Category Archives: War on ISIS

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”.

Everything We Know About The Russian Su-25 Frogfoot Jet Shot Down in Syria

Russian Loss Comes During 24-Hour Increase in Airstrikes in Syria’s North-Western Idlib Province.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft was shot down over the city of Maasran in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 3, 2018. The aircraft, RF-95486/06 Blue (ex Red), was involved in airstrikes in region and had just fired rockets on a ground target.

Video seen on social media shows what appears to be a person, claimed to be the Russian Su-25 pilot, descending by parachute after the aircraft was hit. The BBC reported that Russia’s defense ministry said: “The pilot had enough time to report that he had ejected in an area controlled by the militants of Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Based on report and the above videos the aircraft was hit by a MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System): most probably a Chinese FN-6 passive infrared homing (IR) man portable air defence system known to be in the hands of the Jidahists.

According to reliable sources within the Russian military who spoke to, the pilot did reach the ground and then engaged unknown ground forces. Our Russian source tells that photos from the scene show the pilot’s personal firearm and that, “One store [ammunition magazine] is completely empty, the other two are consumed more than half. The pilot led the fight.” The source claimed the weapon shown in the photos is a Russian Stechkin automatic pistol or APS. This weapon is widely carried by Russian military and federal law enforcement.

Additional sources on Russian social media report that the pilot carried a grenade and may have detonated it close to himself as insurgent forces closed in on him. There is no official confirmation of this information.

Sources on Twitter claimed the pilot used a grenade in addition to his pistol to engage ground forces. (Photo: via Twitter)

Anyway, the pilot was captured and killed. The Russia-based, independent Conflict Intelligence Team posted photographs they say showed the dead body of the pilot and a paper recommending a man named Major Roman Filipov for a state award that was allegedly filled out by Russian air group commander Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Aksyonov.

Novaya Gazeta quoted an unidentified Defense Ministry source as confirming that the pilot was Filippov. According to the newspaper, he was a Ukrainian pilot from Crimea, the Ukrainian region that Russia annexed in 2014.

Video from alleged to be from the crash scene clearly show the wing of an Su-25 with Russian markings along with a damaged engine and fire among debris.

Video at the crash scene confirmed the aircraft is a Russian Su-25. (Photo: YouTube) showed the Arabic language news broadcast to a translator in Dearborn, Michigan, who told us that the reporter in the video, identified as “Journalist Moazom Al-Chamie”, says the aircraft was shot down by a shoulder fired missile after being spotted by drivers in a truck. The reporter also goes on to say that another Russian Su-25 remained in the area after the incident, and that the men shown in the video hoped to shoot it down as well.

According to Iranian journalist Babak Taghvaee the Su-25 shot down on Feb. 3 was one of six Su-25s of RuAF’s 368 ShAP recently deployed from Sevastopol, Crimea to Hmeymim Air Base, Syria.

The loss of this Su-25 is the 11th Russian aircraft destroyed by enemy action or in accidents during the Russian involvement in the Syrian campaign. Considering the number of combat sorties flown by the Russians over Syria, and the increasing number of man portable air defense systems (MANPADS), these losses could be characterized as low for a campaign of this size.

Russian observers remarked that an absence of infra-red decoy flares being ejected from the Su-25 shown in the videos is unusual. It is common to see a series of bright flares ejected from an aircraft as a countermeasure to heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles.

Video seen on social media showed Su-25 attack aircraft over the same area being engaged by anti-aircraft guns. One video showed an Su-25 taking a near miss as a proximity fused anti-aircraft round detonates near its left wing root.

Following the downing of the Su-25 reports began to appear on Twitter that numerous air strikes were occurring in the area where the aircraft was downed.

The Russian Sukhoi Su-25 is a successful, heavily armored ground attack aircraft roughly comparable to the U.S. A-10 Warthog. (Photo: Russian Air Force)

Top image credit: Ilya the Nightingale

The U.S. Air Force Has Deployed One Of Its EC-130H Compass Call Electronic Warfare Aircraft To South Korea

One of the few EC-130H Compass Call aircraft, capable to find and hit the enemy forces with denial of service (and possibly cyber) attacks on their communication networks, has been deployed to Osan Air Base, South Korea.

The EC-130H Compass Call is a modified Hercules tasked with various types of signals surveillance, interdiction and disruption. According to the U.S. Air Force official fact sheets: “The Compass Call system employs offensive counter-information and electronic attack (or EA) capabilities in support of U.S. and Coalition tactical air, surface, and special operations forces.”

