Category Archives: Rogue States

U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Jets Involved In First Operational Deployment Near the Horn of Africa Flying With External Gun Pod

Photos show Marines F-35B aircraft carrying the external gun pod during exercise off the coast of Djibouti.

For the last two weeks, U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs assigned to the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers”, deployed with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, have undertaken the type’s first operational deployment in international waters off the coast of Djibouti.

Beginning on Sept. 8, the aircraft have taken part in a Theater Amphiobious Combat Rehearsal (TACR) operating from the flight deck of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility near Horn of Africa along with the rest of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group, that includes the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) and Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47).

The F-35B were involved in CAS (Close Air Support) missions, supporting Marines on the ground during drills in the military ranges in Djibouti that, according to USNI News, involved Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (Reinforced)’s complement of CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, UH-1 Huey utility helicopters and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters

“The addition of the F-35 to the ARG is a very significant enabler for me and for my team. It increases battlespace awareness with data fusion and the ability to share information with the ships and the ships’ combat control system. So it’s really an extension of our sensors, and it also brings to the table a greater increased lethality than what we had with previous generation aircraft,” Capt. Gerald Olin, Amphibious Squadron 1 commander and Essex ARG/MEU commodore, told USNI News.

The STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the stealthy F-35 Lightning II is a key player to the amphibious force: it brings advanced ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) capabilities where is needed as part of CSO (Crisis Support Operations) that involve the commitment of a quick reation force to respond to tensions in theather to a major conflict that requires the whole capability of the MAGTFs (Marine Air-Ground Task Forces).

Interestingly, photos of the aircraft performing air-to-air refueling from U.S. Air Force KC-135s have been released by the DoD. The shots clearly show the F-35B carrying the GAU-22 25mm gun pod that was test fired for the first time in flight in 2017.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II assigned to the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, flies alongside the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron after receiving in flight fuel during an aerial refueling mission near the Horn of Africa, Sept. 15, 2018. The F-35B combines next-generation fighter characteristics of radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed, fighter agility and advanced logistical support with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in the U.S. inventory, providing the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) significantly improved capability to approach missions from a position of strength. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)

The new General Dynamics GAU-22 25mm gun pod uses a unique four-barrel configuration that was developed from the highly successful five-barrel, 25mm GAU-12/U gun also built by General Dynamics. Noteworthy, although it was designed with LO (Low Observability) characteristics, the external pod degrades the F-35’s radar cross section making the 5th generation aircraft more visibile to radars. Still, this should be acceptable (as it is for the non-stealthy AV-8B Harrier jets they will replace) for the scenarios where the U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs will be called to carry out CAS missions (read here about the so-called “third day of war” configuration).

The GAU-22A Gun Pod. It has a reported rate of fire of “up to 3,300 rounds per minute”. (Image credit: LM)

The 2018 deployment follows the relocation of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), an F-35B squadron with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, from MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, on Jan. 9, 2017. Since then, the F-35B have started operating in the region, taking part in local drills as well as some routine “shows of force” near the Korean Peninsula: for instance, on Aug. 30, four U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joined two USAF B-1B Lancers from Guam onf a 10-hour mission that brought the “package” over waters near Kyushu, Japan, then across the Korean Peninsula. Interestingly, during that mission, the F-35Bs flew with the radar reflectors used to make LO (Low Observable) aircraft clearly visible on radars and also dropped their 1,000-lb GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on Pilsung firing range. On a subsequent mission on Sept. 18, the aircraft took part in a “sequenced bilateral show of force” over the Korean peninsula carrying “live” AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles in the internal weapons bays.

Russia Reports Il-20M “Coot-A” Electronic Intelligence Aircraft Lost in Syria During Israeli Air Strike Near Latakia

Confusion surrounds the causes of the loss. U.S. military says they believe the aircraft was shot down by Syrian Air Defense. Russians mention the proximity of Israeli F-16 Jets and French frigate in the area at the time of the incident.

A Russian military Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A spyplane has been reported as “down” at approximately 2300 local time (2000 GMT) on Monday Sept. 17, in the Mediterranean Sea off the Syrian coast. There were 14 crewmembers on board the aircraft according to multiple reports.

