Yesterday two USAF F-35A stealth aircraft performed a quick visit to Estonia. But their mission to the Baltic region was probably not only supported by a KC-135: an RC-135U and two RC-135Ws flew to the area while the 5th Gen. jets were there.
On Apr. 25, two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK since mid April, flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Ämari, Estonia.
The Rivet Joint positioned off Kaliningrad Oblast, where some of the most active Russian bases in the Baltic region are located, whereas the Combat Sent started a racetrack over Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia.
Shortly thereafter, even a RAF RC-135W “Airseeker,” one of the three ex-USAF KC-135 tanker converted to the Rivet Joint variant starting back in 2011, from RAF Waddington joined the scene. The British intelligence gathering plane that, just like the American “RJs” is equipped with all sorts of antennae and sensors, to eavesdrop enemy signals, transmissions, detect frequencies used by radio and radars and pinpoint sites of interest, mobile stations, SAM batteries, etc., maintained a racetrack off Kaliningrad.
RC135W ZZ664 RRR7220 west of Kaliningrad (via @CivMilAir)
At 14.43Z, the two JSFs departed Ämari to return to the UK and shortly thereafter both the U.S. and RAF spyplanes headed back to their homebases.
Although we can’t but speculate here, it appears to be quite likely that the RC-135 missions to the Baltic were somehow related to the deployment of the F-35 so close to the Russian border. In fact, whilst Rivet Joint and Combat Sent aircraft regularly fly to the region and can be daily tracked online as they head towards the international airspace off Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the presence of three such spyplanes not too far away from one another seems to suggest their missions were coordinated and probably related to something “big” happening there.
And the only “big thing” (Zapad 2017 preparation aside) we are currently aware of is the first presence of the JSF in Estonia. Moreover, not only was the type of racetrack flown by the Combat Sent unusual, but it was also located in a pretty interesting position: east of Ämari, as if the RC-135U, an aircraft designed to collect technical intelligence on adversary radar emitter systems, was there to detect emissions from Russian radars interested in the F-35.
However, there is another possibility: what if the American and British spyplanes were there to deter the Russian from using their radars?
Indeed, whilst three RC-135s flying at the same time in the same area is something unusual, it is quite weird that the three spyplanes had their ADS-B transponder turned on during their missions.
“If they wanted to hide, they would do” says the ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast who runs the popular @CivMilAir and @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds. “The daily RC-135s flights over the Middle East very rarely show up and even the daily missions to the Baltics can usually be tracked during their transit to the area of operations, where often the transponder is turned off. That’s why I believe they remained trackable on purpose.”
On Apr. 25, both RC-135s could tracked throughout their missions suggesting they did purposely broadcast their position for everyone to see, to let everyone know they were there.
Russian spyplanes have done pretty much the same in the past: the Tu-214R, Russia’s most advanced intelligence gathering aircraft deployed to Syria and flew along the border with Ukraine with its transponder turned on. In that case it was a sort of “show of force”; yesterday was likely a way to prevent some interesting details about the F-35 to be gathered by the Russians.
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
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.
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.
Two U.S. destroyers cruising in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have fired 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at an airbase in western Syria. The cruise missiles flew across the Russian S-400 MEZ unscathed.
Last night, Alreigh Burke-class destroyers USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) launched cruise missiles into Syria, in response to the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians on Apr. 4.
On President Donald Trump’s order, 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) targeted runway, hardened aircraft shelters, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, radars and fuel points at Shayrat Airbase, the airfield in western Syria from where, according to the intelligence gathered by the U.S., the aircraft that carried out the chemical attacks were launched
The track of the Syrian aircraft that carried out the CW attack on Khan Shaykhn (DoD released)
According to the first reports, all the aircraft based there have been destroyed or severely damaged, including some 30 Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack planes, several SyAAF MiG-23s and also some Su-24 Fencers according to sources. For sure, considered the status of Assad’s air force, the attack may have had a significant impact on the ability of the loyalist air force to conduct air strikes.
However, later reports say that most of the aircraft based there were evacuated before the strike, and initial footage from Shayrat seems to show at least some areas of the airports, including taxiways, shelters, aprons, etc. with little or no damages.
Only 23 missiles flew to the Syrian air base and just 6 MiG-23s were destroyed there along with a radar station, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said at a briefing. Where the remaining 36 cruise missiles have landed is “unknown,” he said.
According to Pentagon, the Russians were informed ahead of strike:
Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.
Indeed, Shayrat Airbase is a Forward Operating Base for a few Russian Air Force Mi-35 and Ka-52 helicopters. The status of the choppers, provided some of these were there at the moment of the air strike, is unknown. However, considered that these are not mentioned in the Russian Defense Ministry statement it’s safe to assume they were not damaged by the TLAM attack.
Did Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft defense system detect the missiles? For sure there are no reports of any of the BGM-109 intercepted by the S-400.
Designated SA-21 “Growler” by NATO, the S-400 is believed to be able to engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft (someone says even VLO – Very Low Observable ones), drones and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 250 miles at an altitude of nearly 19 miles. Equipped with 3 different types of missiles and an acquisition radar capable of tracking up to 300 targets within the range of over 370 miles, the Triumph (or Triumf) is a system made of 8 launchers and a control station.
Supported by effective EW (Electronic Warfare) capabilities, the S-400 fires missiles against aerial targets flying at 17,000 km/h.
So, at least on paper, all non-stealth aircraft and missiles would hardly be able to dodge S-400 missiles. Assuming that the Russians probably detected at least some of the Tomahawks flying fast and low towards their targets at Shayrat Airbase it’s not clear why the Trimf did not attempt to intercept any of the TLAMs launched by the US destroyers, considered the reaction by Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s defense committee, who said the American attack was “an act of aggression against a UN member […] Cooperation between the Russian and US militaries may be shut down after the US strike.” according to state news agency RIA.
