Category Archives: Afghanistan

EQ-4 Global Hawk Drone Deployed to UAE with a Battlefield Airborne Communications 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.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that the original story refers to BACN as “Battlefield Communication Airfield Node”.

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)

 

12 U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II Deployed To Afghanistan To Join Air Campaign Against Taliban

After 3 years, the “Warthog” returns to Afghanistan.

A dozen A-10C Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft have arrived at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on Jan. 19 to bolster (USFOR-A) and Afghan National Defense and Security Force’s (ANDSF) air campaign against the Taliban.

The aircraft belong to the 303rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and arrived in Afghanistan via Al Udeid, Qatar. The aircraft were originally headed for Incirlik, in Turkey, to join the fight on ISIS, but the Pentagon decided to “divert” the A-10s to Afghanistan, to support the increased need for close air support and precision strike capacity against Taliban and their revenue sources.

According to an official release, “the arrival of these aircraft follows a recent decision by U.S. Air Forces Central Command to realign aircraft, airmen, and assets already in the U.S. Central Command AOR to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, to support increased airpower requirements of ANDSF and USFOR-A to implement South Asia Policy under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Along with a detachment of KC-135 Stratotankers that have operated from Kandahar since September, the A-10s, MQ-9s and HH-60G will complement F-16s, C-130J, EC-130H and other aircraft supporting these operations from Bagram Airfield.

These increased assets will assist with the ongoing ANDSF strategic air campaign that targets Taliban revenue sources of which are aimed at aggressively taking the fight to the Taliban.”

Along with the Thunderbolt squadron, additional aircraft will be moved to Kandahar Airfield, including MQ-9 Reapers that provide armed over-watch and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield, and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, to conduct personnel recovery and search and rescue.

Commonly known as the Warthog, the A-10 will be launched in air strikes against Taliban narcotics production facility. According to the U.S. Air Force, since November, 30 strikes conducted against Taliban narcotics production facilities resulted more than $20 million in total impact on Taliban revenue.

With a relatively low-cost platform much closer to these targets than the Raptors supporting Operation Inherent Resolve from the Persian Gulf, such anti-drug air strikes will also be more cost-effective: on Nov. 20, F-22 Raptors forward deployed to at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, and supported by KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, also based at Al Dhafra Air Base, launched their first air strikes in Afghanistan employing small diameter bombs to hit plantations of poppy (processed into illegal opiate drugs such as heroin) in Helmand Province.

Under the authorities granted in the South Asia Policy, precision strikes with A-10s will hit the Taliban where they are most vulnerable: their revenue streams and profits from developing and selling illegal narcotics.

“The A-10 provides planners even more options given its ability to deliver a wide variety of precision munitions and devastating firepower from its 30mm cannon,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Lance Bunch, chief, Future Operations, CJ35. “In the coming weeks, the A-10’s operations will be integrated into our combined U.S. and Afghan air campaign to deliver destructive precision firepower that sends a strong impactful message to the Taliban.”

By the way, whereas it continues to rely on the A-10 to perform CAS in Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force is letting the Thunderbolt die by shelving plans to replace the remaining wings on the rest of its A-10C fleet.

The U.S. A-10s will be complemented by the Afghan Air Force (AAF) assets, that will more than double their fleet of aircraft over the next seven years: besides the introduction of A-29 ground attack aircraft, C-208 and C-130 mobility aircraft, MD-530, and Mi-17 helicopters last year, plans include the introduction of AC-208 attack aircraft and UH- 60 Black Hawk assault helicopters, as well as additional A-29 attack aircraft and MD- 530 attack helicopters.

“The growing Afghan Air Force is vital to the success of ANDSF on the battlefield,” said Major General Mohammad Shoaib, commander, AAF. “Dedicated pilots and crews provide resupply, close air attack, casualty evacuation, and air assault capabilities to their brothers on the ground. The success of the Air Force is key to tipping the battlefield in favor of ANDSF. The Afghan Air Force is successfully fighting and growing at the same time increasing attack capabilities while delivering daily blows to the Taliban.”

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.

 

Close Air Support Debate: We Go Inside an AC-130 to See if the Gunship is Still Relevant

The AC-130 Spectre Gunship Still Plays a Critical Role in America’s Close Air Support Capability.

It is large, slow and vulnerable to air defense systems including increasingly effective man-portable SAMs. It can also deliver withering fire support with an impressive degree of accuracy and an ever-expanding variety of munitions if the battlespace is permissive enough. It’s the AC-130 Spectre gunship.

But is the large, slow gunship still relevant?

With the role of the A-10 in question, the emergence of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the recent Light Attack Experiment and even armed, remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) the question becomes: where does the AC-130 Spectre gunship fit into the mix of assets in the Air Force order of battle?

