Tag Archives: stealth

The Enigmatic SR-72 And the Palmdale Sightings: What Do They Tell Us About America’s Secret Hypersonic Program?

The Media is Full of Speculation, But What Do We Know and What Can We Predict?

One of 2017’s biggest defense and aviation stories is the anonymous sighting by a “handful of witnesses” of the landing of a mysterious, unidentified new aircraft at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Flight Test Facility in Palmdale California. What was it?

Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris scooped the story but was guarded in his reporting of sources. On September 27, 2017 Norris wrote:

“According to information provided to Aviation Week, one such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California as seen from the air in an early photo. (Photo: USAF)

Nearly every article quoting Norris’ story suggests that, what the unnamed witnesses saw is related to a new global intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) gathering asset. Likely a new hypersonic remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that could be a sub-scale developmental testbed for a planned manned version. While it is a significant leap to extrapolate this sighting to a full-scale manned platform, the silence from Lockheed Martin about the incident is deafening. Had the sighting been nothing, they would have said it was nothing.

It isn’t much of a leap to suggest that any proposed, new manned aircraft, colloquially referred to in most media as the “SR-72” would have global range, fly in excess of Mach 6, be low-observable and potentially have strike capability. This is one list of requirements for an SR-71 follow-on.

The U.S. Air Force Plant 42 Production Test Flight Facility at Palmdale, California with static display SR-71s and F-117s. (Photo: USAF)

When analyzing the role of a possible new strategic reconnaissance/strike asset, manned and unmanned, a few assumptions can reasonably be made. The mission of a high-speed reconnaissance (and possibly even strike) platform likely includes four unique capabilities for the strategic ISR and global strike mission:

1. It is very low observable. The relevance and quality of any intelligence collected is degraded substantially if the adversary knows it has been collected. A stealthy, ultra-high-speed intelligence gathering and strike asset could obtain signals, atmospheric and image intelligence across several spectrums potentially without detection. This improves the actionable relevance of the intelligence since the adversary does not know their operational security has been compromised.

2. It is timely. An ultra-high speed (some reports suggest Mach 6+) asset could be over the reconnaissance target area quickly and provide either real-time intelligence via secure datalink or be back on the ground quickly for retrieval and analysis of intelligence gathered over the target and stored onboard the asset.

3. It is difficult to intercept if detected. One of the primary defensive capabilities of the Mach 3+ SR-71 was its speed and altitude performance. It could outrun and out-climb most missiles and interceptor aircraft. But advances in detection, tactics, aircraft, aircraft weapons and surface to air missiles and even soon-to-be fielded focused energy beam weapons (as from the Chinese) provide a requirement for a faster, higher flying and lower observable platform.

4. It provides on-board decision-making capability in the manned configuration. While a manned asset exposes a flight crew to the risks associated with overflight it also keeps the human decision-making capability inside the mission loop. While this may not be critical in the ISR role, it may be in the strategic strike role. Once strategic strike platforms such as ICBMs and cruise missiles are committed to the attack they can be difficult to re-task or abort, especially in a dynamic tactical environment. A manned strategic strike asset with ultra-high-speed and global range retains a human in the decision loop. This is attractive both empirically and morally.

Having identified these four potential unique capabilities to a presumptive “SR-72” type asset it is appropriate to examine the possible regions and roles the asset would be employed in. Given the current and near-future strategic situation these four global missions may be part of the SR-72s tasking:

1. North Korea. The crisis has reached a near flashpoint with Pyongyang’s repeated missile and nuclear proliferation and continued adversarial rhetoric. Accurate and timely monitoring of North Korea’s actual testing activity and developmental capabilities is critical to managing the U.S. response in the crisis. This includes preventing the crisis from becoming an armed conflict. A strategic reconnaissance asset that is stealthy, fast and field-able would bolster the U.S. position in intelligence gathering, especially in this dynamic environment. A similar low observable, hypersonic strike asset would also be critical in maintaining our first strike capability should the rapidly evolving situation warrant it.

2. Iran. With potential changes in the U.S. doctrine and Iran’s nuclear policy maintaining real-time intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is critical. The political environment surrounding Iran, and its attendant diplomatic ramifications, dictate that the best intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and any weapons development be gathered covertly and updated in a timely manner. While orbital reconnaissance assets can provide excellent imaging across the entire spectrum from visible to infra-red to electronic emissions a reconnaissance satellite cannot collect atmospheric samples that are key to detecting nuclear testing. Also, re-tasking spy satellites not already in position with orbits over key targets makes a more dynamic, high-speed, low-observable atmospheric reconnaissance platform desirable.