Perhaps, considered that they were informed beforehand, they simply decided to let them pass. The Russian MoD statement does not say mention any Russian air defense system intercepting any of the U.S. missiles launched towards Shayrat Airbase even though some sources have suggested only 23 missiles reached their targets because the other ones were brought down near Tartous by the local S-400 and S-300 batteries.
The S-400 MEZ (source: RT)
Anyway, the U.S. TLAM strike marks a shift in Washington’s posture regarding Syria and it represents the first direct action against Assad’s regime after six years of civil war.
Back in 2013, when a U.S. military operation in Syria was being rumored, we published an article that you can read here. Here are some key points of that story, that still apply four years later:
“Forget F-15E Strike Eagles and F/A-18E Super Hornets carrying PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions). Should Washington really get involved in Syria, it will probably be a limited air war, mainly made of cruise missiles, most (if not all) shot by warships or submarines and almost no involvement of “tacair” (tactical airplanes).
The attack would be conducted by the four destroyers in the Sixth fleet area of operations (USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Ramage) [in 2013 these were operating in the eastern Mediterranea], each theoretically capable to launch up to 90 Tomahawks Tactical Cruise Missiles (actually less, because these warships usually carry a mix of attack and air defense missiles).
High flying Global Hawk drones flying from Incirlik, Sigonella or Al Dhafra, will perform the post-strike BDA (Battle Damage Assessment). Some sorties will also be flown by U-2s.”
At that time a real air campaign was thought to be considered. The one carried out in the night between Apr. 6 and 7 was probably an isolated air strike in retaliation for the Syrian chemical strikes earlier this week.
Russian Aerobatic Team Shows Precision and Performance in Brand New Su-30s.
The LIMA 17 air show in Malaysia on Mar. 21-25th is the largest air show of its kind in the Asia/Pacific region.
As already reported here, this year’s show included the first performance of the Russian Knights in their new Sukhoi Su-30SM (NATO: “Flanker-C”) aircraft.
The Russian Knights flew four Su-30SMs at LIMA 17, having just received the aircraft after last year’s show season. Before 2017 the team flew the Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-27UB aircraft, a prior generation version of the heavily upgraded new Su-30SM.
The flight demonstration began with some exceptionally well-practiced diamond formation flying by the Russian Knights. During the diamond maneuvers the team displayed excellent symmetry, especially during difficult rolling maneuvers when the outside and inside aircraft in the formation fly different profiles to maintain position. While the Russian Knights fly wider aircraft spacing than the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, their synchronization was impressive in the new Su-30SMs.
Weather conditions including broken, low overcast meant the Russian Knights flew a relatively low altitude demonstration routine mostly below the cloud cover. The high humidity in Malaysia made for spectacular vapor clouds under hard maneuvering by the Sukhois.
The team will eventually fly six of the aircraft, but only four demonstrated in Malaysia. At the end of the formation flying routine two of the Su-30SMs detached from the diamond to perform solo and opposing solo maneuvers. During this part of the show the first two aircraft landed and deployed their drag chutes, adding spectacle to the routine.
Landing with drag chute (credit: Suman Sharma, Chindits Defense)
At the end of the routine one aircraft demonstrated the vectored-thrust, super-maneuverable capability of the Su-30SM. This performance is unique to any flight demonstration team since it showcases the SU-30SM thrust-vectoring and canard wing capabilities. This included ultra-high angle of attack maneuvers and the impressive low-speed, pivoting turns combined with “cobra” style pitch-ups unique to the Sukhoi demo routines.
Russian Knights commander, air force Colonel Andrey Alekseev told media outlets in a press conference prior to the show, “It is the great honor for us to represent [the] Russian Air Force with the ‘best-in-the-world’ Su-30SM fighters here in Malaysia.”
In what seemed like major export marketing push for Sukhoi and UAC (United Aircraft Corporation) the Royal Malaysian Air Force also performed solo demonstration flights of their Su-30MKMs in subdued, tactical color schemes. One of the demo pilots identified as Royal Malaysian Air Force Colonel Gborg, gushed about the Su-30MKM, telling reporters, “This is the best fighter I have flown in my 20-year career!” Sukhoi/UAC supported the flight demonstrations with a marketing booth in the aviation industry exhibition hall throughout the show.
Two Pacific-Asian based aerobatic teams also flew at LIMA 17 making this a major show. The Tentera Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara’s Jupiter team flying the small, elegant KAI KT-1 Woongbi Korean-built single-engine turboprop, basic training aircraft and the South Korean Black Eagles jet team flying KAI-T50B advanced supersonic trainer flew along with the Russian Knights during the show.
Top Image credit: Sputnik News. Video by This Is Flight (@tif_live)
The “Russian Knights” aerobatic team have brought their new Su-30SM jets at the LIMA 17 exhibition currently underway in Malaysia.
The participation in Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition represents the world premiere of the “Russian Knights” flying the new supermaneuverable multirole combat aircraft delivered in Fall 2016.
The Su-30SM a 4+ Generation twin-engine, two seat supermaneuverable multi-role aircraft equipped with improved avionics, the Bars-R radar and a wide-angle HUD (Head Up Display).
The new aircraft’s supermaneuverability has allowed the team, that previously flew the Su-27 and Su-27UB aircraft, to develop a new flying demo.
The following footage by Miezan Bohor shows one of the four aircraft practicing the solo display over Langkawi at desk. The almost constant use of afterburners lets you observe thethrust vectoring exhaust nozzles at work in the darkness.
And here is the solo display rehearsals on Mar. 20: