Tag Archives: Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

We Flew Red Air against F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, Rafales and Typhoons in Atlantic Trident ’17. Here’s How It Went.

Flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident 17.

At 21,000 ft “Code” rolls the Talon inverted.  I have just enough time to realize we are inverted – before the Gs started building and we are pointed… down. Straight down.    We are flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident ’17.  Not your normal Red Air vul, today we are facing off against a historic gathering of the most formidable fighter aircraft in the western world.

The United States Air Force (USAF) 1st Fighter Wing located at Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE) hosted the event.  1st FW is responsible for 30% of the USAF Raptor fleet.  Described as “America’s premier Air Dominance wing,” the 1st FW is elite company.  This group (with the help of the 71st FTS) ensures the Raptors under their command are maintained, manned by skilled pilots, and ready to go when and where needed worldwide, at a moment’s notice.

After two days of rain and scrubbed vuls the clouds began to lift.  Didn’t matter, even with clear skies a nasty storm was brewing over the Atlantic, Typhoons, Lightning strikes, with the “gusts of wind / bursts of fire” (Rafale), and the “Bird of Prey” (Raptor) circling over it all.  Not a Hollywood script, this is what awaits the Strike Eagles and Talons of Red Air posing as a variety of MIG threats with specific missile emulations.

The Platforms & Players:

Blue Air: 1st FW F-22A Raptors; Eglin AFB F-35A Lightning IIs; Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons; French Air Force/Armée de l’air Dassault Rafales.

Red Air: 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38A Talons; 391st FS “Bold Tigers” F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home AFB, ID.

Given operational security, some of the following flight details are principally correct.

The six participating Talons flew in two flights of three, “Vodka” and “MIG”.  The Strike Eagle flights “Marlin” and “Dagger” combined to form another 6 aircraft.  12 Red Air with E-3A Sentry support, against 16 Blue Air.  Given Blue Air was farthest from JBLE and launched first, they enjoyed tanker support from the Armée de l’air KC-135, as well as US tanker units (including at one point a KC-10 from the 305th AMW Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

What could we expect of the vul?

Red Air understood that Blue Air was tasked with a strike mission (target location unknown to Red Air) using the Rafale and Raptor as strikers.  While some might think the F-35As should have been the strikers, Raptor was the word and Raptors do have a very effective strike capability. The rest of Blue Air, Typhoons and Lightning IIs (and perhaps a mix of Raptors) were flying escort protecting the strikers.

Blue Air was challenged to employ “total force integration” across nationalities and platforms to form a multilayered, overlapping sphere of impenetrable “armor.”  Certainly, Blue Air would utilize their superior sensors to create a 3D picture of the battle space and their state of the art weapons to “destroy” Red Air well beyond visual range (BVR).

Red Air would utilize dissimilar threats against Blue Air coming from a multitude of directions and altitudes.  The Talons and Strike Eagles primary goal: to find the Blue Air strikers (call sign “Rogue”), fight through the escorts to get within an effective (emulated) missile envelope and realize a kill.  However, even if a visual on a Raptor or Lightning II was realized (and Red Air had the radar capability) they would still be “chasing a mirage” and could not expect to get a lock. Great.

Total force integration of the Gen 5 and 4.5 platforms creates a nasty dilemma for a real adversary.  At the best of times target fixation is deadly, add 5th Gen assets in the mix – fatal.

While the scenario sounds like a futile effort for Red Air, it is key to understand that this exercise is not a game where the highest kills wins.  Rather, the primary purpose of the exercise is to ensure Blue Air (our collective nations fighting edge) refine Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs).  With common, familiar TTPs, the coalition will quickly come together in the face of a future conflict and be effective, day one.

