Tag Archives: Battlefield Airborne Communications Node

Two NASA’s WB-57F Jets Are About To Chase The Total Solar Eclipse. Here is How And Where.

NASA is about to launch two retrofitted WB-57F aircraft to follow the shadow of the moon. The last of a long series of interesting missions…

NASA still operates three WB-57Fs, configured for air sampling and the other for photography, radar and thermal recce. The first two, NASA926 and 928 have been flying research missions since the early ’60s, whereas NASA927 is a more recent addition to the fleet, having joined NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in 2013.

Based at Ellington Field, Texas, they are often deployed to different bases, both at home and abroad; to undertake missions in support of scientific projects (focusing on hurricanes, radiation impact on clouds, atmospheric data gathering, tropical storm generation analysis, and so on).

For instance, on Aug. 21, 2017, the total solar eclipse that for most of the observers will last less than two and half minutes, for one team of NASA-funded scientists, will last over seven minutes. Indeed, the eclipse will be chased by two retrofitted WB-57F jet planes: NASA926 and NASA927.

According to NASA, Amir Caspi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and his team will use two of NASA’s WB-57F research jets to observe the eclipse from twin telescopes mounted on the noses of the planes in order to capture the clearest images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere — the corona — to date and the first-ever thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet’s surface.

The two aircraft have filled a FPL to follow the route below:

The FPL of NASA 927 (the same filed by NASA 926): a 4h 30m trip across the U.S. (credit: FlightAware.com)

This is the route that will be followed by NASA 926 and NASA 927 to chase the total solar eclipse. (credit: FlightAware).

“Due to technological limitations, no one has yet directly seen nanoflares, but the high-resolution and high-speed images to be taken from the WB-57F jets might reveal their effects on the corona. The high-definition pictures, captured 30 times per second, will be analyzed for wave motion in the corona to see if waves move towards or away from the surface of the Sun, and with what strengths and sizes,” says an official NASA release.

“The two planes, launching from Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will observe the total eclipse for about three and a half minutes each as they fly over Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee. By flying high in the stratosphere, observations taken with onboard telescopes will avoid looking through the majority of Earth’s atmosphere, greatly improving image quality. At the planes’ cruising altitude of 50,000 feet, the sky is 20-30 times darker than as seen from the ground, and there is much less atmospheric turbulence, allowing fine structures and motions in the Sun’s corona to be visible.

Images of the Sun will primarily be captured at visible light wavelengths, specifically the green light given off by highly ionized iron, superheated by the corona. This light is best for showing the fine structures in the Sun’s outer atmosphere. These images are complementary to space-based telescopes, like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which takes images primarily in ultraviolet light and does not have the capacity for the high-speed imagery that can be captured aboard the WB-57F.”

Scientific research aside, NASA’s Canberras are also involved in some “special operations” every now and then.

For instance, in 2007 there were speculations and theories about the type of mission flown by the WB-57 in war zones fueled by pictures of the aircraft operating from Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan without the standard NASA logo and markings. Officially, the aircraft performed geophysical and remote sensing surveys as part of the U.S. aid to the Afghan reconstruction effort. The WB-57 collected  AVIRIS (Airborne Visible Infra Red Imaging Spectrometer) data that could be analyzed to provide information on mineral assemblages that could aid in resource and hazards assessments.

More recently, the WB-57s have also carried BACN – Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payloads in Afghanistan, often testing fnew sensors and antennas used by the BACN to relay comms between command and control centers and ground troops located within valleys and ridges in the Afghan mountains during specific testing campaigns from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Surely, with up to 6,000-lb payload carried and a pallet system under the main fuselage area, this aircraft can fulfil a wide variety of special data gathering missions,.

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While its aircraft can be tracked online, the U.S. Air Force only worries about Tweets….

Bad OPSEC (Operations Security) exposed by Air War on ISIS?

“Loose Tweets Destroy Fleets” is the slogan (based on the U.S. Navy’s WWII slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships”) that the U.S. Air Force Central Command used a couple of weeks ago for an article aimed at raising airmen awareness about the risk of sharing sensitive information on social media.

