Tag Archives: Military Aviation

U.S. drones to be nuclear powered?

It has emerged that Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. government’s principle nuclear research and development agency, and defense contractor Northrop Grumman are working on powering the next generation of drones with nuclear power.

With nuclear powered drones, endurance could stop being measured in hours and would be measured in months with excess power used to power better communications and surveillance equipment.

Sandia and Northrop started the project to try and resolve three problems associated with drones with what they call “ultra-persistence technologies”:  insufficient “hang time” over a potential target, lack of power for running sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems, and a lack of communications capacity.

The Sandia-Northrop project team looked at power supplies for large to medium sized UAVs before finally settling on nuclear power: not surprising, since Northrop Grumman patented a Helium Powered nuclear reactor as long ago as 1986 and its widely known designs for nuclear powered aircraft date back as far as the ’50s.

The project team found that nuclear power provided far more time on target and intel per mission than any other power source by quite a margin. It was also the most cost effective power source in that it eliminated the need for expensive support infrastructure near hostile territory.

And it would enable drones to carry more weapons or reconnaissance sensors.

Sandia went out of its way to say that the project is now complete and that no equipment was built or tested and this project was nothing more than a feasibility study, perhaps showing how sensitive this technology is.

There are worries that public opinion would not accept the idea of such a potentially dangerous technology, hence Sandia’s rather over the top statement.

Fears of this technology are understandable after the amount of drones that have been lost, both during combat operations and training. The risk is turning the drone into a sort of dirty bomb or the sensitive technology falling into the wrong hands of terrorists or enemy forces.

Therefore there will be no nuclear powered drones. For the moment….

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Image credit: Reuters

Dambusters test adveniristic helmet for RAF Tornado crews. Most advanced combat planes have similar helmets, except the F-22.

According to a press release issued today, BAE Systems has developed a new helmet mounted cueing system for Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 crews.

Similarly to American Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) or the Eurofighter Typhoon’s Helmet Mounted Symbology System (HMSS) the system projects information in front of the pilots eye giving instant information of points of interest.

The RAF raised the Urgent Operational Requirement last April (2011) and the system is now being tested operationally by 617 Squadron of the RAF, which has a very rich history of using new technology in combat.

The squadron was formed in 1943 at RAF Scampton during world war two and was specifically formed with hand picked crews who flew modified Avro Lancaster bombers to deliver the ground breaking Barnes Wallis designed “Bouncing Bomb” on an attack on four dams in the Rhur Valley (Germany). Later in the war, it was the first squadron to drop the 21,000lb “Grand Slam” on German U-Boat pens, and it was also the first RAF Squadron to use Storm Shadow operationally during operation “Telic” in Iraq during 2003.

History has repeated itself since this new system has been integrated onto aircraft which are now operational in the hostile theater of Afghanistan.

In the BAE’s press release Wing Commander Kurt Hill, FAST Tornado Capability Manager said: “The Tornado HMCS capability has greatly enhanced the crews situational awareness and resource management, enabling the rapid identification of points of interest in the Homogeneous Afghan environment.”

Martin Taylor, BAE Systems Combat Air Support Director said: “Over the coming months, we will continue to work with the customer, to provide the capability across the wider Tornado fleet.”

The new Helmet Mounted Cueing System (HMCS) has passed all of its operational requirements and is now making it easier to indentify the enemy on the ground in very fluid firefights.

Image credit: Richard Clements

The integration of the HMCS on the Tornado fleet shows that both fighter and bomber combat planes might need to improve their situational awareness and capability to engage ground targets with helmets that project symbology on the visor. However, even if U.S. F-15C/D, F-16  Block 40 and 50 and F-18C/D/E/F pilots use the JHMCS and the F-35 will have a similar helmet, the multirole F-22 Raptor won’t have one.

Here’s what The Aviationist wrote about the lack of helmet mounted display on the F-22 in a previous post about the Eurofighter Typhoon HMSS:

“There are various reasons why the most advanced (and much troubled) air superiority fighter lacks both helmet mounted display and HOBS (High Off-Boresight) weapons: confidence that capability was not needed since no opponents would get close enough to be engaged with an AIM-9X in a cone more than 80 degrees to either side of the nose of the aircraft; limited head space below the canopy; the use of missiles carried inside ventral bays whose sensor can’t provide aiming to the system until they are ejected. And also various integration problems that brought the Air Force to cancel funding.

Did the F-22 need HOBS? Sure, as it would have improved its lethality even further. Indeed, although simulated 1 F-22 vs 3 JHMCS F-16Cs engagements proved that the Raptor can master even challenging scenarios such an extra feature would have been a useful addition when facing large formations of Gen. 5 fighters like the Chinese J-20.”

Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti


B-2 stealth bomber to get 2 billion dollar upgrades. Including a new email system.

It was announced recently that the U.S. Air Force is to move forward with a ten year +2 billion USD upgrade to the fleet of 21 B-2s; an upgrade of the communications systems.

The B-2 started rolling off Northrop Grumman’s production line during the ’80s and some of the systems are now getting rather long in the tooth with parts becoming rather hard to come by.

In an Air Force Times article Col. Rob Spalding of the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, said “It’s the biggest and most complex update of the B-2 in its history.”

Spalding himself said that parts are becoming scarcely available and that technicians at Whiteman have come up with their own upgrades and goes on to describe a system called AP2 which allows ground based commanders the ability to send email to the crew. The older system relied on a laptop perched on a swivelling stand between the pilots; the new system, which holds the screens at the pilots shoulder, is upgradable as new technologies come along.