3. Syria. The tenuous relationship with Russia in the Syrian conflict has been well-managed to date, but the potential for serious incidents still exists. Intelligence gathered covertly in real or near real-time about both Syrian and Russian activities in the region can help manage each participants’ agendas while lowering the risk of fratricide and other accidental conflict. It can also provide exclusive intelligence to the United States unavailable to other participating nations, providing a strategic intelligence advantage in the conflict.

4. The emerging global theater. The United States enjoys a geographic separation from the major Asian, African and Middle Eastern conflict areas. The geographic separation from conflict zones afforded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has been a significant reason for the U.S. ability to maintain security and prevent a large-scale conflict on U.S. soil. But this geographical distance from conflict zones also means preemptively managing conflict globally. It requires long reach and high-speed for timely intelligence gathering. A new high-speed, low-observable ISR/strike platform is required to maintain that agenda. This is a persistent requirement within the U.S. arsenal and will remain indefinitely.

Global conflicts thousands of miles from the U.S. dictate the continued need for stealthy, long range, high speed strategic reconnaissance (Photo: Center for Preventative Action)

Any new strategic reconnaissance and strike asset in development now could still be years from operational fielding, or it may already be in service. Recall that the F-117 Nighthawk was flying in 1981 but not officially revealed until 1988, a span of seven years during which the program remained hidden. While media has changed since the 1980s and it is more difficult to keep a program secret today, the possibility still exists that the program is much farther advanced than publicly revealed.

The F-117 sub-scale prototypes, some called “Have Blue”, were secretly flown from Palmdale without detection. (Photo: USAF)

As early as 1985 a line item appeared in the U.S. defense budget for $85 million USD attributed to a project called “Aurora”. By 1987 that allocation had bloated to over $2.3 billion for the same project. Some reports suggest the U.S. Air Force was working on an SR-71 replacement as early as 1988.

Subsequent reports in credible media like Jane’s Defense and Aviation Week & Space Technology have featured accounts of hearing and seeing unidentified aircraft in the region of the Nellis test ranges.

Another famous sighting happened over the North Sea in November 1991. Scottish petroleum engineer Chris Gibson, who was also serving in the British Royal Observer Corps according to reports, was working on the offshore oil rig Galveston Key. Gibson, an experienced and trained professional aircraft spotter, saw “The shape of a pure isosceles triangle” flying behind a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft in formation with two F-111s. The aircraft were sighted in the 6A air-to-air refueling zone according to reports. Gibson’s accounting was substantiated by another witness, lasted a significant amount of time, and has been repeatedly analyzed, but never explained.

The Chris Gibson/North Sea 1991 sighting suggested an early possible sighting of an SR-71 replacement. The sighting has never been explained. (Photo: Chris Gibson)

Trying to organize the sightings and information we have of any possible new hypersonic low-observable reconnaissance/strike aircraft with the mission requirements and global strategic need for aerial intelligence still leaves massive gaps between what we know and what is possible according to accounts, but within this massive gap of the unknown exists plenty of room for a real project that, when we eventually do hear about it, will undoubtedly be one of the most sensational defense and aviation stories of this century.

Top image: Distributed briefing slide showing conceptual image of SR-72 with SR-71. (Photo: USAF)

New Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Video Teases The Shape Of The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) Fighter

A new video provides a glimpse of the 6th Gen. fighter concept that could replace the F-22. But it’s probably not the real one…

A short clip just released by the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works (H/T to Flightglobal’s Editor Stephen Trimble for the heads-up) teases the shape of the concept-fighter it is developing to compete for the U.S. Air Force Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), the program will ultimately lead to an air superiority 6th Gen. jet that could replace the F-22 Raptor.

The Next Generation Air Dominance concept points towards a small and much agile manned plane, rumored to be supersonic, long-range, cyber-resilient against threats of the future interconnected world, with morphing metals, self-healing capabilities and ability to carry laser-weapons.

