Category Archives: North Korea

Interesting Photos Show U.S. Air Force F-35A Stealth Jets Deployed To Japan About To Launch Without Radar Reflectors

Some recent photos of the Hill AFB F-35s deployed to Kadena Okinawa, seem to suggest the 5th Generation fighters have started operating in “stealth mode”.

Stealth aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II 5th generation jets are equipped with Luneburg (or Luneberg) lenses: radar reflectors used to make the LO (Low Observable) aircraft (consciously) visible to radars. These devices are installed on the aircraft on the ground are used whenever the aircraft don’t need to evade the radars: during ferry flights when the aircraft use also the transponder in a cooperative way with the ATC (Air Traffic Control) agencies; during training or operative missions that do not require stealthiness; or, more importantly, when the aircraft operate close to the enemy whose ground or flying radars, intelligence gathering sensors.

This is what we explained explaining how the Israeli the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern to the Israeli F-35 Adir recently declared IOC:

[…] the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.

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

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

F-35s deployed abroad usually feature their typical four radar reflectors: to exaggerate their real RCS (Radar Cross Section) and negate the enemy the ability to collect any detail about their LO “signature”. As happened during the short mission to Estonia and then Bulgaria, carried out by the USAF F-35As involved in the type’s first overseas training deployment to Europe or when, on Aug. 30, 2017, four U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joined two USAF B-1B Lancers for the JSF’s first show of force against North Korea: the F-35Bs flew with the radar reflectors, a sign they didn’t want their actual radar signature to be exposed to any intelligence gathering sensor in the area.

The two radar reflectors on the right side of the F-35A (the remaining two are located in the same positions on the left side). Image credit: LM (hightlight by Author)

Since they almost always fly with the radar reflectors, photographs of the aircraft without the four notches (two on the upper side and two on the lower side of the fuselage) are particularly interesting: for instance, some shots taken on Jan. 24, 2018 and just released by the U.S. Air Force show F-35As deployed to Kadena AB, Japan, in October as a part of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Theater Security Package program, preparing to launch without their Luneberg reflectors.

The lack of reflector on the top left position of this F-35 is pretty evident in the following photographs:

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, goes through pre-flight checks prior to taxiing Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is a 5th-generation stealth fighter developed to safely penetrate areas while avoiding radar detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

 

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Valdez, 34th Aircraft Maintenance unit crew chief, performs pre-flight checks prior to a training flight Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is a 5th-generation stealth fighter developed to safely penetrate areas while avoiding radar detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Valdez, 34th Aircraft Maintenance unit crew chief, communicates with Maj. Matthew Olson, F-35A Lightning II pilot from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, before a training flight Jan. 25, 2018, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. The F-35A is deployed under U.S. Pacific Command’s theater security package program, which has been in operation since 2004. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Quay Drawdy)

For comparison, the following photo shows one of the 388FW F-35A jets on the ground at Kadena in November 2017 with the radar reflector.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Patrick Charles, 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, goes through pre-flight procedures Nov. 16, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Rotational forces are integral to increasing our military combat capabilities, which are essential to U.S. power projection and security obligations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Greg Erwin)

Obviously the lack of radar reflectors is not a big deal: during their deployment to RAF Lakenheath last year, F-35As of the 388th FW have flown without reflectors some local sorties with the 48th FW F-15E Strike Eagles (for example on Apr. 26, 2017). However, photographs of deployed F-35s without Luneburg Lenses are pretty rare and, for this reason, interesting and newsworthy.

 

 

Six B-52 Strategic Bombers Deploying To Guam To Replace Six B-1s And Join Three B-2Mes Already There

The U.S. Air Force bomber trio (B-52, B-2 and B-1) currently deployed to Guam: it’s the second time since August 2016.

Six B-52H bombers and approximately 300 Airmen from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, are deploying to Andersen AFB, Guam, in support of U.S. Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence mission. Two Stratofortresses have arrived in Guam on Jan. 15; the rest are expected to deploy in the next hours. They join six B-1s and three B-2s already in Guam.

The iconic B-52 bombers will relieve the B-1B Lancers that deployed from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, on Aug. 6, 2016, as part of their first CBP deployment in support of the U.S. Pacific Command’s (USPACOM) deterrence efforts in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region in 10 years.

During their deployment, the 37th EBS conducted a variety of joint and bilateral training missions with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Japan Air Self-Defense Force, South Korean air force and Royal Australian Air Force, including some symbolic shows of force against North Korea alongside the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B forward based in Japan.

