Tag Archives: Aurora

The Enigmatic SR-72 And the Palmdale Sightings: What Do They Tell Us About America’s Secret Hypersonic Program?

The Media is Full of Speculation, But What Do We Know and What Can We Predict?

One of 2017’s biggest defense and aviation stories is the anonymous sighting by a “handful of witnesses” of the landing of a mysterious, unidentified new aircraft at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Flight Test Facility in Palmdale California. What was it?

Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris scooped the story but was guarded in his reporting of sources. On September 27, 2017 Norris wrote:

“According to information provided to Aviation Week, one such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California as seen from the air in an early photo. (Photo: USAF)

Nearly every article quoting Norris’ story suggests that, what the unnamed witnesses saw is related to a new global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) gathering asset. Likely a new hypersonic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that could be a sub-scale developmental testbed for a planned manned version. While it is a significant leap to extrapolate this sighting to a full-scale manned platform, the silence from Lockheed Martin about the incident is deafening. Had the sighting been nothing, they would have said it was nothing.

It isn’t much of a leap to suggest that any proposed, new manned aircraft, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” would have global range, fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. This is one list of requirements for an SR-71 follow-on.

The U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California with static display SR-71s and F-117s. (Photo: USAF)

When analyzing the role of a possible new strategic reconnaissance/strike asset, manned and unmanned, a few assumptions can reasonably be made. The mission of a high-speed reconnaissance (and possibly even strike) platform likely includes four unique capabilities for the strategic ISR and global strike mission:

1. It is very low observable. The relevance and quality of any intelligence collected is degraded substantially if the adversary knows it has been collected. A stealthy, ultra-high-speed intelligence gathering and strike asset could obtain signals, atmospheric and image intelligence across several spectrums potentially without detection. This improves the actionable relevance of the intelligence since the adversary does not know their operational security has been compromised.

2. It is timely. An ultra-high speed (some reports suggest Mach 6+) asset could be over the reconnaissance target area quickly and provide either real-time intelligence via secure datalink or be back on the ground quickly for retrieval and analysis of intelligence gathered over the target and stored onboard the asset.

3. It is difficult to intercept if detected. One of the primary defensive capabilities of the Mach 3+ SR-71 was its speed and altitude performance. It could outrun and out-climb most missiles and interceptor aircraft. But advances in detection, tactics, aircraft, aircraft weapons and surface to air missiles and even soon-to-be fielded focused energy beam weapons (as from the Chinese) provide a requirement for a faster, higher flying and lower observable platform.

4. It provides on-board decision-making capability in the manned configuration. While a manned asset exposes a flight crew to the risks associated with overflight it also keeps the human decision-making capability inside the mission loop. While this may not be critical in the ISR role, it may be in the strategic strike role. Once strategic strike platforms such as ICBMs and cruise missiles are committed to the attack they can be difficult to re-task or abort, especially in a dynamic tactical environment. A manned strategic strike asset with ultra-high-speed and global range retains a human in the decision loop. This is attractive both empirically and morally.

Having identified these four potential unique capabilities to a presumptive “SR-72” type asset it is appropriate to examine the possible regions and roles the asset would be employed in. Given the current and near-future strategic situation these four global missions may be part of the SR-72s tasking:

1. North Korea. The crisis has reached a near flashpoint with Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear proliferation and continued adversarial rhetoric. Accurate and timely monitoring of North Korea’s actual testing activity and developmental capabilities is critical to managing the U.S. response in the crisis. This includes preventing the crisis from becoming an armed conflict. A strategic reconnaissance asset that is stealthy, fast and field-able would bolster the U.S. position in intelligence gathering, especially in this dynamic environment. A similar low observable, hypersonic strike asset would also be critical in maintaining our first strike capability should the rapidly evolving situation warrant it.

2. Iran. With potential changes in the U.S. doctrine and Iran’s nuclear policy maintaining real-time intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is critical. The political environment surrounding Iran, and its attendant diplomatic ramifications, dictate that the best intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and any weapons development be gathered covertly and updated in a timely manner. While orbital reconnaissance assets can provide excellent imaging across the entire spectrum from visible to infra-red to electronic emissions a reconnaissance satellite cannot collect atmospheric samples that are key to detecting nuclear testing. Also, re-tasking spy satellites not already in position with orbits over key targets makes a more dynamic, high-speed, low-observable atmospheric reconnaissance platform desirable.

3. Syria. The tenuous relationship with Russia in the Syrian conflict has been well-managed to date, but the potential for serious incidents still exists. Intelligence gathered covertly in real or near real-time about both Syrian and Russian activities in the region can help manage each participants’ agendas while lowering the risk of fratricide and other accidental conflict. It can also provide exclusive intelligence to the United States unavailable to other participating nations, providing a strategic intelligence advantage in the conflict.

