Category Archives: Rogue States

EQ-4 Global Hawk Drone Deployed to UAE with a Battlefield Communications Airfield Node Payload Reaches 20K Flight Hours

One of the RQ-4B Global Hawk drone converted into EQ-4 has logged 20,000 flight hours operating as a “flying gateway” for other aircraft involved in the air war on ISIS.

On Feb. 13, one of the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drones reached 20,000 flight hours. The UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is one of the three RQ-4Bs converted into EQ-4 and carry the BACN payload instead of the imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors: it’s primarily a data and communications bridging node that supports multiple bridges simultaneously across multiple radio types. The crews who operate these particular flying gateways call them: “Wi-fi in the sky.”

“This milestone was the original lifespan of the aircraft,” said Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Pipes, Hawk Aircraft Maintenance Superintendent deployed to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, in a public release. “It’s exciting to see where this technology and this aircraft can take off too and how it can help those who are downrange.”

The aircraft (based on the photo the example “A2019”, an RQ-4 Block 20 converted into EQ-4), reached this milestone at its deployment base of Al Dhafra, UAE, from where the Global Hawks equipped with a Battlefield Communications Airfield Node payload are regularly launched for missions that can last 24 hours, or more. For instance, the very same aircraft surpassed the 10,000 flying hours in March 2015 during a 30.5-hour mission.

“From being a manned aircraft pilot, getting 12-hours in the air was a long day…you needed a day or so to recover before going up on your next mission,” said Major Manuel Ochoa, U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk pilot from the 99th Air Expeditionary Recon Squadron stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base. “When it comes to this plane, you can cycle pilots without having to land and that is a great benefit.”

Missions flown by the BACN platforms are extremely important. As explained several times here at The Aviationist, BACN is a technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to transfer information and communicate.

The U.S. military uses various datalink systems to exchange tactical information, and many are not capable of working together.  For example, a U.S. Air Force F-15 can use its Link-16 system to exchange target information with a U.S. Navy F/A-18.  However, the F/A-18 could not exchange information with a USAF B-52 or B-1 bomber.  The advanced F-22 can connect with other Raptors via datalink but can only receive over the standard, legacy Link-16 datalink used by most allied aircraft.

This lack of compatibility between different platforms is a major obstacle in all those theaters where air assets from many services are called upon to provide support for ground troops of different nations.  Additionally, the complicated joint operations required to engage a modern integrated air defense system are greatly simplified by exchanging target information via datalinks.

Hence the need for a “flying gateway” as the EQ-4s, all assigned to 380th Air Expeditionary Wing based at Al Dhafra Air Base to support OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve).

An U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk logs over 20,000 flight hours Feb. 13, 2018 at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The Global Hawk’s mission is to provide a broad spectrum of ISR collection capability to support joint combatant forces in worldwide peacetime, contingency and wartime operations. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott)

 

The BACN system is also used to link ground troops and Forward Air Controllers (FACs)/Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment.  For instance, in the rugged, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, troops are not always able to establish LOS communications with close support aircraft overhead.  Moving position or relocating to higher ground could be fatal in a combat situation.

E-11A aircraft (Bombardier Global 6000 advanced ultra long-range business jets that have been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accomodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload) with 430th Expeditionary Electronic Squadron deployed to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan have been involved in this kind of missions (some of those trackable on the Internet as highlighted several times) since they arrived in theater for the first time 9 years ago.

By orbiting at high-altitude for long times, BACN equipped air assets can provide a communications link from ground commanders to their allies in the sky.  For example, a legacy USAF A-10 attack aircraft could loiter away from a battle area while using the BACN link to communicate with a special-forces FAC on the ground.  The A-10 pilot could wait until all targeting information is ready before “un-masking” and beginning an attack run.

This Video Shows U.S. MQ-9 Reaper Drone Destroying a Russian-made T-72 Tank in Syria

The U.S. Air Force Central Command has released the video of a T-72 tank destroyed by a drone in Syria.

The following video shows a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone destroying a Russian-made T-72 main battle tank in Syria in what U.S. officials have defined a “defensive strike against pro-Syrian government forces”. The second one in less than a week.

According to Reuters the air strike took place near Al Tabiyeh, Syria, on Sunday. The U.S. military said the tank was destroyed after it moved within firing range of the U.S.-backed forces. Although the Pentagon said no U.S. or SDF forces were killed by the tank no detail about the type of weapon used in the strike – either a JDAM or Hellfire – has been provided.

The strike came few days after a major clash with pro-Assad forces and coalition forces overnight between Feb. 7 and 8 in Deir el-Zour Province: the U.S. launched significant air power to protect coalition advisors and Syrian Democratic Forces in a series of raids that may have left 100 or more of the pro-Syrian government personnel dead. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, head of Air Forces Central Command said the U.S. forces on the ground called in coalition strikes for more than three hours, involving F-22 stealth aircraft, F-15Es as well as MQ-9 Reaper drones, B-52 bombers, AC-130 gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters.

Israeli F-16I Sufa Crashes After Coming Under Massive Anti-Aircraft Fire From Syrian Air Defense

Iranian UAV that infiltrated the Israeli airspace is shot down by an AH-64 Apache. Then, Israeli Air Force jets launch retaliatory air strikes in Syria.  An F-16I is hit and crashes in northern Israel. Two pilots eject, one is seriously injured.

“On February 10, 2018, an Apache helicopter successfully intercepted an Iranian UAV that was launched from Syria and infiltrated Israel. The aircraft was identified by the Aerial Defense Systems early on and was under surveillance until the interception. In response, IDF attacked the Iranian aircraft’s launch components in Syrian territory,” says an Israeli Defense Force release.

Here’s the footage of the downing of the drone:

Based on the footage, the UAV shot down by the AH-64 seems to be a Saeqeh (Thunderbolt), one of those unveiled by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in 2016 and seemingly based on the captured U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone (H/T to Michael Cruickshank for IDing the drone).

The UAV shot down on Feb. 10 bears much resemblance with the drone (based on the captured RQ-170) unveiled by Iran in 2016.

Still, what happened later is possibly more important:

“Later, also in response to the Iranian UAV that was launched at Israeli territory and was intercepted by the IDF, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 targets in Syria, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria. During the attack, multiple anti-aircraft missiles were fired at IAF aircraft. The two pilots of an F-16 ejected from the aircraft as per procedure, one of whom was seriously injured and taken to the hospital for medical treatment.”

According to the first reports the F-16 was a Sufa and several SA-5 and SA-17 were launched at the Israeli jets, but there is no official confirmation. Actually the wording used by the IDF is worth of note: they don’t even explicitly say that the aircraft was “hit”, even though it seems pretty obvious. Interestingly, the Israeli military clearly stated the SAM fired at the Israeli Sufa was definitely Syrian:

Civilian air traffic suffered some disruption as Syrian missiles were fired in the northern part of the country:

Tel Aviv Ben Gurion opened to arrivals about 30 minutes later. Here’s one of the aircraft coming to landing after holding to the northwest of the airport:

There have been several Israeli air strikes in Syria in the last decades during those the Israeli combat aircraft have proved their ability to operate freely in the Syrian airspace. Reportedly, in spite of several raids, including some pretty famous operations, the last time an Israeli Air Force jet was shot down dates back to the first Lebanon War at the beginning of the ’80s.

H/T @avischarf @MJ_Cruickshank @AbraxasSpa for details and hints.

Top image credit: IDF

 

Watch an A-10 Thunderbolt II Put Four Cannon Rounds on Target with Amazing Precision

Video Shows One Reason Proponents Say A-10’s Heavy Gun Still Remains Relevant.

Arguments about weapons systems tend to be circular and hard to win. The discussion about close air support, the retirement of the aging A-10 Thunderbolt II and the entry of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter along with the relevance of the recent Light Attack Experiment continue to swirl. But one thing that cannot be argued is the lethality and spectacle of the A-10’s GAU-8 Avenger 30mm, seven-barrel  Gatling-type cannon

This video was released on January 24, 2018 from the U.S. Air Force Central Command Public Affairs office. It is credited to the 94th Airlift Wing which, oddly enough, is primarily an airlift wing. The Defense Video Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) gave no reason why this video was released through an airlift wing, but it is likely due to logistics.

The video, shot from an unknown camera platform, shows an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II conducting a strike on a Taliban vehicle fleeing the scene of an attack in Kandahar province on January 24, 2018. The insurgents in the vehicle were armed with a DShK 12.7 mm heavy machine gun, which had been used moments earlier during the attack on Afghans.

