The aircraft could be tracked online on Flightradar24 thanks to the signals of its ADS-B transponder as it flew from Hmeymim airbase, near Latakia, over the southern Syrian airspace, then into Iraq: the aircraft is likely following the eastern corridor that overflies Iran and the Caspian Sea, and it is possibly returning to Kazan, where KAPO (Kazan Aircraft Production Association), the Russian company that builds the plane.
So, the aircraft has eventually completed its first tour of duty in Syria using its wide array of radar systems and electro optical sensors to map the position of the enemy forces or intercept the signals emitted by the enemy systems (radars, aircraft, radios, combat vehicles, mobile phones etc).
A quick look at the main events and news I’ve covered on this blog during 2011 helped me to identify the topics that can be used to characterize the year that is coming to an end.
Before I start, please let me spend a few words about this blog.
Articles on these subjects, along with many more blog posts for a total of 231 articles in the last year only, were read on average by more than 3,200 daily unique visitors worth +1,200,000 unique visitors from all around the world in 2011!
Thank you all for reading my articles (not only on the website but also on “traditional” magazines) and for you continuous support. The impressive amount of visitors and their demand for both updates and the usual professional analysis of the most important aviation and defense news will probably lead me to seek the help of some additional writer….
“Libya Air War”, “F-22 grounding”, “Stealth Black Hawk down”, “Captured RQ-170 drone in Iran”: these are the headlines that more than any other have may have changed the perception of military aviation we had at the beginning of the year; an year that has sent us some interesting “messages”:
There’s an increasing need for drones. Robots are cheaper than conventional planes (as their hourly cost is about a fifth the cost of a manned plane), expendable, persistent and effective, especially in Libya-like scenarios (read below for more info on this subject…) where they do not face hi-altitude anti-aircraft missiles. They are not only useful in combat, they are also used to perform reconnaissance and surveillance in areas hit by natural calamities or along the borders for national security purposes. That’s why air forces and other operators have drones on the top of their shopping lists.
Drones are remotely controlled by humans. Hence, they often fall becaused of pilot errors. In fact, although their pilots don’t risk their lives they lack some motion-induced feelings that manned platform pilots have and can react to quickly. Furthermore, airmen who remotely fly attack drones have been experiencing emotional stress caused from long hours of work and ever-increasing workloads to such an extent that there are many on the edge of mental illnesses.
Black projects and advanced stealth tech are not only speculation: the existence of a Stealth Black Hawk helicopter whose designation is not MH-X (and most probably of a Stealth Chinook too), was exposed in May 2011 by the first images that circulated on the Internet of the tail part of one of the helicopters involved in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, at Abbottabad, Pakistan. Black projects, supposed to remain secret, are now a reality and they not only live in conspiracy theories and rumors. They exist and take part in special operations “behind the enemy lines”.
Advanced stealth tech is not only U.S. stuff: with the “epic fail” of the RQ-170 and the Stealth Black Hawk’s tail survived to the destruction, chunks of stealth tech and an entire once secret drone are in the hands of some of the worst U.S. friends/enemies: Pakistan, Iran, China and maybe Russia. Probably, not a big deal. Surely, a leap forward in their knowledge of American wartech.
Wars can come unannounced and air forces can’t be found unprepared for that. The air campaign in Libya from March to October 2011 eventually led to the declaration of the full liberation of the country by the National Transitional Council but the way it was planned and executed by a coalition of NATO and non-NATO members has raised many questions. From various reasons, Operation Unified Protector seemed more an opportunity to promote specific air forces and their weapon systems rather than a means to achieve a clear military objective.
For this reason it lasted much more than expected, in spite of the total lack of threat posed by the Libyan Arab Air Force and the extensive use of legacy as well as brand new technologies, including drones, new generation fighters and EW assets, stealth bombers on Global Power missions and cruise missiles.
Indeed, beyond the marketing slogans of the manufacturers, eager to put their products under the spotlight, and the statements of the high rank officers of some services involved in the air campaign (often with the only task of performing endless orbits above the desert to wait for an enemy fighter that never showed up), Operation Unified Protector was an example of how the Air Power should not be used.
So, which were the “lessons identified” in Libya by coalition members that will hopefully become “learned” in the next few years?
1) The need for more drones to perform ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) as well as strike missions.
2) The need for more tankers: along with 80% of all the special operations planes (RC-135s, U-2s, E-8 Joint Stars, EC-130Js providing Electronic Warfare, SIGINT, PSYOPS, etc.) more than any bomber, the real added value of Washington’s contribution to the Operation Unified Protector were the obsolete KC-135s and KC-10s which offloaded million pounds of fuel to the allied planes.
3) The need for more bombs in stock: many air forces involved in the air strikes ran short of bombs after the first 90 days of the war.