Russian government media outlet TASS posted that, “On September 17, at about 11:00 Moscow time, the connection with the crew of the Russian Il-20 aircraft was lost over the Mediterranean Sea when the plane was returning to the airbase of Khmeimim, 35 kilometers from the coast of Syria.”

The report in Russian media released early September 18 in U.S. time zones, went on to say, “The ministry specified that the mark of Il-20 went off the radars disappeared during the attack of four Israeli F-16 aircraft on Syrian targets in the province of Latakia.”

In the United States, media outlet CNN immediately attributed the loss of the Russian surveillance and control aircraft to the Syrians, reporting that, “A Russian maritime patrol aircraft with multiple personnel on board was inadvertently shot down by Syrian regime anti-aircraft artillery on Monday after the Syrians came under attack by Israeli missiles, according to a US official with knowledge of the incident.”

The incident happened during an Israeli air strike in Syria being conducted by four F-16s according to CNN and other media outlets. The alleged Israeli strikes were reported to have hit multiple targets in the Syrian province of Latakia.

Photos that appear to show anti-aircraft missiles being launched appeared on Twitter and in Arab media. (Photo: Via Twitter)

The Russians media outlets mentioned the proximity of four Israeli F-16s involved in an air strike on Syrian targets in the province of Latakia, western Syria, when the Il-20 disappeared. No other reports have attributed the loss of the Russian Il-20 to the Israeli Air Force or the four Israeli F-16s reported to be operating in the area at the time. A report in Israeli media outlet Haaretz said only, “Unusual strikes attributed to Israel by Arab media: Missiles hit area near Russian military base injuring 10; Syrian military source says some [missiles] were intercepted.” The Israeli media went on to report that, “The attack near Latakia is especially unusual because the port city is located near a Russian military base, the Khmeimim Air Force base. The base is home to Russian jet planes and an S-400 aerial defense system. According to Arab media reports, Israel has rarely struck that area since the Russians arrived there.”

A conflicting war of words has emerged on Twitter about the incident. (Photo: Via Twitter)

Israeli media has said the missing Russian aircraft was “35 kilometers (20 miles) from the Syrian coastline” but attributed their report back to Russian sources. One Israeli press report also mentioned the proximity of the French missile frigate Auvergne to the area.

The Russian Defense Ministry was also quoted as releasing that, “At the same time, the Russian radars fixed missile launches from the French frigate Auvergne, which was in that area”

This is the fifth Russian aircraft reported lost in operations near Syria in 2018. A total of 58 personnel have been lost in Russian aircraft over Syria so far this year.

Dealing with the aircraft, this is how The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti described the Il-20 when it first appeared in the Syrian theater of operations in 2015:

The Il-20 is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing, the aircraft is Russian Air Force’s premiere spyplane.

Russian Il-20s regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic region, flying in international airspace with its transponder turned off; a standard practice for almost all ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. However, at least twice in the last couple of years Russian Coot spyplanes flying close to civilian airports or congested airways were involved in “air proximity” incidents: in March 2014, a SAS Boeing 737 with 132 people almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden; in December 2014, a Canadair CRJ-200 from Cimber Airlines was involved in a near collision with an Il-20 halfway between Ystad, Sweden and Sassnitz, Germany.

In Syria, the aircraft will probably perform intelligence gathering missions, eavesdropping into IS militants communications, detecting their systems’ emissions to build an Electronic Order of Battle of ISIS in the region,  and pinpointing their positions. And, as happened in northern Europe, unless their missions are coordinated, there is the risk of a close encounter with a US-led coalition aircraft involved in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Update Sept. 18, 09.00 GMT

According to the Russian MoD the Il-20M was shot down by Syrian S-200 battery after the Israeli Air Force F-16s used the spyplane as cover. It claims IAF jets dropped GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs) to attack their targets. The wreckage of the downed aircraft was reportedly located about 30 km west of Banias, Syria.

Picture of airspace over the eastern Med Sea and Syria in the night of Sept. 17, released by the Russian MoD after the downing of the Il-20M.

Update Sept. 18, 12.00 GMT

Here’s the official Israeli stance on the entire episode. According to the IDF spokesperson, the F-16s were already in Israeli airspace when the Il-20 was shot down, anyway, “Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian Government to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”

Top image: FAF via Wiki

The Royal Saudi Air Force Has Prepared A Series Of Special Color Jets For The Kingdom’s 88th National Day Celebrations

The photographs of the special colored Tornado, Typhoon, F-15S, F-15C and MRTT have already emerged.