4. The emerging global theater. The United States enjoys a geographic separation from the major Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflict areas. The geographic separation from conflict zones afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a significant reason for the U.S. ability to maintain security and prevent a large-scale conflict on U.S. soil. But this geographical distance from conflict zones also means preemptively managing conflict globally. It requires long reach and high-speed for timely intelligence gathering. A new high-speed, low-observable ISR/strike platform is required to maintain that agenda. This is a persistent requirement within the U.S. arsenal and will remain indefinitely.

Global conflicts thousands of miles from the U.S. dictate the continued need for stealthy, long range, high speed strategic reconnaissance (Photo: Center for Preventative Action)

Any new strategic reconnaissance and strike asset in development now could still be years from operational fielding, or it may already be in service. Recall that the F-117 Nighthawk was flying in 1981 but not officially revealed until 1988, a span of seven years during which the program remained hidden. While media has changed since the 1980s and it is more difficult to keep a program secret today, the possibility still exists that the program is much farther advanced than publicly revealed.

The F-117 sub-scale prototypes, some called “Have Blue”, were secretly flown from Palmdale without detection. (Photo: USAF)

As early as 1985 a line item appeared in the U.S. defense budget for $85 million USD attributed to a project called “Aurora”. By 1987 that allocation had bloated to over $2.3 billion for the same project. Some reports suggest the U.S. Air Force was working on an SR-71 replacement as early as 1988.

Subsequent reports in credible media like Jane’s Defense and Aviation Week & Space Technology have featured accounts of hearing and seeing unidentified aircraft in the region of the Nellis test ranges.

Another famous sighting happened over the North Sea in November 1991. Scottish petroleum engineer Chris Gibson, who was also serving in the British Royal Observer Corps according to reports, was working on the offshore oil rig Galveston Key. Gibson, an experienced and trained professional aircraft spotter, saw “The shape of a pure isosceles triangle” flying behind a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft in formation with two F-111s. The aircraft were sighted in the 6A air-to-air refueling zone according to reports. Gibson’s accounting was substantiated by another witness, lasted a significant amount of time, and has been repeatedly analyzed, but never explained.

The Chris Gibson/North Sea 1991 sighting suggested an early possible sighting of an SR-71 replacement. The sighting has never been explained. (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Trying to organize the sightings and information we have of any possible new hypersonic low-observable reconnaissance/strike aircraft with the mission requirements and global strategic need for aerial intelligence still leaves massive gaps between what we know and what is possible according to accounts, but within this massive gap of the unknown exists plenty of room for a real project that, when we eventually do hear about it, will undoubtedly be one of the most sensational defense and aviation stories of this century.

Top image: Conceptual image of SR-72 with SR-71. Courtesy of Aviation Week & Space Technology

Incredible photo of F-16 fighter planes under sky set alight by Northern Lights

Here’s an unbelievable photo shot at Amari Airbase, Estonia.

Taken by photographer Gen Vagula at Ämari Airbase, Estonia, where the aircraft have been deployed to undertake Baltic States air policing duties, this awesome image shows four Royal Danish Air Force F-16 jets parked under a sky set alight by Aurora Borealis.

Aurora (“Aurora Borealis” or “Northern Lights” in the northern hemisphere and “Aurora Australis” or “Southern Lights” in the southern one) is a natural light display caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles with the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere).

Ämari, located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the southwest of Tallinn, is the second airbase used by NATO to perform QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duties and provide air defense for those member states that have no fighter jets of their own to secure their airspaces: Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

NATO planes deployed to the Baltics (the other airbase is Siauliai in Lithuania), are often scrambled to intercept Russian planes flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast, performing long-range missions around Scandinavia and the British Isles, or simply spying in the Baltic region.

Image credit: Gen Vagula

 

Colorado shooting through the Police radio communications. Scanner captured the moments after the tragedy unfolded.

On Jul. 20, 2012, suspected gunman James Holmes allegedly killed at least 12 people and wounded 59 others during the midnight premier of the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, a suburb of Denver.

All U.S. media outlets provide a detailed description of the slaughter. You can read the first interesting analysis of the mass shooting on Wired Danger Room, whereas if you want to get some “active shooter scenario” advice from a Navy SEAL to prevent yourself from becoming an easy target at sporting events, concerts, and movies, you’ll find this SOFREP article particularly useful.

But, what happened in those chaotic moments at the local police station?

The following audio (made available through a video uploaded to Youtube) captured the moments after the tragedy unfolded when police officers, trying to remain as calm as possible, try to manage the rescue efforts.

At 1:30 min you’ll hear one of them trying to find out when an injured pregnant woman was transported to.

Unencrypted radio comms broadcast on known frequencies were recorded by local radiohams/monitors using a scanner radio in the same way many aircraft enthusiasts and spotters listen to civil and military plane movements all around the world on both VHF, UHF, HF bands.