The video is relevant to the close air support discussion for a number of reasons. Firstly, it showcases the accuracy of the GAU-8 weapons system, at least in this single instance. You can see that two 30mm rounds penetrate the hood of the vehicle, then one penetrates the roof of the driver’s compartment and a fourth round goes through the roof of the passenger area of the vehicle. Considering the speed of the vehicle and that the A-10 was, of course, moving also, this is a noteworthy degree of accuracy.

Needless to say more than rounds left the cannon, and there appears to be two separate firing passes shown in the video.

[If you are interested in the A-10, don’t miss our “BRRTTTT….deployments, war chronicles and stories of the last A-10 Warthogs” available both in ebook format and paperback version from Amazon.]

The video also suggests an interesting scenario where, if the A-10 attacked from above 5,000 feet or even much higher (especially if required to remain outside the envelope of anti-aircraft systems like MANPADS), this imagery may have been collected from another aircraft, not the A-10 conducting the strike. A likely candidate would be a remotely piloted aircraft providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and then maybe even target designation for the attacking aircraft. While we do not know if this was the case with this video, it is a common enough practice to suggest in this instance.

A 30mm round from a GAU-8 cannon used on a U.S. A-10 as seen at Davis-Monthan AFB. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

While it’s unlikely proponents on either side of the “Save the A-10” movement will be swayed by videos like this one, and these videos date back to the A-10s first operational deployment of the A-10 in 1991, they remain compelling. During its first operational deployment in the Gulf War the A-10 was credited with destroying approximately 900 Iraqi tanks, 2,000 non-armored military vehicles and 1,200 artillery pieces according to a 1993 report.

A-10 pilot celebrates (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

 

Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks, ADS-B May Expose F-22s To Web Based Tracking GAO Warns

A new report highlights the risks of ADS-B transponders. But it focuses on technology rather than operation security.

We have been writing about this topic since 2011. As most of our readers already know by now, Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder are two famous Web-based services that let anyone who has an Internet access on their computer, laptop or smartphone, track flights in real-time.

Aviation enthusiasts and geeks, journalists but also curious people use these portals to get details about civil and military flights all around the world.

The ADS-B system uses a special transponder that autonomously broadcasts data from the aircraft’s on-board navigation systems about its GPS-calculated position, altitude and flight path. This information is transmitted on 1090 MHz frequency: ground stations, other nearby aircraft as well as commercial off-the-shelf receivers available on the market as well as home-built ones, tuned on the same frequency, can receive and process this data.

Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder rely on a network of several hundred (if not thousand) feeders who receive and share Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders data and contribute growing the network and cover most of the planet.

Obviously, only ADS-B equipped aircraft flying within the coverage area of the network are visible.

Actually, in those areas where coverage is provided by several different ground stations, the position can be calculated also for those planes that do not broadcast their ADS-B data by means of Multilateration (MLAT). MLAT uses Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA): by measuring the difference in time to receive the signal from four different receivers, the aircraft can be geolocated and tracked even if it does not transmit ADS-B data.

Although the majority of the aircraft you’ll be able to track using a browser (or smartphone’s app) using the above mentioned Web-based tracking services are civil airliners and business jets, military aircraft are also equipped with Mode-S ADS-B-capable transponders: a 2010 Federal Aviation Administration rule requires all military aircraft to be equipped with ADS-B transponders by Jan. 1, 2020, as part of its program to modernize the air transportation system.

RQ-4 Global Hawk tracked during its mission near Crimea and over Ukraine on Jul. 20, 2017. The U.S. Air Force Global Hawk UAS are among the assets that can be regularly tracked online. (Screenshot from Flightradar24.com)

But, these are *usually* turned off during real war ops. Usually, not always.

In fact, during opening stages of the Libya Air War in 2011 some of the combat aircraft involved in the air campaign forgot/failed to switch off their mode-S or ADS-B transponder, and were clearly trackable on FR.24 or PF.net. And despite pilots all around the world know the above mentioned flight tracking websites very well, transponders remain turned on during real operations, making their aircraft clearly visible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection. As a consequence, we have been highlighting the the risk of Internet-based flight tracking of aircraft flying war missions for years. In 2014 we discovered that a U.S. plane possibly supporting ground troops in Afghanistan acting as an advanced communication relay can be regularly tracked as it circled over the Ghazni Province. Back then we explained that the only presence of the aircraft over a sensitive target could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operations. US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757 operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks), American and Russian “doomsday planes”, tanker aircraft and even the Air Force One, along with several other combat planes can be tracked every now and then on both FR24.com and PF.net.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor departs after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, during a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve Aug. 22, 2017. According to GAO, ADS-B poses a threat to the Raptor stealthiness as it may expose the aircraft presence. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles)

Today, military planes belonging to different air forces as well as contractor and special operations planes can be regularly tracked while flying over Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunia, Egypt and many other “hot spots”.

