The USAF WC-135C Constant Phoenix might be investigating a spike in radioactive levels in Norway. Someone speculates the release of this radionuclide could be the effect of a Russian nuclear test.
On Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, using radio callsign “Cobra 55” deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK.
As we have already reported the WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support plane. Two of these aircraft are in service today out of the ten examples operated since 1963. The aircraft are flown by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.
The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.
Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved: that’s why the aircraft is important to confirm the type of explosion of today’s test.
Along with monitoring nuke testing, the WC-135 is used to track radioactive activity as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011.
One of these aircraft was deployed near North Korea in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches then was spotted transiting the UK airspace in August 2013 raising speculations it was used in Syria thanks to the ability to detect chemical substances down wind from the attack area days, or weeks after they were dispersed.
Although they cross the European airspace every now and then, their deployment in the Old Continent is somehow rare. As of yet, there has been no official statement from the U.S. military about the reasons why such nuclear research aircraft was deployed there. However, many sources suggest the aircraft was tasked with investigating the spike in Iodine levels detected in northern Europe since the beginning of January.
However, no one seems to know the reason behind the released Iodine-131. Along with nuclear power plants, the isotope is also widely used in medicine and its presence in the air could be the effect of several different incidents.
Or, as someone speculates, it could have been the side effect of a test of a new nuclear warhead in Russia: an unlikely (considered the ability to detect nuke tests through satellites and seismic detectors) violation of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Maybe the WC-135 will help authorities find out the origin of the Iodine-131.
The multirole aircraft features thrust-vectoring, radar-absorbent paint, Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array radar, IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) and the said ability to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers (…), the Khibiny radar jamming system along with the ability to use some interesting weapons, including the ultra-long range R-37M air-to-air missile that could target HVAA (High Value Air Assets) such as AWACS and tanker aircraft.
A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
We can’t say whether it happened by accident or on purpose, but a U.S. unmanned spy aircraft broadcast its position for everyone to see while flying a long mission over northern Libya.
It’s not a secret that U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella, Italy, from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.
The Global Hawks of the flying branch had their baptism of fire on Mar. 1, 2011, and were the first to fly over Libya to perform high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat after Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched on Mar. 19, 2011.
From their deployment bases in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and from Al Dhafra, UAE, the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drones are regularly tasked with intelligence gathering missions over North Africa, East Europe and Middle East: in March 2015, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged the involvement of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft in the air war on ISIS not only as an IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) platform but also as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) platform, that replaces the imagery sensor package normally installed in the aircraft, to support ground ops by relaying communications between people and aircraft as well as enabling airstrikes on the Islamic State militants.
Like all the other spyplanes, during their (long) sorties, these strategic ISR drones typically tend to keep a low-profile: they operate in “due regard” with transponder off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts, much like a VFR flight plan without flight following. For this reason it should not be possible to detect RQ-4s on clandestine missions using “simple” commercial receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.
But Global Hawks could be tracked online over Ukraine beginning on October 2016 and, for the very fist time, while conducting a 21-hour mission over northwestern Libya on Feb. 4, 2017.
Indeed, yesterday an RQ-4 could be tracked on FR24.com taking off from Sigonella airbase around 1.30AM UTC, climb to 46,000 feet over the sea then head towards Libya where it circled for several hours.
Tracking while heading southbound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Flying over northwestern Libya (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Skirting Tripoli southeast bound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed even though this author has received several emails from USAF pilots and aircrew members who wanted to say thank you for raising the issue.
Sometimes the reason for making an aircraft visible on FR24 can be deterrence: they purposely broadcast their position to let “the others” know a spyplane hunting terrorists is there. Was this the case? Hard to say.
H/T to the always alert @CivMilAir for the heads-up!
While details of the raid remain classified ABC13 News Now reporter Elise Brown broke a story earlier today when she reported that a source told ABC News, “It was as though Al Qaeda knew the SEALs were coming, and were ready.”
U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, 36, from Illinois was reported as killed in action during the operation. Three other U.S. personnel were wounded during the raid and three more were reported injured during a hard landing in a U.S. Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. That aircraft was intentionally destroyed by U.S forces on the ground following the crash to prevent its recovery by adversaries.
While it is likely the raid was conducted by a composite task force of U.S. special operations personnel, CPO Owens was a member of an East Coast U.S. Navy SEa, Air, Land (SEAL) team originating from Little Creek, Virginia. Media outlets have reported that Owens was a member of the specially trained Task Force Blue often referred to as “SEAL Team Six” in mass media.
