Tag Archives: U.S. Air Force

U.S. B-1 Lancer Bombers Escorted By F-15 Jets Fly East Of North Korea, North Of The DMZ: Four Reasons Why This Time It Is Interesting.

This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.

On Sept. 23, hours after the latest threats from Kim Jong Un who said that Pyongyang will soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam, along with U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter escorts from Okinawa, Japan, flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea.

This time, the show of force is a bit more interesting than usual, for four reasons:

1) it is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century;

2) unlike all the previous ones, the latest sortie was flown at night, hence it was not a show of force staged to take some cool photographs;

3) no allied aircraft is known to have taken part in the mission at the time of writing, whereas most of the previous B-1 missions near the Korean Peninsula involved also ROKAF (Republic Of Korea Air Force) and/or JASDF (Japan’s Air Self Defense Force) jets;

4) it was a U.S. Air Force job: no U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth jet took part in the show of force this time, even though the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter has taken part in all the most recent formations sent over Korea to flex muscles against Pyongyang. The photo here below shows the “package” assembled for Sept. 14’s show of force.

Munitions from a U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) bilateral mission explode at the Pilsung Range, South Korea, Sept 17, 2017. The U.S. and ROKAF aircraft flew across the Korean Peninsula and practiced attack capabilities by releasing live weapons at the training area before returning to their respective home stations. This mission was conducted in direct response to North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missile launch, which flew directly over northern Japan on September 14 amid rising tension over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs. (U.S. Army photo by SSgt. Steven Schneider)

According to the U.S. Pacific Command, today’s mission is” a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat. North Korea’s weapons program is a grave threat to the Asia-Pacific region and the entire international community. We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies.”

Top image shows a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer, assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker Sep. 23, 2017. This mission was flown as part of the continuing demonstration of the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of its homeland and in support of its allies and partners. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard P. Ebensberger)

 

These Spyplanes Are Watching North Korea’s Next Test

U.S. and South Korean intelligence gathering aircraft are monitoring Pyongyang’s next move.

Kim Jong Un says North Korea may soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean and, based on the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders, it looks like several aircraft operating from their deployment bases in Japan and South Korea are interested in collecting signs of missile launch preparation.

In fact, despite their pretty clandestine roles, many U.S. spyplanes can be tracked online, using a standard browser to visit a public tracking website or COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) equipment.

For instance, here are the most interesting aircraft operating around the Korean Peninsula in the last few days. Needless to say, these are the ones whose transponder exposed their presence; many others are probably operating in the very same area, but adhering to stricter OPSEC rules that require the aircrew to completely turn off their transponders.

As already reported in detail, the RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft is the asset whose activities may give a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea.

 

The RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, are able to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight. The aircraft is equipped with a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight. A distinctive feature of the Cobra Ball is the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, whose purpose was to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography when the RC-135S launched from Shemya AB, Alaska, to monitor the Soviet activities in the Sakhalin peninsula: although the aircraft still feature the black paint on the aircraft’s right hand side, the current electro-optical sensors are able to remove glare from photographs. Moreover, the current Coobra Balls are equipped with optical and electronic sensors on both sides of the fuselage. RC-135S crews are augmented by several ground based, phased-array radar systems, such as the COBRA DANE radar at Eareckson Air Station in Shemya, used to provide radar coverage over the Northern Pacific.

Another aircraft that is often tracked in the region is the WC-135 Constant Phoenix, one of the two aircraft operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center able to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The Constant Phoenix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crew made of up to 33 personnel, flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. The aircraft was first deployed to Kadena in April this year. Since then it has been tracked mainly in the aftermath of each nuke detonation.