The shape seems to be the very same that Lockheed Martin published in a 2012 calendar distributed to journalists: with an F-22-like nose, flat canted tails and contoured wing, the aircraft strongly reminds the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23, a single-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft technology demonstrator designed for the United States Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition.

Two YF-23 prototypes were built with the nicknames “Black Widow II” and “Gray Ghost” between 19 but the contract was eventually won by Lockheed with the YF-22 Lightning and the YF-23 program was canceled.

Interestingly, the conceptual sixth-generation fighter being developed by Northrop Grumman today does not seem to be inspired to the YF-23 at all: based on some renderings exposed so far, the aerospace giant is working on a new tailless concept that features the “cranked kite” design that’s in vogue with Northrop Grumman (that built the U.S. Air Force iconic B-2 stealth bombers the X-47B naval killer-drone demonstrator and the still much secret RQ-180 unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance aircraft.)

Northrop Grumman 6th Gen. fighter as shown in a commercial released last year.

The proposed timetables see a sixth-generation fighter being completed some time in the 2030s.

Actually, as reported by Aviation Week’s Guy Norris earlier this summer, Lockheed Martin has recently revealed a radically revised version of the concept so the one included in the above Skunk Works 75th anniversary video is probably only the original concept.

Updated Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter concept released in 2017. (Lockheed Martin).

Russia is also working on 6th gen. aircraft.

Sukhoi design bureau prepared the first blueprints for Russia’s sixth-generation fighter jets TASS news agency reported last year.

“I’m referring also to new design concepts briefly presented by the Sukhoi design bureau and by the general designer appointed for all aircraft systems and armaments [..] They have really come up with the designs for the creation of the sixth-generation fighter” Moscow’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in a meeting with the journalists.

So, although the T-50 PAK-FA, its first 5th Gen. stealth fighter, is still being developed, Moscow has started working on its replacements, even though no further detail about the technologies that the new aircraft types will embed has been unveiled.

There are reasons to believe the Russian sixth-generation concept is going to be somehow different from the U.S. Air Force’s F-X Next Generation Air Dominance: Sukhoi might base its 6th Gen. on the PAK-FA and upgrade the design throughout the years similarly to what they have done with the Su-27 and subsequent Flanker variants up to the Su-35S.

This means that the PAK-FA will probably become a 5++ Gen. thanks to the planned upgrades and be the base for Russia’s 6th Gen. fighter.

Among the most interesting upgrades in the PAK-FA (now Su-57) roadmap there’s a future radar based on photonics that was announced by the Russian state-owned Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET) in December 2015 and a full-scale working model is expected by the end of 2018.

The ultra-wideband active radio-optical phased array technology (known by its Russian acronym ROFAR) radar will be half the weight of a current conventional radar and allow to virtually get a “3D TV picture on a range up to 400 km.”

Considered the operational range of the radar, the ROFAR will be virtually impossible to jam, at least on paper.

However, such optimistic claims will have to be backed by facts: unlike the U.S., that have been operating 5th Gen. aircraft (the F-22 and, more or less, the F-35) and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for years, so far, Russia has not been able to operate a next generation stealth aircraft nor AESA radar system (both ones are still at the testing stage).

Take a look at this cool drawing of the Northrop Low Altitude Penetrator concept

This is how the B-2 LAP “variant” could have looked.

In 1979, Northrop began studies for a low-observable strategic bomber that would eventually result in the B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber as we know it.

However, in the early days, two basic mission profiles were studied for the new aircraft: high altitude penetration and low altitude penetration.

High altitude penetration allowed a much more efficient aircraft and resulted in the genesis of the B-2’s long-span flying wing; eventually, the high-altitude penetrator flying wing was selected and modified to fill the low-altitude penetrator role.

Based on the research and the subsequent Autocad line drawings by Scott Lowther over at Aerospaceprojectsreview.com, Kurt Beswick has illustrated the Northrop LAP (Low Altitude Penetrator) concept that you can find in this post (please note that although the B-2 was the successor of the high and low altitude penetrator concepts, the artist has dubbed it “B-2 LAP,” a designation we have kept in this article.)

Vaguely reminding a Boeing study for a low-altitude stealth bomber dating back to 1979 Beswick’s LAP is a reviewed version of what is believed to be the basic design on which Northrop’s low altitude penetrator studies focused back in the 1970s.

