Tag Archives: Royal Air Force

London Olympics security: Major Exercise takes place in the skies of the UK

On Jan. 18 reports started filtering in from local newspapers in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, UK, of aircraft flying in circles over their locations and urged visitors to their website to comment on what this could be. The southern half of the UK was, on that day enjoying cold cloudless blue skies and the spectacle could be clearly seen. Twitter became alive with reports of other circles in the sky (contrails) viewed from central London and as far north and west as Birmingham, soon after photo’s started appearing on the local newspaper websites.

It was at this point it all became clear what was indeed going on.

The one taking place was a dry run for the Olympic games and the circles in the sky were indeed the contrails of a RAF E-3D AWACS flying racetrack patterns along with a Sentinel R1 aircraft (one of those saved from cuts after performing extremely well during the recent Air War in Libya) and, according to rumours, even a USAF E-8 Joint Stars.

The AWACS were positioned to give total coverage of the southern part of the UK: along with other surveillance assets, nothing would have escaped their gaze.

A practice scramble of a pair of Typhoons out of RAF Northolt on the evening of Saturday Jan. 21 at around 8.30pm LT, was used to give pilots the opportunity to give a first look to the surroundings they will find themselves in for the duration of the Olympic games. The pair of Typhoons had originated from their home base at RAF Coningsby where they returned once their taskings were complete.

It certainly looks like the London Olympics organisers are taking no risks with security. The London sites are already on lock down with the casual observers being questioned if they look out of place, on top of the widely reported facts that the London sites will have SAM sites dotted around the area and some 13,000 UK military personnel involved.

There were also media reports of the Royal Marines and UK Police taking part in an exercise in the river Thames (London) last week. Although still unconfirmed, Army Lynx helicopters operating out of RAF Northolt, were reported to have attended the drills.

Thanks to the London Evening Standard it also emerged that the British Ministry of Defense were to lease several helicopters from the US Department of Defense for use in confined spaces. The paper coined the term “Killer Eggs” due to their egg-like appeareance but these ‘little birds’ are based on the Hughes 500 defender and are used extensively by US special forces. This obviously has not been confirmed as of writing.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com

Why NATO, French and US AWACS have been constantly monitoring the Libyan airspace well before the No-Fly Zone was voted

In the last few days I have often had the opportunity to talk with journalists, spotters and enthusiasts about the Libyan uprising that was also the subject of an interview I gave to Pieter Johnson for the Across The Pond segment of the Episode 139 of Airplane Geeks (click here to listen to the podcast).

Among the most debated topics there was the AWACS presence at the southern borders of the Malta FIR: NATO, French, British and US E-3 AWACS constantly monitoring the Libyan airspace. The presence of such a large deployment of AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms in the area and the fact that at least one E-3 (usually 2) has been flying day and night to ensure the surveillance of the airspace on a H24 basis raised some questions, the most of common of which was: “why are there so many AWACS up if no No-Fly Zone has been enforced yet (hence no fighter has to be controlled)?”

The answer is more or less the same I gave in a previous post titled “Why Libyan Air Force aircraft pose a risk to Italy“: in these days there are many SIGINT aircraft operating at the border between the Maltese and Libyan airspace to assess the inventory of both the LARAF (Libyan Arab Republic Air Force) and of the recently born rebel’s FLAF (Free Libya Air Force). US EC-130Hs Compass Call and EC-130J Commando Solo, EP-3s, RC-135 Rivet Joint, C-160G, British Nimrods R1 (whose operative life was extended as a consequence of the Libyan crisis) that have been eavesdropping into Libyan Communications and Signals to have an in-depth understanding of the situation in Libya, to know where forces are located and to build up the an Electronic Order of Battle as well as a priority target list.

Most of these information gathering platforms are turboprop that could not easily escape to fast jets sent to intercept them. Even if it is extremely unlikely, the possibility of a LARAF or FLAF (Free Libya Air Force) fighter, either intentionally or in the act defecting, getting dangerously close to one of these aircraft, in such a hot and fast changing scenario, can’t be completely ruled out. That’s why so many flyng hours were already spent by AWACS to monitor the Libyan airspace even if a NFZ was not established yet.