The bomber trio at Guam in August 2016.

Noteworthy, at the beginning of their tour of duty in the Pacific in 2016, the B-1s replaced another B-52 detachment: the 69th EBS from Minot AFB, ND. Before the Stratofortress bombers started returning home, three B-2s arrived in Guam for a “short-term deployment”: exploiting the presence of the three bomber types on the very same forward operating base, on Aug. 17, 2016, the U.S. Air Force conducted the first coordinated operation in the U.S Pacific Command AOR (Area Of Operations) launching three aircraft (1x B-2, 1x B-52 and 1x B-1) in sequence from Andersen Air Force Base to conduct simultaneous operations in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia.

Considered the presence of B-52s, B-2s and B-1s once again together at the same time in Guam will give the U.S. Air Force the opportunity to launch again the trio in an integrated bomber operation in the Pacific similar to the one carried out in the Summer of 2016.

“The B-52H’s return to the Pacific will provide USPACOM and its regional allies and partners with a credible, strategic power projection platform, while bringing years of repeated operational experience. The B-52 is capable of flying at high subsonic speeds at altitudes up to 50,000 feet (15,166.6 meters) and can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance with worldwide precision navigation capability. This forward-deployed presence demonstrates the continued commitment of the U.S.to allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” says the U.S. Air Force official release.

The B-52 deployment in support of the CBP missions brings again a constant (at least until the next rotation) nuclear bomber capability within striking distance of North Korea.

Meanwhile, four B-52H Stratofortress aircraft have arrived in the UK for theatre integration and training at RAF Fairford. The aircraft are from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and will conduct theatre integration and training in Europe.

Many “Buffs” deployed across the globe!

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.

The U.S. Air Force Has Deployed One Of Its EC-130H Compass Call Electronic Warfare Aircraft To South Korea

One of the few EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, capable to find and hit the enemy forces with denial of service (and possibly cyber) attacks on their communication networks, has been deployed to Osan Air Base, South Korea.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified Hercules tasked with various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption. According to the U.S. Air Force official fact sheets: “The Compass Call system employs offensive counter-information and electronic attack (or EA) capabilities in support of U.S. and Coalition tactical air, surface, and special operations forces.”

The USAF EC-130H overall force is quite small, consisting of only 14 aircraft, based at Davis-Monthan AFB (DMAFB), in Tucson, Arizona and belonging to the 55th Electronic Combat Group (ECG) and its two squadrons: the 41st and 43rd Electronic Combat Squadrons (ECS). Also based at DMAFB and serving as the type training unit is the 42nd ECS that operates a lone TC-130H trainer along with some available EC-130Hs made available by the other front-line squadrons.

An EC-130H Compass Call travels along the taxiway at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, June 27, 2017. Compass Call is an airborne tactical weapon system that uses noise jamming to disrupt enemy command and control communications and deny time-critical adversary coordination essential for enemy force management. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Hehnly)

The role of the Compass Call is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to command and control their forces by finding, prioritizing and targeting the enemy communications. This means that the aircraft is able to detect the signals emitted by the enemy’s communication and control gear and jam them so that the communication is denied. The original mission of the EC-130H was SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): the Compass Call were to jam the enemy’s IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) and to prevent interceptors from talking with the radar controllers on the ground (or aboard an Airborne Early Warning aircraft). Throughout the years, the role has evolved, making the aircraft a platform capable of targeting also the signals between UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and their control stations.

According to the official data:

The EC-130H fleet is composed of a mix of Baseline 1 and 2 aircraft. The 55th ECG recently eclipsed 10,900 combat sorties and 66,500 flight hours as they provided U.S. and Coalition forces and Joint Commanders a flexible advantage across the spectrum of conflict. COMPASS CALL’s adaptability is directly attributed to its spiral upgrade acquisition strategy guided by the Big Safari Program office and Air Force Material Command’s 661st Aeronautical Systems Squadron based in Waco, Texas. Combined efforts between these agencies ensure the EC-130H can counter new, emergent communication technology.

The Block 35 Baseline 1 EC-130H provides the Air Force with additional capabilities to jam communication, Early Warning/Acquisition radar and navigation systems through higher effective radiated power, extended frequency range and insertion of digital signal processing versus earlier EC-130Hs. Baseline 1 aircraft have the flexibility to keep pace with adversary use of emerging technology. It is highly reconfigurable and permits incorporation of clip-ins with less crew impact. It promotes enhanced crew proficiency, maintenance and sustainment with a common fleet configuration, new operator interface, increased reliability and better fault detection.

