Tag Archives: ADS-B

Everything We Know (And No One Has Said So Far) About The First Waves Of Air Strikes On Syria.

Syria Air War Day 1 explained.

In the night between Apr. 13 and 14 aircraft from the U.S., UK and France launched a first wave of air strikes against ground targets in Syria. What follows is a recap based on OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) since most of the aircraft involved in the raids could be tracked online via information in the public domain.

The “limited” action was preceded by intelligence gathering activity carried out by many of the assets that have been flying over eastern Mediterranean Sea lately. The first sign something was about to happen was the unusual presence of an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone tracking off Lebanon and Syria few hours before the first stand-off weapons landed on Syrian regime’s chemical sites/infrastructure.

The RQ-4, callsign “Forte 10” flew for several hours west of Lebanon, likely pointing its IMINT and SIGINT/ELINT sensors at the Syrian Air Defense batteries in heigthened readiness status. The drone then moved southwest, north of Egypt where it was joined by an RC-135V callsign Fixx74. It was about 23.20 GMT and it looked like the two ISR platforms, after collecting intelligence from a close position, were making room for the incoming bombers.

Here’s the position of Fixx74.

Among the aircraft coming in to conduct their bombing run from the Med, there were French Air Force Dassault Rafale jets from Saint Dizier AB, France, supported by C-135FR tankers and RAF Tornado GR4s with their Storm Shadow missiles, which launched from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. Whilst they did have their transponder turned off, the presence of the bombers and their accompanying tankers was leaked by their radio communications with civilian ATC agencies, such as Athinai ACC, that took place on unencrypted VHF frequencies broadcast on Internet on LiveATC.net.

Interestingly, at least two packages of fighters (each supposed to include 4x F-16Cs from 31FW and 4x F-15Cs from 48FW loaded with air-to-air missiles – actually, the second one included only 3 Vipers instead of 4) supported by KC-135 tankers, provided DCA (Defensive Counter Air) cover to the bombers and to the warships launching TLAMs.

After the first waves of attacks, that involved also U.S. Air Force B-1s from Al Udeid, another Global Hawk drone was launched from Sigonella, to perform BDA (Battle Damage Assessment).

The air strikes required a huge tanker support. There were 7 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers airborne over Southern Europe heading to the eastern Mediterranean Sea: something unusual for a Friday night. At the time of writing, there are 13 (!) tankers up: some are dragging the second package of U.S. F-15s and F-16s back to Aviano, whereas others are repositioning to RAF Mildenhall or Souda Bay after a night of operations:

Another interesting aircraft tracked online in the aftermath of the raid, is a Bombardier E-11A 11-9358 from 430th EECS stationed at Kandahar Afghanistan. The aircraft is a BACN (battlefield airborne communications) asset: BACN is technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to exchange tactical information and communicate. By orbiting at high-altitude, BACN equipped air assets provide a communications link between allies, regardless of the type of the supporting aircraft and in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment. The BACN system is also deployed onboard EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs. Although we can’t be completely sure, it is quite likely that the aircraft was involved in the air strikes as well, providing data-bridging among the involved parties.

In the end, thanks to ADS-B, Mode-S and MLAT we got a pretty good idea of what happened during the first wave of air strikes on Syria. It’s obviously not complete, still quite interesting.

H/T to @AircraftSpots @Buzz6868 @CivMilAir @GDarkconrad @ItaMilRadar @planesonthenet and many others for providing details, hints, links and what was needed to prepare this article. You guys rock!

Eyes On Crimea: U.S. Intelligence Gathering Aircraft Increasingly Flying Over the Black Sea

Online flight tracking suggests increase in missions flown by U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft near Crimea.

It’s no secret that U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella from Beale Air Force Base, California, frequently operate over the Black Sea.

The first reports of the American gigantic drone’s activities near Crimea and Ukraine date back to April 2015, when Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, Chief of the Main Department for Operations at the Russian General Staff, said that American high-altitude long-range drones were regularly spotted over the Black Sea. Still, it wasn’t until Oct. 15 that one RQ-4 popped up on flight tracking websites, as it performed its 17-hour mission over Bulgaria to the Black Sea, close to Crimea, off Sochi, over Ukraine and then back to Sigonella. It was the first “public” appearance of the Global Hawk in that area and a confirmation of a renewed (or at least “open”) interest in the Russian activities in the Crimean area.

