Tag Archives: Libya

U.S. drones and spyplanes involved in information gathering missions over Syria. As in Libya one year ago. More or less…

More or less one year ago, we were observing an increasing activity of U.S., British, French and Italian military spy planes perfoming information gathering missions along the northern border of the Tripoli FIR (Flight Information Region).

Quite silently, those SIGINT (SIGnal INTelligence) platforms flew in the Maltese airspace to eavesdrop into Libyan communications and signals and to collect the information needed to build up the so-called EOB (Electronic Order of Battle) of the Libyan forces, that would be used to have a better understanding of the situation in Libya, to know where forces were located and to build up a priority target list for the subsequent air campaign.

Presumed to remain (almost) secret, those flights were actually “advertised” by LiveATC.net, whose Maltese feeder  (shut down during the war) made the radio communications between Malta Area Control Center and the various EP-3s, RC-135 Rivet Joint, C-160G, British Nimrods R1s etc. transiting the local airspace before operating in “due regard”, public.

Although nowadays we can’t listen to the radio comms of the military traffic in that area as we did in February 2011 and we don’t have the same “evidences” we had one year ago, we can be quite confident that similar activities are being conducted in or around Syria from bases in Italy, Turkey or Cyprus (RAF Akrotiri airbase).

Along with the satellite image released by the US Embassy in Damascus some American defense officials told the NBC that “A good number of American drones are operating in the skies of Syria, monitoring the Syrian military’s attacks against opposition forces and innocent civilians alike”.

The Pentagon was quick to point out that these drones were providing surveillance not for a future military intervention but to gain evidence from both a visual and communications perspective to “make a case for a widespread international response”.

However, the confirmation that U.S. robots are flying inside the Syrian territory does pose the question: what type of drone are being used?

Most media outlets are using stock images of Predator or Reaper drones, but those unstealthy ‘bots would be vulnerable to the Syria SAM (Surface to Air Missile) network, believed to be among Middle East’s most robust ones. Both MQ-1 and 9 are Medium Altitude drones that could be operating in Syria only if flying outside the range of active SAM rings.

Hence, its conceivable that most ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions in the area are being flown by High Altitude platforms, as Air Force’s Global Hawks or U-2s (or even stealthy RQ-170s, as the one captured in Iran).

Even if Sigonella in Sicily, hosts the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th, Incirlik in southern Turkey, being next to the border, seems to be more suitable for spy missions in Syria. Missions that these days could be aimed at assessing the type of activities conducted by the destroyer Shahid Qandi and the supply vessel Kharg, the two Iranian warships that have docked at the Syrian port of Tartus after passing through the Suez canal.

In fact Egyptian sources as well as members of the Syrian opposition claimed that the two vessels have been jamming satellite telephone communications of the Syrian opposition forces.

According to the same Egyptian sources, Assad’s forces have been finding it more difficult to monitor the oppositors’ communication due to their encrypted nature and someone believes that the Iranian Navy is helping him disrupting these encrypted communications.

A bit far fetched, considered that a land based systems would be less visible than two closely watched warships, but not completely impossible.

Worth a mention: an Israeli drone was spotted overflying clashes in Homs.

Anyway, the scenario is similar to the Libya of the end of February 2011. With the only difference that one year ago, the spyplanes did not fly into the “enemy” airspace.

Richard Clements has contributed to this article.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

Royal Air Force Hawks visit to Malta, the aircraft spotter's paradise

More less one year after becoming the hub of the various rescue missions that preceded the beginning of the Air War in Libya, Malta is still one of the most interesting airports for enthusiasts and spotters. The airport, that has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the inauguration with some interesting flybys, is often visited by some really interesting traffics. Among them, the two Libyan Air Force Mirage F1s that landed in Malta International Airport on Feb. 21, 2011, and are about to return home.

At around 11:25LT on Feb. 13, 2012, three RAF Hawks from RAF Akrotiri landed at Malta International Airport. Flying as RAFAIR (RFR) 7041, the British planes (serials XX184, XX203, XX321) flew a run in and break for RWY 31.

Belonging to the 100 Sqn based at RAF Leeming, the training jets departed again as a 3-ship formation (using the same radio callsign they had on arrival) at 10:15LT on Feb. 14. Final destination, RAF Leeming, in the UK, with a stopover in France.

Brendon Attard took the following pictures of the Hawks sitting on apron 4 at MIA at night on Feb. 13 and departing from Luqa on Feb. 14.

Tornado fighter bomber very low take off from Malta.

On Feb. 8, 2012, Malta celebrated the 20th anniversary since the inauguration of Malta International Airport’s Air Terminal. The event was celebrated with a series of aircraft flybys, including those of a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion and a USMC C-130. Four Italian Tornado IDSs belonging to the 6° Stormo, based at Ghedi, performed two flypasts over the airport before landing at MIA.

