Tag Archives: F-35

F-35 Stealth Aircraft Goes “Live” On Flight Tracking Websites As It Flies Mission Over Israel

An F-35, most probably one of the Adir jets recently delivered to the Israeli Air Force, appears on Flightradar24.com: deliberate action or just a case of bad OPSEC?

On Jul. 23, an F-35 went fully visible on popular flight tracking website Flightradar24.com as it performed a mission out of Nevatim airbase. The aircraft could be monitored for about 1 hour as it went “feet wet” (over the sea) north of Gaza then flew northbound to operate near Haifa.

Noteworthy, the F-35 used a US hex code (AF351F, first logged on Nov. 15, 2016 over at Live ModeS and since then regularly tracked in the US) even though it’s safe to believe it could be one of the Adir aircraft delivered to the Israeli Air Force in the last weeks. A hex code is a unique ICAO 24-bit address assigned to a Mode-S/ADS-B transponder.

According to Mil ModeS logs possible tailcode was 13-5067, even though this should be an F-35A that last June, based on the photographs available online, was assigned to the 6th Weapons Squadron, assigned to the USAF Weapons School, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Anyway, the F-35 flying over Israel yesterday did not broadcast its position via ADS-B but it could be tracked by means of Multilateration (MLAT). Using Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA) MLAT measures the difference in time to receive the signal from four different receivers, to geolocate and track an aircraft even if it does not transmit ADS-B data.

As we have widely explained here at The Aviationist (read here for a complete analysis):

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). […]

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.

As for the reasons why the aircraft could be tracked online, there are various theories. The first one is that it was a deliberate action: considered the F-35 went “live” few hours Israel made first operational use of David’s Sling missile defense system against two SS-21 Syrian ballistic missiles, there is someone who believes the mission was part of a PSYOPS aimed at threatening Israel’s enemies (Syria in particular). Our readers will probably remember the weird, most probably bogus claim of an IAF F-35 mission into the Iranian airspace originally reported by the Al-Jarida newspaper, a Kuwaiti outlet often used to deliver Israeli propaganda/PSYOPS messages.

However the Israeli Air Force has already made public the fact that the F-35 has been used in air strikes in the Middle East (Syria and another unspecified “front”) lately.  On May 23, the Israeli Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said during a IAF conference attended by 20 commander of air forces from around the world: “The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity”. He also showed a photograph of an “Adir” flying at high altitude off Beirut (with radar reflectors, hence not in “stealthy mode”). In other words, there’s probably no need to remind Syria or Iran that the Israeli Air Force has the F-35 since they are already using it in combat.

For this reason, there is also someone who believes that the first appearance of an Israeli Adir on Flightradar24 may have been a simple mistake: the Mode-S transponder was not turned off. A case of OPSEC fail in one of the most secretive air arms in the world.

Indeed, transponders are usually turned off during real operations as well as 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? Or just a mistake?

Here’s what we have been observing for some 7 years:

[…] during the 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.

So, what’s your take on this? The “F-35 visible over Israel” was a deliberate action or a mistake? Let us know in the comments section.

H/T to @CivMilAir and Righardt du Plessis for providing help in preparing this story. Top image credit: IAF and FR24.com

RAF Celebrates 100 Years with Spectacular Flyover in London

World’s Oldest Air Force Timed Massive Aerial Display to Perfection.

It was the first independent air force in the world; the Royal Air Force, the RAF. On Tuesday, July 10, 2018 it celebrated its 100th anniversary as the longest serving air force on the planet with a spectacular centenary aerial parade.

In celebration of its 100th Anniversary the RAF conducted a spectacular flyover Tuesday when aircraft including vintage Spitfires and brand new F-35s joined in an unprecedented historical review above The Mall and Buckingham Palace where the Royal Family turned out in full regalia to take in the observance and celebration. The U.K. have the most devoted aviation spotters and fans on earth and today’s aerial parade was an unmatched feast for veterans, photographers and aircraft enthusiasts.