The coalition of Blue Air was challenged to maximize their mix to most efficiently use each aircraft’s exceptional capabilities, weapons loads and available fuel.  The best efforts of Red Air would test the tactics of Blue Air, to ensure they overlook nothing, and responded correctly to the dynamic of the fight.  If a Blue Air participant required a learning lesson – it was up to Red Air to provide it, and this is the right time and place to do so.  Perhaps in the “fog of war” an area of the formation would be left uncovered, and Red Air would get a leaker through to do some damage.

The 71st FTS “Langley Adversaries” fields young pilots preparing for the Raptor as well as seasoned Raptor pilots and pilots with plenty of experience in alternate platforms.  One look at the markings on the F-15E Strike Eagles of the “Bold Tigers” and it was clear there is plenty of combat experience in those cockpits.  No question, this group of pilots had the ability to take down a Blue Air player.  In a previous visit to the 71st FTS I met one of the T-38 pilots who had done that very thing.  I expect it was a lesson that resonated with the Raptor pilot.

Waiting in open cockpit at the end of runway (EOR) Blue Air completes their launches, and our teammates in F-15Es thunder down the runway in glorious afterburner.  Following MIG flight, Vodka flight of Talons launches last, one at a time in rapid succession.

We form up at 2,000 ft before punching through the clouds in formation.  I’m back seat of Vodka #3 flown by “Code,” (1st Lt.) in tight our flight lead #1 “Shim” (Maj.) and #2 “HOTAS” (Maj).  Within seconds we break through the clouds and the Talons look like beautiful black darts in the blue sky.  The SR-71 Blackbird clearly established that “black jets” are the coolest, so we are in good company.  The aircraft are stable and the pilots smooth. We stay in formation as we climb to altitude on the way to the fight.

T-38As of Langley Adversaries, 71st FTS “Ironmen” Vodka 1 & Vodka 2 during Atlantic Trident ’17 range bound. Flying out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

MIG flight is now far to the southeast working the opposite flank.  Marlin and Dagger are well above us in their own airspace blocks working the higher altitudes.  Red Air is tightening the noose. At altitude and nearing our block, Vodka 1 indicates he will run in on Blue Air from 10,000 ft below us.  The Talon drops away so fast my perspective is forever altered.  A high-performance aircraft allows the pilot to carve the sky at will shrinking time and space in ways grounded mortals cannot know.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

With “go time” quickly closing in, Vodka 2 moves some distance from us.  Flying almost parallel we form a wall approaching Blue Air.  Red Air is attacking in numbers from many different directions and altitudes.  Perhaps Blue Air will miss one of us as we close rapidly and a striker will fall!

We now appear to be alone in the sky, a single gunslinger in the expanse with weapons armed and ready against impossible odds.  Focus and activity keep the thought at bay, the controllers voice a clear reminder that we are part of a much greater force and we do not fight alone.

“Fights On!” and we fly our vector like an adversary, oblivious to the invisible danger that lurks unseen in the distant (or near) sky. The next 45 minutes is something of a blur.  The controller calls a heading, we turn – someone turns, there is a lot going on in the skies.  The tempo increases, the radio crackling with voices.  Controllers in the E-3A are busy directing and working what sounds like play by play of an intense play-off game.  An intense play-off between warfighters.

Through the intercom, Code warns “G’s!”  I have split second to prepare for a snap turn and the onset of G’s.  Code is kind, the G’s are short-lived and light – well under 3.  Within moments I hear the radio crackle, “Vodka 1 you’re dead,” followed by “Vodka 2 you’re dead.”  Our flight is being picked off like tin cans on fenceposts.   I wait to hear Vodka 3 you’re dead – but silence.  I’m thinking, c’mom Code, this is our chance let’s press, I could use a kill on my resume.  Marlin 1, Dagger 2 No, No – not the Strike Eagles!  The comms crackle in warfighter shorthand, best deciphered by those who speak in this language.   With a sense of the inevitable, I hear it “Vodka 3 you’re dead.”  No sympathy, just cold, matter of fact.  It is done.  I don’t know what killed us, but we were shadow boxing with a lethal foe.