4) The need for light bombs that can prevent collateral damages. Even if the Paveways and the French AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) performed well, the war reinforced the need for lighter weapons as the dual-mode Brimstones, small guided missiles with a range of 7.5 miles, a millimeter wave radar seeker, a semi-active laser (SAL) that enables final guidance to the target by either the launching platform or another plane, that proved to be perfect for small targets, individuals and fast-moving vehicles.
4) The need for low-cost combat planes: even if the multi-role Eurofighter Typhoon and the “omnirole” Dassault Rafale were at the forefront before, during and after the war because they were shortlisted in the India’s Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft “mother of all tenders”, the war in Libya reinforced the need for cheaper planes (as the Italian AMX) to contain the cost of prolonged operations.
Above image courtesy of Nicola Ruffino
5) Helicopters must be used in combat within strike packages, i.e. the French way.
British Apaches on board HMS Ocean flew in pairs and completed roughly 25 combat sorties striking 100 targets in the coastal areas of Brega and Tripoli. Another 40 missions were cancelled due to insufficient intelligence information and the residual threat posed by Libyan anti-aircraft systems.
On the other side, French combat helicopters flew within strike packages and conducted 90% of NATO helicopter strikes in Libya destroying more than 600 targets, including what was left of Gaddafi’s armored and mechanized forces. French helicopters were crucial to the successful take of Tripoli and the final victory.
Back to the UK’s AH-64s embarked operations exposed several shortcomings of the Apache, such as the need for both a floating device and a new canopy jettison system that could improve the crew’s survival probability in the event of ditching.
6) As happened in Serbia, an air campaign must focus on a quick achievement of the air superiority and a subsequent intense use of the air power against the ground targets. The way the air campaign was conducted and planned in Libya, contributed to transform what could have been a quick victory into an almost deadlocked battlefield: during the whole operation, no more than 100 air strike sorties were launched on a single day, with the daily average of 45.
By comparison, during Allied Force in Serbia in 1999, on average, 487 sorties were launched each day, 180 being strike sorties, even if in the opening stages of the war and towards the end (when the air strikes against the Serbian ground forces became more intense), the alliance flew more than 700 daily sorties with roughly one third being bombing missions. A modern war in such a low-risk scenario is always an opportunity for air forces to show their capabilities, to test their most modern equipment in a real environment and to fire live ordnance.
Successful results during the Libyan air war have given them the opportunity to request the budget needed to save some planes from defense cuts and the RAF Sentinel R1 saga’s happy ending can be considered a confirmation of this.
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.
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.
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 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?
With the air campaign in Libya in progress for more than 100 days, I think it’s better to give the blog’s reader an extremely quick recap of the main political and military updates (just to recall the latest developments that can be found on mainstream media) and then focus a bit more on the many “Other interesting things, information and thoughts” section of my Debriefs.
On Jun. 27, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant on suspicion of crimes against humanity for Libyan leader Gaddafi along with his closest aides: his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. Libya dismissed the ICC warrant, rejecting the authority of the tribunal.
In the meanwhile, with the air support of NATO, rebels are continuing their advance towards Tripoli: their forces are now within 50 miles from the capital. They have recently seized some Libyan arms depots located 25 km south of Zenten and collected many weapons left on the field by the retreating Gaddafi’s troops. Actually, they have also been supplied with large amounts of rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles, into the Jebel Nafusa region by France, Le Figaro newspaper reported on Jun. 28 (citing an undisclosed source). These “humanitarian drops” gave the anti-Government forces the impetus to push towards the capital and to protect undefended civilians that were threatened by loyalists. For sure such air drops could not be done without a prior coordination with NATO, required for planes deconfliction; however, as important as informing partners of such mission was a prior coordination with liaison officers on the ground (like those I talked about on my last report) who could ensure that the dropped “goods” did not go in the wrong hands.
Anyway, NATO and partners’ air and sea activities have contributed to bring some stabilization in certain parts of Libya as Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the Operation Unified Protector, explained in Jun. 28 Press Briefing. Benghazi is now seeing signs of normalcy, while Brega and Ajdabiya continue to stabilize, even if “a significant size force in the Brega area” is still under the regime control.
Further to the west, in the Misratah area, the population has been able to move forward from the port while in the area between Zlitan and Dafiniyah the regime forces have placed around 300 civilians to shield themselves against any operations.
In the west, Nalut area is still under shelling by artillery pieces while fighting in the town of Yafran and Zlitan have stopped. “In Tripoli, the situation remains very tense. We have reports that the population has tried at some places to show some demonstrations against the regime. But these demonstrations have been very severely put down by a very repressive security force” Bouchard said.
Noteworthy, during the Press Briefing NATO showed reconnaissance imagery showing the words “TNX NATO” or “Thank you” written on a road next to a check point or on a roof top to be seen from above: a sign of appreciation for what NATO is doing in Libya from local population.