A Government Accountability Office report released last month highlighted the risks of ADS-B. According to the watchdog agency neither the Department of Defense nor the FAA have taken significant steps to mitigate security risks associated with openly transmitting flight data from military aircraft (highlight mine):

Information broadcasted from ADS-B transponders poses an operations security risk for military aircraft. For example, a 2015 assessment that RAND conducted on behalf of the U.S. Air Force stated that the broadcasting of detailed and unencrypted position data for fighter aircraft, in particular for a stealth aircraft such as the F-22, may present an operations security risk. The report noted that information about the F-22’s precise position is classified Secret, which means that unauthorized disclosure of this information could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.

Such risks have been highlighted since 2008 according to GAO:

In DOD’s 2008 comments about FAA’s draft rule requiring ADS-B Out technology, the department informed FAA that DOD aircraft could be identified conducting special flights for sensitive missions in the United States and potentially compromised due to ADS-B technology. Such sensitive missions could
include low-observable surveillance, combat air patrol, counter-drug, counter-terrorism, and key personnel transport. While some military aircraft are currently equipped with Mode S transponders that provide individuals who have tracking technology the altitude of the aircraft, ADS-B poses an increased risk.

Moreover, there are concerns since the ADS-B technology is vulnerable to jamming and cyber attacks. GAO:

For example, a 2015 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers article about ADS-B stated that ADS-B is vulnerable to an electronic-warfare attack — such as a jamming attack — whereby an adversary can effectively disable the sending and receiving of messages between an ADS-B transmitter and receiver by transmitting a higher power signal on the ADS-B frequencies. The article notes that while jamming is a problem common to all wireless communication, the effect is severe in aviation due to the system’s inherently wide-open spaces, which are impossible to control, as well as to the importance and criticality of the transmitted data. As a stand-alone method, jamming could create problems within the national airspace. Jamming can also be used to initiate a cyber-attack on aircraft or ADS-B systems. According to the article in the 2015 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication, adversaries could use a cyber-attack to inject false ADS-B messages (that is, create “ghost” aircraft on the ground or air); delete ADS-B messages (that is,make an aircraft disappear from the air traffic controller screens); and modify messages (that is, change the reported path of the aircraft). The article states that jamming attacks against ADS-B systems would be simple, and that ADS-B data do not include verification measures to filter out false messages, such as those used in spoofing attacks.

Lack of solutions:

Although DOD, FAA, and other organizations have identified risks to military security and missions since 2008, DOD and FAA have not approved any solutions to address these risks. This is because DOD and FAA have focused on equipping military aircraft with ADS-B technology and have not focused on solving or mitigating security risks from ADS-B. The approach being taken by FAA and DOD will not address key security risks that have been identified, and delays in producing an interagency agreement have significantly reduced the time available to implement any agreed-upon solutions before January 1, 2020, when the full deployment of ADS-B Out is required.

So, GAO urges DoD and FAA to approve solutions that can address operations, physical, cyber-attack, and electronic warfare security risks; and risks associated with divesting secondary-surveillance radars (since the idea is to divest legacy radars and replace them with ADS-B only). However, based on our experience, proper procedures should be adopted (provided they are not there yet) in order to prevent big OPSEC failures. Indeed, whilst securing ADS-B is a must, it’s probably more important to turn off the Mode-S and ADS-B transponders when conducting missions that need to remain invisible (at least to public flight tracking websites and commercial off the shelf receivers). Unless the transponder is turned on for a specific purpose: to let the world know they are there. In fact, as reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether some aircraft that can be tracked online broadcast their position for everyone to see by accident or on purpose: increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them. Is it a way to show the flag? Maybe.

Summing up, FR24.com, PF.net, home-made kits etc. are extremely interesting and powerful tools to investigate and study civil and military aviation; until ADS-B is made more resilient and secure, air forces around the world have only to consider the risk of public flight tracking when executing combat missions in the same way other details, such as radio communications policies and EMCON (Emission Control) restrictions, are already taken into account.

Many thanks to @CivMilAir for helping preparing this article.