Singapore was announced at the Singapore Airshow, Irkut Corporation President Oleg Demchenko was quoted by Jane’s Defense as saying, “The Su-30SME is an upgraded modern platform based on Russian equipment. As the basic Russian Su-30SM version develops, the capabilities of the export Su-30SME will also expand.” This claimed modular expandability is a feature of the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and is attractive to potential buyers since it provides an open-source, modular approach to keeping tactical aircraft current in technology and capabilities.

According to data published by Jane’s Defense, the Sukhoi Su-30SME export version, likely similar to the version that will go to Myanmar, will have a normal take-off weight of 26,090 kg. and a max take-off of 34,000 kg. Interestingly, the quoted thrust in Jane’s Defense was 25,000 kg, putting the thrust-to-weight ratio of the Su-30SME below 1:1. Operational range is quoted as 1,280 km and top speed is said to be Mach 1.75.

Jane’s Defense tells us the Su-30SME uses two AL-31FP afterburning jet engines with thrust vectoring nozzles for enhanced directional control. The combination of two of these powerplants on the SU-30SME give the aircraft a combat payload of up to 8,000 kg spread among 12 external hardpoints on the fuselage and wings.

If there is one area the Su-30SME and related versions may be down-speced relative to western counterparts it may be avionics connectivity, or the ability to share data gathered by the aircraft’s sensors with other aircraft and weapons systems. As described, the avionics suite of the Su-30SME sounds like an essentially “closed loop” system without mention of datalink capability, a potential force-multiplier. The Su-30SME can carry externally mounted infrared and laser targeting pods for ground target acquisition and terminal precision weapon guidance. The fire control radar can acquire and track 15 targets simultaneously in air-to-air mode while being able to manage four attacks simultaneously. Passive, non-emitting sensors on the Su-30SME include an electro-optical targeting sensor combined with a laser inertial navigation system. There is also a helmet-mounted target designator, and satellite GPS navigation system compatible with the GLONASS and NAVSTAR formats. It is likely, however, that if a datalink system in not already available among the avionics suite for the Su-30SME and related versions, that capability will likely be developed soon.

A Sukhoi Su-30 on display at the MAKS airshow. (Photo: Sukhoi)

Anyway, whatever the version Myanmar will get, the sale of these six Su-30s is significant not only because of the country’s history and role in the region, which is somewhat volatile; more significantly it continues a significant run of sales successes for the Russian aircraft industry.

But while the Russians have seen unit sale growth in their military aircraft exports, their “ticket average” or cost per aircraft unit sale still trails the U.S. Those lower ticket averages per aircraft may be a part of their success. Russia has been able to offer highly capable tactical aircraft to countries that cannot participate in most western defense consortiums for both economic and political reasons. As the air forces of some African and Asian countries have become obsolete and degraded by age the new Russian military empire formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union has moved in to fill the supply vacuum of military aircraft.

However, the dollar volumes (if not unit numbers) worldwide still favor the United States aircraft suppliers. Five of the top six arms producing companies in gross sales as reported in 2006 were US-headquartered companies. All were primarily aerospace. Those companies were Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics. That trend has continued after 2010 with the introduction of massive programs like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, often quoted as the most expensive defense project in history.

There was no mention of the date of delivery for the six aircraft to Myanmar or if there would be a potential for follow-on acquisition of more aircraft. An interesting mention in the Myanmar Times on Jan. 23, 2018 said that the aircraft will be, among the others, “suitable for Myanmar’s counter-insurgency operations.” That may hint at some of the aircraft’s tasking in the region, even though the Yak-130 advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft that Myanmar Air Force already flies (six out of 12 examples have already been delivered) is probably more suitable to undertake that kind of mission.

Top image credit: TASS

U.S. Approves Possible Sale of 34 Lockheed F-35s to Belgium; Japan Deploying First F-35 to Misawa; India Allegedly Enters Conversation.

Based on latest news, it may have been a good weekend for the F-35.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement late Friday confirming it has approved the possible sale of 34 Lockheed F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters to Belgium. The authorization permitting the sale of advanced defense technology is a key step toward completing the actual purchase, quoted to be worth up to “$6.53 billion USD”. The proposed contract with Lockheed Martin, builder of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, would include 38 new Pratt & Whitney advanced F-135 jet engines that power the F-35.

