Category Archives: Rogue States

U.S. Marine Corps Planning F-35B Deployment to CENTCOM Area Of Responsibility To Get “First Taste Of Combat” In 2018

The USMC may have their “baptism of fire” with the F-35B next year.

The F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Lightning II 5th generation aircraft is expected to deploy to the Pacific and Central Command theaters in 2018, the Marine Corps Times reported.

According to Jeff Schogol, the F-35B, that can operate from amphibious assault ships, “is expected to deploy with two Marine expeditionary units to the Pacific and Central Command theaters in the spring and summer. […]  The first deployment will be with the 31st MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp and the second will be with the 13th MEU aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex, said spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns.”

The first deployment to the U.S. Central Command AOR (area of responsibility) – that includes Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan – has long been anticipated. In 2016, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told reporters that the service was planning to deploy the F-35B to the CENTCOM area of operations aboard the USS Essex (six more F-35Bs were to deploy to the Pacific aboard the USS Wasp).

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.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 departs Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Sept. 18, 2017. The F-35B Lightning II aircraft joined United States Air Force, Japan and Republic of Korea Air Force aircraft in a sequenced bilateral show of force over the Korean peninsula. This show-of-force mission demonstrated sequenced bilateral cooperation, which is essential to defending U.S. allies, partners and the U.S. homeland against any regional threat. Note the AIM-120 barely visible inside the weapons bay (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Aaron Henson)

As already reported, the F-35s would be probably involved in the Phase 4 of an eventual pre-emptive air strike on Pyongyang, the phase during which tactical assets would be called to hunt road-mobile ballistic missiles and any other artillery target that North Korea could use to launch a retaliatory attack (even a nuclear one) against Seoul.

Moreover, during the opening stages of an air war, the F-35Bs would be able to act as real-time data coordinators able to correlate and disseminate information gathered from their on board sensors to other assets contributing to achieve the “Information Superiority” required to geo-locate the threats and target them effectively.

Considered that Marine aviation officials have said that up to half of the current F/A-18 Hornets are not ready for combat, the deployment to the CENTCOM AOR a key step in the long-term plan to replace the legacy F/A-18 Hornet, EA-6B Prowler, and AV-8B Harrier fleets with a total of 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs by 2032.

Touchdown imminent during “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016. (Todd Miller)

In October 2016, a contingent of 12 F-35Bs took part in Developmental Test III aboard USS America followed by the Lightning Carrier “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the carrier on Nov. 19, 2016. During the POC, the aircraft proved it can operate at-sea, employing a wide array of weapons loadouts with the newest software variant and some of the most experienced F-35B pilots said that “the platform is performing exceptionally.” The eventual participation in a real operation such as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) over Syria and Iraq, albeit rather symbolic, will also be the first opportunity  to assess the capabilities of the platform in real combat. As for the Israeli F-35s, the airspace over the Middle East (or Central Asia) could be a test bed for validating the tactical procedures to be used by the new aircraft in the CAS (Close Air Support) mission with added Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) and Command & Control (C2) capability.
If committed to support OIR, the F-35B will probably operate in a “first day of war” configuration carrying weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability from sensors playing both the “combat battlefield coordinators” role, collecting, managing and distributing intelligence data, and the “kinetic attack platform” role, dropping their ordnance on the targets and passing targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft via Link-16. More or less what done by the USMC F-35Bs during Red Flag 17-3 earlier in 2017; but next year it will be for the real thing.

Top image credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Becky Calhoun

DPRK Situation Report: North Korea Prepares New HS-15 Orbital Launch, Tests Anthrax Weapon on ICBM Amid Officer Disappearances.

Western Media Has Been Quiet About North Korea This Week, But North Korea Has Not Been Quiet And Prepares New Tests.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, populated headlines in the west and especially the United States for several weeks until recent, sensational domestic events replaced concerns over Pyongyang’s weapons programs and rhetorical threats. But the news from North Korea has become no less significant even though western media has momentarily shifted its attention away from the DPRK.