As we turn to regenerate it is clear this is not a fair fight. But that is the point, and why the tremendous investment in the 5th Gen aircraft.  The USAF has no intention to fight fair, they have built their force to dominate the air.  They who own the air will find it much easier to own the ground and sea.  Looking straight up far above us I see a silver spec blazing across the sky contrail in tow at what appears to be supersonic speeds.  A Raptor? It flies with impunity, we are mere spectators.  If this was a real fight, seeing such a sight would be a great signal to RTB (return to base).  Quickly.

After regen we return to the fight flying a designated vector.  Code rolls the Talon inverted, and pulls briefly into a vertical descent and then a great diving arc.  I had about as much as 1/10th a second to prepare for that, and 1/5 a second to enjoy it. Thank-you very much.

The fight is on! Red Air inverted and going for a 10,000 ft drop with the 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38 Talon flown by Lt. S. Harlow, “Code.”

At some point, we pull near 4G, and the prospects have my undivided attention; will I weight 1,000 lbs today, or just 750?  I am told the pilots generally do not notice the physical, it is muscle memory that kicks in while their mind is focused on the battle.  I am glad to hear that, I’d certainly hate to lose my train of thought in such a time and place.  The Talon bottoms out 10,000 ft below where the maneuver started, and we climb all the way back to 20,000 ft.  It takes a minute to perform the massive maneuver.  And then I believe I hear music – “Rogue 1” you’re dead.  Did we get a Blue Air Striker?  Perhaps for all the Red Air jets that fell – perhaps we got one…

45 minutes’ pass in the vul, and we break for RTB.  Code directs me to the right, where descending from much higher airspace, four F-15Es of the 391st FS.  In tight formation, the Strike Eagles of Marlin and Dagger flights bob up and down like joined parts of a living being.  Magic.  Magic always ends leaving you wanting more, that’s how you know it is magic.

Some Atlantic Trident ’17 Red Air – F-15Es of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” (Marlin & Dagger Flights) and T-38A of the 71st FTS “Ironmen” (Vodka Flight) RTB after vul.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

Some may ask, “What is it like to fly adversary against the most lethal integrated fighter force on the planet?” My answer, “You just die. Sight unseen. You just die.”

Bury your pride, and get used to dying.  But do not forget, your “death” serves a greater purpose. 

The seemingly futile fight and subsequent “deaths” are critical to ensure the readiness of the cutting edge of our warfighters, and “Total Air Dominance.”

For Previous Report on Atlantic Trident ’17 including compelling comments by 1st FW Commander Peter “Coach” Fesler Click Here.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the 71st FTS, pilots, support, medical and others were beyond exceptional hosts. The entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, we can but hope to capture and share a small reflection.

 

Atlantic Trident 17 brought together in type and capability the most formidable combination of fighter aircraft ever assembled.

Atlantic Trident 17 Drives a Higher Level of Integration.

The exercise held April 12 – 28 at Joint Base Langley-Eustice (JBLE) included a “Blue Air” force of USAF F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing (FW) JBLE and F-35 Lightning IIs from Eglin AFB, Typhoons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Rafales of the French Air Force/Armée de l’Air (FAF).

The adversaries or “Red Air” included USAF F-15E Strike Eagles of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID and T-38A Talons of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) “Ironmen” based at JBLE.  Additional assets included the E-3A Sentry from Tinker AFB, OK and a variety of tankers, including a FAF KC-135 and KC-10 of the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ.

Aside from the primary training objectives the exercise also provided the opportunity to commemorate 100 years of aerial combat cooperation between the French and US stemming back to WWI.

From the outside, looking in the lethal capabilities of Blue Air appeared to be overwhelming, with Red Air offering little challenge.  However, one must consider that the 71st FTS “Ironmen” fly daily as adversaries against the Raptor and possess pilots with Raptor experience.  These factors (along with the sheer numbers of Red Air fielded and their ability to “regenerate” on range) provide Red Air with the best likelihood to exploit any vulnerabilities or errors with Blue Air’s tactics – regardless their impressive platforms.