Based on reports Belgium would potentially buy the F-35A variant of the Lightning II, the same variant used by the U.S. Air Force. One of the selling points of buying into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is cross-force interoperability. Belgium potentially operating the same variant as the USAF, Dutch and Italians may have been one factor that helped propel the potential deal for Belgium.

Still, the F-35A is still not the replacement for the Belgian Air Force F-16s: the 5th generation aircraft will face competition from the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon in the response to a Request for Governmental Proposal (RfGP) issued by Bruxelles last year.

The decision from Belgium is expected by mid-2018.

Belgium received U.S. authorization for the purchase of the “A” version of the F-35 shown here at Nellis AFB as operated by the USAF. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

 

Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force also announced this week it will begin its first-ever deployment of a Japanese ASDF F-35A Lightning II at Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, northeastern Japan later this month. The single aircraft to be stationed and operated from Misawa is the first of 42 Lockheed F-35A Lighting IIs to be delivered to Japan as their primary multi-role combat aircraft. The JASDF will deploy an additional 9 aircraft operationally to Misawa by the end of 2018 bringing the total Japanese operational F-35A force to 10 aircraft by year’s end.

A key weapon system on the JASDF F-35As will be the advanced, long-range Norwegian-built Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace Gruppen Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The JSM is a variant of the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile and is carried in the interior weapons bay of the F-35A, maintaining its low observable characteristics. The Kongsberg JSM can strike targets up to 500 kilometers away from its launch point, enabling Japan to strike many potential adversaries without leaving its own airspace, a key concern since Japan’s air force is labeled as a “self-defense force” and constrained from operations outside Japan’s legally defined defense air space in most instances.

Japan’s first F-35 will become operational this month according to Japanese media. (Photo: NHK Japan)

Finally, a story that appeared in India’s Economic Times said that, “American aerospace and defense major Lockheed Martin has proposed to manufacture custom-built F-35 fighter jets in India, which its officials say will give Indian industry a unique opportunity to become part of the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem.”

The story, that appeared in Indian media on Jan. 20, 2018, did not specify what “custom built” F-35s meant, but may hint at a down-spec version of the F-35 airframe with different avionics and sensors than some other export manufactured versions of the F-35 to maintain security interests.  The same article discussed the use of the AN/APG-83 radar system, different from the AN/APG-81 on the U.S. and other partner nation F-35s.

There is no additional verification of any Indian F-35 manufacturing program in other media outlets. Oddly, another Indian media outlet, the Free Press Journal of India, published a similar story on the same day claiming the U.S. planned to build F-16s (not F-35s) in India. The Free Press Journal of India story read, “American aerospace and defense major Lockheed Martin has proposed to manufacture custom-built F-16 fighter jets (ed’s note: not F-35s as quoted in the India Economic Times article) in India, which its officials say will give Indian industry a unique opportunity to become part of the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem.”

Confusing press coming out of India aside, Lockheed Martin and all of the F-35 subcontractors have to be pleased to start out the new year with a host of encouraging stories about the F-35 program.

Update Jan. 22, 19.30 GMT:

We were notified that the original version of a Press Trust of India article posted late last week, has since been corrected to remove the erroneous “F-35” reference in the first sentence of the article—see corrected article here: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/lockheed-martin-proposes-custom-built-fighter-jets-to-be-made-in-india-1802538. The first sentence of PTI’s article now reads:

“American aerospace and defence firm Lockheed Martin has proposed to manufacture custom-built F-16 fighter jets in India, which its officials say will give the Indian industry a unique opportunity to become part of the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem.”

 

Turkish Blackhawk Kill Claimed by Kurds on YouTube, Turks “Counterattack” on Twitter.

The Social Media Battlefield: Fighting a Confusing War on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.

It is the new battlefield, the great equalizer, delivered at the speed of light and impervious to bullets, missiles and armor. It is social media. Increasingly social media is being used as a weapons delivery platform in the information war. It is an equalizer between conventional militaries and insurgent forces, providing a sometimes-terrifying mouthpiece for guerillas and freedom fighters.

Weaponized Social Media (WSM for short) is also a source of misinformation and deception, one wielded effectively whether you are showing video of a U.S. Air Force B-2 stealth bomber strike, or an ISIL insurgent IED suicide attack. Every combatant on the YouTube battlefield is the same size, 800 x 600. For only a few thousand dollars an insurgency can terrorize the world via YouTube. It is the textbook manifestation of Sun Tzu’s axiom on terrorism in his masterwork, “The Art of War”. Sun Tzu wrote, “Kill one, terrorize a thousand”. The damage radius is limited only by the speed of your internet connection and the size of your monitor.

