In 2016, VAQ-130 Growler Electronic Attack aircraft worked hard to deny the ISIS militants the ability to communicate.
Islamic State militants rely heavily on COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) and DIY radios along with smartphones to communicate, browse the Internet, send emails, exchange messages, dispatch orders, trigger IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) etc.
Various platforms of the US-led coalition that fights ISIS in Syria and Iraq continuously work to snoop into Daesh comms, intercept the signals emitted by their devices and, if needed, make such communication impossible (by disturbing the comms or attacking the cell towers or targeting specific high value individuals using cell phones).
“Kinetic Electronic Attack platforms” can be called in by other aircraft (such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint spyplanes which can disseminate data gathered in real-time via tactical data link) or ground forces to prevent ISIS fighters from talking to other militants by jamming their cell phones with high-power signals or by dropping actual ordnance at them.
Last year, among the units waging the Air War on ISIS frequencies, there were also the VAQ-130 Zappers.
Embarked on USS Eisenhower with their Boeing EA-18G Growler, the Electronic Warfare variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet (that replaced the EA-6B Prowlers in U.S. Navy service), the “Zappers” have supported Operation Inherent Resolve carrying out a wide variety of missions.
The badge sported by the VAQ-130’s EA-18G during their 2016 cruise.
Indeed the Growler has the ability to jam the enemy communications or work in combination with other EA-18s to geo-locate a signal source and target it from stand-off distance with air-to-surface missiles such as the AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile).
The following video provides the highlight of VAQ-130’s 2016 cruise. And includes much OIR footage.
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.
Legacy and Super Hornet showing a concerning steady increase in “physiological episodes” that U.S. Navy calls “No.1 safety issue.”
The F/A-18 Hornets of all variants seems to be affected by a serious issue: oxygen shortage, or hypoxia, is plaguing the fleet of Legacy (A/B/C/D), Super Hornet (E/F) and Growler (EA-18G).
As reported by Bloomberg News, the F/A-18 of all models have shown a steady yearly increases of what the Navy calls “physiological episodes” due to oxygen deprivation and cabin decompression since the since May 1, 2010.
Navy officials testifying before the House Armed Services subcommittee called the problem the “No.1 safety issue.”
And what is even more concerning is the fact that there seem to be little clue as to what is causing the issue.
The “lack of overall progress” is “of great concern,” said Representative Niki Tsongas, the top Democrat in the panel.
While investigating the issue (with a task force of 62 people), the U.S. Navy has also enhanced “reduced-oxygen training” so that pilots can quickly identify the symptoms of hypoxia. Two aircraft carriers have installed chambers for aircrews exposed to decompression.
According to Bloomberg News, 130 out of 383 episodes “have involved some form of contamination,” according to a Navy and U.S. Marine Corps official statement. 114 involved an environmental control system component failure, 91 involved “human factors” and 50 concerned a component failure with the on-board oxygen generating system.
Older versions of the plane, the A through D models, have problems with cabin pressure whereas the Super Hornet and Growler issues “would appear to point to the onboard oxygen generating” system to which the Navy’ has already made changes.
It’s not clear whether the issue affects also other international Hornet operators.
Not the first time
This is not the first time the U.S. forces face the oxygen deprivation issue.
A similar problem plagued the F-22 Raptor fleet to such an extent the radar-evading aircraft were grounded back in 2011 following a deadly incident involving an Alaska-based stealth jets.
In that period, the F-22 were experiencing 26.43 instances of hypoxia or “hypoxia-like” problems for every 100,000 flight hours, compared to 2.34 instances per 100,000 hours for the F-15E and 2.96 for the latest version of the F-16 (the Hornet was not part of the data set released back then.)
After lifting the flight ban, the Pentagon restricted Air Force Raptors to fly near a “proximate landing location” in order to give pilots the possibility to land quickly if their planes’ On Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) failed.
The flying branch eventually determined a valve that regulated oxygen flow into the Raptor pilot’s pressure vest was too weak and F-22s were given a new backup oxygen system as part of multiple contracts awarded to Lockheed Martin (worth 30 Million USD) that automatically dispenses oxygen when OBOGS is not providing enough.
The news that all the kind of Hornets might be choking their pilots comes in the wake of a Super Hornet and Growler fleet-wide grounding and (concerning but for the moment totally unrelated) increase in crash rate, especially among the oldest models.
In the wake of the Hornet crashes from June through October, the U.S. Marine Corps temporarily grounded its non-deployed Hornets. Unfortunately, few days after the ban was lifted, two more F/A-18Cs were lost.
The crash rate has affected the ability of the USMC to perform training activities while committing to support real operations: out of a requirement for 171 aircraft, the service had only 85 Hornets available for training according to a report emerged last year.
In order to address the shortage of operational fighters the Marine Corps has launched a plan to upgrade 30 retired legacy Hornets (currently stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona) to a standard dubbed F/A-18C+: once upgraded these “gap fillers” should be more than enough to conduct combat operations in low-lethality scenarios like those that see the USMC at work lately. Still, they might not have a fix for the hypoxia issue.
“Trump’s favorite jet”
As a side note, in their story on Bloomberg News, Roxana Tiron and Anthony Capaccio call the Hornet “Trump’s favorite fighter jet.”
This is due to the fact that Trump has been advocating the Super Hornet since December 2016, when the then president-elect posted a pretty famous tweet that favored the Boeing combat plane over the Lockheed Martin F-35C.
E-2C Hawkeye Night Carrier Landing from the cockpit. With radio comms.
The following video was filmed on Apr. 16, 2013, and shows a night (let’s say a sunset) carrier arrested landing by a VAW-121 E-2C Hawkeye’s pilot at his last night trap with the squadron.