The USAF EC-130H overall force is quite small, consisting of only 14 aircraft, based at Davis-Monthan AFB (DMAFB), in Tucson, Arizona and belonging to the 55th Electronic Combat Group (ECG) and its two squadrons: the 41st and 43rd Electronic Combat Squadrons (ECS). Also based at DMAFB and serving as the type training unit is the 42nd ECS that operates a lone TC-130H trainer along with some available EC-130Hs made available by the other front-line squadrons.

An EC-130H Compass Call travels along the taxiway at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, June 27, 2017. Compass Call is an airborne tactical weapon system that uses noise jamming to disrupt enemy command and control communications and deny time-critical adversary coordination essential for enemy force management. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jonathan Hehnly)

The role of the Compass Call is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to command and control their forces by finding, prioritizing and targeting the enemy communications. This means that the aircraft is able to detect the signals emitted by the enemy’s communication and control gear and jam them so that the communication is denied. The original mission of the EC-130H was SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses): the Compass Call were to jam the enemy’s IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) and to prevent interceptors from talking with the radar controllers on the ground (or aboard an Airborne Early Warning aircraft). Throughout the years, the role has evolved, making the aircraft a platform capable of targeting also the signals between UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and their control stations.

According to the official data:

The EC-130H fleet is composed of a mix of Baseline 1 and 2 aircraft. The 55th ECG recently eclipsed 10,900 combat sorties and 66,500 flight hours as they provided U.S. and Coalition forces and Joint Commanders a flexible advantage across the spectrum of conflict. COMPASS CALL’s adaptability is directly attributed to its spiral upgrade acquisition strategy guided by the Big Safari Program office and Air Force Material Command’s 661st Aeronautical Systems Squadron based in Waco, Texas. Combined efforts between these agencies ensure the EC-130H can counter new, emergent communication technology.

The Block 35 Baseline 1 EC-130H provides the Air Force with additional capabilities to jam communication, Early Warning/Acquisition radar and navigation systems through higher effective radiated power, extended frequency range and insertion of digital signal processing versus earlier EC-130Hs. Baseline 1 aircraft have the flexibility to keep pace with adversary use of emerging technology. It is highly reconfigurable and permits incorporation of clip-ins with less crew impact. It promotes enhanced crew proficiency, maintenance and sustainment with a common fleet configuration, new operator interface, increased reliability and better fault detection.

Baseline 2 has a number of upgrades to ease operator workload and improve effectiveness. Clip-in capabilities are now integrated into the operating system and, utilizing automated resource management, are able to be employed seamlessly with legacy capabilities. Improved external communications allow Compass Call crews to maintain situational awareness and connectivity in dynamic operational and tactical environments.
Delivery of Baseline-2 provides the DoD with the equivalent of a “fifth generation electronic attack capability.” A majority of the improvements found in the EC-130H Compass Call Baseline-2 are classified modifications to the mission system that enhance precision and increase attack capacity. Additionally, the system was re-designed to expand the “plug-and-play” quick reaction capability aspect, which has historically allowed the program to counter unique “one-off” high profile threats. Aircraft communication capabilities are improved with expansion of satellite communications connectivity compatible with emerging DoD architectures, increased multi-asset coordination nets and upgraded data-link terminals. Furthermore, modifications to the airframe in Baseline-2 provide improved aircraft performance and survivability.

Although it’s not clear whether this ability has already been translated into an operational capability, in 2015, a USAF EC-130H Compass Call aircraft has also been involved in demos where it attacked networks from the air: a kind of in-flight hacking capability that could be particularly useful to conduct cyberwarfare missions where the Electronic Attack aircraft injects malware by air-gapping closed networks.

With about one-third of the fleet operating in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (indeed, four EC-130Hs, teaming up with the RC-135 Rivet Joint and other EA assets, are operating over Iraq and Syria to deny the Islamic State the ability to communicate), the fact that a single EC-130H (73-1590 “Axis 43”) was recently deployed from Davis Monthan AFB to Osan Air Base, South Korea, where it arrived via Yokota, on Jan. 4, 2018, it’s pretty intriguing.