 

The aircraft is equipped with external flow devices used to collect airborne particulate; for this reason, the Constant Phoenix “Nuclear Sniffer” is usually launched after the claimed nuke tests, to detect fission fragments by their characteristic decay radiation and verify the nuclear test and get some important details. For example, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, analysts can determine if bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

These Aircraft Sampled Air For Radioactive Particles To Determine If North Korea Actually Detonated A Hydrogen Bomb

 

Another interesting aircraft that was recently tracked online is the South Korea’s Boeing 737 Peace Eagle airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. This aircraft (that in the Turkish Air Force service can be spotted every now and then on Flightradar24.com circling at high altitude over southern Turkey most probably monitoring the movements of the Russian and Syrian planes)

Although the aircraft could be involved in routine AEW tasks monitoring the activities of the North Korean assets close to the DMZ, the Peace Eye embeds a variety of ESM (Electronic Support Measure) sensors that can be used to detect, intercept, identify, locate, record, and/or analyze sources of radiated electromagnetic energy augmenting the intelligence gathered by U-2S, RC-135V, RQ-4 Global Hawk, U.S. Navy EP-3E and P-8 and other assets that undertake ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) tasks on North Korea.

Anyway, OSINT as well as the analysis of the aircraft movements by means of ADS-B may give a pretty good idea of what happens around North Korea as Pyongyang prepares for a new test. One may wonder why such missions can be tracked online. This has been the subject of many articles. Considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine, Libya, or Korea, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even everyone can monitor them. It’s a way to show the flag and prove that somebody is watching. Still, we can’t completely rule out the possibility it’s just a mistake.

Anyway, regardless to whether it is done on purpose or not, point your browser to ADSBexchange or follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friends @CivMilAir (who helped with the preparation of this article) and @aircraftspots, to get an idea of what is happening in the airspace around the Korean Peninsula.

 Image credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force Turns 70 Years Old Today: A Look Back, A Look Ahead.

USAF Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary With Reverence for History and Hunger for Innovation.

The United States Air Force turns 70 years old today. The newest branch of the U.S. military was born with the passing of the National Security Act in 1947, a restructuring of U.S. military assets in the wake of WWII. During the Second World War air combat operations were conducted by the Marines, Navy and the Army Air Corps.

The U.S. Air Force is arguably the strongest air force in the world, fielding over 5,500 aircraft across different roles. By comparison, intelligence sources cite the Russian Air Force as fielding approximately 3,794 aircraft, the Chinese Air Force claims to operate approximately 3,000 aircraft. All other countries lag significantly behind in numbers and in technology. The USAF is also the only air force in the world to have operational experience with a fifth-generation combat aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The F-22 began flying combat missions in Syria in 2014 and has performed the precision strike, air superiority and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles operationally.

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors are providing “kinetic situational awareness” over Syria: the F-22 pilot leverage advanced onboard sensors, as the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, to collect valuable details about the enemy Order of Battle, then they share the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft, while escorting other manned or unmanned aircraft towards the targets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller)

In recent years, the Air Force has received criticism from the general public over pilot shortages and costly acquisition programs like the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. It has also rushed to field an effective ballistic missile defense system for the United States mainland, an effort made more important by concerns over recent advances in North Korean missile capabilities.

The realities of the U.S. Air Force suggest that it is efficient in fielding new programs and cost-effective with assessing developmental programs while simultaneously conducting combat and support operations in several locations around the world. One recent example of the Air Force’s highly adaptive evaluation doctrine is the Light Attack Experiment, a program to evaluate the use of low-cost, already available tactical attack aircraft.

Perhaps one of the most significant advancements has been the establishment of the 24th Air Force as “AFCYBER” or the Air Forces Cyber unit. This operational unit fielded in 2010 provides security, surveillance and combat capability on the rapidly evolving cyber battlefield. The unit is fully operational and regularly performs real-world cyber combat operations in defense of the United States and its allies.

Immediately following the formation of the U.S. Air Force 70 years ago today in 1947 the force began a period of remarkable development programs. The Cold War, a conflict that lasted from 1947 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, was the primary motive for much of the development. This period of remarkable development included advancements like breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 and later achieving the fastest powered atmospheric flight in the X-15.

The Douglas X-3 Stiletto typified the rapid development of experimental aircraft of the USAF in the 1950s. (Photo: USAF)

Later the U.S. Air Force fielded the first operational low-observable or “stealth” combat aircraft with the Lockheed F-117 Night Hawk. The advanced program, that remained classified for years, was also one of the fastest and most cost-effective major acquisition programs in U.S. military history. In fact, there are so many noteworthy Air Force development programs that have set records or created new aviation capabilities they are too numerous to list in a single article.