Dealing with figures of NATO air campaign, since the beginning of Unified Protector (Mar. 31, 08.00GMT) a total of 13.035 sorties, including 4.908 strike sorties, have been conducted.
Above: air strike sorties trend since Mar.31 (courtesy of @88simon88)
Few days earlier, on Jun.10, outgoing US Defense SecretaryRobert Gates had lashed out US European allies complaining that the poorly effective air campaign in Libya was pushing NATO towards “collective military irrelevance.”
US SECDEF condemned European nations for years of shrinking defense budgets that have forced the US to play, once again, a major role in the NATO operation. With frustration, he said:
“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”
However “a NATO with reduced capabilities is still better than no NATO at all”, he said.
Under a political point of view, another interesting news is that Germany will supply bombs and other ordnance components to help NATO in Libya in spite of Berlin’s opposition not only to join air strikes but also to flying support missions (you’ll remember the decision to remove their crews from NATO AWACS operating in Libya). It looks like the decision came after a request from NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA).
On Jun. 14 Tunisian AF F-5s & reconnaissance helicopters flew along the Tunisia-Libya bordar after Libyan troops fired rockets (thanks to @Marguer_D for the heads up). Tunisian planes had been reported flying along the border as “show of force” even on May 17, after pro-Gaddafi forces had fired shells to retake the border crossing near the small Tunisian town of Dehiba.
Other interesting information, things and thoughts:
1) On Jun. 19 NATO acknowledged that a missile had destroyed a civilian home in Tripoli, saying it may have killed civilians. Although NATO’s bombs had already hit rebels in the past months, it was the first such admission of collateral damages involving civilians in the three-month-long air campaign of airstrikes in Libya.
2) On Jun. 21, a US Navy unmanned helicopter MQ-8B Fire Scout, flying a reconnaissance mission over Libya, crashed at 07.20 AM LT. The only information disclosed by both NATO and USN is that the aircraft crashed on the coast so it is still unknown whether the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) lost control or was attacked and from where it was being controlled (even if it must have been a US ship in the area). It would be extremely interesting to know if the drone suffered communication link loss like the example lost on Aug. 2, 2010 when the little remotely-piloted helo, departed from NAS Patuxent River, because of a software glitch flew towards Washington DC and entered restricted airspace before another ground control station was able to regain command of the UAS and directed it to Webster Field, MD.
We already knew that, along with armed US Predators, unarmed US Global Hawks were flying reconnaissance missions in Libya in support of Unified Protector and that these could be soon joined by recently acquired (unarmed) Italian Air Force Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) based in Amendola, that Italy could use over Libya by mid July. Now we know that also smaller drones flying from ships have been conducting ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions.
3) On Jun. 10, the Dutch Government decided to extend the RNlAF contribution to the NATO operation in Libya until September 2011. The six F-16s deployed to Decimomannu airbase will not change their role and will not take part in air strikes.
However, in the same days, the Netherlands were asked to help replenish the RDAF stock because, having flown 346 sorties dropping 565 PGMs to date, Danish F-16s deployed to Sigonella have almost ran out of bombs.
On Jun 9, the Norwegian government decided to keep contributing to Unified Protector with a reduced contingent of 4 (instead of 6) F-16s until Aug. 1. On Jun. 14 Aksel Magdahl provided the following tally of the RNoAF effort in Libya: 198 missions, 445 sorties, 409 bombs dropped. An interesting 6 mins movie about Norwegian missions from Souda Bay can be found here: http://forsvaret.no/aktuelt/publisert/nyheter/Sider/Rundet–2000-flytimer.aspx
Swedish parliament voted 230-18 in support of 3 month extension of SwLm JAS-39 Gripen mission in Libya on Jun. 17. As of Jun. 29, Swedish recce Gripens have conducted 248 missions shooting 130K images (@GripenNews).
4) Canadian air sorties as of 2359Z Jun. 27: CF-188: 461; CC-150: 138; CC-130: 46; CP-140: 82. Dealing with the 2 CP-140s, an interesting article published on the Canada National Defense website, explains that the “Aurora”, originally designed for anti-submarine warfare is being used also in ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions.
Here’s an excerpt:
Throughout thosee early maritime surveillance missions, the Auroras showed their top-class form. Not only fast — they can do 400 knots, as fast as the CT-114 Tutor jets the Snowbirds fly — Auroras have plenty of stamina, staying aloft for up to 12 hours. They carry an array of sensors to gather and record the precise, reliable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data required to create a clear picture of the situation at ground level or at sea. With this unique combination of capabilities, the Auroras were a natural choice for inland ISR missions, and they now provide ISR data on Libya’s coastline, highways and command and control centres.
“This is a new role for us,” said Captain Stephanie Hale, the Air Combat Systems Officer and Operations Officer on Roto 0 of the Sigonella detachment. “The new mission suite systems, including electro-optic infrared and overland equipment, have changed what we’re able to provide, and changed where we’re able to work.”