Throughout its century-long history the Royal Air Force has stood for a stalwart and dignified gallantry unmatched by any other aerial service. The RAF has, since its beginning, always punched above its weight as a combat arm. From the battlefields of WWI to the tenacious and desperate homeland defense over the skies of London in the blitzkrieg of WWII and the Battle of Britain, the dam busters, the nighttime bombing raids on Germany to bush wars in Africa, the Middle East and Indochina, the RAF has always typified British toughness and heroism. The daring ultra-long range raid on the Falkland Islands by RAF Vulcan bombers in Operation Black Buck and the harrowing low-level attacks by Tornado GR1s on Iraqi runways in the Gulf War continued the illustrious record of the RAF into the jet age. Today the RAF continues the legacy with the combat proven Eurofighter Typhoon and its integration into the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter force with the newest F-35B Lightning II aircraft.

Approximately 100 aircraft, one for each of the centenary years, participated in the flyover at 1:00 PM local time in London. It was reminiscent of Russia’s Victory Day Parade, the July 2017 Chinese Zhurihe Military Training Base flyover in Inner Mongolia and North Korea’s recent conspicuous displays of military might. But, whereas some recent military aerial parades attempted to send a message of strength, the mood over London was one of quiet dignity and historical reverence for an illustrious past and hopeful future.

Aircraft in the flyover staged in a complex aerial ballet from RAF bases that included Colchester, Norfolk, Suffolk and others. The exact schedule of the launches and routes for the flyover were not made public prior to the flight citing security. The flyover ended with a review of the nine RAF demonstration team, the Red Arrows’ BAE Hawk aircraft streaming colored smoke over the route.

The flyover could also be tracked online thanks to ADS-B/Mode-S/MLAT.

It took at least 11 months of planning according to the RAF to coordinate the flights. The project was managed by Wing Commander Kevin Gatland, Chief of Staff of the Tornado force based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. A total of 17 different RAF aircraft participated in the flyover including nearly every role of aircraft in the current inventory, from surveillance and attack aircraft to tactical transports. The most conspicuous absence was the Vulcan bomber, retired from flight demonstrations in October 2015. Standing in as a spectacular representative of Britain’s heavy bomber force was a Lancaster bomber as used in the night raids over Germany and the famous “dam buster” operation. It was also the first public flight demonstration of the RAF F-35Bs.

Coordination of the flight was complex considering the first wave of aircraft, tactical helicopters, flew over the parade route at only 100 knots, while the fast jets flew over the demonstration area at over 300 knots. As a result of the disparity in speed and performance the aircraft staged in waves at appropriate, synchronized distances from their parade rendezvous point hours before the flyover. The interval between the aircraft as they converged over the parade route was only 30 seconds.

Wing Commander Kevin Gatland told reporters, “So you have a very long train of aircraft which are compressing as they get overhead central London.” As a result of the flyover, London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the busiest in the world, had to cease operations for approximately 20 minutes.

Media from around the world covered the event both from camera aircraft adjacent to the flyover route and from the ground. Considering the historical significance of the event the flyover could be considered a resounding success even as overcast skies held above the formations.

Two Chinooks flying over London during the parade. (Image credit: Crown Copyright).

The 100-Year Anniversary of the RAF will continue this month as the Royal International Air Tattoo will take place at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on July 13-15. It is the largest display of military aircraft in the world according to organizers with over 8 hours of flight demonstrations each day and hundreds of static displays and exhibitions.

Image credit: Crown Copyright

Operation “Lightning”: Four Italian F-35A Stealth Jets Deploy to Rivolto And Engage “Polygone” range in Germany

The Italian 5th generation jets have made another step to declare IOC (Initial Operational Capability).

On Jun. 8, for Italian Air Force F-35s, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola airbase, landed at Rivolto, headquarters of the 2° Stormo, for their first operational deployment to another Italian airbase dubbed “Operation Lightning” (actually, the Italian Lightnings had already deployed to Decimomannu but as part of their first firing campaign in the Sardinian ranges).

During the subsequent week, the Italian stealth jets carried out a wide variety of activities including training operations with the SPADA missile systems Missile Group of the 2° Stormo. Interestingly, taking off from Rivolto and flying over Austria and Germany, the Italian F-35s also flew over “Polygone”, in Bann, Germany: the 5th generation aircraft performed an average of six sorties each day.

The activity was aimed at assessing and enhancing the skills required to conduct complex deployments far from the F-35’s main operating base and a step required to achieve the type’s Initial Operational Capability in the air-to-ground role (the IOC in the air-to-air role has already been achieved).