In another sign of the need to upgrade the B-2 Northrop Grumman announced it has awarded a contract to BAE Systems to replace all of the analogue systems with digital systems, although the size of the contract and what is actually being upgraded was understandably withheld.

The surprising statistic is that the oldest air frame has only 5,000 flight hours, not bad when the fact that the B-2 has been involved in every conflict since the NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo war.

It is a sign of the high regard the B-2 enjoys within the higher ranks of the Air Force and the Pentagon, that in these times of budget cuts and other force reductions, this rather unique weapons system is being upgraded.

Or a sign that the Spirit must get a new email system prior to be involved in a war against Iran.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Image credit: U.S. Air Force


Air strikes over Libya

At a few minutes past midnight on November 1st, 2011, after radioing a “thank you” to the Malta ATC controller, ‘OUP 355’, an E-3 AWACS of the NATO Airborne Early Warning Component, began an en-route descent to Trapani airbase, in Sicily.

Since the beginning of the NATO operation at 06.00GMT on March 31st, over 26,500 sorties were conducted, including more than 9,700 strike sorties. These figures do not take into account the first part of the war, from March 19th until the Transfer Of Authority to NATO, when assets flew a significant number of missions under their respective national commands within the U.S.-led Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Eventually, the air war in Libya was able to end the systematic violation of human rights and the repression of demonstrators, bringing the declaration of the full liberation of Libya by the National Transitional Council and the consequent stabilization of the region. However, the involvement of some weapon systems over Northern Africa became so well known (and, in some cases, overrated) that many have seen the use of air power over Northern Africa as a way to promote various forms of technology; a sort of really expensive marketing operation spurred by the desire of visibility rather than the need to achieve a quick military objective.

But, beyond the advertising slogans of the manufacturers eager to get export orders and the statements of the high rank officers involved in the air campaign always struggling to preserve their budget from cuts imposed by the global financial crisis, which were the truly decisive weapon systems in Libya?


Capable of silently flying for several hours carrying a wide array of sensors, well above the ceiling of the anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) played an important role in Libya. The first drones to operate in the Libyan airspace were the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the US Air Force, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella, in Sicily, the main operating base of the NATO Air Ground Surveillance Global Hawk program. The Global Hawks were the first UAS to be deployed at the beginning of the war when they were used to perform high altitude battle damage assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat.

On April 21, President Barak Obama authorized the Department of Defense to use armed Predators in Libya and MQ-1s began flying strike sorties in the areas of Misratah and Tripoli. During the air campaign, U.S. Predators launched 145 air strikes firing hundred AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and also took 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 huge convoy used by the Libyan dictator in his attempt to flee the city. Also conducting some shorter range ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) activity from U.S. Navy ships off the coast were some MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, one of which was lost (for unknown reasons) during a reconnaissance mission over Northern Libya on June 21.

Alongside the US drones at Sigonella were the French Harfang (a modified version of the Israeli IAI Heron drone) of the Escadron de drones 01.033 “Belfort” from Cognac, while Italy committed to perform unarmed ISR missions using two Italian Air Force Predator B (MQ-9 Reaper) drones that were remotely controlled from the Mobile Ground Control Station at Amendola airbase in southeast Italy. Belonging to the 28° Gruppo of the 32° Stormo the Italian drones flew their first OUP sortie on August 10 and were mainly used to conduct sorties deep inside Libyan territory, over targets that could not be easily reached by other assets.

In Libya-like scenarios and, generally speaking, in Crisis Support Operations where they do not face numerous high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles, drones have proved to be both effective and cheap: they ensure the coverage of a vast area of interest with the same amount of weapons as a manned aircraft, but at about a fifth of the cost per flight hour. This is of significant advantage in a period of financial crisis, as some nations could divert their ever shrinking budgets from expensive noisy manned fighters to cheaper silent unmanned aircraft.

Aerial tankers

Even if the majority of tactical planes involved in the enforcement of the No-Fly Zone and in the air strikes in Libya were stationed in either Southern Italy or Greece, each fighter sortie in support of OUP averaged 8 hours and required five air-to-air refuelings. As a result, at least 6 or 7 tankers were orbiting in the airspace off the Libyan coast at any given time during the war, without taking into consideration those flying to and from their home bases.

[Read the rest on Global Aviator]

Image credit: France MoD


China's 5th generation stealth fighter performing combat maneuver tests over Chengdu

The following videos, once again purposely leaked to impress foreign observers, show China’s 5th generation stealth fighter J-20 at work during test flights at Chengdu. The second, taken on Feb. 26, 2012, at the end of the 70th public test flight, shows the future People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) radar evading plane performing some low level combat maneuvers.

Nothing special to be honest.  Indeed, what’s really amazing is not the turn rate nor maneuverability rather then the take off run of the J-20: extremely short for such a large plane, believed to be around 70 feet in length, with a wingspan of 42 feet (13 m) or more, and expected to have a takeoff weight of 75,000 to 80,000 pounds (34,000 to 36,000 kg) with internal stores only.

Feb. 4:

Feb. 26:

As already written several times, some western analyst believe the J-20 will be more capable than the F-22 and the F-35.

On the contrary, I’m among those who think that the real problem for the U.S. with the J-20 is not with the aircraft’s performances, top speed, equipment and capabilities (even if the US legacy fighters were designed 20 years earlier than current Chinese or Russian fighters of the same “class”); the problem is that China will probably build thousands of them.