The term “gunship” entered the air combat vocabulary mostly during the Vietnam war with Project Tailchaser, the experimental test of a minigun-equipped twin-engine Convair C-131B turboprop cargo plane carrying a single GAU-2/A minigun. The GAU-2A minigun is a belt-fed, multi-barrel Gatling gun that can sustain a very high rate of fire without overheating its multiple gun barrels.

Interestingly, the development of the gunship concept in the early 1960s could be considered roughly analogous to today’s modern Light Attack Experiment. Gunship development in the early days of the Vietnam conflict used entirely off-the-shelf equipment and aircraft. Gunships were developed to fill a need resulting from asymmetrical guerilla warfare fought by a largely insurgent adversary. Both of these attributes are present in the Light Attack Experiment.

The Project Tailchaser experiment led to the famous AC-47 gunships used in Vietnam. These are largely regarded as the first modern “gunships”.

Using the call sign “Puff” for Puff the Magic Dragon, the AC-47 was used in combat for the first time on Dec. 15, 1964. Because of its success, the AC-47 was soon joined over Vietnam by the AC-119G Shadow and AC-119K Stinger gunships. The AC-119K Stinger has the distinction of being the only combined turboprop and jet powered gunship with the addition of a pair of underwing-mounted General Electric J-85 jet engines. Following the success of these gunship platforms the AC-130A Project Gunship II was developed in 1967 at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio and deployed to Vietnam soon after.

The unusual AC-119K Stinger gunship used a combination of propellers and jet engines. (Photo: USAF via Wikipedia)

Prior to the Vietnam conflict there had been several experiments with aircraft modified to carry multiple guns for both air-to-ground and air-to-air targets. These included versions of the B-25 Mitchell with up to eight cannons mounted in a solid nose for ground attack and an experimental B-17 Flying Fortress converted to an air-to-air gunship called the YB-40. The YB-40 gunship actually flew 48 operational missions over Germany in WWII. It was armed with 18 Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns for protection of bomber formations from fighter attack. The YB-40 could accompany the bomber formation during the entire mission when fuel restrictions meant single engine fighter planes such as the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt could not escort the bombers for the entire mission.

An indication that gunships have maintained their relevance even in the modern tactical airspace alongside RPAs, A-10 Thunderbolt II jets and the F-35 joint strike fighter is the use of the gunship in private militaries. Author Robert Pelton chronicled an apparently successful experiment by private military contracting pioneer Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, Inc. (renamed “Xe” in 2009 and now known as “Academi”). According to Young’s account, Prince used the CASA 212 twin-engine turboprop with two A12 .50 caliber machine guns capable of 4,200 rounds per minute sustained rate of fire. Young wrote, “Seventy bullets per second creates a steady stream of red tracer fire that with depleted uranium shells can easily turn armored vehicles into Swiss cheese.” Prince has gone on to propose additional private military gunship assets to prospective clients with no news about any takers on his proposals.

The vulnerability of the gunship was underscored in the early morning of Jan. 31, 1991 over Khafji, Iraq during Operation Desert Storm: an AC-130H Spectre gunship from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, callsign “Spirit 03”, was supporting U.S. Marines during the Battle of Khafji. The Marines had called for an air strike on an Iraqi “missile battery”. There were three AC-130H Spectre gunships on station that night in support of the U.S. Marine operation in Khafji. But as sunrise approached the AC-130H gunships would become increasingly vulnerable to visual acquisition from ground gunners and missile crews as twilight appeared. As sunlight became visible over the horizon the AC-130H successfully struck the targets designated by the U.S. Marines. But minutes later an Iraqi SA-7 “Grail” man-portable surface-to-air missile hit the last remaining AC-130H, “Spirit 03”. Although the aircraft survived the initial hit from the SA-7 and managed to fly out over water, the plane and its entire 14-man crew were lost. The incident underscored the vulnerability of the large, relatively low altitude, slow-moving gunship to modern man-portable anti-aircraft weapons.

Gunship operations continued in the most recent years of the Global War on Terror, but one of their latest operational uses underscored the need for enhanced ground intelligence and gunship integration. On Oct. 3, 2015, an AC-130U gunship launched a precision air strike on a target in Kunduz, Afghanistan at the Kunduz Trauma Center. The target was thought to be harboring Taliban militants. During the 30-minute airstrike the international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières said that, “at least 42 people were killed and over 30 were injured”. The organization claimed that many of the casualties were non-combatants. While the incident was disastrous from a political and humanitarian perspective, it underscored the lethal effectiveness of the AC-130 gunship platform.

There are very few details about the gunship operations in Iraq. Among the things that we know is that two AC-130s along with some A-10 Warthogs were involved in a quite famous airstrike during which 116 ISIS-controlled fuel trucks were destroyed near Abu Kamal, Syria, on Nov. 15, 2015 as part of the coalition’s Operation Tidal Wave II.

