Tag Archives: Military Aviation

RQ-4 Global Hawk in shock cancellation news: old planes better than new?

Is new better than old?

It would seem not. Industry insiders have leaked that the Pentagon is to cancel the RQ-4 Global Hawk program not just stopping buying new aircraft but to retire the Air Force active fleet, in favor of keeping the U-2 flying into 2020.

Air force times writer Dave Majumdar wrote: “The Air Force had been planning to buy 42 Block 30 aircraft. According to 2011 budget documents, the cost of each aircraft was around $215 million. It was not immediately clear how many Global Hawks the Air Force has.”

The aircraft is being killed off due to its high cost to buy and to maintain; also the program hasn’t lived up to its early promise. A knowledgeable industry insider confirmed the project cancellation and said “Yes, this is accurate — been a lot of discussion on the possibility of this a long while,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak to the media. “There is a high probability it will come to pass now unless Congress takes a major exception.”

The industry source also said “I don’t think that’s likely in the economic environment of this year’s DoD budget, and there are no real ‘hawks’ in Congress from California,” he said. The aircraft is both built and based in the Golden State.

Majumdar said that Northrop Grumman declined to comment whilst Air Force officials would neither deny nor confirm the reports.

Oddly the US Navy is going to keep its version of the aircraft therefore keeping the option open that it could, if needed, be used by the air force.

Surely, Global Hawk has not enjoyed the best of safety records with three prototypes lost and a failure rate much higher than many manned planes facing lethal threats in combat.

However, the U.S. RQ-4Bs belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force, based at NAS Sigonella, in Sicily, the base of the NATO AGS (Air Ground Surveillance) Global Hawk program were the first drones to operate in the Libyan airspace where they performed high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties.

Anyway, all of this is good news for the U-2, a 50 year old program that has ironed out all its techncal issues many years ago.

Affectionately known as “Dragon Lady”, the U-2 entered service in 1957. Since then, it has undergone many upgrades and has become a relatively cheap viable platform during these harsh economic times. In what would normally be the types twilight years, a breath of fresh air has been breathed over the majestic old ‘Lady’ which will see the type in service for more years to come.

Actually, it has been a bad week for other new or recent aircraft types too.

Another rather embarrasing news (this time for Airbus) is that further cracks have been found in the wings of its much lauded A380 “Superjumbo”, after the famous uncontained engine failure of Nov. 4, 2010. Airbus did tweet “For those following reports on A380 wing rib findings we confirm inspection & repair process underway and aircraft are safe to fly”: a damage limitation message by the company’s PR rather than a reassuring statement.

The apparent win of obsolete technology on newer, supposed to replace it, does pose the usual question: are modern aircraft too complex?

One thing is sure: you can’t compare new planes with older types. Even if there can be programs free from major problems during their whole lifetime and much troubled ones, facing myriad issues since their birth, generally speaking, those that have survived for 3, 4 or 5 decades and are still flying today, were probably properly designed, maintained, fixed and upgraded during their career. So they are today much more reliable than those integrating cutting edge experimental technologies.

Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti

Above image: U.S. Air Force

China: does it need to copy the RQ-170 "Beast of Kandahar" captured in Iran?

As has been widely reported it is no secret that China is trying to acquire stealth technology for use in their indigenous aircraft program. It was only last year that photo’s and video of the J-20 started to appear on the internet. It was clear that  China had made advances into the dark art of stealth technology, although first radar evading tech dates back to about 40 years ago. What was interesting was that the J-20 did not posses the angular lines of the Nighthawk but the more rounded curves of the B-2 or Raptor, it was clear a lot of work had been done behind closed doors for the Chinese scientists.

Another area that Chinese designers have made advances in is that of UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) or UAS (unmanned aerial systems). Rumours started in 2007 when, during the Paris Air show, China displayed the ‘Dark Sword’ concept.

