Tag Archives: F-35 Lightning II

Has An RC-135U Combat Sent Signal Intelligence Aircraft “Covered” The Two F-35A Stealth Jets Visiting Estonia?

Yesterday two USAF F-35A stealth aircraft performed a quick visit to Estonia. But their mission to the Baltic region was probably not only supported by a KC-135: an RC-135U and two RC-135Ws flew to the area while the 5th Gen. jets were there.

On Apr. 25, two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK since mid April, flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Ämari, Estonia.

Based on the information gathered by aircraft spotters, airband listeners and ADS-B monitors, who tracked the mission to Estonia of the F-35s, the two 5th generation multirole combat aircraft , 14-5102 and 14-5094, using radio callsign “Conan 01” and accompanied by “Quid 89”, a 100ARW KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall, departed from RAF Lakenheath at 07.35z.

The trio landed in Estonia shortly before 11.00z and took part in a brief ceremony (at this link you can find some interesting photographs).

Noteworthy, the quick visit to Estonia was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region.

In fact, as the F-35s headed towards Amari in formation with their KC-135 tanker, as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF bird) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia.

The U.S. Air Force dispatched an RC-135W Rivet Joint 62-4139 “Haiti 79” and an RC-135U Combat Sent 64-14847 “Spool 06” to the Baltic states.

The Rivet Joint positioned off Kaliningrad Oblast, where some of the most active Russian bases in the Baltic region are located, whereas the Combat Sent started a racetrack over Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia.

 

Shortly thereafter, even a RAF RC-135W “Airseeker,” one of the three ex-USAF KC-135 tanker converted to the Rivet Joint variant starting back in 2011, from RAF Waddington joined the scene. The British intelligence gathering plane that, just like the American “RJs” is equipped with all sorts of antennae and sensors, to eavesdrop enemy signals, transmissions, detect frequencies used by radio and radars and pinpoint sites of interest, mobile stations, SAM batteries, etc., maintained a racetrack off Kaliningrad.

RC135W ZZ664 RRR7220 west of Kaliningrad (via @CivMilAir)

At 14.43Z, the two JSFs departed Ämari to return to the UK and shortly thereafter both the U.S. and RAF spyplanes headed back to their homebases.

Although we can’t but speculate here, it appears to be quite likely that the RC-135 missions to the Baltic were somehow related to the deployment of the F-35 so close to the Russian border. In fact, whilst Rivet Joint and Combat Sent aircraft regularly fly to the region and can be daily tracked online as they head towards the international airspace off Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the presence of three such spyplanes not too far away from one another seems to suggest their missions were coordinated and probably related to something “big” happening there.

And the only “big thing” (Zapad 2017 preparation aside) we are currently aware of is the first presence of the JSF in Estonia. Moreover, not only was the type of racetrack flown by the Combat Sent unusual, but it was also located in a pretty interesting position: east of Ämari, as if the RC-135U, an aircraft designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems, was there to detect emissions from Russian radars interested in the F-35.

However, there is another possibility: what if the American and British spyplanes were there to deter the Russian from using their radars?

Indeed, whilst three RC-135s flying at the same time in the same area is something unusual, it is quite weird that the three spyplanes had their ADS-B transponder turned on during their missions.

“If they wanted to hide, they would do” says the ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast who runs the popular @CivMilAir and @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds. “The daily RC-135s flights over the Middle East very rarely show up and even the daily missions to the Baltics can usually be tracked during their transit to the area of operations, where often the transponder is turned off. That’s why I believe they remained trackable on purpose.”

Spyplanes, including the U-Boat (as the RC-135U Combat Sent is nicknamed in the pilot community), usually operate in “due regard” with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts. Even if RC-135s can be regularly tracked online, they tend to keep a low-profile when reaching the area of operations, turning off the ADS-B to avoid being detected at least by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.

On Apr. 25, both RC-135s could tracked throughout their missions suggesting they did purposely broadcast their position for everyone to see, to let everyone know they were there.

