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.
Warthogs have started carrying 2,000 lb bombs. You won’t find many photographs of A-10s with GBU-31s.
The photographs in this post were taken from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during an aerial refueling mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on Apr. 19, 2017.
Interestingly, the images of the “Hog” expose some changes in the weapons loadout of the A-10s involved in the fight against Daesh militants. Indeed, the aircraft depicted in the photos carries one GBU-12 Paveway LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs – on station 1 – the outmost one on the left wing), one AGM-65 Maverick missile (on station 3), one LAU-131 rocket launcher (station 2), three GBU-38 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions – station 4, 5 and 9), one GBU-31(V)1/B with MK-84 warhead (station 7) and an AN/AAQ-28 Litening AT targeting pod (station 10).
Station 8 has a GBU-54 laser JDAM whereas the LAU-131 on Station 2 is a LAU-131A/A model used for the new (and very awesome) AGR-20 laser guided rockets.
Among the mix of missiles, guided bombs and rockets, that complement the A-10’s GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-type, the most interesting addition is the GBU-31, a pretty heavy (2,000-lb) general purpose bomb with JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) GPS guidance system intended for mobile and fixed hard (and soft) as well as maritime surface targets.
This A-10’s worn out nose proves the aircraft has used its Avenger gun a lot! (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Trevor T. McBride)
Although the GBU-31 is a type of weapon certified for use with the A-10 you won’t find many photographs showing other “Warthogs” carrying a 2,000-lb GBU-31: a sign that the coalition may also rely on Close Air Support platforms to hit targets which require a significant destructive power and blast radius.
A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II departs after receiving fuel from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during a flight in support of Operation Inherent Resolve April 19, 2017. The 340th EARS, part of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, is responsible for delivering fuel for U.S. and coalition forces, enabling a persistent 24/7 presence in the area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Trevor T. McBride)
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.
Media Suggests U.S. Could Strike Preemptively: But What Are The Chances?
The U.S. Military could launch precision strikes against specific North Korean targets as early as next month if North Korea continues threats of nuclear weapons and long-range missile development. Military action may be viewed as necessary by the U.S. with growing concern over North Korea’s weapons development and continued threats of using long-range missiles to strike without warning.
Reported elevated readiness of Chinese, South Korean and U.S. military assets in the region have increased tensions and speculation about the likelihood of either the U.S. or North Korea launching a preemptive strike.
What are the chances and indicators of conflict developing soon in the volatile region? What would a U.S. strike, if it came, look like?
Social media and contributory Internet press have painted a somewhat sensational, hawkish picture of tensions in the region. The weekend prior to North Korea’s massive April 15 military parade U.S. media outlet, “Superstation 95.com” erroneously reported that, “There is now a “mad dash” to leave Seoul, the Capital of South Korea.” Spurious reports of military activity in the region have been widely shared across blogs and social media.
These sensational reports reached a climax over the weekend when network media incorrectly reported the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) battle group was en route to the Korean Peninsula. It is unclear whether reports of the Carl Vinson battle group were intentionally misleading as a “feint” or if the media and U.S. government simply did a bad job coordinating press information.
Official Chinese media outlet Xinhuanet is muted in their characterization of an armed conflict being imminent, even though the BBC World News reports that, “China fears North Korea-US conflict ‘at any moment’.”
Despite sensationalized reporting, the North Korean watchdog website 38North.org suggests little remarkable activity within the key Yongbyon Nuclear Complex. This lack of activity pointed to the failed missile test Sunday in North Korea as opposed to a nuclear test near Yongbyon.
On Wednesday, April 19, Flight Service Bureau, a commercial aviation information organization, issued its strongest warning for civilian flights over North Korea, publishing a Notice to Airmen that reads, “With the increased tension on the Korean peninsula in April 2017, we raise the risk level to ‘Moderate’. Historically, the rhetoric has been predictable. That has now changed. With China off-side, and increased US appetite for action, North Korea has begun to act unpredictably.”
Flight Service Bureau’s “Moderate” risk level is their highest level, with the source confirming that, “In assessing risk to flight over each countries borders, two scenarios are predominant for civil flight: 1. Risk of shootdown, inadvertent or intentional; 2. Aircraft emergency requiring a landing. Both these elements are taken into consideration in determining a classification. The highest level of risk here is ‘Moderate’, on the basis that calling it ‘high’ or ‘severe’ would exaggerate the actual level or risk in landing or overflying the territories concerned”.
Notices to Airmen have declared North Korean airspace a “no-fly” zone for commercial operators. (Image Credit: SafeAirSpace.net e-mail bulletin)
The Chinese official airline, Air China, had already suspended flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, but the airline cited falling traffic as the reason, not diplomatic or security factors.