“Operation Lightning” came to an end on Friday Jun. 15, when the aircraft returned back to Amendola, along with the supporting personnel.

F-35 during ground refueling operations at Rivolto.

Image credit: ItAF

Work On The First European-built F-35 For The Netherlands Starts At Cameri FACO in Italy

Assembly of the first European-built F-35 for the Royal Netherlands Air Force has kicked off in Italy.

On Jun. 15, Dutch Secretary of State for Defense Barbara Visser gave a symbolic start signal to the assembly of the first F-35 for the RNlAF at Cameri Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO), in northwestern Italy. She did so by placing her signature on the hull of the AN-9, the ninth of the Netherlands’ 37 F-35A CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) stealth jets on order. The first eight F-35A are being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility in the U.S. with two F-35s already used for testing at Edwards AFB, California, and the rest heading to Luke Air Force Base for pilot training.

AN-9 will be the first F-35 to arrive in the Netherlands: the aircraft is expected to roll off the production line in February 2019. It will undertake test and acceptance flights in Italy before moving to Leeuwarden in October 2019.

On May 23, 2016, the first two Dutch F-35A aircraft, AN-1 (F-001) and AN-2 (F-002), arrived at Leeuwarden air base, in the Netherlands, at the end of the type’s first eastbound transatlantic crossing, for a short “tour” in anticipation of the type’s final arrival at the end of 2019. The two aircraft started their journey to Europe from Edwards Air Force Base, California, and crossed the Pond as “NAF 81” (then “Archer 1” and “Archer 2”) after a stopover in Patuxent River, Maryland, supported by two KDC-10s. During their brief European deployment, on Jun. 10, 2016, the two RNlAF F-35s made the type’s international airshow debut during the “Luchtmachtdagen 2016” airshow at Leeuwarden Air Base.

29 F-35A jets for the Royal Netherlands Air Force will be built at Cameri that has already assembled ten F-35A for the Italian Air Force and the first F-35B for the Italian Navy (out of 60 CTOL and 30 STOVL procured by the Italian MoD).

The Italian FACO, a 101-acre facility including 22 buildings and more than one million square feet of covered work space, housing 11 assembly stations, and five maintenance, repair, overhaul, and upgrade bays, is owned by the Italian Ministry of Defense and is operated by Leonardo in conjunction with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. According to Lockheed, 800 skilled personnel are engaged in full assembly of the Conventional Take-off/Landing F-35A and F-35B aircraft variants and is also producing 835 F-35A full wing sets to support all customers in the program. It has the only F-35B production capability outside the United States and was selected in December 2014 as the European F-35 airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade center for the entire European region.

Top image: one of the first two RNLAF F-35s on the ground at Eglin AFB. Dutch staff moved from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to Edwards Air Force Base in California in January 2015 for the operational test phase. Credit: The Netherlands MoD

 

Image Of Israeli F-35 Flying Off Beirut (With Radar Reflectors) As Well As More Details About The Adir’s First Strikes Emerge

A photograph of an Israeli Air Force F-35 flying (more or less..) “over” Beirut has been made public. Interestingly, the image seems to prove the stealthy aircraft was flying with radar reflectors.

As reported yesterday, the Israeli Air Force F-35 stealth aircraft have had their baptism of fire taking part in air strike in the Middle East (Syria and another unspecified “front”) lately. “The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity” the Israeli Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, said during a IAF conference attended by 20 commander of air forces from around the world. Interestingly, Norkin also presented an image showing an IAF F-35I over Beirut, Lebanon that was not released in first place but surfaced on social media on May 23.

Here it is:

The somehow blurry image is interesting for at least a couple of reasons: first of all, it shows the aircraft flying at high altitude off (rather than “over”) Beirut. Second, it seems to show that the aircraft was also operating with radar reflectors (highlighted in the image below), hence not in “stealthy mode”:

Highlighted in a screenshot from Israel Television News Company one of the F-35’s four radar reflectors.

Here’s what radar reflectors, also known as RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers, are as explained in a previous article this Author posted here at The Aviationist earlier this year:

Stealth aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning II 5th generation jets are equipped with Luneburg (or Luneberg) lenses: radar reflectors used to make the LO (Low Observable) aircraft (consciously) visible to radars. These devices are installed on the aircraft on the ground are used whenever the aircraft don’t need to evade the radars: during ferry flights when the aircraft use also the transponder in a cooperative way with the ATC (Air Traffic Control) agencies; during training or operative missions that do not require stealthiness; or, more importantly, when the aircraft operate close to the enemy whose ground or flying radars, intelligence gathering sensors.