Needless to say, there’s no evidence, that such an aircraft would look like that if built, but the shape is cool and the artist’s impression is somehow realistic (with elements reminding the triangle-shaped objects spotted over the U.S. a couple of years ago).

The illustration represents a concept that never made it past the design-stage : this does not mean something eventually made it into other “black projects.”

Here’s how Beswick explains the LAP concept:

“I have taken some artistic liberties, including the updated markings and details. All the rest is speculative and based upon the performance requirements set forth by the USAF in the 1979-1980.”

Here’s the description provided by Scott Lowther to the original line drawing:

“Low-altitude penetration resulted in a less efficient aircraft with a much higher wing loading.

The low-altitude penetrator Northrop examined was something between a flying wing and a lifting body.

It would fly at high-speed and ultra-low altitude, much like an enormous cruise missile. As a result, it needed to be minimally visible to detection systems in aircraft positioned above it. Thus, the upper surface of the aircraft was largely featureless with the exception of the cockpit.

The underside featured both the flush inlet and engine exhaust in a flattened configuration, as well as two inward-canted vertical stabilizers. The high wing loading meant that the aircraft would need 200 knots airspeed for takeoff, consuming nearly 8,000 feet of runway. Total onboard fuel load would be 137,500 pounds requiring a few refuelings for each mission.”

Dealing with the color scheme, Beswick opted for the same livery of the Spirit:

“After discussing with my pilot buddies, they all agree that this aircraft would be no different in coloration than a B-2 or B-1, charcoal/dark gray-blue.”

Click below to download the hi-rez version of the rendering.

LAP

Image credit: Kurt Beswick

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This is what the F-22 Raptor stealth jet looks like through the thermal camera of a crime-fighting helicopter

Needless to say, stealth does not mean “invisible”…

The above image was posted by the National Police Air Service helicopter serving the South West of England.

It’s a screenshot from the thermal camera used by the EC-135 of the NPAS, based at Filton Aerodrome, west of Swindon, and shows one of the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor jets that deployed to RAF Fairford to take part in the Royal International Air Tattoo airshow, on the ground, at RAF Fairford, UK.

The photo is somehow funny, as it depicts the stealth 5th generation jet more or less as it would look like in a combat flight simulator, and interesting, because the IR camera caught the parked Raptor’s heat signature more or less in the same way an infra-red search and track (IRST) systems would perform passive detection of a radar evading plane.

In fact, F-22s and other stealth planes have literally no (or extremely little) radar cross-section  (RCS) but they do have an IR signature. This means that they can be vulnerable to small, fast non-stealthy planes that feature low observable coatings and using their IRST sensors, hi-speed computers and interferometry, to geo-locate enemy LO (low observability) aircraft.

Indeed, there are certain scenarios in which IRST and other tactics could greatly reduce the advantage provided by radar invisibility and this is one of the reasons why USAF has fielded IRST pods to Aggressors F-16s in the latest Red Flags as proved by shots of the Nellis’s Vipers carrying the Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42.

This type of system, also carried by F-15E Strike Eagles, and equipping some other modern combat planes, including the Euro-canard Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale, lets the aggressor passively look for the IR signature of the enemy stealth fighter.

According to some pilots who have fought against the F-22, the IRST can be extremely useful to detect “large and hot stealth targets” like the F-22 (or the even hotter F-35) during mock aerial engagements at distances up to 50 km. Anyway, that’s another story.

For the moment enjoy a cool and unsual shot of the Raptor, that has been one of the highlights of this year’s RIAT.

Image credit: NPAS Filton

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F-35 pilot explains how he dominated dogfights against multiple A-4 aggressors. Every time.

Air Combat in the F-35, a new chapter in the saga.

In March 2016, we published an article written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, a Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilot with more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate and the first to fly the F-35.

In that post “Dolby” provided a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the controversial F-35 looked like to a pilot who had a significant experience with the F-16.

Here below, reposted under permission, you can read the latest story “Dolby” has written for Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

Although it’s written by someone with a bias for the plane (he flies the F-35 as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona), once again it’s worth a read as it provides some interesting details about the way the Lightning II performs during mock air combat against several adversaries.

Someone may argue the A-4 Skyhawks are quite obsolete aircraft and not even comparable with modern 4th generation enemies. True, but these are the same aggressors that train many modern combat planes (don’t forget the F-22s practice their air-to-air skills against the T-38s) and take part in Red Flag exercises.