But there are at least two sides to every story, and often many more. During the last 24 hours, a fascinating textbook example of using Weaponized Social Media surfaced on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.

The country of Turkey is in conflict with the covertly U.S.-backed Kurdish People Protection Units, known as the “YPG”. There is also spill-over tacit U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the free-Syrians not under Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad, as you know, is the Syrian President backed by Russia. As with most relationships played out on social media, it’s complicated.

The gray-area support from the U.S. government of the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) started during the administration of former President Barack Obama, and continues under President Donald Trump. Trump is a rough-talking gangster of a politician to Obama’s polished attorney voice.

Under Trump’s administration the SDF forces are now 50,000 strong according to reports- they fight Assad’s regular army Syrian units for control and in combat with their common enemy, ISIL. The authoritative publication “Foreign Policy” described the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their same-side alliance with the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) as, “The most capable anti-Islamic State force in northern Syria.” While Russia may not agree with that assessment, there is no doubt the SDF and YPG guerilla forces amount to more than a series of acronyms formed by a Scrabble game gone wrong.

Get out your notebook because it gets more complicated. Enter the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by several states and organizations including NATO. The short story is, SDF and YPG are aligned with the PKK in the fight against ISIL, but not liked by the TAF, the Turkish Armed Forces. You can also call the TAF the “Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri, or “TSK” if you prefer. The TAF, or TSK if you prefer, are the military forces of the Republic of Turkey. So, the PKK, the SDF and the YPG, backed by the USA, are at odds with the TAF, or TSK if you like.

Before you ask, “WTF?”, just think of it this way for our purposes; The guys in the Blackhawk helicopter in these photos and videos are fighting the guys who launch the rocket at them from the bottom of the mountain.

One video shows the rocket launch from the perspective of the guys firing it. It seems to weave and bob the way rockets do, on its way to the top of the ridge, where a Turkish S-70A helicopter appears. The Turkish Blackhawk dips below the ridge just as the PKK ATGM explodes. The inference is that the guys firing the ATGM hit the Blackhawk.

Click over to the video of the guys up on the ridge with the Blackhawk, being resupplied, it would appear. The wire-guided missile fired from the bottom of the ridge by the first guys videoing, explodes over the heads of the guys on top of the ridge, also videoing. An instant after the rocket explodes the Blackhawk successfully escapes. The point? The one video from the bottom of the ridge suggests the S-70A was hit, a huge victory for those lads. The other video shows the Turkish helicopter flying away, “proof” that it is not a victory, just a near miss and one for the highlight reel on YouTube.

The entire episode is proof of another Sun Tzu principle from “The Art of War”:

“All warfare is based on deception.”

The Sum of All Fears: Why the Hawaii False Alarm Reminds Us of The Risks Of Accidental Engagement

As North Korean Tensions Moderate Ahead of Olympics, A New Threat Emerges: Accidental Engagement.

“I started running for shelter” one man told U.S. network CNN about his response to the false nuclear threat warning text sent to Hawaii residents on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The automated alert system was accidentally actuated by a routine drill at shift change that went wrong. During the alert, that included the message “This is not a drill”, hotel guests were evacuated into basement shelters, some people abandoned vehicles on the road and videos were posted of a man trying to open a manhole cover to seek shelter. According to a report in GlobalSecurity.org, U.S. Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen made a statement the next day that it was “unfortunate” there was a false emergency alarm about an incoming missile in Hawaii, but said authorities are “all working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It took 38 minutes for Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency to issue a statement saying the alert was an error. But even when the alert error message was delivered, tensions remained high on the island state. The Hawaiian island of Oahu was the scene of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII on Dec. 7, 1941, and while few current residents of the island who survived that attack 77 years ago are still alive, the legacy of the Pearl Harbor attack permanently looms in the background of escalating tensions in the Pacific region with North Korea today.

The incident comes as relations between the South Korea and North Korea show possible signs of moderation ahead of the winter Olympics that begin on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea. North Korean and U.S. tensions remain high, but have not worsened in recent weeks. Some observers maintain that any evolution other than a worsening of relations between the U.S. and North Korea suggests improvement as Washington and Pyongyang continue their sabre rattling war of words.