On Sept. 23, Saudi Arabia will celebrate the 88th Saudi National Day. As part of the celebrations, five special colored aircraft (an F-15C belonging to the 13th Sqn; an F-15S from the 92nd Sqn; a Tornado from the 7th Sqn; a Eurofighter Typhoon from the 10th Sqn; and a MRTT belongign to the 24th Sqn) will perform flyovers alongside the Saudi Hawks display team in three cities Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhahran.

Our friend  has shared with us some previews of the special painted aircraft.

Here they are:

The F-15S belonging to the 92nd Sqn.

The F-15C from the 13th Sqn.

The Tornado IDS form the 7th Sqn.

The Eurofighter Typhoon from the 10th Sqn.

The image of the specially painted A330 MRTT was shared on Twitter:

All the RSAF involved in the flyovers have taken part in the air strikes in Yemen, as part of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, started on Mar. 26 2015.

Interestingly, the F-15SA, the most advanced production Eagle ever produced, derived from the F-15E Strike Eagle, was not given a special color scheme and won’t take part in the celebrations (at least not as part of the 88th National Day formation). The “SA” are equipped with the APG-63V3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a digital glass cockpit, JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mouted Cueing System), Digital Electronic Warfare System/Common Missile Warning System (DEWS/CMWS), IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) system, and able to carry a wide array of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry, including the AIM-120C7 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) and the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, the AGM-84 SLAM-ERs, the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) and the GBU-39 SDBs (Small Diameter Bombs) on 11 external hardpoints.

The RSAF has received its first of 84 F-15SA at King Khalid Air Base (KKAB) in Saudi Arabia via RAF Lakenheath, on Dec. 13, 2016.

 

NORAD Released A Photo Of A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor Shadowing A Russian Tu-95MS Bear Bomber During Intercept Off Alaska

This time the Bear bombers were escorted by Su-35 jets.

On Sept. 11, at approximately 10 PM EDT, two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jets “positively identified and intercepted two Russian Tu-95MS A“Bear-H” bombers west of Alaska.

Nothing special then, considered that a similar intercept had occurred on Sept. 1. However, this time the Russian bombers, flying in international airspace but inside the Alaskan ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) – a special zone, that can extend well beyond a country’s territory where aircraft without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and VID (Visual Identification) by fighter aircraft – were accompanied by two Russian Su-35 “Flanker” fighter jets.

F-22s are among the aircraft in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) scrambled by NORAD in support of Operation Noble Eagle, launched in the aftermath of 9/11 to prevent a recurrence of Sept. 11, 2001-style air attacks in U.S. and Canada.

This is not the first time some Flanker jets operate alongside the Russian bombers on their long range sorties. Indeed, this is what this Author wrote commenting the previous intercept earlier this month:

Such close encounters are quite frequent and may also involve fighters, as happened in 2017, when the Bears were escorted by two Su-35S Flanker-E jets, and an A-50 AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft. Anyway, this is the second time that Russian Bears pay a visit to the Alaskan ADIZ: on May 12, 2018, two F-22s were launched to perform a VID and escort two Tu-95 on a similar mission in the Northern Pacific.

In fact, in May 2017, a “mini-package” of two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95MS Bear bombers escorted by two Su-35S Flanker-E jets and supported by an A-50 Mainstay flew inside the Alaskan ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), and was intercepted by two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors some 50 NM to the south of Chariot, Alaska.

Here’s what we wrote back then:

The Su-35 is a 4++ generation aircraft characterized by supermaneuverability. Although it’s not stealth, it is equipped with a Irbis-E PESA (Passive Electronically-Scanned Array) and a long-range IRST – Infrared Search and Tracking – system capable, (according to Russian sources…) to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers.

[…]

In my opinion the “mini package” was launched as a consequence of the increased flight activity in Alaska related to the Northern Edge exercise, confirming that the Russians closely observe what happens in the Alaskan area.

This time, they wanted to showcase their ability to plan a complex long-range sortie as well as the Flanker’s readiness to escort its own HVA (high value asset), the Bear, during operations at strategic distance.

The composition of this package is also worth a comment.