What in the beginning seemed to be sporadic visits, have gradually become regular missions, so much so, it’s no surprise hearing of a Global Hawk quietly tracking off Sevastopol or east of Odessa as it performs an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) mission quietly flying at 53K feet or above, in international airspace. Indeed, as often reported here at The Aviationist, RQ-4 drones can be regularly tracked online or using commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding the famous Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADSB Exchange websites, as well as closed websites like 360radar, PlanePlotter, Adsbhub.org etc, as they (most probably) point imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors at the Russian bases in Crimea.

Noteworthy, such activities (both in the Black Sea and the Baltic region) have significantly increased lately, showing another interesting trend: they seem to involve more assets at the same time. Even though it’s not clear whether the ISR platforms fly cooperatively (although it seems quite reasonable considered how spyplanes operate in other theaters), U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon and EP-3E aircraft can often be “spotted” while they operate close to Crimea during the same time slots. For instance, based on logs collected by our friend and famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast @CivMilAir, this has happened on Jan. 9, Jan. 25 and more, recently, on Apr. 3, whereas on Feb. 5, Feb. 16 and Mar. 11 the Global Hawk has operated alone. By comparison, during the same period in 2017 (first quarter, from January to March) no Global Hawk mission was tracked or reported. Needless to say, these “statistics” are purely based on MLAT (Multi Lateration) logs: there might have been traffic neither “advertising” their position via ADS-B nor triangulated by ground stations exploiting the Mode-S transponder signals, operating in “due regard” (with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid”). However, analysis of Global Hawk and other ISR aircraft activity using Open Source data seems to suggests a clear increase in “Crimean missions”.

Here are some examples (but if you spend some time on @CivMilAir’s timeline on Twitter you’ll find more occurrences on the above mentioned dates). A few days ago, Apr. 3, 2018:

Jan. 9, 2018:

Dealing with the reason why these aircraft can be tracked online, we have discussed this a lot of times.

As reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether the drone can be tracked online by accident or not. But considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcasts its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it is over there. Since “standard” air defense radars would be able to see them regardless to whether they have the transponder on or off, increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Russian spyplanes can be regularly tracked as well: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on.

Interestingly, according to NATO sources who wish to remain anonymous, Global Hawk missions around Crimea regularly cause the Russian Air Force to scramble Su-30 (previously Su-27SM) Flankers from Krimsk or Belbek that always attempt to get somehow close to, but well below, the high-flying drones.

A Flanker gets close to an EP-3E ARIES II flying off Crimea on Jan. 29, 2018.

H/T @CivMilAir for researching the topic and providing the logs.

Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks, ADS-B May Expose F-22s To Web Based Tracking GAO Warns

A new report highlights the risks of ADS-B transponders. But it focuses on technology rather than operation security.

We have been writing about this topic since 2011. As most of our readers already know by now, Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder are two famous Web-based services that let anyone who has an Internet access on their computer, laptop or smartphone, track flights in real-time.

Aviation enthusiasts and geeks, journalists but also curious people use these portals to get details about civil and military flights all around the world.

The ADS-B system uses a special transponder that autonomously broadcasts data from the aircraft’s on-board navigation systems about its GPS-calculated position, altitude and flight path. This information is transmitted on 1090 MHz frequency: ground stations, other nearby aircraft as well as commercial off-the-shelf receivers available on the market as well as home-built ones, tuned on the same frequency, can receive and process this data.

Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder rely on a network of several hundred (if not thousand) feeders who receive and share Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders data and contribute growing the network and cover most of the planet.

Obviously, only ADS-B equipped aircraft flying within the coverage area of the network are visible.

Actually, in those areas where coverage is provided by several different ground stations, the position can be calculated also for those planes that do not broadcast their ADS-B data by means of Multilateration (MLAT). MLAT uses Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA): by measuring the difference in time to receive the signal from four different receivers, the aircraft can be geolocated and tracked even if it does not transmit ADS-B data.

Although the majority of the aircraft you’ll be able to track using a browser (or smartphone’s app) using the above mentioned Web-based tracking services are civil airliners and business jets, military aircraft are also equipped with Mode-S ADS-B-capable transponders: a 2010 Federal Aviation Administration rule requires all military aircraft to be equipped with ADS-B transponders by Jan. 1, 2020, as part of its program to modernize the air transportation system.

RQ-4 Global Hawk tracked during its mission near Crimea and over Ukraine on Jul. 20, 2017. The U.S. Air Force Global Hawk UAS are among the assets that can be regularly tracked online. (Screenshot from Flightradar24.com)

But, these are *usually* turned off during real war ops. Usually, not always.