Indeed, the AFCENT article speaks directly to the threat posed by Islamic State supporters who, according to Stripes, on at least two occasions have acquired and posted online personal data of military personnel, urging sympathizers, “lone wolves,” to attack Americans in the States and overseas in retaliation for the air strikes.

The article highlights the importance of proper OPSEC to keep sensitive information away from the enemy and to prevent leakage of information that could put missions, resources and members at risk,  “and be detrimental to national strategic and foreign policies.”

Interestingly, the article only focuses on the smart use of social media. Ok, however, there are other possible OPSEC violations that the U.S. Air Force (as well as many other air arms currently supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, in Iraq and Syria, or Enduring Freedom, in Afghanistan) should be concerned of.

In October 2014 we highlighted the risk of Internet-based flight tracking of aircraft flying war missions after 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 circles over the Ghazni Province.

The only presence of the aircraft over a sensitive target could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operations.

Although such risk was already exposed during opening stages of the Libya Air War, when some of the 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 websites very well, transponders remain turned on during real operations making the aircraft clearly visible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection.

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USAF C-146A Wolfhound of the 524th Special Operations Squadron

During the last few months many readers have sent us screenshots they took on FR24.com or PF.net (that only collect ADS-B broadcast by aircraft in the clear) showing military planes belonging to different air forces over Iraq or Afghanistan: mainly tankers and some special operations planes.

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Canadian tanker

We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed. Maybe they don’t consider their tankers’ racetrack position or the area of operations of an MC-12 ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft a sensitive information…

A330 over Iraq

RAF A330 tanker over Iraq

Image credit: screenshots from Flightradar24.com

 

War in the Web 2.0 era: how Air Forces deal (or don’t) with Internet-based flight tracking tools

During Libya air war, you could track Canadian tankers circling over the Mediterranean Sea while they refueled allied planes heading to bomb Gaddafi. Three years later, nothing has changed.

Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder are two famous Web-based services that let aviation enthusiasts, curious people, journalists and, generally speaking, anyone who has an Internet access on their computer, laptop or smartphone, track flights in real-time.

These portals/services (some features are not free) rely on a network of several hundred feeders around the world who receive and share Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders data.

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 (thus enhancing situational awareness) 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 those data.

Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder have a network of several hundred feeders around the world who make the flight information received by their home kits available for anybody. 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 of the position of the aircraft can also be calculated for those planes that do not broadcast their ADS-B data using Multilateration (MLAT).

MLAT (used by FR24) uses Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA): by measuring the difference in time to receive the signal from aircraft from four different receivers, the aircraft can be geolocated and followed 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) are civil airliners and business jets, military aircraft are also equipped with Mode-S ADS-B-capable transponder.

But, these are usually turned off during real war ops.

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.

Obviously, Web-based flight tracking services have become so famous and easy to operate, that air arms around the world know very well how to deal with them. Or at least they should know it.

During the opening stages of the Libya Air War, some of the 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.

Three years later, little has changed even though many pilots have confirmed that they are well aware of the above mentioned websites and for this reason are instructed to turn off their transponders when involved in real operations.

A U.S. plane possibly supporting ground troops in Afghanistan acting as an advanced communication relay can be regularly tracked as it circles over the Ghazni Province. As we explained in August, the aircraft did not broadcast its mission callsign, but based on the hex code FR24 could identify it as a Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft, an advanced ultra long-range business jet that has been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accommodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.

The presence of the orbiting E-11A (the last one monitored on Oct. 12, see the below FR24.com screenshot) could expose an imminent air strike, jeopardizing an entire operation.

GLEX Oct 12 12.37PM

Few days ago, during one the very first British air strikes on ISIS in Iraq, the RAF A330 Voyager tanker that accompanied the RAF Tornado GR4 fighter bombers could be tracked on Planefinder.net well inside Jordan’s airspace (see below), exposing its route from RAF Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus. No big deal, until that route overflies countries that are not happy to let the world know they are somehow supporting the US-led coalition.

