Tag Archives: Libya Air War

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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Rare look inside the elusive EC-130J Commando Solo, the U.S. Air Force PSYOPS plane

An EC-130J Commando Solo (00-1934/STEEL74) of the 193 SOS, operating out of Sigonella, in Italy, became particularly famous in 2011, during the Libya Air War.

The aircraft broadcast  messages both English and Arab language  inviting sailors and naval officers of a Libyan ship to leave the vessel and return to their families, that were often intercepted by radio hams from all around the world and published almost everywhere, from Audioboo to Youtube.

The EC-130J is a particular version of the EC-130 flying with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard that is used for PSYchological OPerationS (PSYOPS) and is capable of broadcasting TV and radio messages on all bands.

Images taken inside the Commando Solo are quite rare.

However, the U.S. Air Force has recently published some interesting photographs taken aboard an EC-130J involved in Exercise Emerald Warrior 2013, at Hurlburt Field, Fla., May 1.

EC130J_1

Electronic communication systems operator and medium frequency operator stations are clearly visible.

EC130J_2

Some displays show the frequencies used to broadcast messages.

EC130J_3

The primary purpose of Emerald Warrior is to exercise special operations components in urban and irregular warfare settings to support combatant commanders.

EC130J_4

Emerald Warrior leverages lessons from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and other historical lessons to provide better trained and ready forces to combatant commanders.

EC130J_5

Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Rissmiller

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Libya: NATO must acknowledge and compesate 72 civilian victims of potentially unlawful air strikes, Human Rights Watch says

Last year’s Libya Air War saw the coalition of NATO and non-NATO members, operating within Operation Unified Protector, dropping some 3,644 LGBs, 2,844 GPS-guided, 1,150 precision-guided direct-fire weapons, to enforce the UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 and get rid of Gaddafi.

However, in spite of the exclusive use of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) and a 30-minute process to perform identification and accurate Collateral Damage Estimate before any weapons could be dropped against a target (even a time-sensitive one) in order to prevent civilians from being either injured or killed by the strike, NATO was unable to achieve the standard of “zero expectation” of death or injury to civilians.

Unfortunately, when you are at war, you can use the most advanced weapon system ever produced and take all the precautions to reduce collateral damage, but you will never be able to completely remove civilian harm when you drop bombs in urban scenarios.

As already highlighted by the UN report issued in March 2012, NATO has failed to acknowledge several civilian casualties from air strikes during the 2011 air campaign and has not investigated possible unlawful attacks. That’s the conclusion of “Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya” a Human Rights Watch 76-page report released on May 14.

Eight airstrikes that resulted in 72 deaths were investigated on the field during and after the conflict by the HRW that did not find evidence of clear military target at seven of the eight visited sites.

The most serious incident occurred in the village of Majer, 160 kilometers east of Tripoli, the capital, on Aug. 8, 2011, when NATO bombs fell on two family compounds killing 34 civilians and wounding more than 30.

A second strike outside one of the compounds killed and wounded civilians who witnesses said were searching for victims. HRW believes that the infrared system used to guide the bomb (most probably an LGB) should have indicated to the pilot the presence of many people on the ground. If the pilot was unable to determine that those people were combatants, then the strike should have been canceled or diverted.

A tail fin from a 500 pound laser-guided bomb (GBU-12) found in Majer, where NATO air strikes killed 34 civilians and wounded more than 30 on August 8, 2011. Image credit: © 2011 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

As reported by the UN report, HRW found that NATO officials were unwilling to investigate some incidents: “They were forthcoming about all the general measures they took to protect civilians, such as the exclusive use of PGM and the rigorous target review process, but they refused to give any details about some specific targets in which civilians died. The standard answer was that all targets were military objects, and they usually called them “command and control nodes” or “staging areas.” But they never gave detailed evidence to support those claims” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch and principal author of the report.

“That evidence matters. We looked at 8 sites and, at seven of them we found no or only possible evidence of Libyan military activity. This is consistent with the UN commission of inquiry. At the eighth site, the target may have been a Libyan Brig General. But that attack also killed three women and four children from the family. The strange part of all this is that NATO is undermining its own successes in reducing civilian casualties. The overall numbers are quite low, but they are refusing to examine the mistakes that took place” Abrahams said.

Obviously, the problem is not linked to a possible violation of the laws of war (under which parties to a conflict may only direct attacks at military targets and minimize harm to civilians) or to lessons that could be learned to minimize casualties in future wars; most probably the real issue is that governments could be compelled to compensate victims of unlawful attacks (admitting a direct involvement they might not want to publicize….) as done in Afghanistan, where a program provide payments to civilian victims of NATO attacks without regard to wrongdoing.

HRW’s report can be found at this link.