In fact, during opening stages of the Libya Air War in 2011 some of the combat aircraft involved in the air campaign forgot/failed to switch off their mode-S or ADS-B transponder, and were clearly trackable on FR.24 or PF.net. And despite pilots all around the world know the above mentioned flight tracking websites very well, transponders remain turned on during real operations, making their aircraft clearly visible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection. As a consequence, we have been highlighting the the risk of Internet-based flight tracking of aircraft flying war missions for years. In 2014 we discovered that a U.S. plane possibly supporting ground troops in Afghanistan acting as an advanced communication relay can be regularly tracked as it circled over the Ghazni Province. Back then we explained that the only presence of the aircraft over a sensitive target could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operations. US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757 operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks), American and Russian “doomsday planes”, tanker aircraft and even the Air Force One, along with several other combat planes can be tracked every now and then on both FR24.com and PF.net.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor departs after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, during a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve Aug. 22, 2017. According to GAO, ADS-B poses a threat to the Raptor stealthiness as it may expose the aircraft presence. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles)

Today, military planes belonging to different air forces as well as contractor and special operations planes can be regularly tracked while flying over Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunia, Egypt and many other “hot spots”.

A Government Accountability Office report released last month highlighted the risks of ADS-B. According to the watchdog agency neither the Department of Defense nor the FAA have taken significant steps to mitigate security risks associated with openly transmitting flight data from military aircraft (highlight mine):

Information broadcasted from ADS-B transponders poses an operations security risk for military aircraft. For example, a 2015 assessment that RAND conducted on behalf of the U.S. Air Force stated that the broadcasting of detailed and unencrypted position data for fighter aircraft, in particular for a stealth aircraft such as the F-22, may present an operations security risk. The report noted that information about the F-22’s precise position is classified Secret, which means that unauthorized disclosure of this information could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.

Such risks have been highlighted since 2008 according to GAO:

In DOD’s 2008 comments about FAA’s draft rule requiring ADS-B Out technology, the department informed FAA that DOD aircraft could be identified conducting special flights for sensitive missions in the United States and potentially compromised due to ADS-B technology. Such sensitive missions could
include low-observable surveillance, combat air patrol, counter-drug, counter-terrorism, and key personnel transport. While some military aircraft are currently equipped with Mode S transponders that provide individuals who have tracking technology the altitude of the aircraft, ADS-B poses an increased risk.

Moreover, there are concerns since the ADS-B technology is vulnerable to jamming and cyber attacks. GAO:

For example, a 2015 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers article about ADS-B stated that ADS-B is vulnerable to an electronic-warfare attack — such as a jamming attack — whereby an adversary can effectively disable the sending and receiving of messages between an ADS-B transmitter and receiver by transmitting a higher power signal on the ADS-B frequencies. The article notes that while jamming is a problem common to all wireless communication, the effect is severe in aviation due to the system’s inherently wide-open spaces, which are impossible to control, as well as to the importance and criticality of the transmitted data. As a stand-alone method, jamming could create problems within the national airspace. Jamming can also be used to initiate a cyber-attack on aircraft or ADS-B systems. According to the article in the 2015 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication, adversaries could use a cyber-attack to inject false ADS-B messages (that is, create “ghost” aircraft on the ground or air); delete ADS-B messages (that is,make an aircraft disappear from the air traffic controller screens); and modify messages (that is, change the reported path of the aircraft). The article states that jamming attacks against ADS-B systems would be simple, and that ADS-B data do not include verification measures to filter out false messages, such as those used in spoofing attacks.

Lack of solutions:

Although DOD, FAA, and other organizations have identified risks to military security and missions since 2008, DOD and FAA have not approved any solutions to address these risks. This is because DOD and FAA have focused on equipping military aircraft with ADS-B technology and have not focused on solving or mitigating security risks from ADS-B. The approach being taken by FAA and DOD will not address key security risks that have been identified, and delays in producing an interagency agreement have significantly reduced the time available to implement any agreed-upon solutions before January 1, 2020, when the full deployment of ADS-B Out is required.