Since the first appearance during a combat mission the RAF tanker has disappeared from “Internet” on the following days, a sign that the ADS-B “show” was a single mishap.

 

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Anyway, FR24.com, PF.net or home-made kits are extremely interesting and powerful tools to investigate, study and learn about civil and military aviation (in a legal way); air forces around the world have only to take them into proper account when executing combat missions in the same way other details, such as radio communications policies and EMCON (Emission Control) restrictions, are  while planning war sorties.

Image credit: Planefinder.net and Flightradar24.com screenshots

 

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U.S. airborne communication plane could be tracked on the Web for 9 hours during air strike that killed Taliban leaders in Afghanistan

At least seven Taliban militants were killed following a NATO air raid Afghanistan. Noteworthy, a sign of the developing operation may have been a U.S. Air Force E-11A BACN plane orbiting over southeasern Ghazni province, clearly visible on Flightradar24.com.

Although many military aircraft are equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transponders they are usually turned off during real war operations. In fact, by automatically broadcasting the plane’s callsign, GPS position, speed and altitude, these special transponders provide information about the plane can be received by ground stations, by other nearby aircraft (thus enhancing situational awareness) and also by commercial off-the-shelf or home-built receivers.

Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder have a network of several hundred feeders around the world who make the flight information received by their home kits available for anybody on their websites, or by means of their smartphone apps.

Even though some pilots have confirmed they are well aware of the above mentioned websites and for this reason are instructed to turn off their transponders when involved in real operation, during the opening stages of the Libya Air War, some of the 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.

Three years later, a U.S. plane involved in war mission over Afghanistan could be monitored for several hours as it circled at 41,000 feet to the southeast of Ghazni.

The aircraft did not broadcast its mission callsign, but based on the hex code FR24 could identify it as a Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft, an advanced ultra long-range business jet that has been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accomodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.

Within the U.S. Air Force, the modified jet is designated E-11A.

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 from ground commanders to their allies in the sky regardless of the type of the supporting aircraft and in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment. In the rugged, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, troops are not always able to establish LOS communications with close support aircraft overhead and moving position or relocating to higher ground could be fatal. In such situation, a legacy USAF A-10 attack aircraft could loiter away from the battlefield while using the BACN link to communicate with a special-forces Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC) on the ground until all targeting information is ready before “un-masking” and beginning an attack run.

The BACN system is also deployed onboard EQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs.

Anyway, the E-11A could be tracked on FR24.com for about 9 hours, from 21.54 UTC on Aug. 10 to 06.45 UTC on Aug. 11, when the aircraft got out of the flightradar24 coverage while returning back to Kandahar airfield (?). At the same time a NATO air strike in the same zone killed seven Taliban and wounded four.

Next time NATO is preparing a similar operation, the presence of the orbiting E-11A could expose and jeopardize the imminent air strike.

H/T to Jerod Harris for the heads-up.

Image credit: screenshot form flightradar24.com

 

“New” 41-year old WB-57 Canberra joins NASA fleet of high altitude special operations aircraft

On Sept. 12, NASA’s latest WB-57F, a 41-year old plane with registration N927NA arrived to Ellington Field, Texas, were it joined the other two flying WB-57Fs, NASA 926 and 928.

The aircraft arrived at its final destination after leaving the paint shop in Pinal Airpark Airport Marana, Arizona.

Based at Ellington Field, Texas, but often deployed to different bases, both within CONUS and abroad and, NASA’s Canberras conduct “special operations” alongside scientific research projects (on hurricanes, radiation impact on clouds, and so on).

In Afghanistan these unique aircraft have been used to test Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) a technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to transfer information and communicate.

Even if the new aircraft has not been allocated to the BACN program yet, it is quite likely it will soon support its twin Canberras in high altitude relay missions above the U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Image credit: Christopher A. Ebdon

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