The video is particularly interesting as it includes radio comms (both with the ship and Landing Signal Officers), the PLAT (Pilot Landing Aid Television) from about a mile to the touchdown.
The PLAT system gives a hint of the horizontal visibility on the flight deck and the “C” (or flashing “F”) in the upper screen of the PLAT is for “Clear” deck, or “Foul” deck, whereas the “W” in the bottom would mean “Waveoff.”
U.S. Navy Blue Angels Train for Upcoming 2017 Show Season: Integrate New Members
One of the world’s oldest and most famous flight demonstration teams, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, are preparing for a busy airshow flight demonstration season in 2017 at their winter practice airfield at Naval Air Station El Centro, California.
The Blue Angels were formed in 1946 following WWII as a public relations and recruiting tool to inspire airshow crowds to pursue excellence in all of their endeavors and as a recruiting asset to attract potential candidates to join the U.S. Navy. They are the second oldest flight demonstration team in the world behind the French team Patrouille de France that began flying demonstrations in 1931.
The Blue Angels are largely responsible for the format of the modern airshow with a large demonstration team headlining a supporting cast of aerial demonstrations and on-the-ground static displays of aircraft. Their shows have helped create a culture of airshow fans, aviation enthusiasts and aircraft spotters as well as being a recruiting asset.
For the upcoming 2017 flight demonstration season the Blue Angels will perform at an impressive 35 airshows including one flyover for the U.S. Naval Academy graduation at Annapolis, Maryland and one show weekend still to be determined. Their schedule includes approximately 64 total flight demonstrations, usually at least two per weekend in addition to practices and public appearances.
Blue Angels taxiing in front of photographers (image credit: Author).
The Blue Angels fly an older version of the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. They are scheduled to move to the newer Super Hornet in 2018. Their current F/A-18’s are legacy aircraft, among the oldest flying. They are modified for airshow performances with a second jet fuel pump mounted upside down in the aircraft for extended flying inverted in formation and during solo maneuvers. A normally equipped FA-18 Hornet could not maintain inverted flight as long as the modified Blue Angels’ aircraft.
The team’s trademark high-gloss dark blue and gold paint reduces aerodynamic drag since it has lower friction than the matt low-visibility paint schemes used in combat aircraft. This gloss paint produces better performance, especially at low altitude. The high contrast graphics on the aircraft are arranged to improve visibility in all-weather conditions for spectators and photographers and to enable people to tell the bottom of the aircraft from the top easily during rolling maneuvers.
The demonstration aircraft carry no armament. Their cannons have been removed and replaced with a reservoir containing bio-degradable paraffin fluid that is released into the aircraft’s exhaust plume to produce the smoke trail you see behind the aircraft. The smoke is not only important to enable spectators to follow the aircraft during an airshow, it also allows the pilots to see each other during re-joining maneuvers when the two solo aircraft rejoin the four aircraft diamond formation toward the end of their flight demonstration routine.
Flight controls on the Blue Angels’ F/A-18’s have been modified to make formation and inverted flight easier. The flight control stick between the pilots’ legs uses a spring to exert 40-pounds of forward bias force meaning the pilot constantly exerts slight rearward pressure compared to a normal Hornet to maintain level flight. While this unusual modification makes the aircraft physically more work to keep in a level flight attitude it makes the flight controls feel more “positive” throughout the control envelope.
Finally, unlike the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels do not wear G-suits in their cockpits. The pilots are conditioned to perform the “AGSM” or anti-G straining maneuver to resist g-forces during high performance maneuvers such as the maximum performance turn performed at low altitude.
Video and photos of the Blue Angels latest practice sessions at NAS El Centro provide a fascinating insight into the team’s preparation for the 2017 show season.
The early season practices are sometimes being flown with a unique configuration of Blue Angels’ aircraft, different from the show formation. This video shows two of the two-seat F/A-18D aircraft both carrying the #7 Opposing Solo aircraft markings.
During an operational show the #7 Opposing Solo markings are worn by a single- seat F/A-18C. The appearance of two #7’s during rehearsal may be due to maintenance availability of the aircraft or for training reasons.
t is unusual to see two #7 aircraft flying formation with the Blue Angels. This configuration is likely for crew orientation and practice (screenshot from spencerhughes2255’s YT video)
Another interesting insight with the practice sessions is the somewhat greater interval between aircraft flying formation during the pre-season. The incredibly close overlapping diamond formation is a spectacular trademark of the Blue Angels. Presumably demonstration pilots begin show practice at slightly wider flying intervals to familiarize themselves with the visual cues needed to maintain close demonstration formation flying.
In mid-July 2016 The Blue Angels announced the addition of several new members to the team. Three of the new team members are demonstration pilots. The new Blue Angel demo pilots are:
Navy Lt. Brandon Hempler, 32, of Wamego, Kansas.
Lt. Hempler is an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot formerly assigned to Training Squadron (VT) 22, the “Golden Eagles,” at NAS Kingsville, Texas. He is a 2007 graduate of Kansas State University, Salina, Kansas.
Navy Lt. Damon Kroes, 34, of Fremont, California.
Lt. Kroes is an F/A-18 Hornet instructor pilot formerly assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 101, the “Sharpshooters,” at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. He is a 2006 graduate of San Diego State University, San Diego.
Navy Lt. Nate Scott, 31, of Danville, California.
Lt. Scott is an F/A-18 Hornet instructor pilot currently assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, the “Gladiators,” at NAS Oceana, Virginia. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
The integration of these new members into the team continues into the 2017 season. Navy Lt. Lance Benson, 33, of McPherson, Kansas; Navy Lt. Tyler Davies, 34, of Kennesaw, Georgia and Navy Cmdr. Frank Weisser, 38, of Atlanta, Georgia continue as Blue Angel demonstration pilots for 2017 from the 2016 season.