Towards the end of the exercise The Aviationist sat down with Colonel Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 FW Commander to discuss the exercise and the evolution of air combat in the context of 5th Gen aircraft.

Fesler noted that Atlantic Trident ’17 took integration beyond historical practice. On a tactical level integration historically involved a serial employment of aircraft (such as a Combat Air Patrol of RAF Typhoons) or geographical deconfliction of aircraft (such as FAF assets attacking ground targets in a designated area).  However, as Fesler explained starting with Red Flag 17-1 integration has gone deeper, involving a variety of platforms in the same airspace at the same time.  Integration between platforms also considered the various loiter time and weapons load/type for a given platform over a given vulnerability period (vul – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm).

RAF Typhoons on the ramp with Strike Eaglesat Joint Base Langley-Eustis during Atlantic Trident ’17.

While not being specific, it is not difficult to envision a mixed strike package of Rafales and F-35s, a combat air patrol (CAP) of Typhoons and Raptors (or mix and match on any given mission set).  This level of integration leads to big challenges for an adversary who may easily be fixated on attacking a detected Gen 4.5 aircraft, while getting blindsided by a 5th Gen platform or be distracted by a 5th Gen threat “sensed” in the area and get bounced by a very capable Typhoon or Rafale. Hesitation in such air to air combat will most likely be punished with an ending in a ball of flames.

Dassualt Rafales of the Armée de l’air – French Air Force on the ramp at JBLE during Atlantic Trident ’17

The abundance of information available on the battlefield today drives a much higher level of integration.  Fesler noted that multiple people/assets may be involved with the finding, identifying and targeting portion of an air to air encounter. The pilot may take care of the final step and fire the missile that kills the target, but wouldn’t have found their way to that merge unless the assets got them there.

Atlantic Trident ’17 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the advancement of aircraft, tactics and integration is driving change in the function of the fighter force.  For many years, the F-22 Raptor has utilized its superior sensors and SA to take the role of “quarterback” during a vul.  Given the integration of the F-35 and with the capabilities of the Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a “single quarterback” is changing.  Frankly, per Fesler, the quarterback notion is starting to become almost a misnomer now in that we have multiple quarterbacks and it’s less about one individual directing everything and more about multiple nodes of information being able to provide the key pieces of information at the right time to influence the fight.  It is a foreboding thought for an adversary who now faces a team, where every position has the intelligence/capability of a hall of fame quarterback, even while performing their specific role at the highest level.

F-22 Raptors of the 1st FW JBLE wait for launch clearance at the EOR during Atlantic Trident ’17.

Performing at a high level is one thing, altering the playing field is another.  The 5th Gen aircraft has done that very thing, altering the classic air to air engagement in a fundamental way.  Fesler noted, the classic approach of shooting ones missiles and turning before the adversary can get a shot is predicated on the fact that the adversary sees you.  In the 4th gen world that is the case.  Ideally the pilot would like to be able to shoot, let their missile do the work and get away before the adversary can get a missile off.  In the 5th Gen world, the adversary doesn’t necessarily know where you are coming from.  The 5th Gen pilot may shoot a missile and monitor to make sure it is effective.  If the missile misses for any number of reasons, they are in good position for a follow-up shot.

F-22 Raptor of the 1st Fighter Wing JBLE taxis towards launch during Atlantic Trident ’17.

That is one of the fundamental difference between 4th Gen fighters and 5th Gen fighters.  In general, in the 5th Gen world the adversary doesn’t really know where you are coming from.  They may have a general idea but not a lot of specifics.  For 5th Gen pilots it’s a good place to be, to be able to roam around the battlefield faster than the speed of sound in an airplane that is largely undetectable all while your airplane is building a 3 dimensional picture of everything within a couple hundred miles of you. Ouch.

F-35A from Eglin AFB moves towards launch for a vul during Atlantic Trident ’17 exercise held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.