Even as some superpowers continue to try to achieve technical parity with the U.S. Air Force the USAF continues to innovate with planning for the replacement of the F-22 Raptor, the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter or “NGAD” and many other new systems.

This is Northrop Grumman‘s concept of the sixth-generation aircraft, known as Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter or “NGAD” fighter jet. (Northrop Grumman)

Considering the U.S. Air Force is the youngest of the armed forces in the United States it is easy to suggest they are the most innovative and have experienced the most change in the last 70 years. Looking ahead to the next century of the U.S. Air Force it’s difficult to envision what it will look like and what its capabilities may be.

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).

No, it wasn’t an F-35. So, What Did Crash Near Nellis? Here Are Some Theories.

Who Was F-35 Test Pilot Lt. Col. Eric Schultz and What He Was Flying When He Died?

The tragic loss and impressive career of U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Eric Schultz in a reported crash on Tuesday night has been overshadowed in Internet forums by speculation about what type of aircraft he was flying when the accident occurred. The type of aircraft remains classified according to Air Force sources.

Amid increasing speculation that the aircraft involved in the crash may have been an F-35, USAF Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was quoted on Saturday morning, September 9, as telling Military.com, “I can definitely say it was not an F-35.”

The comment by Gen. Goldfein to Military.com confirming that Col. Schultz was not flying an F-35 raises the question; what was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz flying when he was fatally injured in the crash this Tuesday?

The U.S. Air Force said the aircraft was operated by the Air Force Materiel Command and that it crashed around 6 PM, 100 miles Northwest of Nellis AFB in the Nevada Test and Training Range.

 

What was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz working on when he died from a crash earlier this week?

It is important to understand any examination of his activities are strictly conjecture as all official sources have declined to comment on the specifics of Lt. Col. Schultz’s assignment when he died.

With a practical background in tactical air combat from flying F-15E Strike Eagles and an academic and career background including powerplant engineering, Lt. Col Schultz could have been working on any number of classified projects.

There are several projects known to be operational or under development in the classified Nellis, Nevada and California area test ranges where Lt. Col. Schultz is reported to have had his now fatal accident.

The test and development programs include opposing forces threat simulation and testing using Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 (NATO codename “Flanker”) aircraft. These aircraft were photographed on November 8, 2016 by Phil Drake from the Tikaboo Valley near the Groom Lake, Nevada test range. Drake captured long range photos of an SU-27P Flanker-B engaging in dissimilar air combat maneuvers (ACM) with an F-16, possibly an F-16D, four of which are thought to operate from Groom Lake. It is possible that, with Lt. Col. Schultz’s involvement in the F-15E Strike Eagle community and his advanced academic background, he could have been involved in an advanced opposing forces capabilities benchmarking research project or in a familiarization program with opposing forces aircraft like the Sukhoi(s) photographed at Groom Lake.

Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 aircraft were photographed last year over the test ranges near where Lt. Col. Eric Schultz’s accident may have occurred. (Credit: Phil Drake)

Another classified project in the area is continued flight operations of the “retired” Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk presumably for radar cross section testing and analysis. The famous “stealth fighter” was photographed by our reader, “Sammamishman,” in late July, 2016. The photos showed two F-117 aircraft in the air and on the ground at the Groom Lake test facility 8 years after retirement.

Two F-117s at TTR in July 2016.

Another test program that may be underway in the area, and that Lt. Col. Schultz may have been contributing to at the time of his fatal accident, is the classified Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). The B-21 program is likely a replacement or augmentation to the currently operational B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Artists’ depictions of the B-21 Raider suggest it is similar in configuration to the B-2 Spirit, but may be smaller. It likely still retains a crew of more than one person however, although an accident involving any potential prototype may not necessarily be fatal for an entire crew, however many that number may be. Recall the crash of the XB-70 Valkyrie on June 8, 1966. That large strategic bomber prototype had a two-person crew on board when it crashed due to a midair collision. The crash only resulted in one fatality, with the other aircrew member safely ejecting. There is, however, no public information on the potential flight status of the B-21 Raider program.