Among all the others, the mass shooting claimed the lives of two U.S. military serving at Buckley Air Force Base: a sailor and an airman.

H/T to Allan Stern for the heads-up

New NATO's PSYOPS message in Libya calls for cooperation and recalls martyrs among rebels

On Sept. 4, 2011, beginning around 14.05 UTC, a new PSYOPS message addressed to the Libyan people has been recorded by European radio hams. The message is addressed to “Libyan fishing vessels”, proving that although far from being completely under rebel control, the taking of Tripoli has stabilized the country, to such an extent that fishing boats have been increasingly operating from the Libyan ports.

Consequently, the last message is sensibly different from the previous ones addressed to the naval officers and sailors on board Libyan Navy warships as it recalls the Libyan martyrs and it contains words for those who lost their lives during the war.

The message recorded on Sept. 4 was most probably aired by a US EC-130J Commando Solo even if there are also chances that it was a broadcast by a Canadian CP-140 Aurora, that has been employed in PSYOPS from (at least) July 2011 (note that the Associated Press article that on Jul. 29 disclosed that the Canadian plane was performing such missions, mentioned only activities on FM/AM “frequencies”).

Below you can read a transcript of the part of the last message. At the bottom of the page you can find the link to listen to it.

[Arabic]

Libyan fishing vessels operating in the area, NATO warships supporting a UN resolution to enforce a maritime embargo in order to protect the Libyan people. Your cooperation and communication with NATO mariners on maritime VHF is welcome. Please let us know your position, movement and activity and if you can see activity which can harm civilians or civilian population, please report it to any NATO ship. In any case, you don’t have to hesitate to contact any NATO warships operating in the area. NATO warships are here to assist and protect Libyan people.

[Arabic]

Help supporters to free Libya. Your statesmen fought bravely to give freedom of speech and equality in your country. Many have given their lives without thought for themselves. There are children without fathers and women without husbands so that all that is good and just, can be kept upon your heads and those of your children. The entire world knows you, Lybia, by your deeds. Show the world that the martyrs have not died in vain. Apply their desire for justice for the misguided soldiers of Gaddafi who are also your brothers and reach out your hand in forgiveness.

The message, broadcasted on frequency 10404 Khz USB, was recorded by Andrea Borgnino and available on his soundcloud page at this address: http://soundcloud.com/iw0hk/new-nato-psyop-message-to

Interactive PSYOPS in Libya: the Canadian live benign propaganda messages prompt the listener to reply to the broadcaster

Until Jul. 29, 2011, only two types of PSYchological OPerationS (PSYOPS) had been reported from Libya.

The first, is the typical, world famous message broadcasting performed by the USAF EC-130J (00-1934/STEEL74) of the 193 SOS, operating out of Sigonella, in Italy, inviting sailors and naval officers of a Libyan ship to leave the vessel and return to their families. Broadcasted in HF frequencies, these messages were often intercepted by radio ham from all around the world and published almost everywhere, from Audioboo to Youtube.

The second, is the message written on leaflets like those dropped on May 17, 2011, by an Italian Air Force C-130J over Tripoli  to counter Gaddafi’s regime propaganda in Libya’s capital city.

The new one was unveiled by the Associated Press that on Jul. 29 published an article titled “Canada joins propaganda war aimed at Gadhafi forces”. First of all, the article discloses that the Canadian CP-140 Aurora, a multi-purpose plane mostly used as an anti-submarine warfare platform and to search out illegal fishing, immigration, smuggling, drug trafficking and polluting along the coastline, has been employed, in combat, to perform PSYOPS.

Second, it explains that the Libyans have apparently replying to the broadcasts and there has been at least a sort of “conversation” between the broadcaster and the listener.

Here’s an excerpt of the article:

The Canadian broadcasts are relatively benign in comparison to some of the harsher messages NATO has aimed at Gadhafi’s troops, in which women’s voices are telling them to stop “killing the children.”

The Canadian messages, in English, are read hourly during patrols along the Libyan coast over AM/FM frequencies that Libyans usually monitor.

“For your safety return to your family and your home,” says the message, which can be heard over unencrypted frequencies the military uses to broadcast basic information.

“The Gadhafi regime forces are violating United Nations resolution 1973.

On at least one occasion last week, an Arabic sounding voice challenged the broadcasts.

“Who are you talking to?” the voice asked.

“Anyone who will listen,” replied the other voice who had read the message.

Gadhafi’s regime has tried to jam the transmissions.

The above “transcript” suggests that, unlike the US EC-130J, that were broadcasting some “rude” recorded messages (“we will destroy you”), the Canadian Auroras have started live transmissions with more “gentle” messages that may prompt some kind of interaction between the listener and the broadcaster, that could have some good results.

Should the US reconsider their persuasion techniques?

Image source: Canadian Combat Camera