After spending a night in Luqa, the Tornados left Malta on Feb. 9, around 12.10LT.  On departure, one of the jets rendered homage to the local spotters with a very low take off. Brendon Attard was there on both days and took the following interesting pictures.

The Italian “Tonkas” came from Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia, where the crews of the 6° Stormo are currently deployed for the seasonal air-to-ground training in the local firing ranges.

“Cross country” flights like that in Malta, are included in the training required by the Italian Tornado crews to keep their capability to operate away from their homebase. As happened during the Air War in Libya, when the “Tonkas” were deployed to Trapani, in Sicily from where they operated until the end of the campaign performing both SCAR (Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance), BAI (Battlefield Air Interdiction), ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and “buddy” air-to-air refueling missions, carrying a wide variety of weapons and sensors, including the Reccelite pod, the Storm Shadow cruise missiles, GPS-guided JDAMs and LGB Paveways.

In Libya, the Tornado (to be replaced by the F-35 in the future) proved to be an effective platform whose accuracy gave Italy a 79% of reliability in the air strikes, a record higher than that achieved by the French assets who took part to the war (according to NATO).

Italian Tornados do “hit” better.

All photographs by Brendon Attard

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Future Drone’s World capital? Sigonella, Italy

On Feb. 3, 2012, NATO has finally agreed to implement the AGS (Alliance Ground Surveillance) a project that is based on high-altitude long range UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), a main operating base and several command and control stations.

The cooperative defense project involves 13 nations: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States.

Wondering which drone will provide the alliance the capability to monitor “what’s happening on the ground, at long range, over periods of time, around the clock, in any weather” by year 2015?

Obviously, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk, the same type of unarmed reconnaissance drone that the U.S. Air Force has recently decided to scrap in favor of the old U-2 spy planes, Cold War veteran that will be kept in service well into the 2020s.

According to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance will acquire five RQ-4Bs that will be based at the MOB of Sigonella, in Italy.

Located in southeast Sicily, “Saigon” (as the U.S. aircrews dubbed it) has already been used during the Air War in Libya to host the Air Force’s Global Hawk and Reapers involved in ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and SCAR (Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance) missions in North Africa.

For instance, the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella, were the first to fly over Libya to perform high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties on targets located in regions with  a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat. Since Apr. 21, 2011, they were joined by armed MQ-1 Predators that flew their first strike sorties in the areas of Misurata and Tripoli and launched 145 air strikes firing hundred AGM-114 Hellfire missiles before taking part in the operation that led to the capture and killing of Gaddafi in Sirte, when an MQ-1 teamed up with a mixed flight of a Mirage F1CR and a Mirage 2000D and attacked the convoy used by the Libyan dictator in his attempt to flee the city.

Strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sigonella is the ideal base to conduct surveillance of North Africa, East Europe and Middle East. The base will not only host the (remaining) Air Force Global Hawks and AGS RQ-4s: the U.S. Navy MQ-4C BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) drone, the “maritime” version of the Global Hawk,  is expected to be based in five locations around the world, including “Saigon”, where some other platforms, as the French Herons and the (manned) RAF Sentinels could be deployed as well.

Rendering Sigonella, the Drone’s World capital.

Image: U.S. Air Force

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Vipers, Growlers, Prowlers, Eagles and Hogs: U.S. combat planes at Aviano airbase during Libya air war. With heart background.

Although the U.S. involvement in Libya was scaled down few days after NATO took control over the air campaign on Mar. 31, 2011, American tactical aircraft (“tacair”) played an important role during the opening stages of the Washington-led Operation Odyssey Dawn (for more details I suggest you reading the first debriefs of my Libya Air War series).

Even if U.S. planes also operated from other deployment base (RAF Mildenhall, Moron, Souda Bay, Istres), Aviano airbase, in northeast Italy, and Sigonella, in Sicily, were the two main hubs used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps assets. In particular, Aviano was mainly used by the tacair component, while “Saigon” was used by support planes (PSYOPS, tankers, etc.) and drones (both Reapers and Global Hawks).

Among the aircraft on temporary deployment to Aviano (that is the permanent base of the 31st FW’s F-16s) there were: VAQ-132 EA-18G Growlers, VAQ-140 and VMAQ-1 EA-6B Prowlers, 494FS F-15E, 81FS A-10s and 480FS F-16CJs. A Jordanian Air Force detachment operated from Aviano throughout the duration of Operation Unified Protector.

The following pictures, taken by Simone Gazzola, show some of the most interesting aircraft taking off or landing at Aviano.

Note also the “heart” shape on the background of some pictures. It’s a land-art project called Lumacuore (an Italian word formed by combining the words lumaca= snail and cuore = heart) and made between 2009 and 2010 on the side of Piancavallo mountain by the Italian artist Laura Trevisan with the aim of “spreading a cultural message on human rights, love and respect for nature as well as the environmentally friendly development of the territory.”