The Dark Sword clearly had a very low RCS (Radar Cross Section) and showed the way Chinese designers were going in their work. It has appeared several times since then, indicating that this might not just be a concept but could be something that becomes reality in the future.

At the end of 2011 photos started emerging from China of a new Stealth UCAV/UAV dubbed the “Wind Blade” that features a blended wing design with long slim wings with “Sharklets” and an engine intake at the front and above the wing-like body. The overall design would lean towards a high altitude surveillance platform and  going by reports it was designed by students from the Shenyang University which happens to be connected to one of China’s largest aircraft producers. Although the aircraft in the photo is a scale model it’s not clear how old the photo is, so it could be conceivable that there is now a full-scale version.

China does have several non stealthy UAVs too.

There is the SOAR Dragon which looks very similar to the Global Hawk although it has swept wings and the tail plane joins with the main wing and from the photo’s below appears to have  radar absorbing paint. What is interesting in these photo’s is that the aircraft is in an advanced state of completion and looks to be being painted.

There are videos of a hybrid Predator – Global Hawk look-alike doing fast taxis down an unknown runway. The drone seems to be in an advanced state of testing meaning this could now be in a flyable position.

Analysts are divided as to where Chinese scientists are with UAV development. Based on the designs that are being displayed, the designers could have mastered stealthy shapes and the complexities of controlling the UAV. There are even reports that the Chinese are testing small-scale UAV’s for automated carrier landings.

Where most analysts agree is that China does not have the infrastructure to have a UAV reach outside of Chinese airspace and even within Chinese borders the signals are unreliable.

Maybe some of the radio/satellite link equipment, as well as  internal memories, circuitry, lenses,  and sensors contained in the RQ-170 Sentinel captured by Iran could be somehow helpful cause they can be evaluated, tested and copied. And, maybe, improved.

China is still a fair few years away from having a true global UAV reach which will require a lot of space systems investment to be able to achieve this. However there is one thing for sure, it will happen at some point in the future.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

All images source: Chinese Internet

F-35: flying on phased out fuel or programmed by a videogame freak?

Soon after publishing the article about the “F-35 from the Cockpit” I’ve received some emails and comments about an interesting thing readers have noticed in one of the webminar slides used to show the Joint Strike Fighter glass cockpit’s symbology.

As the following image seems to suggest, the most advanced 5th generation combat plane, integrating the best stealth technologies, full sensor fusion and a futuristic X-ray-like capable helmet, flies on JP-4 fuel, a dangerous kind of propellant, quick to ignite and explode, that was largely used from 1951 to 1996, when it was phased out and replaced by the safer, kerosene-based, JP-8.

Image: Lockeed Martin (highlight mine)

As explained in the website of Air BP (“the specialised aviation division of BP, providing fuels, lubricants & services to our customers in over 50 countries worldwide”):

although JP-8 has replaced JP-4 in most every case, the potential need for JP-4 under emergency situations necessitates maintaining this grade in specifications MIL-DTL-5624 and Defence Standard 91-88.

However, unless the JP-4 was/is used for testing purposes, it is quite strange that while some combat planes are beginning to perform test flights on eco-friendly biofuel or synthetic fuel, the F-35 is flying on a type of jet propellant presumed to be phased-out or used only in emergency situations.

Unless, the F-35’s glass cockpit symbology, so “user friendly” to remind some early flight simulator games, was not only designed for a “videogame freak” as test pilots said during the webminar, but also by someone who used to play with arcade games with some simulation elements (as F/A-18 Interceptor or F-19 Stealth Fighter) in the  ’90s, when the JP-4 was still in use :)

U.S. Fifth Fleet vs Iran Navy update: American supercarrier monitored with…binoculars.

Here’s an update to my previous post titled “U.S. supercarrier detected by an Iranian spyplane near the Strait of Hormuz”. Trivial as that could be the last thing that plane will ever detect.

Russia Today has published the alleged video taken by an Iranian maritime surveillance plane of a U.S. supercarrier near the Strait of Hormuz.