Orbital Launch of HS-15 ICBM Over Japan Possible.

The most recent intelligence gleaned from open sources suggests the DPRK may be preparing to launch its new HS-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) two-stage missile to put a satellite into orbit soon. The Hwasong-15, or “HS-15”, was first confirmed flight-worthy on Nov. 29, 2017. During that test launch the missile flew a high trajectory flight profile reaching 4,475 kilometers in altitude and landing in the ocean 950 kilometers from its launch site off the Korean coast between Japan and Korea. This new suggestion of an orbital attempt is significant since, if an object were boosted into orbit atop an HS-15, it would overfly Japan and likely parts of the U.S. during its orbit. The potential payload for a possible orbital launch has not been revealed by North Korea or U.S. intelligence sources.

Hwasong-15 on its mobile launch platform prior to November test launch. (Photo: 38North)

Anthrax on ICBM could reach U.S.

A media report released Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 revealed that North Korea was conducting testing on a biological weaponized anthrax warhead for its long-range ICBM program. The report follows the first successful test launch of North Korea’s new longest range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15 on Nov. 29, 2017.

This development is significant since some western analysts diminished the significance of the successful Hwasong-15 long-range ICBM launch test by suggesting the missile could not carry a large enough warhead to significantly threaten the U.S. Analysts said that North Korea could not develop miniature nuclear warheads for Hwasong-15. If those analysts are correct the diminished threat of nuclear attack by long range ICBMs may now shift to include biological attack by ICBM.

The news of the tests was published in the Japanese Asahi newspaper and attributed to a secret South Korean intelligence source. “North Korea has started experiments such as heat and pressure equipment to prevent anthrax from dying even at a high temperature of over 7,000 degrees generated at the time of ICBM’s re-entry into the atmosphere,” the report said. “In part, there is unconfirmed information that it has already succeeded in such experiments.”

Last week, the White House echoed the Japanese reports when it released its U.S. National Security Strategy saying that North Korea is “pursuing chemical and biological weapons which could also be delivered by missile.”

Japanese media reports voice continued concern over North Korean weapons proliferation, most recently, this report about biological weapons on ICBMs. (Photo: AsahiNews)

North Korean Leadership Disappearances.

An examination of North Korean events suggests that the disappearance of top officials often pre-dates significant events in the country. Two top generals have disappeared in North Korea recently.

A high-ranking North Korean official named Park In Young was purged and executed following delays and now reported problems with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Mr. Young was reported to be director of North Korea’s Bureau 131, the part of the Central Committee that oversees the nuclear test facility and Punggye-ri, North Korea. Mr. Young also oversaw operations at the Sohae Satellite Lauching Station according to reports that originated from a recent North Korean defector.

Some reports suggest multiple catastrophic problems at North Korea’s nuclear test facilities, including landslides and earthquakes resulting from underground nuclear tests. One report cited “200 dead” in a landslide following an underground test.

A week before the reported disappearance of Park In Young another high-ranking North Korean military official, General Hwang Pyong-so, also disappeared. General Hwang Pyong-so was the Vice-Marshall of the Korean People’s Army. He also held a political post as Vice-Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.

Few news reports, official or otherwise, have reported on the specific locations or activities of the two high-ranking officials since their disappearances. A Dec. 17 report in Newsweek magazine said that Mr. Park In Young, the former nuclear boss, had been “executed”. Possibilities range from official sanction and banishment from government office to even punishment as severe as prison or execution.

Failures in nuclear testing may have led to the sanctioning and even execution of top North Korean officials according to media reports. (Photo: 38 North)

Submarine Launched Missile Test Advances.

Satellite imagery from commercial intelligence gathering satellites has shown consistent activity at the Nampo Navy Shipyard in North Korea. Photos taken from orbit on Nov. 11, 16 and 24 and reported on the website 38 North show a second submersible ballistic missile test stand. The underwater stands are used to test submarine launched ballistic missiles.