Aside from the exceptional technical aspects that fascinate and draw attention, Felser ultimately notes that his takeaways from Atlantic Trident ‘17 fall back to the human aspect; “fighter pilots are fighter pilots regardless of what their uniforms look like.  Aircraft maintainers are aircraft maintainers regardless of what their uniforms look like.  There are some universal experiences, beliefs and cultures that transcend the national boundaries in this and that’s one of the things I have enjoyed out of both Tri-lateral exercises (2015 & AT ‘17) that we’ve had.  The man in the machine still makes a difference. You can have the most lethal fighter in the world but if you make a mistake a far inferior aircraft can shoot you out of the sky. Training still matters.  If that were not the case, we’d buy the machines, park them and never fly them and when war kicked off jump in them and go and fly. That in fact is not the case and you can lose a war with the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it right, if your tactics aren’t sound, if your skills aren’t automatic, you can still lose.”

F-15E of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID launches from JBLE for Red Air Vul during Atlantic Trident ’17

Atlantic Trident ‘17 reveals the way forward; advanced integration, people making a difference, and high level training.  This rationale drives the Air Force ensuring it is ready with the highest capability for the next conflict on day 1.

Fourth and fifth-generation aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, French air force and Royal air force fly in a training airspace during ATLANTIC TRIDENT 17 near Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 26, 2017. The F-35 Lightning II was incorporated in the exercise, along with the F-22 Raptor and fourth-generation assets to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that can be used during future coalition fights. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the entire 1 FW; the entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, our service people are the finest.

Image credit: Todd Miller, unless otherwise stated.

 

U.S. F-35A stealth fighters to move to Estonia tomorrow. Meanwhile, the British Typhoons have arrived in Romania.

Some of the F-35A Lightning II aircraft currently at RAF Lakenheath will forward deploy to Estonia tomorrow. Meanwhile, the first RAF Typhoons have arrived in Romania.

According to information available to the Estonia ERR media outlet, an unspecified number of F-35s will arrive at Ämari air base, Estonia, on Tuesday, Apr. 25.

“The jets will remain in Estonia for several weeks and conduct training flights with other aircraft of the U.S. and allied air forces.”

Eight F-35s and 250 airmen belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter Squadron, 419th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, have deployed to RAF Lakenheath recently (beginning with the first section of 6 aircraft on Apr. 15).

The 5th generation multirole combat aircraft have deployed to Europe for the first time in support of the European Reassurance Initiative. As done by the preceding US jets operating in the old continent as part of the so-called Theater Security Packages (TSPs), including the F-22 Raptors and the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, they will visit various Baltic and eastern Europe airbases “to maximize training opportunities, affirm enduring commitments to NATO allies, and deter any actions that destabilize regional security.”

Meanwhile, on Apr. 24, RAF Typhoons have arrived at Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) airbase near Constanta, in Romania for the first time in support of the NATO air policing mission. The aircraft will provide air policing over the Black Sea from May to September 2017.

According to the UK MoD, 135 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) consists of 150 personnel drawn from across the RAF, whose mission is to keep the fast jets flying during their four month deployment.

The mission of patrolling the skies along NATO’s eastern border was intensified following the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The arrival of the British Typhoons is the last of a series of measures “to deter a Russian aggression over the Black Sea.

RAF Typhoons arrive at Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) airbase near Constanta, in Romania for the first time in support of the NATO air policing mission. (Image credit: Crown Copyright)

 

Here’s Why The U.S. Air Force Scrambled An E-3 Sentry Alongside Two F-22s To Intercept The Russian Bombers Off Alaska

For two days in a row, Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers flew near Alaska’s airspace.

On Apr. 17 the U.S. Air Force scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth jets, one E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft and a KC-135 tanker (according to some reports, others don’t mention the Stratotanker’s presence) to intercept two nuclear-capable Bears flying roughly 100 nm southwest of Kodiak.