To summarize what has been written about the F-35 dogfighting capabilities in the past:

  1. we debunked some theories about the alleged capabilities of all the F-35 variants to match or considerably exceed the maneuvering performance of some of the most famous fourth-generation fighter, and explained that there is probably no way a JSF will ever match a Eurofighter Typhoon in aerial combat
  2. at the same time we also highlighted that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by War Is Boring according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat involved one of the very first test aircraft that lacked some cool and useful features.
  3. more recently, we reported that the F-35 were not shot down by the F-15E aggressors in 8 engagements during recent joint drills, and that it was not the first time the F-35 proved itself able to fly unscathed through a fighter-defended area because not a single Lightning II was shot down during Green Flag 15-08, the first major exercise during which the F-35 flew as main CAS (Close Air Support) provider in 2015.

Needless to say, each of the above news stories caused much debate, with many analysts suggesting the exercises where the F-35 performed fairly well were just PR stunts arranged in such a way the JSF could not be downed, and others claiming more or less the opposite.

Whatever you think, here’s the new story by “Dolby.”

Air Combat in the F-35 – an update

In this post I’m giving a brief overview of my impressions after having flown several sorties over the past few weeks against A-4 Skyhawks. This post is intended as a supplement to my previous posts on modern air combat and stealth.

First thing first – is it relevant to train air combat against an old A-4? Can we draw any relevant lessons from this at all? After all, this is an aircraft that served during the Vietnam war!

I believe this kind of training is relevant for several reasons:

  • The F-35’s sensors and “fusion” provides me as a pilot with good situational awareness. For an F-35 to simulate an opponent against another F-35, it has to restrict the effects of fusion and the various sensors. Even then it is difficult to “dumb down” the aircraft enough. It requires discipline to not be tempted to using information that an opponent in reality would not have access to.
  • The A-4s we faced in these exercises had sensor performance along the lines of our own upgraded F-16s. They also carried jammers intended to disturb our radar.
  • The pilots we faced were very experienced. We are talking 2000 hours plus in aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, F-15C and the F-22, with detailed knowledge of “fifth generation” tactics and weapons. When also cooperating closely with intercept controllers on the ground (GCI) they could adapt the training and offer us a reactive and challenging opponent. Note the word “reactive.”
  • The A-4 is a small aircraft with a corresponding signature. Many potential opponents in the air are bigger and easier to find than the tiny A-4.

So what did I experience in my encounters with the A-4? I got to try out several different sets. (Everything from one-on-one “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” to one F-35 against two A-4s, two F-35s against two A-4s, two F-35s against four A-4s and three F-35s against four A-4s). I am left with some main impressions.

  • The individual sensors of the F-35, one for one, are good. I flew one sortie alone against two A-4s, and limited myself to using only the radar during these sets (no support from ground controllers, no Link-16, no data sharing from other formation members, no support from passive radar warning systems or IFF – Identification Friend or Foe). Nonetheless my radar detected the targets in time for me to optimize my intercept, deliver weapons at range, and if necessary, arrive undetected to the visual arena.
  • “Fusion” means both automatic control of the various sensors, and the combination of all different sensor data into one unified tactical picture. I believe “fusion” to be one of the most important aspects of the F-35. “Fusion” allows me to focus on the tactics, rather than detailed management of my sensors. In my encounters with the A-4s, “fusion” worked better than I have seen it before. It was reassuring to see how well it worked. The good «situational picture» that I saw provides us with several advantages; we can make smarter tactical decisions, and it takes less time before we can gain full “tactical value” from fresh pilots. (I had to smile a little when two of us in the F-35s effortlessly kept tabs on four opponents. That is no trivial thing in the F-16.)
  • The most important lesson for me personally was to see just how hard it was for the A-4s to find us, even with GCI support. We deliberately made high-risk tactical decisions to see just how far we could stretch our luck, and still remain undetected. At least for my part, this reinforced my confidence in the effectiveness of our tactics. I hope all my colleagues in the F-35 get to have the same experience as I have.

(BFM – F-35 against A-4, might not be fair. Still, the A-4 started as the offensive part every time. At the end of each set, I was pointing at the A-4. Every time.)

Image credit: RoNAF via Lockheed Martin

 

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