Specifically, the two submerged barges are reported to support the testing and development of the Pukguksong-1 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) as well as the new SINPO-Class ballistic missile submarine.

Accidental Engagement: The Greatest Threat.

Despite threatening rhetoric from both North Korea and the U.S. many analysts still suggest the most likely solution to the North Korean problem will be diplomatic. Considering the cost of life and the potential damage to the global economy most reasoning suggests neither the U.S. or North Korea has much to gain from initiating military aggressions.

Even with sensational saber-rattling both countries likely understand the cost of an armed conflict and the lack of strategic benefit from a war. However, with the U.S. and Japan both maintaining a high state of readiness and bolstering forces in the region and North Korea expands its test and development activity the chances of an accidental engagement at sea or in the air likely pose the greatest threat to further destabilizing the region and touching off a larger conflict. If forces in the region can maintain their readiness while avoiding an unintentional engagement the diplomatic solution may continue to develop against this volatile background.

North Korea continues weapons development and testing despite risks of accidental conflict and diplomatic instability in the region. (Photo: 38 North)

Top image: The new long-range Hwasong-15 during its first November 29 launch test. (Photo: 38North)

The Impressive Chinese AG600 Maritime Patrol Flying Boat Makes First Flight in Zhuhai, China.

It’s the second largest amphibious aircraft in the world after the Beriev A-40. Mission Includes Maritime Security, Search and Rescue and Firefighting.

The impressive AVIC AG600 long-range maritime security and patrol amphibious aircraf made its first flight from land at the Jinwan Civil Aviation Airport in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China on Dec. 24, 2017. The large, four-engine turboprop aircraft, with a wingspan of 127-feet, flew for about one-hour according to Chinese state media. It is comparable in size the jet-powered twin-engine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft but adds the capability to land and take off in the open ocean, even in relatively heavy seas. The take-off was broadcast live on television in China. The aircraft returned to significant fanfare including planned celebrations to publicize the event.

The AG600 continues the long history of flying boats in the Asian region. (All photos: Xinhuanet)

Large, long range “flying boat” amphibious aircraft have a history of utility and success in the region, with Japan often leading the way with flying boat designs since WWII and continuing into modern aviation with their recent large, four-engine ShinMaywa US-2 and previous flying boat, the Shin Meiwa US-1A maritime patrol aircraft. Because of the region’s dependence on maritime trade and territorial disputes over small islands, the role of these aircraft has become particularly relevant. In civilian culture the aircraft and their crews take on mystic relevance because of their guardianship of sailors at sea and their ability to swoop down from the sky and save doomed men adrift in the open ocean.

China’s, Xinhua news agency broadcast that the aircraft was the “protector spirit of the sea, islands and reefs,” attesting to its security role along with an increasing environmental surveillance role to protect endangered reef areas from poaching of sharks and pollution.

The aircraft can also fill large onboard water tanks when floating on surface for fighting fires both onboard ships and on land. The aircraft can fill its onboard firefighting tanks with 12-tons of water in only 20 seconds.

The AG600’s chief designer, state aviation engineer Huang Lingcai, was quoted in the official China Daily earlier this month as saying the aircraft can make round trips without refueling from the southern island province of Hainan to James Shoal, a disputed area claimed by China but located close to Sarawak in Malaysia.

There are currently 17 outstanding orders for the AG600 from Chinese government departments and Chinese companies. Long un-refueled operating range and endurance is a key selling feature of the AG600, with a maximum flight range of 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tons. It can carry a large passenger and crew compliment of up to 50 personnel.

Russia’s Su-57 Stealth Fighter Completes Engine Upgrade and Continues Development Amid Business Concerns

Program Technically on Track, But Will Logistics and Finances Ground New Russian Superfighter?