The stealth jets took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and intercepted the Russian aircraft inside the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), “the airspace over land or water in which the identification, location and control of civilian aircraft is performed in the interest of national security.”

ADIZs may extend beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possible hostile aircraft: in fact any aircraft flying inside these zones without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and VID (Visual Identification) by fighter aircraft.

North America ADIZs

The F-22 escorted the Tu-95s for 12 minutes (27 for some sources) before the Russian bombers headed back.

On the following night, that is to say few hours after the first “visit”, the Bear flew again inside the ADIZ but this time, the US Air Force opted to not scramble fighter jets but only the E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System). It’s not the first time the Russian Bears fly in the ADIZ, not even the first time that no fighter jet is scrambled to meet them.

Alaska ADIZ detail

“Combined scramble”

Let’s have a look at the first episode. It’s worth of note that along with the 5th generation interceptors, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) called for an alert take off by an E-3 Sentry. Most of times, QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) take offs by armed interceptors are supported by tanker aircraft, not by AEW assets: the fighters are guided to the unknown aircraft by ground air defense radars. That’s why I want to draw your attention on this “combined scramble.”

Launching the AEW along with the fighters is a “tactics” that allows the Air Defense to extend the radar coverage and to better investigate the eventual presence of additional bombers or escorting fighters flying “embedded” with the “zombies” (as the unknown aircraft are usually dubbed in the QRA jargon). At the same time, the presence of an E-3 allows the Raptors to improve their situational awareness while reducing the radar usage and maximizing as much as possible their stealth capability (even though it must be remembered that F-22s in QRA usually carry fuel tanks that make them less “invisible” to radars).

A combined AEW/F-22 scramble provides a more effective way to counter a possible “strike package”.

A long range sortie is not easy to plan. Even more so a strike sortie: the bomber are not only required to fly inbound the target (TGT) and reach a convient position to simulate the attack and weapons delivery, they also need to take in consideration many other factors. First of all “what is your goal?” Do you want to train for a realistic strike? Or do you want to “spy” or show your presence or posture?

Other factors are distance from own country, opponent’s defense capability, minimum risk routing according to the threats, presence of DCA (Defensive Counter Air), supporting assets, etc.

Usually, during a strike sortie, bombers are considered the HVA (High Value Asset), the one that must be protected. For this reason during the planning phase they are always escorted by fighter and protected by the Ground to Air threats by means of SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses), EW (Electronic Warfare) and everything is needed to let them able to hit their targeted.

However, escorting a strategic bomber is not always possible (nor convenient): considered their limited range, the presence of the fighters would heavily affect the long range planning, requiring support from multiple tankers along the route.

For this reason, although the Russians visit the West Coast quite often, they usually are not escorted by any fighter jet (as happens, for instance, in the Baltic region, where Tu-22s are often accompanied by Su-27 Flankers).

However, it’s better to be prepared and trained for the worst case scenario and this is probably the reason why NORAD included an E-3 AEW in the QRA team: to have a look at the Tu-95s and make sure there was no “sweep” fighters or subsequent “package”.

Based on my experience, the ones of last week were just simulated strike sorties with the only aim to test the U.S. tactics and reaction times. Something that happens quite frequently. There is also the chance the Bears were sent there while another Russian spyplane was in the vicinity to “sniff” the Raptors electromagnetic emissions. However, there are no reports of Il-20 ELINT aircraft in the area.

A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) lands at U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay. AWACS provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S. and NATO air defense forces and is considered to be the premier air battle command and control aircraft in the world today. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley. (RELEASED)

Top image: file photo of a Raptor taking off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

 

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Analysis: Russian Air Strike in Syria Results in Turkish Casualties

A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?

Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.

It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.

Google Earth screengrab of the target area.

During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.

Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.

While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.

Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)

One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.

Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.

Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.

Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.

Russian-Turkish cooperation in the Syrian campaign has been improving prior to this incident from a low point on Nov. 24, 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 over the Syrian border.

 

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