Today the gunship legacy continues with the September 2017 delivery of the first six AC-130J Ghostrider gunships, the latest and most advanced version of the AC-130. The new AC-130J is a massive upgrade over previous versions: according to Air Force Times writer Stephen Losey, “The most heavily-armed gunship in history, bristling with 30mm and 105mm cannons, AGM-176A Griffin missiles, and the ability to carry Hellfire missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs.”

Stephen Losey also reports in an October 2016 article in the “Air Force Times” that the performance of the new AC-130J Ghostrider is greatly enhanced over previous AC-130 versions. “It’s lighter, faster and more efficient.” Losey quoted USAF Maj. Jarrod Beers, a weapons system officer on the new AC-130J. According to Losey, Maj. Beers told him, “[It] burns 25 to 30 percent less gas than legacy aircraft. It flies at a top speed of about 362 knots, or 416 miles per hour – well above the roughly 300 mph top speed of the AC-130U. The AC-130J can fly a maximum range of 3,000 miles and up to 28,000 feet in the air – about twice as far, and roughly 3,000 feet higher than the AC-130U.”

Tech. Sgt. Jarred Huseman, left, and Tech. Sgt. Oscar Garcia, special missions aviators with the 1st Special Operations Group, Detachment 2, operate a 105 mm cannon on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, “Angry Annie,” during a training mission over Eglin Range, Fla., Jan. 23, 2017. The 105 mm cannon recoils back 49 inches, with 14,000 pounds of force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jeff Parkinson)

There is even discussion of installing a laser weapon on the AC-130U. An April 2017 report in “National Defense” by reporter Yasmin Tadjdeh said that the Air Force is going to test “streamlined electrical lasers” as opposed to heavy chemical lasers for use onboard the AC-130U. The primary challenges remaining are insulation from airframe vibration and turbulence to maintain a suitably focused beam. But when you consider advances in commercial optical stabilization in everything from GoPro camera mounts to long telephoto lenses on still and video cameras, this problem will be rapidly solved for laser weapon use onboard the AC-130U. In testing, the laser weapon would replace the current location of the 30mm gun and add the installation of a special clear optical “window” the laser could shoot through to eliminate movement of the weapon from the boundary layer of air entering the fuselage.

Future AC-130s may be equipped with stabilized laser weapons. (Photo: USAF)

Although there is no current (unclassified) plan to install a laser weapon operationally on the AC-130U Ghostrider, that is subject to change pending the outcome of the weapon evaluation. But one thing that is absolutely guaranteed, especially according to AC-130 gunship crews we spoke to at the Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo 2017 at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The heavy gunship is not going away anytime soon, even with the integration of new strike assets like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, remotely piloted aircraft and evaluation programs like the Light Attack Experiment. The heavy gunship will remain relevant, increasingly lethal but significantly less vulnerable for many years to come.

NATO Special Operations Command: Taliban “Red Unit” Commander Killed in Air Strike. Here’s The Video.

Air Strike Hits Vehicle of Taliban Commander in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

The NATO Special Operations Component Command, Afghanistan has announced that the Taliban “Red Unit” (special operations) commander in Helmand province, Mullah Shah Wali, alias “Haji Nasir”, was killed in a coalition air strike in Musa Qal’ah, Helmand on Dec. 1, 2017. One of Wali’s deputy commanders and three other insurgents were also killed in the strike.

The insurgent vehicle Wali was riding in was hit by what appears to be a single air-delivered weapon while moving at speed across open country. Although no information about the platform or weapon used in the strike was released, it is likely a precision guided weapon employed either from a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or a manned combat aircraft possibly loitering at a distance while a remote asset such as an RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) or other aircraft provided target designation and terminal guidance.

As commander of the Taliban “Red Unit”, a high-level intelligence and planning cell within the insurgent hierarchy, Mullah Shah Wali planned suicide bombings, IED attacks and special operations assaults according to a news release attributed to the Afghan Intelligence Service and quoted in “The Hill”, a Washington D.C. based news outlet. He was also “directly responsible” for coordinating operations and resupply of munitions, explosives and materials for the Taliban throughout Helmand province, where the Taliban runs opium cultivation operations to provide funding for terrorist operations. An Afghan Army special forces commander told media the terrorist “Red Unit” uses “advanced weaponry, including night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and US-made assault rifles.”

U.S. Army General John Nicholson, Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and commanding officer for the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan since March, 2016, told media the strike will, “disrupt the Taliban network, degrade their narcotics trafficking, and hinder their ability to conduct attacks against Afghan forces.”

While the strike on Mullah Shah Wali and the other ranking members of the so-called Taliban “Red Unit” is likely significant during the short-term in the region, the insurgent leadership has proven they can adapt to leadership losses in the past and maintain their tempo of operations. According to data compiled and reported by FDD’s Long War Journal, the Taliban currently still control “six of the [Helmand] province’s fourteen districts”.