The U.S. Navy’s Task Force Blue is comprised of “Squadrons” similar to other counter-terror special operations units. Red, Gold, Blue and Silver Squadrons are operational “raid” squadrons and are often assisted and/or accompanied by members of Black Squadron, an intelligence gathering and analysis asset. It is not known which squadron CPO Owens was attached to.
Official statements reflect that the primary objective of the raid was to seize physical intelligence assets such as electronic media, computer hard drives and documents that will provide a detailed insight into terrorist planning for future Al Qaeda operations. In an official release to the Reuters News Agency the U.S. Defense Department told reporters the raid provided, “Information that will likely provide insight into the planning of future terror plots.”
According to reporting by Mohammed El Sherif in Cairo for Reuters, “The local al Qaeda unit [in Yemen] organized the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris in 2015 and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners.”
The raid resulted in a “one hour firefight” according to local reports on the ground. While reports of casualties have varied most media outlets suggest between 17-30 indigenous personnel, some reported to be Al Qaeda members, were killed on the ground during the raid.
The weekend raid by U.S special operations forces was planned “well in advance” based on intelligence gathered during previous months. Timing for the raid was specific as one source inside the U.S. military speaking on conditions of anonymity reported, “There were operational reasons why it happened when it did.” A contributing factor may have been the moon phase. The raid happened during a new moon, a period when lunar illumination at the target area is at its lowest providing maximum darkness.
Approximate location of the raid (Google Earth screenshot)
Satellite images of the region show terrain that is hilly surrounding encampments and small cities at elevations usually below 1500 feet. This suggests high altitude vortex ring state was not a factor in the crash of the MV-22 Osprey during the raid.
Vortex Ring State was a potential factor in the crash of a U.S. Special Operations helicopter at the beginning of Operation Neptune Spear, the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Vortex ring state happens when rotary wing aircraft, such as the U.S. Marine MV-22 Ospreys used in this raid, settle into their own rotor wash and descend rapidly as a result of losing lift.
Weather in the region during the raid indicated low overnight temperatures of 70° Fahrenheit with visibility under the new moon phase of “8 miles” with moderate humidity and winds below 10 mph. These, along with the lighting conditions of the dark moon, were good conditions for the operation as reported.
Several media outlets have reported that the raid was launched from a U.S. Navy ship south of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden.
Additional air support was likely provided by U.S. Marine AH-1Z Viper gunships deployed from the same ship. Some local media reports on the ground said the gunships were “U.S. Apaches”. This is unlikely since the raid originated from a shipboard location according to reports.
The names of ships in the region are generally a matter of operational security but analysis through elimination suggests that if the raid originated from an assault ship, it could have been the USS Kearsarge, Bataan, Bon Homme Richard, Iwo Jima or Makin Island. Online sources account for the location of the assault ships USS Wasp, Essex and Boxer.
Another interesting seaborne asset recently reported in the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet area of operations is the unusually configured USS Ponce (AFSB(1)-15). The USS Ponce is an interesting possibility in this case since it has undergone modifications to support special operations, has a helicopter landing deck and other features for special operations. The USS Ponce is also used for operational testing of the shipboard Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a weapon used to repel small craft from attacking a larger vessel.
A rigid-hull inflatable boat manned by members of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 12 enters the well deck of Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I) 15). EODMU-12 is assigned to Commander, Task Group (CTG) 56.1, which provides mine countermeasures, explosive ordnance disposal, salvage-diving, counter-terrorism, and force protection for the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR). Ponce, formerly designated as an amphibious transport dock ship, was converted and reclassified to fulfill a long-standing U.S. Central Command request for an AFSB to be located in its area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Raegen/Released)
Also recently reported in the area as support assets are the guided-missile destroyers USS Nitze (DDG-94) and the USS Mason (DDG-87) along with the seaborne forward staging base USS Ponce. These vessels were reported operational on station off Yemen near the Bab el-Mandeb strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden in September. If they remain in this region they may have contributed to the operation.
U.S. special operations in Yemen have come into focus following an NBC News report on May 6, 2016 that quoted U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, as saying that, “A small number of American military personnel are in Yemen providing limited support to the Yemeni government and Arab coalition battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. This contradicts a previous report that stated “American forces have not conducted any special operations in Yemen since December 2014.”
Finally, in late breaking news Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to Dover AFB in Delaware for the return of the remains of U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens killed in Sunday’s raid in Yemen. President Tump flew to Dover AFB on Marine One with his daughter Ivanka Trump and U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump walk toward Marine One while departing from the White House, on Feb. 1, 2017, en route to Dover Air Force Base. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)