China halted imports of coal from North Korea to China, a potential blow to North Korea’s economy. Chinese media reports the reasons for the import halt were that the limits of Chinese mandated coal imports from North Korea, and that the reported tensions in the region are not related to the halt of coal shipments from North Korea to China.
United States popular media reports that China has moved military units close to the Chinese/North Korean border are disputed by the Chinese government. Official U.S. Pacific Command has refused to comment about any potential Chinese troop movements. China’s foreign ministry called such reports “pure fiction,” with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “I have no idea where these reports are coming from” in remarks to the Chinese news outlet Huanqiu.com.
Any attack on North Korea by the United States within the next 60 days would likely be a measured response to nuclear or missile tests. Precision strikes likely using cruise missiles and, to a lesser degree, low observable aircraft like the B-2 Spirit, could destroy North Korean launch and test facilities specifically. Any action by the U.S. must also contain the threat of retaliation by the North Koreans on South Korea and Japan. The South Korean capital is only 35 miles, about 56 kilometers, from the North Korean border along with its 25-million person population, half of South Korea’s total population.
North Korea disclosed it has an inventory of approximately 38.5kg (84.8 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods in May 2008. Two years later in November 2010 they revealed a uranium enrichment program intended to produce low enriched uranium for nuclear reactor fuel to produce electricity. This fuel could be converted to weapons grade materials, although yields would be low compared to the amount of material needed for nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has conducted five live nuclear weapons tests, one each in 2006, 2009, 2013, and increased testing to two nuclear detonations in 2016. North Korea claimed the latest January 2016 test was a powerful thermonuclear warhead but this has not been verified. It is reasonable to suggest a significant amount of their nuclear material has been expended in testing.
Earlier in August 2013 the key Yongbyon Nuclear Complex started a 5 mega-watt nuclear reactor capable of producing 6 kg. (13.2 lbs) of weapons grade plutonium per year, but the reactor’s operation has been sporadic with satellite imagery frequently showing the plume of cooling steam leaving the reactor has stopped indicating it is not operating at full capacity.
To put this level of weaponized nuclear production into perspective it takes about 198 kg (436.5 lbs) of enriched uranium-235 to produce a warhead of similar destructive force to the warheads employed by the U.S. during the operational nuclear strikes on Japan in 1945.
Given these total numbers of nuclear material production North Korea would likely have a difficult time scraping together enough nuclear material to produce a reasonable number of warheads now. This is especially important when you consider their missile doctrine includes using large numbers of poorly guided missiles as opposed to sophisticated ICBMs with accurate targeting capability. In short, even if North Korea could load a warhead onto a missile with long enough range to reach the U.S., likely Alaska or Hawaii, it is unlikely the missile could be accurately guided to key targets.
Current assessment of North Korean offensive long-range missile capabilities. (Image credit: Created by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative – NTI.org)
If a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea were to happen soon the primary strategic targets would likely be attacked from U.S. ballistic missile submarines using RGM/UGM-109E Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM Block IVs). This first wave attack, similar to the surface attack launched against Syrian chemical weapons assets on Friday, April 7, would directly hit nuclear and missile facilities along with North Korea’s ability to strike Seoul. The initial strike would also degrade North Korea’s air defense capability and early warning assets. At close interval to the first wave of Tomahawk missiles a series of airstrikes by U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers using standoff weapons such as air-launched cruise missiles may target key North Korean facilities. Strike package planners would keep survival of the expensive and exotic B-2 bomber force as a primary concern since the U.S. has only 18 currently operational B-2 stealth bombers. Submarine launched ballistic missile strikes would be limited too, with the number of rounds fired from submarines against North Korea being controlled by how many conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles are on board for use against North Korean targets.
Tactical air assets, from both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, would be tasked with the air-policing mission should an attack happen on North Korea. These forces would contain and interdict any attack from North Korea on South Korea and provide a defensive cordon with Japan. Large numbers of North Korean long-range artillery gun tubes can fire on Seoul, so these targets would be destroyed if they began to fire on South Korea. It is unlikely U.S. Marine air assets would be tasked unless Marine Corps ground troops were employed, an unlikely outcome if the primary objective of the strike is degrading North Korean WMD development and capability.