But the risk of accidental engagement between the U.S and North Korea remains high, and these risks are titanic.

While the incident in Hawaii was a local level erroneous alert only, it typifies exposure to accidents that are inherent in any system where human involvement could introduce error. In the current political and strategic environment, the risk of accidental engagement represents the most tangible threat to any possible peace process in the region. Japan, North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea remain on a tenuous brink in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. This stand-off could easily escalate to a significant armed exchange entirely by error.

As with many strategic and defense realities, the late fiction author Tom Clancy was prescient of this risk. Clancy wrote this passage about a heated meeting between fictional characters, National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt and Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Andrei Lysenko, in “The Hunt for Red October”:

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity… Is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”

The risk of accidental near-nuclear attack has been consistent in fiction, but rare in reality. But it has happened.

On Sept. 26, 1983, an accidental alert in the Soviet Union indicated that the U.S. had launched a missile at the USSR. Then it got worse. The system reported a follow-on salvo of five U.S. ICBMs inbound toward the Soviet Union. To Soviet crews manning the early warning systems in the Oko satellite based Nuclear Attack Warning Center it seemed like a text-book U.S. first strike. U.S. rhetoric at the time spoke of “maintaining our first strike capability”, making the warning all the more urgent. The incident came only three weeks after the Soviets accidentally shot down a civilian Boeing 747 airliner, Korean Airlines flight 007, killing everyone on board. The aircraft had strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace and was mistaken for a U.S. spy plane. Real-life Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was on duty at the time, monitoring the incoming intelligence. Based on his analysis of the data Lt. Col. Petrov judged the alarms to be an error. He later said they did not exactly match the U.S. nuclear attack doctrine, so he did not elevate the alert. Lt. Col. Petrov’s human intervention was the first circuit breaker between accident and global calamity. He received neither reprimand nor award. Petrov died anonymously in May, 2017.

As with both real and fictional accidental engagements or near-engagements the common circumstances are large numbers of military assets from adversary nations in close proximity to one another combined with a protracted phase of elevated alert status. The stress of long periods at high alert levels combined with complex procedures for differentiating friend or foe are often set against a backdrop of dynamic rules of engagement. Accidents happen.

In November 2017, the U.S. Navy released reports on two serious accidents where Navy ships collided with other vessels in close proximity. On June 17, 2017 the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) was struck by the commercial container ship ACX Crystal in the narrow commercial shipping approach to Tokyo Bay. Seven members of the Fitzgerald’s crew died in the accident and her commanding officer was injured. In another incident only two months later the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, the USS John McCain (DDG-56), was hit by the Liberian flag vessel Alnic MC in the crowded shipping approaches to the Singapore Strait. Ten crewmembers of the USS John McCain died in the accident.

Collisions with U.S. Navy vessels at sea could spark an accidental engagement. (Photo: US Navy)

Even more foreboding is the July 3, 1988 incident in the Persian Gulf when the U.S. Navy Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) accidentally shot down civilian passenger flight Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300-B2 airliner. All passengers and crew on board were killed. The crew of the USS Vincennes had incorrectly determined that the civilian airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat that was attacking them. An investigation revealed the crew of the USS Vincennes attempted to contact Iran Air Flight 655 ten times before engaging it with two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner and destroyed it. Some reports suggested the incident stemmed from psychological pressure the crew was under as a result of high alert status caused by other incidents in the region (one year before this incident, in May 1987, the guided missile frigate USS Stark had been attacked by an Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet and 37 American sailors had perished during the clash).

It is a short leap to imagine an incident that would be much more serious than this last year’s accidental collisions with merchant vessels or the recent erroneous warning messages being sent. There are currently three U.S. Navy carrier battle groups in the region. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) are all operational in the area around North Korea. Each vessel also has a significant support armada. Japanese and South Korean military vessels are also active in the region making for a very crowded patrol space.

The key to avoiding accidental engagements on each side will be adherence to rules of engagement and constant vigilance with navigation and communication. These are all standard protocols for all parties involved but fatigue and fear can degrade procedure in the real world. But perhaps the last circuit breaker between a tense stand-off and a rapidly escalating armed exchange are the responsible individuals with cool heads and an understanding of the true terror of war, accidental or not. We rely on them to maintain this tenuous peace.