Although it is extremely difficult to determine when the video was filmed, it shows the USS Stennis: if you see the video in full screen HD mode you’ll get a glimpse on the “74” code on the flattop’s island that designates the USS Jonh C. Stennis (CVN-74).

As shown by the video, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy Aviation (IRINA) plane gets near the aircraft carrier (whose deck is not as busy as I’d expect…) and one of the most advanced tool used by the crew members of the Fokker F-27 used for maritime patrol to monitor the ship is….a binocular.

Furthermore, the IRNA news agency has published an interesting picture of the “Saeghe” (Thunder) an indigenously modified version of the American F-5 Tiger, whose twin tails and blue colour are loosely reminiscent of the Blue Angels’ F-18s Hornet, carrying two MK-82 Snakeye (?) dumb bombs.

According to the IRNA: “The combat jets bombed the sea areas after processing the data delivered by stealth reconnaissance aircraft.”

Which one?

"U.S. supercarrier detected by an Iranian spyplane near the Strait of Hormuz". Trivial as that could be the last thing that plane will ever detect.

According to the news reported by the Iranian news agency IRNA, an Iranian warplane involved in the Velayat-90 exercise has identified a U.S. flattop near the Strait of Hormuz.

“This shows that the Iranian Navy keeps a close eye on the movements of all ultra-regional forces in the region and checks their activities,” said the Iranian Navy’s Deputy Commander Rear Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi.

The news came the day after the U.S. 5th Fleet, based at Manama in Bahrain, said it would not tolerate any disruption to the freedom of navigation in the area after Iran earlier threatened it will block the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions against Tehran are toughened.

Some western media have added that the Iranian spyplane took some photographs of the U.S. aircraft carrier it detected.

My first comment to the news was that if the situation was really serious, that would be the last thing that the Iranian spyplane will ever detect for various reasons.

First of all, a carrier air wing made of about 60 aircraft. For example, when I visited the USS Nimitz involved in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009, the CVW-11 was made by  20 F/A-18C (VFA-86 and VFA-97), 12 F/A-18Es (VFA-14), 12 F/A-18Fs (VFA-41), 4 E/A-6Bs (VAQ-135), 4 E-2Cs (VAW-117), 4 SH-60Fs and 3 HH-60Fs (HS-6), a “mix” that, with minor differences, can be used as a reference.

Hence, among the aircraft included in an embarked air wing (worth a small autonomous air force capable to perform a wide variety of missions), there are also some E-2C Hawkeyes, aircraft that can perform Air Space Management and Tanker Coordination tasks, to manage and deconflict planes (as done for traffic flying in the Afghan airspace during OEF tasks) and provide the “picture” to the ship’s CDC (Combat Direction Center) that can be literally interconnected to any other AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platform.

The CDC is responsible for the tactical management of all the missions launched by the carrier, by means of fighter and mission controllers whose radar screens can be fed with the tracks discovered at long distance by the Hawkeyes, one aircraft of those is always flying and ready to guide interceptors (both on alert and flying) to the identification of intruders that it can detect from several hundred miles away.

Then, a U.S. Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier does not travel alone (as recently done by the Chinese trainer Varyag) but it is the flagship of a Carrier Strike Group that usually includes two AEGIS destroyers,  a Ticonderoga class missile cruiser, a Perry-class frigate and, although they are not officially attached to the CSG, a nuclear submarine and various supporting vessel, whose task is, among the others, to defend the flattops from enemy aerial or maritime attack.

As you may understand, such a huge force does not go unnoticed. Neither it wants to as its purpose is to deploy the air wing wherever it is needed for a Crisis Support Operation or to “flew muscles”.

So, unless the news is that “an ex-US RQ-170 stealthy drone now remotely controlled by the Iranian military” has identified the USS Stennis approaching the Strait of Hormuz, the fact that a spyplane has spotted or even photographed from a long distance an American nuclear flattop is absolutely trivial.

And will not change the outcome of an eventual war.