B-21 raider concept (NG)

There is also the possibility aircraft was the same boomerang shaped trailing edge jet photographed on Mar. 10, 2014 by Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett at Amarillo International Airport or the triangular one seen over Wichita in the same period, or something else, never seen before.

However, whilst both the Su-27s (operated by the AFMC according to the Combat Aircraft’s editor Jamie Hunter), the F-117s and the two mysterious aircraft of 2014, were spotted flying in daylight, there is someone who believes a highly-classified prototype would hardly fly before sunset.

The reality of Lt. Col. Schultz’s tragic loss is that, while we know he was an accomplished aviator, test pilot and academic we likely will not know the actual circumstances of his accident or the aircraft he was operating until the Air Force chooses to make the information officially available. Until then, a survey of the known projects in the area where Lt. Col. Schultz’s accident unfortunately occurred is all we have.

The more relevant story however, is the noteworthy career of USAF Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz.

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, call sign “Doc” because he owned a PhD in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 2000, was an academic and award-winning pilot. At one point he was also an aspiring astronaut, having made application to astronaut training.

In one accounting of Lt. Col Schultz’s early academic career it is reported that after earning his undergraduate degree from Penn State in 1995, the Department of Defense paid for Schultz to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics. His master’s work included research on the ram accelerator, a powerful gun-like device that shoots payloads into exo-atmospheric orbital flight in space. If perfected, the accelerator could be used in place of reusable spacecraft missions, like the X-47B, to transport equipment into orbit or to space stations.

Schultz graduated with his master’s degree in aeronautics in 1997 from the University of Washington.

According to a report published on October 4, 2006 in the Baltimore Sun by writer Susan Gvozdas, Col. Schultz “Received a National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship to support his research on advanced propulsion systems and safety at nuclear waste storage facilities”.

Also according to news report archives, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was rejected from the Air Force on five occasions for not meeting eyesight standards for pilots. After his early attempts at entering Air Force ROTC were rejected due to his eyesight, Schultz worked in a civilian capacity with the Navy as a flight engineer while continuing his graduate education.

Schultz’s prior work as a graduate assistant won the attention of jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney based in Connecticut. According to a report, Erik Christofferson, a deputy general manager at Pratt’s Washington office, persuaded the company to hire Schultz. “He had the right combination of technical background and communication skills,” Christofferson said. “He was engaging and sharp.” According to the report Schultz worked on the development of detonation engines at Pratt & Whitney’s Seattle Aerosciences Center,.

He was finally awarded a commission after earning his PhD in aeronautics and undergoing corrective vision surgery.

Lt. Col. Schultz went on to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle for the 391st Fighter Squadron, the “Bold Tigers” out of Mountain Home AFB in Elmore County, southwestern Idaho. He may have been deployed to the Middle East with the unit in January of 2007 according to an excerpt in an article about Schultz that said he was, “preparing for overseas combat missions in an F-15 fighter jet and training other pilots”. We were not able to find any mention in the media about a combat record for Lt. Col. Schultz or even confirmation that he did deploy to the Middle East, only that he was scheduled to deploy.

There are acknowledgements of Lt. Col. Schultz’s academic and military achievements through awards he received and brief quotes in official Air Force releases. His former commanding officer, then Lt. Col. Brian Kirkwood, said in an article on Mountain Home AFB’s official website that, “He’s a great role model.” Lt. Col. Kirkwood went on to tell the official Air Force media outlet that Lt. Col. Schultz’s “educational background is unprecedented for an [then] Air Force captain.” Lt. Col. Kirkwood made the statements when acknowledging Lt. Col. Schultz for being awarded the Outstanding Young American award.

Based on the information available in the public domain so far, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz had amassed a noteworthy academic background and career that spanned several aspects of military and experimental aviation and aerospace. It may be the combination of these experiences in tactical aircraft operations and experimental powerplants along with space operations that is particularly noteworthy.

David Cenciotti has contributed to this story.

Top image: composite made using Northrop Grumman, Dean Muskett, Phil Drake and Sammamishman

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