Baseline 2 has a number of upgrades to ease operator workload and improve effectiveness. Clip-in capabilities are now integrated into the operating system and, utilizing automated resource management, are able to be employed seamlessly with legacy capabilities. Improved external communications allow Compass Call crews to maintain situational awareness and connectivity in dynamic operational and tactical environments.
Delivery of Baseline-2 provides the DoD with the equivalent of a “fifth generation electronic attack capability.” A majority of the improvements found in the EC-130H Compass Call Baseline-2 are classified modifications to the mission system that enhance precision and increase attack capacity. Additionally, the system was re-designed to expand the “plug-and-play” quick reaction capability aspect, which has historically allowed the program to counter unique “one-off” high profile threats. Aircraft communication capabilities are improved with expansion of satellite communications connectivity compatible with emerging DoD architectures, increased multi-asset coordination nets and upgraded data-link terminals. Furthermore, modifications to the airframe in Baseline-2 provide improved aircraft performance and survivability.

Although it’s not clear whether this ability has already been translated into an operational capability, in 2015, a USAF EC-130H Compass Call aircraft has also been involved in demos where it attacked networks from the air: a kind of in-flight hacking capability that could be particularly useful to conduct cyberwarfare missions where the Electronic Attack aircraft injects malware by air-gapping closed networks.

With about one-third of the fleet operating in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (indeed, four EC-130Hs, teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets, are operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate), the fact that a single EC-130H (73-1590 “Axis 43”) was recently deployed from Davis Monthan AFB to Osan Air Base, South Korea, where it arrived via Yokota, on Jan. 4, 2018, it’s pretty intriguing.

Obviously, we can’t speculate about the reason behind the deployment of the Electronic Warfare with alleged Cyber-Attack capabilities (that could be particularly useful against certain threats these days….) aircraft south of the DMZ: however, the presence of such a specialized and somehow rare aircraft in the Korean peninsula, that joins several other intelligence gathering aircraft operating over South Korea amid raising tensions for quite some time, is at least worth of note.

Update: some of our sources have suggested that the aircraft was deployed to perform anti-IED (Improvised Electronic Device) tasks during the Winter Olympics, kicking off on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea.

B-2 Flyover at Rose Parade Honored USAF Hero Major Benjamin “Chex” Meier

B-2 Spirit Flyover in California Honors Hero. Does It Suggest a Change in Alert Status too?

Parade goers celebrating the new year at the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 2018 were treated to a magnificent display of state-of-the-art U.S. Air Force airpower when two F-35A Lightning IIs and a B-2 Spirit made a spectacular flyover of the parade route.

The Rose Parade flyover honored USAF Major Benjamin “Chex” Meier, a USAF F-16 pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and received the Air Force Medal. Major Meier was also assigned to the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron as an F-35A Lighting II pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. The flyover not only memorializes Major Benjamin Meier, who died in a non-aviation related accident while running on base at Edwards on September 28, 2015, it also acknowledges his heroic legacy from his wishes to donate his heart, lungs, liver and kidneys after his death to save the lives of five people awaiting organ transplants. Major Meier is survived by his wife and two sons. The two F-35As that participated in today’s flyover were from Major Meier’s former unit, the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron.

Today’s flyover honored USAF Major Benjamin “Chex” Meier for his service and selfless organ donations following his accidental death in 2015. (Photo: USAF)

Without reading too much into the beautiful memorial flyover held in splendid weather in Pasadena, it is worth noting that a recent planned B-2 flyover at the 2017 Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, just 52 days prior to the traditional Pasadena flyover, was cancelled due to “re-tasking” according to Air Force Public Affairs at Nellis.

There was no specific description of the “re-tasking” that lead to the earlier Nellis flyover cancellation. It could have been maintenance requirements or it may also have been a change in alert status due to factors such as tensions with North Korea.

While there are no official confirmations about the specific reasons for the planned Nov. 11, 2017 flyover being cancelled, it may be reasonable to at least wonder if today’s flyover suggests a reduction in B-2 tasking requirements and possibly a correlating moderation (?) of tensions with North Korea. Again, there has been no official acknowledgement of this idea, but a flyover of one of only 12-14 combat ready B-2s represents almost 8% of the total force being committed for a number of hours to the flyover mission, when that availability wasn’t present just 52 days prior for Aviation Nation at Nellis.

There are only 19 total B-2 Spirit stealth bombers in the operational USAF inventory.

Any ideas?

Image credit: Mark Holtzman