Russia’s contribution to the 5th Generation of air combat super-fighters moved ahead tangibly in early December with the successful flight of the first Sukhoi Su-57 using its new, upgraded Izdeliye-30 turbofan engine.

The first successful test flight with an Su-57 using the new Izdeliye-30 took place on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The 17-minute test flight by Sukhoi chief test pilot Sergei Bogdan was launched from the M.M. Gromov flight test center, in Zhukovsky, Russia about 25 miles outside of Moscow.

The new engine replaces the former NPO Saturn Izdeliye 117, also referred to as the AL-41F1. These original Izdeliye 117s were reported to be underpowered for the Su-57s 55,116 pound reported take-off weight. The Izdeliye 117 was never meant as a permanent powerplant for the Su-57 and its use drew criticism, some of it unwarranted, from western analysts.

The developmental engines on the PAK-FA were a consistent source of criticism, especially following a sensational compressor stall incident at the MAKS 2011 airshow. (Photo: Rulexip via Wikipedia)

The new Izdeliye 30 engines increase the Su-57 thrust to 11,000 kg without afterburner and 19,000 kg in afterburner according to reports. The engines also have fewer components and resulting lower maintenance costs and reduced maintenance schedule. The engine is claimed to have better fuel economy. As with most modern Russian fighters, the Izdeliye 30 is a thrust-vectored engine and has supercruise capability, enabling the Su-57 to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburner achieving longer range and better fuel economy at high speeds. Claims for higher efficiency published by subject matter expert Piotr Bukowski suggest the new engines are “17 to 18 percent more efficient than the [older] 117 engines.” As Bukowski pointed out in his recently updated reference book on Russian aircraft, “Russia’s Warplanes, Volume 1”, there was no definition offered for the what the specifics of “more efficient” meant in terms of performance.

One area many analysts have missed in terms of advantages for the Su-57 is cost. The price tag of an Su-57 is quoted as approximately $54M USD. If accurate, those costs are roughly one-third to one half the cost of the two operational U.S. fifth generation fighters, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. Perhaps even more significantly, the Su-57 is also half the cost of China’s unusual looking J-20 Mighty Dragon 5th gen. fighter. China is also testing the J-31 Gyrfalcon, a 5th generation aircraft more intended for export than the Chinese point-defense J-20. Oddly, there do not appear to be any accurate published estimates of cost for the J-31, likely due in part to the degree of Chinese state subsidy of the program for any prospective buyers, a number influenced heavily by diplomatic and commercial relationships with China.

The first flight of the re-engined Su-57 in low overcast from December 5. (Photo: UAC Russia)

There has been a consistent populist trend of “bashing” or somehow diminishing the capability and progress of the Su-57/PAK FA program in western media. Most western criticism of the Su-57 program has been centered on the logistics of the program and its lack of commercial export success. While those factors are real, they miss the key insight that the Su-57 could emerge as a highly capable Gen 5 fighter platform at a third the cost of its contemporaries. This lower-cost business model for Su-57 could facilitate the historical Russian penchant for subverting quality to quantity on the battlefield. Not to suggest that the Su-57 is somehow inferior to other 5th gen aircraft, it may not be, but if the financial capability to field twice as many Su-57s as F-35s exists, this numerical superiority represents an interesting strategic argument for the new Russian combat aircraft.

Top image credit: Sukhoi

The Reason U.S. F-22 Stealth Jets and Russian Su-35S Flankers Are Shadow Boxing Over Syria May Have Nothing to Do with Syria

Are U.S. And Russia in Last-Minute Intelligence Grab Over Syria?

International news media has been crackling with reports of intercept incidents between U.S. and Russian combat aircraft along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) de-confliction line over Syria since late November. Two incidents, one on November 23 and another two days ago on December 13, made headlines in Russia and the U.S. with differing accounts of the incidents and the reasons they happened. We reported on the first one of these incidents here.