Obviously, we can’t speculate about the reason behind the deployment of the Electronic Warfare with alleged Cyber-Attack capabilities (that could be particularly useful against certain threats these days….) aircraft south of the DMZ: however, the presence of such a specialized and somehow rare aircraft in the Korean peninsula, that joins several other intelligence gathering aircraft operating over South Korea amid raising tensions for quite some time, is at least worth of note.

Update: some of our sources have suggested that the aircraft was deployed to perform anti-IED (Improvised Electronic Device) tasks during the Winter Olympics, kicking off on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang County, South Korea.

Defining Asymmetrical Warfare: Extremists Use Retail Drones to Attack Russian Air Base in Syria

One Aircraft Heavily Damaged in Most Recent in String of Low-Cost Insurgent Drone Attacks.

It is the definition of asymmetrical warfare: a fast-moving, lightly armed insurgency fueled by a radical doctrine uses simple weapons to attack a larger, seemingly more capable occupying force.

Taking inspiration from the doctrines of T.E. Lawrence, Sun Tzu, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, extremists in Syria have increased pressure on Russian forces in the region with another simple, innovative attack that heavily damaged at least one Russian aircraft and likely more. Previous similar attacks in the region around January 4 were reported to have killed 2 Russian servicemen.

Recent photos surfacing on social media attributed to Russian military journalist Roman Saponkov show the tail of what appears to be a Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft damaged by an attack earlier this month.

Captured fixed-wing insurgent drone. (Photo: Russian Air Force)

A report that surfaced on January 6, 2018 from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that was shared in several media outlets including the BBC says that Russian forces shot down several “unmanned aircraft” near Hmeimim base near the north-western city of Latakia on Saturday in what appears to be the latest attack attempt by insurgents. In this week’s latest attack the Russians claim there was no damage to aircraft or personnel and their air defense systems were successful in intercepting the small, store-bought quadcopter drones usually used for cameras.

There has been a recent increase in attacks by improvised air-delivered weapons from remotely piloted aircraft on Russian installations in Syria. Additional insurgent attacks have been attributed to mortars. Some of the remotely piloted aircraft, in some instances commercial style quad-copter drones, have been modified to carry mortar rounds or grenades. Some grenade-bombs even used badminton shuttle cocks for improvised tail fin stabilizers. While this is not new, the frequency of the incidents and adaptability of the insurgents does seem to have increased.

According to some reports, recent attacks by insurgent drones damaged the tail of this Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer”. Actually, initial reports stated that the cause of the damage was a mortar attack (Photo: Roman Saponkov)

This increase in insurgent attacks comes just after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian assets from Syria during a surprise visit to Hmeimim air base on December 11, 2017. Hmeimim air base is the primary launch facility for Russian tactical air operations in Syria’s Latakia province. The political move by Putin is reminiscent of the May 1, 2003 political gaff by then- U.S. President George W. Bush. President Bush made a media event out of landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and speaking in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”, acknowledging the progress of the U.S. in the Global War on Terror in Iraq. Although Bush never said the mission was accomplished in his remarks on the USS America, the event is historically regarded as premature to meaningful change in the ongoing Iraq conflict. Putin may face similar criticism if a meaningful victory in Syria does not happen soon.

The Russian success in intercepting improvised camera drones being adapted to carry weapons is at least partially attributable to what may be their most sophisticated air defense system, the Pantsir S-2 integrated missile and gun vehicle.

The Russian Pantsir S-2 gun and missile integrated anti-aircraft system. (Photo: via YouTube)

The Pantsir S-2, an advancement from the earlier Pantsir S-1, uses a combination of a high rate of fire anti-aircraft gun and surface to air missiles combined with advanced targeting radar to both detect aerial threats and target both the guns and the missiles on the Pantsir S-2.

Pantsir S-2 is armed with two 2A38M, 30mm automatic anti-aircraft guns derived from the GSh-30 twin-barrel 30mm aircraft-mounted cannon. The cannon system on the Pantsir S-2 has a very high rate of fire from 1,950 to 2,500 rounds per minute depending on the length of the burst. The 2A38M cannon can engage targets up to 2,000 meters, over 6,000 feet, altitude. More importantly in the context of the improvised insurgent threats, the 2A38M can engage targets down to zero altitude effectively, a problem older Soviet-era Russian anti-aircraft systems like the ZSU-34-4 faced since the guns could not depress below a certain elevation making it impossible to hit very low altitude targets in close proximity.