This is what we explained explaining how the Israeli the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern to the Israeli F-35 Adir recently declared IOC:

[…] the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.

In fact, tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft are built to defeat radar operating at specific frequencies; usually high-frequency bands as C, X, Ku and S band where the radar accuracy is higher (in fact, the higher the frequency, the better is the accuracy of the radar system).

However, once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold and causes a resonant effect, LO aircraft become increasingly detectable. For instance, ATC radars, that operate at lower-frequency bands are theoretically able to detect a tactical fighter-sized stealth plane whose shape features parts that can cause resonance. Radars that operate at bands below 300 MHz (lower UHF, VHF and HF radars), such as the so-called Over The Horizon (OTH) radars, are believed to be particularly dangerous for stealth planes: although they are not much accurate (because lower frequency implies very large antenna and lower angle accuracy and angle resolution) they can spot stealth planes and be used to guide fighters equipped with IRST towards the direction the LO planes might be.

F-35s deployed abroad usually feature their typical four radar reflectors: to exaggerate their real RCS (Radar Cross Section) and negate the enemy the ability to collect any detail about their LO “signature”. As happened during the short mission to Estonia and then Bulgaria, carried out by the USAF F-35As involved in the type’s first overseas training deployment to Europe or when, on Aug. 30, 2017, four U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joined two USAF B-1B Lancers for the JSF’s first show of force against North Korea: the F-35Bs flew with the radar reflectors, a sign they didn’t want their actual radar signature to be exposed to any intelligence gathering sensor in the area

The two radar reflectors installed on the right side of the F-35. The other two are on the other side.

Since they almost always fly with the radar reflectors, photographs of the aircraft without the four notches (two on the upper side and two on the lower side of the fuselage) are particularly interesting: for instance, some shots taken on Jan. 24, 2018 and just released by the U.S. Air Force show F-35As deployed to Kadena AB, Japan, in October as a part of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Theater Security Package program, preparing to launch without their Luneberg reflectors.

According to Nir Dvori, the journalist who first published the image of the stealth aircraft off Beirut seemingly flying with RCS enhancers, “they test [the F-35] in all kind of options. Fly with and without reflectors”. Indeed, the use of RCS enhancers would simply mean that stealthiness was not required for that specific mission during which they preferred to hide the aircraft’s stealth features preventing the enemy to collect data about the aircraft and test their radar hardware against the Lightning II. Moreover, the F-35 appears to be flying off Lebanon, accompanied by another aircraft (the photo ship), possibly another F-35 or a completely different type – even a G550 like those that continuously fly off Lebanon and Syria and are trackable by means of their Mode-S transponders. This means that the photo might well have been taken during a simple “recon” mission rather than a combat one. Meanwhile, according to Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer:

Not all the missions that the F-35 has so far carried out needed this [stealth] capability. They took part in an airstrike on a Hamas tunnel on the border of the Gaza Strip. Hamas does not have radar, but F-35s were used on this relatively simple mission as part of the process through which its proves it various capabilities. More complex operations against Iranian and Hezbollah targets north of Israel would have utilized its stealth capabilities and some of these did not necessarily involve the F-35 launching missiles itself.

Therefore, it seems confirmed that:

– Not all F-35 missions required stealth capabilities
– The Adir jets were also used against “easy” targets
– The F-35s have taken part in missions during those the Adir did not drop bombs (therefore, it probably acted as “combat battlefield coordinator,” collecting, managing and distributing intelligence possibly sharing targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft).
– The image seems to prove the F-35 have flown at high-altitude off Beirut (someone says it might have been in international airspace, 12 Nautical Miles from the coast, when the shot was taken, but this can’t be verified based on the screenshot only).

Disclaimer: to our knowledge and based on the sources available on the Internet, those four bumps highlighted in the images you can find in this post are indeed radar reflectors. Several magazines and publications also refer to them as RCS enhancers or Luneberg lenses. Still, if we are wrong and these are EW signal emitters as someone claims, please let us know. Furthermore, the top image is a screenshot from a slide presented during a IAF conference not an actual photograph.