With the war on ISIS in Syria reportedly reaching its final phase according to many analysts, especially Russian, are these last few months of Russian/U.S. close proximity operations a rare opportunity for both parties to gather a significant amount of intelligence about each other’s’ capabilities? The answer is likely “yes”.

There are reportedly about 3,000 ISIS insurgents left in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) area according to intelligence reports, and it is possible those remaining insurgents may be purposely seeking refuge in this region because of the complex de-confliction requirements between U.S. and Russian air forces. These de-confliction requirements could compromise the response times of both sides to conduct effective air strikes against ISIS due to the risks of potentially unintentional conflict.

The encounters between Russian and U.S. aircraft over Syria are not new. “We saw anywhere from six to eight incidents daily in late November, where Russian or Syrian aircraft crossed into our airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River,” Lt. Col. Damien Pickart of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command told U.S. news outlet CNN on Saturday. “It’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots are deliberately testing or baiting us into reacting, or if these are just honest mistakes.”

Lt. Col. Pickart went on to tell news media, “The greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces.”

As the complex, multi-party proxy war over Syria appears to be winding down these final weeks provide what may be a last, great opportunity for a rich “intelligence grab” for both the U.S. and Russia about their newest aircraft’ capabilities when flying in controlled opposition to one another. Picture a “Red Flag” exercise where the “red air” element is actually “red”, albeit with live weapons and higher stakes.

ntelligence gathered by using the U.S. F-22 against the latest Russian SU-35s will likely be invaluable in assessing future tactics and understanding Russian capabilities. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

USAF Lt. Col. Pickart’s remarks about the Russians “deliberately testing or baiting us” are indicative of a force managing interactions to collect sensor, intelligence and capability “order of battle”. This intelligence is especially relevant from the current Syrian conflict as it affords both the Russians and the U.S. with the opportunity to operate their latest combat aircraft in close proximity to gauge their real-world sensor capabilities and tactical vulnerabilities, as well as learn doctrine. It is likely the incidents occurring now over Syria, and the intelligence gleaned from them, will be poured over in detail for years to come.

For instance, we have often explained how Raptors act as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” over Syria, providing escort to strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness. In fact, the F-22 pilot leverage advanced onboard sensors, as the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, to collect valuable details about the enemy, performing ELINT-like missions and then sharing the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

Moreover, as we have reported, it is well known that the U.S. has operated relatively current Russian aircraft photographed in air combat simulation training in the remote desert over Nevada. But those aircraft are at least an entire generation behind the current Russian aircraft flying over Syria in the final phase of the vigorous anti-ISIS Russian air operations.

Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 aircraft were photographed last year over the Nevada test ranges near where Lt. Col. Eric Schultz’s accident may have occurred. (Credit: Phil Drake)

The danger of these close-quarter Russian/U.S. shadow boxing matches is that one of them could accidentally “turn hot”. Since both sides are carrying live weapons the reliance on maintaining adherence to current Rules of Engagement (ROE) on both parties is critical.

Another risk is air-to-air collision.

New York Times reporter Eric Schmidt wrote about an incident in November when, “In one instance, two Air Force A-10 attack planes flying east of the Euphrates River nearly collided head-on with a Russian Su-24 Fencer just 300 feet away — a knife’s edge when all the planes were streaking at more than 350 miles per hour. The A-10s swerved to avoid the Russian aircraft, which was supposed to fly only west of the Euphrates.”

The risks of this new-age cold war over Syria going hot are likely worth it in terms of the intelligence being collected on both sides though. It is reasonable to suggest that, with the recent media attention to the incidents, the pressure to keep this cold war from getting hot are greater than ever.

Hopefully those pressures on both the Russian and the U.S. air forces will keep this new version of the cold war from boiling over.

Deployment of Russia’s latest SU-35 to Syria will give the Russians a wealth of information about how the aircraft performs against the U.S F-22 Raptor in the ongoing shadow-boxing between the two aircraft over the Middle Euphrates River Valley. (Photo: Sputnik)