For what concerns the CF-188s, on the Canadian Combat Camera website I’ve found a nice picture of a Hornet being washed (on Apr. 20) on arrival to Trapani from Iceland. Interestingly, it’s using the same “showers” used in the past by the 82° CSAR HH-3F of the ItAF based in Trapani as the picture below on the right (taken in 2008) shows.
According to what a senior Canadian official told AFP on condition of anonymity, the Canadian Air Force has decided to pull out of the NATO AWACS program to trim costs and eliminate budget deficit.
5) The recent Paris Air Show 2011, at Le Bourget, gave both Eurofighter and Dassault the opportunity to showcase their now combat-proven fighters, shortlisted for the Indian MMRCA tender. Hence, Typhoon and Rafale fought virtually with a series of press briefings and war stories aimed at showing aircraft advantages on competitor hiding its flaws.
The “omnirole” Rafale can claim to have been the first aircraft to enter to Libyan airspace on Mar. 19 (even though I’ve already explained this happened in the Benghazi area where the risk of SAM and AAA fire was low) thanks to the Spectra integrated defensive aids suite developed by Thales. For sure although it can’t be considered as multirole as to be capable to perform a typical SEAD strike as an F-16CJ or a Tornado ECR, the French plane has the possibility to combine its sensors (such as the Spectra) and the AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) PGM to identify, designate and hit ground targets. Furthermore, during Unified Protector, the AASM demonstrated to be effective against a tank at a range of 57 km.
The Rafale will also be the first European combat plane to use an electronic scanning radar; with “Tranche 4”, expected to be handed over from 2013, the 60 French upgraded Rafales will carry an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) RBE2 radar (compatible with long range METEOR air-to-air missiles) whose beam can be pointed from one area to another one quickly, in all weather and in a jammed environment, and that can be used in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes at the same time, with an enhanced detection capability.
Image: French MoD
RAF 11 Sqn’s Squadron Leader Rupert Joel, just returned from Gioia del Colle, met the press at Le Bourget to talk about Typhoon’s sorties in Libya. He explained that Tornado GR4s are flying joint sorties with Eurofighter Typhoons as happened during Desert Storm, when Buccaneers accompanied Tornados in Iraq. Mixed pairs have been useful because “Tonka” navigators have assisted Typhoon pilots with laser targeting although GPS-guide has been preferred in many cases.
A typical sortie lasts 5.5 hours requiring three air-to-air refuellings. Some missions lasted up to 9 hrs. Typhoon usually carry four Enhanced Paveway II GPS/laser-guided bombs, a Litening III targeting pod, and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles (as picture below, released by Eurofighter, shows).
Slightly Off Topic
So, who’s gonna win in India? Difficult to say. Surely, Rafale is a more mature plane, capable of performing a wide variety of missions, from SEAD(-lite) to reconnaissance, and it is already available in navalised version for aircraft carrier ops. BTW for all Rafale news, info, configurations, etc, I suggest you to visit the Rafale News blog.
However, Eurofighter already has export customers that Rafale lacks, and it has an attractive user community that could give stronger strategic ties with 4 European nations. Furthermore, the Typhoon has a more powerful engine, a better BVR capability and is able to pull max G-load while launcing its weapons and carrying three external fuel tanks. It has also an extensive air-to-air missile load and can perform supersonic launching while supercruising with a large missile load. The Typhoon has a very lightweight operational bifocal Helmet Mounted Display, which in combination with the IRIS-T or ASRAAM High Off Boresight Missiles provides the F-2000 with superior dogfight capabilities. So, it’s a lethal weapon in the air-to-air scenario, and it has a potential still to be developed to become a real multirole. Finally, Eurofighter is working on a navalised Typhoon too….
6) Times Of Malta website has a video showing the last French emergency landing in Malta international airport in the night between Jun.30 and Jul. 1. It’s the second to involve Rafales. Although Times Of Malta says it is the first time, another Rafale diversion took place on Jun.8, 2011.
7) Again slightly off topic.
On Jun 22, Alenia Aeronautica, announced that it is evaluating the feasibility of an aircraft for the Italian Air Force to support National Special Forces Operations.
“The Italian Defence has decided to launch the so called Pretorian Programme, as a special version of the C-27J, in order to analyse potential technical solutions for providing weapons and integrated weapon systems, Communications Intelligence (COMINT), EO/IR Sensor (Electro optical/Infra-red) to the C-27J Aircraft, as existing platform”.
It would be interesting to know whether this aircraft is intended to replace or to support the only Italian G-222VS (currently used in Libya under NATO command).
8) More ItAF updates? Check its official website or the Italian MoD one once a week.
The Aviationist patch
Send me an email if you want to support this site buying the original TheAviationist.com patch, only available through this website!