The Pantsir S-2 also carries the new highly capable 57E6-E guided surface to air missile. The missile uses a bi-caliber body in tandem, one stage in front of the next, with a separate booster stage then in-flight stage. The newest versions of the 57E6-E are reported to have range of up to 20-30 kilometers with and reported engagement ceiling of 10,000 meters (approx. 33,000 feet).

While the new Pantsir S-2 provides significant protection from what appears to be the entire threat envelope from enemy fixed wing aircraft to improvised quad-copter bombs the hallmark of the insurgent adversary is adaptability. While Russia appears to be emerging in the lead of the conflict in Syria as Putin announces their withdrawal, one has to wonder what shift in insurgent tactics will follow their drone attack campaign.

“We Always Managed To Get Behind US-led Coalition Fighter Jets Encountered Over Syria” Cocky Russian Pilot Says

“We always found ourselves ‘on their tails’ as the pilots say, which means victory in a dogfight.” Just the latest chapter of Russia’s hybrid warfare in Syria?

Close encounters between Russian and U.S. aircraft over Syria are nothing new. What’s new is the way this close-quarter Russian/U.S. shadow boxing incidents are reported from both sides: two incidents, one on November 23 and another one on December 13, made headlines in Russia and the U.S. with differing accounts of the nearly identical incidents and the reasons they happened.

For instance, dealing with the first one, according to the Russian version, a Sukhoi Su-35S was scrambled after a U.S. F-22 interfered with two Su-25s that were bombing an Islamic State target and chased the Raptor away. The Russian account was denied by the U.S. Central Command, that in an email to The Aviationist explained that there was no truth in the allegation:

“According to our flight logs for Nov 23, 2017, this alleged incident did not take place, nor has there been any instance where a Coalition aircraft crossed the river without first deconflicting with the Russians via the deconfliction phone line set up for this purpose. Of note, on Nov 23, 2017, there were approximately nine instances where Russian fighter aircraft crossed to the east side of the Euphrates River into Coalition airspace without first using the deconfliction phone. This random and unprofessional activity placed Coalition and Russian aircrew at risk, as well as jeopardizing Coalition ability to support partner ground forces in the area.”

Dealing with the second incident, U.S. officials told Fox News that a USAF F-22 Raptor stealth fighter flew in front of a pair of Russian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoot attack jets near Al Mayadin, Syria, “an area off-limits to Russian jets based on a long-standing mutual agreement”. In an attempt to force the Russian aircraft to change course, the American stealth jet cut across the front of the Russian jets, and released flares (a tactic known as ‘head-butting,’ meant to send a strong warning to an opposing warplane).

A Russian Flanker flying at MAKS 2017 (Jacek Siminski)

Needless to say, this time it was the Russians to deny the version of events: according to the Russian MoD the Su-25s were escorting a humanitarian convoy on the western side of the Eurphrates and it was the U.S. aircraft that crossed the deconfliction line. “A Russian Su-35 fighter jet, performing an air cover mission at an altitude of 10,000 meters, swiftly approached the F-22 from the rear, forcing the American aircraft to leave the area.”

“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 recently. “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.”

On Dec. 29, the state-run RT media outlet reported:

Russian pilots always managed to get behind US-led coalition fighter jets they encountered in the skies over Syria, a Russian ace said after receiving a state award from President Putin at the Kremlin.

When meeting our partners from the Western coalition in the air, we always found ourselves ‘on their tails’ as the pilots say, which means victory in a dogfight,” Russian Airspace Forces major, Maksim Makolin, said.

The so-called ‘lag pursuit’ when the nose of an attacking plane points at the tail of the opponent’s aircraft is considered the optimum location in an aerial fight. It allows the plane at the back a range of options, from increasing or maintaining range without overshooting to freely attacking, all the while remaining concealed in the blind spot behind the defending aircraft.

Makolin became one of the 14,000 Russian servicemen who received state decorations for their courage and professionalism during the two-year-long Russian campaign in Syria.

We have already discussed these close encounters, the tactical value of supermaneuverability vs stealthiness, the ROE, etc. In this case it’s only worth noticing there is no attempt to ease tensions, quite the contrary, as if certain statements were part of a hybrid warfare made of actual aircraft, as well as cyber warfare, proxy forces and propaganda. In this respect, if you are willing to learn more about “Russia’s campaign to mislead the public and undermine democratic institutions around the world,” I suggest you reading this report here.  “It reveals how the Russian government is conducting a major multi-pronged propaganda campaign to spread false information… […]”

Image credit: Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation/Wiki