The WC-135 Constant Phoenix has launched from RAF Mildenhall earlier today for a mission towards northern Europe and the Barents Sea. Interestingly, an RC-135W spyplane has launched from the same base on the same route. What’s their mission?
Whereas it was not the first time the Constant Phoenix visited the British airbase, the deployment to the UK amidst growing concern about an alleged spike in iodine levels recorded in northern Europe fueled speculations that the WC-135 might be tasked with investigating the reason behind the released Iodine-131.
In fact, along with monitoring nuclear weapons testing, the WC-135 can be used to track radioactive activity, as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011, by collecting particles and chemical substances in the atmosphere, days, weeks, or sometimes even month after they were dispersed.
The WC-135C (radio callsign “Flory 58”) was supported by two KC-135 tankers (“Quid 524” and “525”)suggesting it had just started a very long mission and somehow accompanied, along the same route, by an RC-135W (“Pulpy 81”) and another Stratotanker (“Quid 513”).
It’s hard to guess the type of mission this quite unusual “package” has embarked on: investigating the alleged iodine spike? Collecting intelligence on some Russian nuclear activity? Something else?
Hard to say.
For sure, once the aircraft reached Aberdeen, eastern Scotland, they turned off their transponder becoming invisible to the flight tracking websites such as Flightradar24.com or Global.adsbexchange.com that use ADS-B, Mode S and MLAT technologies to monitor flights: a sign they were going operational and didn’t want to be tracked online.
The USAF WC-135C Constant Phoenix might be investigating a spike in radioactive levels in Norway. Someone speculates the release of this radionuclide could be the effect of a Russian nuclear test.
On Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, using radio callsign “Cobra 55” deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK.
As we have already reported the WC-135 is a derivative of the Boeing C-135 transport and support plane. Two of these aircraft are in service today out of the ten examples operated since 1963. The aircraft are flown by flight crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base while mission crews are staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.
The WC-135, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel. However, crew compliments are kept to a minimum during mission flights in order to lessen levels of radioactive exposure.
Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.
Along with monitoring nuke testing, the WC-135 is used to track radioactive activity as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011.
One of these aircraft was deployed near North Korea in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches then was spotted transiting the UK airspace in August 2013 raising speculations it was used in Syria thanks to the ability to detect chemical substances down wind from the attack area days, or weeks after they were dispersed.
Although they cross the European airspace every now and then, their deployment in the Old Continent is somehow rare. As of yet, there has been no official statement from the U.S. military about the reasons why such nuclear research aircraft was deployed there. However, many sources suggest the aircraft was tasked with investigating the spike in Iodine levels detected in northern Europe since the beginning of January.
However, no one seems to know the reason behind the released Iodine-131. Along with nuclear power plants, the isotope is also widely used in medicine and its presence in the air could be the effect of several different incidents.
Or, as someone speculates, it could have been the side effect of a test of a new nuclear warhead in Russia: an unlikely (considered the ability to detect nuke tests through satellites and seismic detectors) violation of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Maybe the WC-135 will help authorities find out the origin of the Iodine-131.
The multirole aircraft features thrust-vectoring, radar-absorbent paint, Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array radar, IRST (Infra-Red Search and Track) and the said ability to detect stealth planes like the F-35 at a distance of over 90 kilometers (…), the Khibiny radar jamming system along with the ability to use some interesting weapons, including the ultra-long range R-37M air-to-air missile that could target HVAA (High Value Air Assets) such as AWACS and tanker aircraft.
A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
MiG-35 Demo is Both Product Debut and Contrast of Russian and Western Doctrine in the F-35 Era.
In a widely publicized event on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (MiG) parented by United Aircraft Corporation officially demonstrated the new MiG-35 to the Russian government. A subsequent demonstration for export customers was carried out today Jan. 27.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to have viewed the first demonstration via remote video due to poor weather in the region.
The new MiG-35 (NATO reporting name: “Fulcrum Foxtrot”) is a greatly upgraded aircraft based on the earlier MiG-29 airframe. Significant upgrades on the MiG-35 include a completely new fly-by-wire flight control system, vastly improved cockpit, substantially upgraded avionics and an overall design philosophy that provides an enhanced degree of operational autonomy on the MiG-35 compared to earlier Russian combat aircraft. The MiG-35 will also integrate precision-guided targeting capability for air-to-ground weapons, a rarity in previous Russian air-ground doctrine.
The MiG-35 unveiled on Jan. 27, 2017.
There is a significant engine upgrade on the new MiG-35. The aircraft uses two impressive Klimov RD-33OVT engines fitted with bi-directional thrust vectoring nozzles. This contrasts aircraft like the current Russian Su-35 and the U.S. F-22 Raptor that only use single-axis vertical thrust vectoring.
This marks a fascinating departure from previous Soviet-era combat aircraft capabilities while retaining the Russian penchant for lower unit cost in exchange for numerical superiority, a doctrine that has pervaded Russian military thinking for the entire century.
The Russians have always traded unit capability for numerical superiority, relying on the hope that quantity would beat quality in a major conflict. Interestingly, this doctrine has shifted moderately toward a centrist mix of quality and quantity apparently in search of the best solution for indigenous use as well as attracting export buyers.
The new MiG-35 is an example of this shift.
Russia has included significant sensor and capability upgrades on all recent combat aircraft, especially ones intended for the export market. Additionally, the reported domestic production for MiG-35 is only 37 aircraft, a very small acquisition by older Soviet and even modern Russian standards. A larger production capacity is earmarked for export sales, likely in the form of a 50-unit order from Egypt.
Reports indicate the Egyptian MiG-35s are to be fitted with a new advanced targeting pod, the PPK targeting pod from Precision Instrument Systems. The new PPK thermal imager/TV and laser rangefinder allows the MiG-35 to autonomously guide precision munitions similarly to how the current U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle prosecutes ground targets. Previous Russian doctrine relied heavily on ground vectors to attack targets.
Somewhat interestingly, the indigenous MiG-35 is fitted with a Russian NPK-SPP OLS-K electro-optical targeting system. The OLS-K targeting and surveillance system is mounted directly to the aircraft below the right (starboard) fuselage on the engine nacelle in front of the elevators. It is not a removable pod. The OLS-K sensor can track moving vehicles from 20 kilometers and surface contacts at sea for 40 kilometers. An integrated laser rangefinder computes target distance up to 20 kilometers for weapons employment. There is also laser designation for guided weapons built into the pod.
The OLS-K targeting and surveillance system is mounted on the engine nacelle in front of the elevators
The new MiG-35 provides Russia and export customers with a uniquely scaled precision strike capability that may be a better fit for countries with smaller defense budgets. The MiG-35 contrasts aircraft like the larger (and more expensive) Sukhois. If a client’s ground strike requirements involve shorter range in a tactical rather than strategic setting the MiG-35 may be the right size and cost aircraft.
Given recent problems throughout the Middle East and Africa with managing strike accuracy and reducing the exposure to collateral damage from air strikes this may be an important export asset for Russia and its defense industry clients.