Russian spyplanes have done pretty much the same in the past: 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. In that case it was a sort of “show of force”; yesterday was likely a way to prevent some interesting details about the F-35 to be gathered by the Russians.

By the way, it’s not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics are directly or undirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

H/T to @CivMilAir, @MIL_Radar, Fighter Control forum

Top image credit: Tim Felce (Airwolfhound) via Wiki Commons

 

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Red Flag 17-1 Combat Exercise Near Las Vegas: a Paradise for Aircraft Spotters.

Huge Variety of International Tactical and Support Aircraft Invade Nellis AFB for Realistic Exercise

The ramp at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada has been a paradise for aircraft spotters since the beginning of the Red Flag 17-1 large-scale training exercise last week.

The Red Flag exercises at Nellis are planned and executed by the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center. The exercises simulate actual combat scenarios in regions around the world. A key component of the Red Flag training exercises are practice in integrating air assets from international air forces so they can accomplish a high degree of interoperability in an actual combat situation, wherever it may happen around the world.

Red Flag training scenarios frequently involve the delivery of live, full-scale air to ground weaponry on secure ranges in Nevada. The participants must “fight” their way into the target area, execute the planned strike, and egress the contested airspace.

While air-to-air engagements are fought using a variety of simulation technologies some air-to-ground exercises use live weapons such as bombs and air to ground missiles. At least one aircraft in videos emerged so far was carrying live anti-radiation air-to-ground missiles used for engaging surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats.

A maintainer assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing conducts preflight checks on an F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, during Red Flag 17-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 24, 2017. The F-35A is one of two U.S. Air Force fifth generation multi-role fighter aircraft participating in 17-1. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

The list of aircraft at this Red Flag exercise, named “Red Flag 17-1” as the number “1” Red Flag of the year 20”17”, hence “17-1”, is truly remarkable: USAF B-1 Lancer heavy bombers, EC-130 Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, E-8 Joint STARs surveillance aircraft, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and F-15 Eagle fighters from the USAF, KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft, E-7 aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force, Typhoon FGR4 aircraft from the RAF among others.

This is the first deployment to a Red Flag exercise for the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, these from Hill AFB, and the first large deployment to an exercise since the F-35 was declared combat ready in August 2016. As already explained in a previous post, teaming up with the Raptors, the Lightning IIs have so far achieved a striking 15:1 kill ratio with the Aggressors F-16s.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Dave Smith, commander of the 419th Fighter Wing, the F-35 wing deployed to Red Flag 17-1, told media, “Red Flag is hands-down the best training in the world to ensure our Airmen are fully mission ready. It’s as close to combat operations as you can get.”

There are four Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB each year with each one providing different combat simulation exercises as well as a unique opportunity for aviation enthusiasts to catch some incredible photos and videos of the aircraft launching and recovering at the airbase off Las Vegas.

Enjoy this cool video of the air ops at Nellis during a Red Flag.

 

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“Even though we will lose CAS capacity, we are retiring the A-10 anyway” U.S. Air Force says

The U.S. Air Force has revealed that the A-10 retirement will begin in fiscal year 2018.

Taken on Feb. 26, the picture in this post shows an A-10 Warthog in action during a joint air attack team exercise at Yakima Training Center, Washington, where the “Hogs” trained alongside the AH-64 Apache helicopters deployed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., providing Close Air Support (CAS) to Soldiers with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Still, this kind of training will come to an end in the near future. In fact, in spite of its unmatched capabilities in the CAS role, the U.S. Air Force will soon retire its A-10 fleet.

As reported by DefenseNews.com, the service has recently revealed the number of A-10s that will be retired each year before the type is completely withdrawn from service in 2022.

The plan call for the retirement of 49 planes or 2 squadrons in fiscal year (FY) 2018. This will be followed by 49 aircraft in FY2019, 64 in FY2020, and 96 in FY2021.

