Tag Archives: Reaper

Reaper drone and Apache helicopter involved in the Camp Bastion battle that wiped out the U.S. Marine Corps Harrier force in Afghanistan

Further details of the attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan by a squad of 15 Taliban fighters on Friday Sept. 14, that took out several US Marine Corp Harriers with the loss of two Marines including the Harrier squadron commander have begun to emerge.

The British tabloid newspaper “The Sun” has run an article in which the battle against the insurgence is described in a little more detail.

Although highly embellished, the article was linked to from the RAF Facebook account, meaning that some of the points described must be fairly accurate. It would appear, once the scale of the attack became apparent, a British Reaper (Predator B) drone was diverted from its normal operations to provide over-watch of the battle whilst members of the RAF regiment, whom provide airfield protection, joined the U.S. Marines in repelling the Taliban attackers some 12 minutes after the attack began.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

The RAF soldiers used the main runway (although this might be just the ramp the Harriers were parked on) to advance towards the fight using their Jackel Armoured fighting vehicles, whilst at the same time the US Marines out flanked the Taliban to stop their escape and pinned them to one part of the huge sprawling complex.

Whilst this was taking place the British scrambled an Apache helicopter to provide air support, which indeed engaged several of the attackers, killing them.

During the fight it’s thought that the British Airmen used some 10,000 rounds.

CNN has an excellent video that describes the attack along with actual footage taken after the attack and shows smoke rising into the air.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

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

Drones to gain greater freedom in US airspace (and become a safety nightmare)

The US Congress has approved legislation that will allow drones greater freedom over US airspace. The bill will give guidance to the Federal Aviation Administration over the next 4 years and give it the authority to open up greater areas to UAS (unmanned aerial systems). Worth some $63.4 billion, the bill includes some $11 billion to update the air traffic control system and achieve greater safety and collision avoidance in crowded airspaces by means of GPS-based ADS-B rather than radar control.

This would allow MQ-9 Reaper units, that are currently compelled to operate away from their main operating bases (with consequent logistical trouble due to having to ferry personnel to areas which can provide the unhindered training environment), the opportunity to exploit nearby stateside airspaces.

It was during operations over Libya in 2011 that aircraft enthusiasts all around the world became aware of the ability of the pilots of Global Hawks and Reapers to talk to local Air Traffic Control pretty much in the same way a normal manned aircraft would do getting clearance to gain altitude or to transit their controlled air space to waypoints: not only drones requested special corridors (advertised by specific freely available NOTAMs) and altitudes well above those that normal civilian air traffic would ask for, but, quite often, they radioed the aircraft type in the clear when requested by the ATC controller.

This is how unmanned systems will probably operate in the future over the de-restricted airspace: the pilot in his/her ground control station will ask for clearance from Air Traffic control to transit to and from firing ranges and other training facilities which would have otherwise been out of bounds.

The US Department of Homeland Security already use drones to patrol both Northern and Southern borders of the US but the de-restriction of unmanned aerial systems could lead to a greater employment of drones where it was supposed to be limited because of safety concerns.

As pointed out in previous articles, the extensive use of drones doesn’t seem to reduce error occurrences that are the main cause of aircraft crashes within the U.S. Air Force. According to a recently published report about 30 percent of airmen who control drones have been experiencing emotional stress caused from long hours of work.

Are we sure it’s time to open crowded airspace to an impressive fleet of (possibly armed) robots in the hands of operators that are “on the edge of mental illness” because of the tight shifts?

Other countries also limit the use of unmanned systems in their airspace, the UK being one of them which provides a small area over the Irish Sea for the training of UK personnel on WatchKeeper and other unmanned systems.

Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti

Image credit: Nellis AFB

U.S. MQ-9 crashes at Mahe, Seychelles. Not a good period for America's robot war

News agencies are reporting that a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper crashed today at the Seychelles International Airport in Mahe. The cause of the crash is unknown and under investigation but the Reaper (also known as Predator B) was unarmed and no injuries were reported.

Seychelles International Airport as seen with Google Maps

The one in the Seychelles is one of the Reaper detachments, a Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) since 2009 from where reconnaissance missions are launched under  U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) for anti-piracy purposes even if someone speculates that Mahe is a launch-pad for American robots chasing terrorists in the Horn of Africa.

Indeed if their primary mission is ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) recently leaked documents revealed that U.S. drones based in Mahe have conducted counter-terrorism missions over Somalia, some 800 miles to the northwest of the Seychelles.

However, according to the official statements of the Seychelles Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Seychelles the agreement with the U.S is based on two aircraft being stationed at Mahe and flying unarmed missions.

Image source: US Africa Command via Flightglobal The Dew Line

Anyway, considered all the criticism that has been surrounding the drones attacks in Pakistan and the recent mysterious capture of a stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel (the “Beast of Kandahar”) flying a surveillance mission in Iran, one may say it is not a very good period for America’s robot war…

Iran seizes a U.S. Stealth Drone by taking over controls. Maybe… And what about that Predator virus?

According to the Iranian Fars news agency, on Dec. 4, Iran’s army downed a U.S. remotely controlled spyplane, along the country’s eastern border. Although no image of the wreckage was released so far, the American drone was described as an intruding RQ-170 Sentinel, first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007 and since then dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar”.

This is the fourth time this year Iran claims to have shot down a U.S. drone. No images have ever been released of the previous downed drone hence, unless a photographic evidence is disclosed, we can’t be sure a downing did happen.

The spy drone is currently seized “with very little damage” meaning that, provided a drone was really lost in Iran, it was not hit by any anti-aircraft system. Indeed, unless it was an extremely lucky shot, I think Iran has not the equipment and capability to intercept and destroy a radar evading Sentinel. Most probably, the robot suffered some kind of failure or lost satellite guidance during a covert surveillance mission: an almost conventional mission of the long lasting unconventional stealth war to the Iranian nuclear program.

Noteworthy, according to an unnamed military official quoted by state TV, Iran’s cyber warfare unit managed to take over controls of the Sentinel and bring it down. Is it possible? Maybe, otherwise I would not explain why the RQ-170 was not remotely destroyed with a kill-switch reportedly used on such systems to prevent them from going in the wrong hands. Such self-destruction systems are designed to bring down the drone should its pilot lose satellite link from the mobile ground control station.

The stealthy UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is one of the most precious of the U.S. arsenal and it is believed to have taken part in Operation Neptune’s Spear (or “Operation Geronimo”) the Navy SEALs raid for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, that revealed the existence of the famous Stealth Black Hawk.

The RQ-170 is flown by Air Combat Command’s 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., and the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at Tonopah Test Range, Nev. Creech AFB is the same from where MQ-1 Predators, those whose mobile ground control stations were infected with a computer virus.

If the most important U.S. drones suffered a malware attack are we sure Sentinels can’t be hacked by Iranian military?

First, we have to be sure an RQ-170 was really downed….

Update: someone asked me to explain what I meant for “hacking” a Sentinel.

I’m not suggesting someone was able to hack the drone and land it. Maybe disrupting/jamming the satellite link with the mobile ground control station and inhibit its self-destruction system would be enough. Then, the uncontrolled drone could crash land with minor damages.

Image source: Internet