A secondary objective to any strike on North Korea may be regime change. The rogue state has interjected political and economic uncertainty into the region since North Korea first invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950. There has never been an official “end” to the Korean War of 1950, only an armistice signed in 1953. Tensions have remained high to extremely high for 64 years since the armistice. North Korea is a candidate for a “decapitation strike” since, unlike conflicts in the Mideast delineated by cultural and religious underpinnings, no such mass religious allegiance for North Korean leadership or culture exists outside the country. Adherence to government doctrine within the country is largely compelled by means of enforcement rather than voluntary compliance. In political and cultural terms North Korea is increasingly isolated and identified largely as a rogue state within the U.S. It’s likely very few Americans would identify with or feel empathy for North Korea if the U.S began military action against the rogue state.
A primary drawback to any regime change initiative is the potential for disastrous collateral humanitarian hardship. Any willful mission of regime change would have to include plans for humanitarian relief for the 25,378,000 people living in North Korea, many of whom live without electricity outside of the capital Pyongyang. The U.S. has not amassed any large humanitarian aid assets in the region to match its military build-up. According to a March 24, 2017 report in USA Today, “chronic food insecurity, early childhood malnutrition and nutrition insecurity continue to be widespread in the North, which ranked 98th out of 118 countries in the 2016 Global Hunger Index. More than 10 million people — or about 41 percent of the North Korean population — are undernourished.”
As many nations have learned in conflicts in Africa, a massive population of malnourished, displaced refugees can actually be a powerful weapon when expended toward neighboring nations, exacting a massive toll on infrastructure. Since North Korea shares borders with only China to the north or South Korea to the south these two countries would receive the burden of a massive refugee exodus from North Korea in the event of major conflict.
The likelihood of U.S. armed intervention in North Korea over the next 60 days may have been moderated by the recent U.S. missile strikes on Syria to destroy chemical weapons and the very large conventional aerial bomb attack in Afghanistan to destroy a cave complex. These actions send a clear message to Pyongyang: the current U.S. leadership is not afraid to use military force, even in a complex political environment such as Syria and its implications with Russian relations. As a result, North Korea may be cautious about how they proceed with provoking the United States. While North Korea may feign weapons tests they would, at this point, be unwise to provoke a U.S administration with a recently volatile record.
North Korea displayed their largest mobile-launch capable long-range missiles this past weekend. (RT.com)
Dubbed “Hannah”, a heavily modified Boeing 707 is operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory for the Air Force as a communications and sensor testbed used in the development of integrated networking and airborne sensing.
Taken on Apr. 14, 2017 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, by photographer Rich Barnett, the images in this post show the pretty rare Boeing 707-321B carrying civil registration N404PA.
“Paul Revere […] is the name given to a task force of Air Force, Department of Defense workers and government contractors flying in a contracted government Boeing 707, allowing warfighters to experiment with and test the latest communication technology.
Task Force Paul Revere, an airborne battle management command, control and communications application, helps makes testing machine-to-machine capabilities and global communication experiments possible by sending and receiving data between other airborne and space sensors and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center. This capability could allow United States and coalition warfighters from all services to simultaneously communicate from around the globe.
Currently, aircraft such as the Rivet Joint, Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, U-2 or Airborne Warning and Control System take in information that is saved on disks, analyzed and manually sent to warfighters and planners. Today’s output bandwidth from these aircraft is limited. Task Force Paul Revere experiments with the capability of taking in information from ground, space and air assets and simultaneously and instantly sending the information back out on a global network that includes the CAOC. ”
During JEFX, Task Force Paul Revere is connecting information to Washington and routing it back through the base here.
“In fact, it was suggested Task Force Paul Revere look at AWACS and JSTARS top issues and work them,” Colonel Painter said.
The Boeing 707 being used, formerly a commercial airliner, was pulled out of the aircraft bone yard in the 1980s and turned into a flying laboratory in 2001 by workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. […]
Though the plane is maintained and flown by lab workers, the aircraft and everything on it belongs to the U.S. government.
“It’s part of a contract we have,” said Dr. Joe Chapa, associate group leader at the lab. “Everything bought or developed for this aircraft belongs to the government. Our main mission is to be a learning organization and then transition the lessons learned to the government.”
The Paul Revere is just one application of the aircraft. Many initiatives are being, and have been, tested aboard the 707 with the help of Task Force Paul Revere.
“We like to think of this flying laboratory as a Mr. Potato Head,” Dr. Chapa said. “We can put a different nose or a different eye on.”
Task Force Paul Revere is a team made up of electronic specialists from the Electronic System Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., aircraft maintainers and operators from MIT’s Lincoln Lab, and operations experts from the Air Force Command and Control ISR Center, Air Combat Command and Air Force Space Command.”
Since then the problem has been partly solved (using solutions like the BACN platform) and the aircraft has been involved in other tests.