So, GAO urges DoD and FAA to approve solutions that can address operations, physical, cyber-attack, and electronic warfare security risks; and risks associated with divesting secondary-surveillance radars (since the idea is to divest legacy radars and replace them with ADS-B only). However, based on our experience, proper procedures should be adopted (provided they are not there yet) in order to prevent big OPSEC failures. Indeed, whilst securing ADS-B is a must, it’s probably more important to turn off the Mode-S and ADS-B transponders when conducting missions that need to remain invisible (at least to public flight tracking websites and commercial off the shelf receivers). Unless the transponder is turned on for a specific purpose: to let the world know they are there. In fact, as reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether some aircraft that can be tracked online broadcast their position for everyone to see by accident or on purpose: increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them. Is it a way to show the flag? Maybe.

Summing up, FR24.com, PF.net, home-made kits etc. are extremely interesting and powerful tools to investigate and study civil and military aviation; until ADS-B is made more resilient and secure, air forces around the world have only to consider the risk of public flight tracking when executing combat missions in the same way other details, such as radio communications policies and EMCON (Emission Control) restrictions, are already taken into account.

Many thanks to @CivMilAir for helping preparing this article.

First Prototype Of Brazilian KC-390 Military Cargo Aircraft Almost Crashed During Stall Tests Last Month

Pilots of the KC-390 were only able to recover the aircraft 300 meters from the ground.

Embraer has grounded the first prototype of the new KC-390 military cargo jet after a stall test incident on Oct. 12. According to the Brazilian planemaker, the scheduled test pushed the aircraft beyond its operating limits, however Brazilian Aero Magazine media outlet, that has talked to an engineer involved in the project who asked to remain anonymous, something else happened in the skies near Embraer Unidade Gavião Peixoto Airport, the private airport located near Gavião Peixoto, Brazil, owned and operated by Embraer: an incident that almost ended in a tragedy.

As reported by Aero Magazine, the KC-390 registered PT-ZNF was performing critical pre-stall tests, that involved high-AOA (Angle Of Attack) and  ice formation on wings. During the maneuver, an equipment used for the tests, detached from its place and rolled to the back of the cargo compartment causing a sudden change in the center of gravity (CG) of the aircraft. As a consequence of the rapid displacement of the CG the pilots lost control of the airlifter, that stalled and started to spin towards the ground. Reportedly, the pilots were able to recover the aircraft as it was only 1,000 feet (about 300 m) above the ground, and landed the KC-390 safely in Gavião Peixoto airfield.

Analysis of the track based on the KC-390 ADS-B transponder using the popular Flightradar24.com plane-tracking website suggests that the cargo prototype plunged from about 20,000 feet to around 3,000 feet, between 13.25UTC and 13.28UTC, with a peak vertical speed of -30,976 fpm. However, based on the ADS-B raw data, the area where the test flight was taking place is not covered by receivers at altitudes below 2,800 feet, therefore it is possible that the aircraft was recovered well below 3,000 ft and that the transponder signal was detected once the aircraft had climbed again to a safe altitude after recovering from the spin.

The track followed by the KC-390 during Oct. 12 test flight. Note the vertical speed of about -31,000 fpm at 11,375 ft.

Two KC-390 prototypes have been built, the second one being example PT-ZNJ that made its first flight on Apr. 28, 2016. PT-ZNF made its maiden flight on Feb. 3, 2015.

H/T Jaime Maia for the heads-up

Here Is The Route A U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone Is Currently Flying During A Surveillance Mission Over The Black Sea And Ukraine

A gigantic U.S. Air Force RQ-4 is currently flying over Ukraine, broadcasting its position for everyone to see.

U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.

Beginning in 2015, they have started flying over Ukraine as well and, as already reported, instead of keeping a low-profile, they can be regularly tracked not only by “standard” ground radars, but even by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange while its imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors take a look at Russian bases in Crimea and gather information about the pro-Russia forces on the ground in the Dombass region of Ukraine.

As we write this story, 19:00 GMT on Jul. 20, a Global Hawk drone can be tracked as it performs an ISR mission over Ukraine at 53,000 feet.

The unmanned aircraft has been airborne for some 17 hours. It started tracking early in the morning after departing from Sigonella, then it has headed east, flown over Bulgaria to the Black Sea, “skirted” Crimea, performed some racetracks off Sochi and then headed back to make a tour of Ukraine.

Here are some screenshots taken by our friend and famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast running the popular @CivMilAir @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds:

 

As reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether the drone can be tracked online by accident or not. But considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcasts its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it is over there. Since “standard” air defense radars would be able to see them regardless to whether they have the transponder on or off, increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Russian spyplanes can be regularly tracked as well: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on.

Top image: Flightradar24 screenshot via @CivMilAir who deserves the usual H/T.

 

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