During a hearing held at the House Armed Services Committee on Mar. 16 Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said that accelerating the retirement of the A-10 will help to better support the stand up of F-35 squadrons. “If we keep the A-10, by FY21 — the scheduled FOC (Final Operational Capability) date for the F-35 — we will be about 50 percent short of the maintenance manpower we need to field the F-35. So it’s a manpower problem.”

However, even though the F-35 can perform the CAS mission, it would be too expensive using the Lightning II in the A-10 role, thus leaving the problem of the Hog replacement unsolved. As explained by Welsh himself: “The F-35 is intended to the high-threat CAS platform, (with the retirement of the A-10) we are losing CAS capacity.”

Image credit: Sgt. Cody Quinn/28th Public Affairs Detachment / U.S. Army

 

Photo shows F-35 SOM-J Air-Launched Cruise Missile separation tests in wind tunnel

Turkish air-launched cruise missile is being tested for integration on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

SOM (Stand-Off Missile) is a high precision cruise missile, developed since 2006 and unveiled for the first time during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Turkish Air Force at Izmir, in June 2011.

The SOM can be used against stationary and moving targets at a distance of over 180 kilometers.

SOM-J is a low observable SOM variant designed to fit internal weapon bay of the F-35 Lightning II jet.

Another major difference is the warhead of SOM-J which is anti-ship and semi-armour piercing type with blast/fragmentation effects on soft targets (i.e. personnel, unarmoured military vehicles, radars, buildings, etc.).

The development activities have been initiated under the contract between Undersecretariat for Defence Industries (SSM) and ROKETSAN Inc. According to this contract, TÜBİTAK SAGE has been subcontracted to perform development activities.

Based on the material provided by Arda Mevlutoglu, owner of siyahgribeyaz.com, who sent us the press releases distributed by ROKETSAN during the meeting, the platform integration activities for the F-35 have started. Among the activities that have already conducted successfully, there are the wind tunnel tests.

Finalization of complete product is planned in 2018, when SOM-J will be available to all F-35 users.

H/T Arda Mevlutoglu for the heads-up

 

Non-US F-35 takes to the skies: first UK's Joint Strike Fighter inaugural flight (with some nice low-visibility markings)

Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility has been deafened by the first non-U.S customers F-35 taking to the skies for the first time.

BK1, the UK’s first of three development aircraft which rolled off the production line during November 2011 and will fly with the RAF serial ZM135, made its inaugural test flight on Apr. 13 with Lockheed’s pilot Bill Gigliotti at the controls.

The second non-U.S F-35 destined for The Netherlands, has just rolled off the line and will be second in line to take to the air.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

The “B” model flight announces a milestone in the F-35 story, but also the beginning of the UK’s involvement which is proving to be a story in itself.

Originally, the first three test planes for the UK had to be “B” ones in the STOVL (short take off vertical landing) version, but in 2010 as consequence of the Defence Spending Review, decided to go with the C model with the arrestor hook. Following the decision, the UK worked out a deal with the US to swap BK3 (the third plane) to a C model (CK-1).

However after looking more closely at how much the change to the C model (that in the meanwhile experienced some problems with its arrestor hook to such an extent a new one had to be re-designed) will cost over the lifetime of the carriers the UK is currently building, the Ministry of Defense is thinking about reverting to the B model once again.

The two Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth & HMS Prince of Wales) were originally designed with the STOVL version of the F-35 in mind, therefore were not designed with a cat and trap launch and recovery system similar to the one used by the American flattops. Hence, the cost of refitting one of the two carriers, only slightly smaller than a Nimitz class supercarrier, with a brand new catapult system, could be greater than anticipated.

Noteworthy, the new British JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) wears interesting low visibility national markings (roundel and tail flash). By the way, it’s not going to be easy to distinguish the UK’s roundel from that of Italy.

Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti

Image credit: Lockheed Martin via Combat Aircraft FB page