On Mar. 17, Gaddafi said that any foreign military intervention in Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military (facilities) will become targets of Libya’s counter-attack in the short-term and also in the long-term.

I think that the risk of LARAF fighters harassing both military traffic (evacuating nationals from Libya or monitoring the situation) and civil airlines crossing the Tripoli FIR or connecting the Libyan airports with the rest of the world, was what was scaring NATO, France and EU when they decided, well before the NFZ was voted, to keep a constant watch on Libyan airspace.

Libyan airspace most interesting movements of last week

At least two Internet resources have been providing a comprehensive set of tools to monitor on a 24 hours basis the traffic that has been operating in the airspaces between Malta and Tripoli FIR: Flightradar24 and LiveATC.net. The first gives you a sort of “radar picture” built thanks to the ADS-B messages broadcasted by the planes while the latter provides live air traffic control (ATC) broadcasts from air traffic control towers and radar facilities around the world and also from Malta. Information gathered by means of this two freely available resources are then spread by aircraft enthusiasts (and not only) using Twitter with the result that as soon as a particular aircraft appear above the Mediterranean sea, something strange happen or a particular communication is heard, almost instantly, the news reaches every place of the world. As an expert in military aviation I’ve been closely watching this “information flow” and, as I was often asked by Twitter followers, blog readers and journalists which was the most unexpect or unusual traffic that was heard or seen operating in the airspaces to the south of Malta, I think that it may be useful to summarize here some of the most interesting stuff that was monitored in the last week even if it has already been published on Twitter and on other online magazines and media which created Live Blogs (like Malta Today) or built up Twitter Live pages (like La Repubblica.it in Italy) by importing through the Twitter APIs those tweets containing a particular hashtag (i.e. #Libya or #Tripoli). In fact, those media don’t always give an explaination of the reasons why a traffic is interesting.
Anyway, don’t miss the chance to follow user FMCNL on Twitter if you want to be updated on latest movements.

Mar. 5, 2011

Before 09.30Z French Air Force Transall C-160G tail F216, call sign COTAM 2096
09.30Z a NATO AWACS controlling the Libyan airspace for any suspect activity using the front end callsign “NATO 07″ requested to Malta ACC if it had “any information on aircraft with squawk 2017, position about 85 miles east of our”. The answer from Malta was that “it should be a Falcon 900, at FL340, with destination Mitiga, according to Flight Plan”. A few minutes later, the Libyan Government 5A-DCN contacted Malta ACC on its way from Amman to Mitiga. The news was reported by all media that speculated of a “Libyan aircraft challenging a NATO AWACS”. Read here what was really weird in that episode….
14:35Z RA 519 EP 3 from Moron in contact with Malta
17:21Z Lion 491 US C-130 involved in the Tunis airlift with Malta
21:30Z SUM 9071 Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations Il-76TD RA-76429 showing on flightradar to Tunis FIR
23:46Z Apex 17 RAF Nimrod R1 returning to Akrotiri handed over to Athinai Cntrl. This kind of aircraft due to have been retired at the end of March are now to be kept in service for at least another three months, as it was reported by the BBC, most probably due to the need to use this strategic platform during the Libyan crisis.

Mar. 8, 2011

23.30Z AXIS 10 US EC-130H Compass Call with Malta ACC. The EC-130H performs electronic/information warfare tasks.

Mar. 9, 2011

Around 00:00z USAF EC-130J of the 193d Special Operations Wing (193 SOW) of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard using c/s RCH1024 was monitored using Mode-S most probably deploying to Souda Bay. The Commando Solo is a particular version of the EC-130 that is used for psychological operations (PSYOP) and is capable of broadcasting TV and radio on all bands. Last version should be able to provide WiFi access by dropping Access Points to the ground (has to be confirmed).
Around 00:20Z Malta ACC warned Air Malta 7489 that a previous flight reported an unknown traffic W of Gozo that didn’t show up on radar.
Beginning around 08:30Z three Libyan Government aircraft departed Tripoli for various destinations:

  • 5A-UAC Bombardier BD-700 went to Lisbon Purtugal (via Luqa Malta)
  • 5A-UAA Bombardier BD-100 Challenger 300 went to Paris Le Bourget Airport
  • 5A-DCN the Falcon DA-900 went to Cairo

Mar. 10, 2011

10:10Z Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330 5A-ONF out of Tripoli east bound as AAW430 appeared shortly on FL390
13:45Z 5A-ONH AAW220 east bound from Tripoli. It was returning to Libya as AAW241 at 19:28Z
17:13Z USAF RC-135W Rivet Joint c/s OLIVE 24 in Maltese airspace
20:45Z Unusual comm heard on LiveATC. NATO 02 to Malta ACC: “we have a traffic behind us 9 miles. Can you confirm the level?”. Malta: “FL340”

Mar. 11, 2011

04:40Z Hellenic Air Force C-130 tail 743 flying as HAF356T arrived in Athens after departure from Tripoli with released crew of Dutch Navy helicopter NRN277 from frigate Tromp captured by the Army of Gaddafi on Feb. 27.

What's weird in the Libyan Government Da.900 "challenging" the NATO AWACS episode

Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, a certain number of SIGINT, Electronic Warfare and information gathering assets were reported to be operating within the Malta FIR or on its southern border, next to the Libyan airspace. Radio communications broadcasted on the Internet by LiveATC unveiled the presence of RAF and NATO E-3 AWACS, British Nimrod R.1, French C-160G and several US planes, as RC-135W, Special Ops MC-130Ps and EC-130Hs along with supporting tankers. Indeed, operating within controlled airspace, these aircraft have to contact Malta ACC to coordinate refueling areas, orbit positions, flight levels and to receive information for the deconfliction from other traffic during transit through the Maltese airspace. Even if the Libyan Arab Republic Air Force (LARAF) never dared to attempt to harm such planes, the AWACS have been operating on a 24 hours a day basis to provide AEW (Airborne Early Warning) in favour of both these planes and those involved in the evacuation of nationals from Libya performing difficult rescues in the areas taken by rebels. Around 09.30Z of Mar. 5, 2011, a NATO AWACS controlling the Libyan airspace for any suspect activity became the protagonist of an episode that involved one of the private jets of the Gaddafi’s fleet flying from Amman to Mitiga. The E-3 using the front end callsign “NATO 07” requested to Malta ACC if it had “any information on aircraft with squawk 2017, position about 85 miles east of our”. The answer from Malta was that “it should be a Falcon 900, at FL340, with destination Mitiga, according to Flight Plan”. A few minutes later the “suspicious” plane contacted Malta radar too with callsign “5A-DCN” (= registration of the aircraft) and flew normally to its destination. Since this conversation (that can be heard here) was broadcasted in real time by LiveATC many aircraft enthusiasts heard it live on the Internet meaning that the news of this weird episode spread really quickly, especially thanks to Twitter. Many media, inspired by a “provoking” tweet by the expert user who recorded the radio comms and made it available on Audioboo, without checking what actually had happened, claimed that the Libyan aircraft had somehow “challenged” the NATO AWACS. However what’s really noteworthy in this episode is not that the Falcon 900EX of the Libyan Government was flying undisturbed but that the AWACS was asking an ACC if it had details about a track it was controlling: usually, the AWACS is interconnected with the radar stations of the NADGE (Nato Air Defence Ground Environment) by means of Interim JTIDS Message Specification and it is able to identify a track (NTN, Nato Track Number) either autonomously or with the help of the ground air defence radar that has already correlated the FPL information with the trasponder codes of each track. Indeed, as there’s neither an active No-Fly Zone nor an embargo on Libya yet, the Libyan aircraft can still fly almost freely outside its home country, provided that a proper Diplomatic Clearance to cross foreign countries’ airspaces is issued by the nations interested by its route and, for sure, by doing that, it is not challenging anybody. Therefore, for sure, it was challenging the NATO AWACS on Mar. 5…..
By the way, unlike other aircraft known to be part of the Gaddafi’s fleet, the Libyan Falcon 900EX 5A-DCN was quite “active” in the last weeks. On Feb.23 the aircraft flew to Minsk, Belarus, and returned to Tripoli on Feb. 26. A suspicious but legitimate flight.