The presence of the Mainstay should not be underestimated. It was flying well behind the Flanker and Bear aircraft with a specific purpose. As an AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platform the A-50 is believed to embed some ESM (Electronic Support Measures): in other words, it is able to detect far away targets as well as able to sniff radar, radio and data link emissions. Furthermore, Raptors in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) *usually* fly with external fuel tanks and Luneburg lenses: this means that they are (consciously) visible to radars. In such conditions, although it can’t “characterize” the clean F-22’s signature, the Mainstay can at least gather some data about the interceptors’ radar emissions (if any) and observe and study their tactics.

Therefore, as frequently happens on both sides since the Cold War, on May 3, the Russians most probably carried out another simulated long-range strike mission but with a precise ELINT (ELectronics INTelligence) objective: the Flankers and Bears were acting as a “decoy” package to test the American scramble tactics and reaction times, whereas the Mainstay, in a back position, tried to collect as much signals and data as possible about the US fighters launched to intercept them.

General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the NORAD Commander, commented the latest event in a public release as follows: “The homeland is no longer a sanctuary and the ability to deter and defeat threats to our citizens, vital infrastructure, and national institutions starts with successfully detecting, tracking, and positively identifying aircraft of interest approaching U.S. and Canadian airspace. NORAD employs a layered defense network of radars, satellites, as well as fighters to identify aircraft and determine the appropriate response.”

Top image credit: U.S. Air Force

Let’s Have A Look At The Loadout Of The Two U.S. Air Force F-16s That Reportedly Operated Off Libya Last Saturday

Looks like two F-16s from Aviano were involved in a somehow “mysterious” mission over the Mediterranean Sea during last weekend.

As the overnight trilateral strike on Syria on Apr. 13 and 14 has proved, an OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) analysis based on flight tracking websites ADS-B, Mode-S and MLAT and other information shared via social media, may provide a clear “picture” of the air asset involved in a raid as the operation unfolds and well before the involvement of this or that asset is officially confirmed.

Every day, aviation enthusiasts,  journalists and, generally speaking, anyone who has an Internet connection a computer, laptop or smartphone, can track flights in real-time via information in the public domain.

As happened on Saturday Sept. 8, 2018 when most of the flight tracking experts noticed something weird off the coasts of Northern Africa: an “eye catching” gathering of aircraft.

If the constant presence of an RQ-4 Global Hawk, an EP-3E ARIES II or another spyplane in the southern or eastern Med Sea is something normal considered the ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions flown in the region since 2011, the presence of a pair of F-16s from Aviano Air Base (supported by one or two KC-135 tankers) off Libya (at least based on the position of the accompanying aerial refueler) is something really unusual. Moreover, the 31st FW’s jets rarely fly on weekends if they are not deploying somewhere or returning from a deployment. And, above all, they don’t carry Live armament, unless they are involved in real combat operations.

KC-135 QID564 on final for landing at Aviano.

On Sept. 8, two F-16s belonging to the 555th Fighter Squadron/31st FW launched from Aviano, reportedly operated off Libya, where they were supported by KC-135R tankers with the 100th ARW from RAF Mildenhall, and then returned home.

As the photographs in this post (taken outside Aviano on that day by photographer Claudio Tramontin) show, the Vipers carried 3x AIM-120C AMRAAM and 1x AIM-9X air-to-air missiles (AAMs), 2x GBU-54 500-lb laser-guided JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions along with external fuel tanks, a AN/ALQ-131 ECM pod as well as the Sniper ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod): a configuration that gave the F-16s the ability to perform DCA (Defensive Counter Air) with AAMs as well as engage (moving) ground targets with precision and minimal collateral damage. Pilots worn the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Sight).

The two F-16s returning to Aviano AB with their load of aam and JDAMs.

While the purpose of their mission is unknown (we can speculate they were “on call” or supporting other assets or after a target that eventually did not show up or could not be attacked, etc) what is sure is that they did not use any of their ordnance: the aircraft returned to Aviano with all the weapons they had on departure.

One of the two F-16s involved in the rather unusual mission on Sat. 8, 2018. All images credit: Claudio Tramontin.

The situation in Libya has dramatically deteriorated in recent weeks, due to heavy clashes in Tripoli. A rocket attack on Mitiga International Airport (reopened on Friday Sept. 7, following clashes between rival militias caused, flights to the Libya capital to be diverted on Tuesday.