F-35, STOVL, Joint Force: will Italy follow the British path?

On Oct. 19, 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the key changes to the Britain military that will be introduced as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Among them:
– decommissioning of the the Invincible-class aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal;
– cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 programme;
– early retirement of the Harrier fleet in order to retain a reduced number of Tornado GR.4s;
– early retirement of the Sentinel R.1 which entered in service in Dec. 2008;
– early retirement of the Hercules fleet by 2022 (tactical airlift duties will be undertaken by A400Ms and A330s);
– 12 new Chinooks;
– Tristar and VC-10 (this latter used only for air-to-air refueling until retirement) withdrawal by 2013

One of the most interesting ones is the reduced planned buy of F-35s that will not be the F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) ones but will be the carrier variant F-35Cs. The abandonment of the F-35B is tied to the decision to convert one of the two future British aircraft carriers in a “cat and trap” supercarrier, hence able to launch the planes by means of a catapult and to recover them by means of an arresting gear system.

This move will enable the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to operate solely the F-35C naval model of the Joint Strike Fighter, with benefits in terms of interoperability, training, cost reduction etc. With an ever shrinking budget, the moment in which Italy will be compelled to lauch its own Defence review, to ensure the survival of the Services at the minimum level and the sustainability of the out-of-area operations, is not far.

In the meanwhile, what we can try to understand is: will the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) and Marina Militare (Italian Navy, ItNy) be, sooner or later, “invited” to choose a single version? According to the current plans, the ItAF is interested in both the conventional F-35A and the F-35B STOVL variant while, the ItNy can only use the STOVL version to operate it from its current and future aircraft carriers.

The most obvious consideration that could be made is that the only variant that could satisfy the requirements of both Services is the F-35B. Compared to the A, the STOVL version has, on the “pro” side:
– a higher flexibility, being able to operate on small landing strips (this is the reason why the ItAF wants this version too) and from ships.
on the “con” side:
– less space for fuel, hence, a lower maximum range
– an external (=in pod) rather than internal gun
– a reduced flight envelope (+7 G instead of +9 G)
– it is more expensive and burns more fuel.
The rest is identical or much similar.

So, as the F-35 will replace the Tornado and AMX fleets (this latter being a priority in the near term) I think that the idea of a single type procurement based on the STOVL can’t be completely dismissed: modern scenarios, like the Afghan one, where tactical aircraft are used for Urban/CAS support or recce, are perfectly suitable for a STOVL aircraft (even if Convetional Take Off and Landing – CTOL planes, in most case, suit as fine). Furthermore, I don’t think that, in a future dominated by stealthy UAVs and UCAVs, there will be any evident advantage in flying an F-35A instead of an F-35B to war. For sure, in a future warfare regime in which targets are dispersed, hidden, mobile and well defended, operational endurance can be a key performance indicator to measure strike platforms, but not on a tactical base. We are not comparing a STOVL plane to an extended-range bomber, capable of operating from its homebase….

If a proper analysis capable of evaluating the benefits of using a single type of aircraft againsts the costs of buying and operating the more expensive one would suggest the purchase of the STOVL variant, I think I would not be concerned. STOVL aircraft are the perfect platform for the Forward Operating Bases of any expeditionary operation. By being deployed near to the battlefield, the STOVL aircraft are ideal for on-call tasks: even if they have a higher hourly cost, they need less fuel, since they don’t need to remain airborne in CAP, and they don’t burn too much gas for transit from departure aerodrome to the operative area, etc.

That said, I don’t know if Italy is ready for a single type of aircraft for both ItAF and ItNy capable of operating from the Cavour aircraft carrier as a single unit, something that would logically lead to the creation of a joint force similar to the British Joint Force Harrier and the subsequent proposal of reabsorbing into the Air Force, an option that the Navy might not accept…..