According to the Pentagon, U.S. and Russian combat planes have had some tense moments over Syria.
There have been several close encounters between Russian and U.S. and allied manned and unmanned aircraft over Syria since Moscow deployed a contingent of combat planes to Latakia, in northwestern Syria, at the end of September 2015.
According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the Flanker-derivative 4++ Gen aircraft was providing air escort for a package of attack planes in Syria when it approached the American plane, to perform a VID (Visual Identification) even though some sources suggested it was the Russian aircraft to be intercepted by a U.S. plane.
Another “near clash” occurred last week, on Jun. 16.
Indeed, as reported by the CNN, U.S. F/A-18s were somehow close to engage Russian Sukhois (still not clear whether Su-34s or Su-24s as there are conflicting reports on the type of aircraft involved) that bombed U.S.-backed Syrian rebels near the Jordan border.
Here’s what happened according to Theodore Schleifer and Barbara Starr:
“The strikes, which the U.S. says killed some New Syrian Army troops, occurred about six miles from the Jordanian border, according to a U.S. defense official.
The U.S. diverted armed FA-18s to the area after the first round of two strikes, and the pilots then tried to call the Russians on a previously agreed-upon pilot-to-pilot communications channel but did not receive an answer.
As soon as the U.S. jets left the area to refuel, the Russians came back for another round of bombing, the defense official said.
“Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against Syrian counter-ISIL forces that included individuals who have received U.S. support. Russian aircraft have not been active in this area of Southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity,” a senior defense official said. “Russia’s latest actions raise serious concern about Russian intentions. We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.”
The first two bombing runs by the Russians were carried out by two SU-24 Russian jets coming out of their base near Latakia. The jets dropped what is believed to be the equivalent of U.S. 500-pound bombs and possibly cluster munitions, according to the U.S. defense official.”
So, it looks like the American Hornets were pretty close to intercepting the Sukhois (in other reports they were able to visually ID the Russians), tried to contact the Russian planes as these carried out an air strike, but these simply ignored the calls on a previously agreed radio frequency.
The question is what are the ROE (Rules Of Engagement) in place over Syria? Most probably there are strict ROE to prevent escalation and avoid direct confrontation but what would have happened if the U.S. F/A-18 had intercepted the Russian warplanes attacking the US-backed rebels ignoring the American calls?
Such operations included air combat training, long-range strike training, air defense drills as well as sea surveillance.
The CSG 3, that started operations in the Western Pacific on Feb. 4, consists of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) and guided-missile destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 21, USS Stockdale (DDG 106), USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), and the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9.
CSG 5, begun its summer patrol of the Indo-Asia Pacific, on Jun. 4, and consists of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), guided-missile cruisers USS Shiloh (CG 67) and USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), USS Benfold (DDG 65); the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan and routinely, patrols the Western Pacific.
According to the U.S. Navy, the CSGs (Carrier Strike Groups) began coordinated operations in international waters to demonstrate “the United States unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups in close proximity.”
U.S. Navy aircraft carriers regularly conduct dual carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific and sometimes also in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Philippine Sea: this occurs when carriers deployed to the 7th Fleet area of operations from the U.S. West Coast are joined with the forward deployed carrier strike group from Japan. When it happens a force of 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft, six combatants and two carriers operates in the same sea: an impressive “show of force.”
Previously, in Sept. 2012, USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) strike groups conducted combined operation in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In 2001, USS Constellation (CV 64) and Carl Vinson operated together in the South China Sea.
Along with the two carrier strike groups and the B-52 providing extended deterrence, Washington has also deployed to the Philippines the first temporary detachment of Navy EA-18G Growlers.
The electronic attack aircraft have arrived at Clark Air Base, on Jun. 15. Even though they are officially there to train with the local FA-50, the detachment, made of 4 aircraft and 120 personnel with the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138, “will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law.”
Therefore, the strategical deployment brought not far from the disputed waters in the South China Sea some cutting-edge aircraft capable to perform electronic escort missions on both U.S. ships and spyplanes that are frequently shadowed by Chinese spyplanes or intelligence gathering ships. Furthermore, the Growlers could jam, if needed, the Chinese radars on the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas and the rest of the islands, including those that have been artificially created, decreasing Beijing ability to establish an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) similar to that in the East China Sea and to support its warplanes in the area.
The presence of (some more…) EA-18Gs could theoretically limit the operations of the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLANAF) that, according to “Flashpoint China: Chinese air power and regional security” published by Harpia Publishing and written by Andreas Rupprecht, one of the most authoritative sources on Chinese Air Power, “are able to ensure virtually continuos, round-the-clock aerial coverage and combat air patrols over the area during a crisis or a conflict.”
In particular, the PLANAF is pretty active in the area with a regiment each of H-6 bombers and JH-7 fighter-bombers and no fewer than three regiments of J-11 interceptors covering the South China Sea . “The availability of long-range J-11s and aerial refueling assets implies that much of the SCS [South China Sea] is now de-facto Chinese airspace,” says Rupprecht.
It’s not a coincidence that a recent close encounter in the area involved few weeks ago two Chinese J-11 tactical aircraft that carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft on a routine mission in international airspace over the South China Sea.
The Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138 is an expeditionary squadron based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, that has previously taken part in deployments across the region. The Growler detachment comes after a first temporary Air Contingent made of five A-10C Thunderbolt aircraft, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and approximately 200 personnel deployed from multiple Pacific Air Forces units that took part in exercise Balikatan and completed their final mission on April 28, 2016.
According to the ITF, the testing campaign carried out by joint RAF – Pax River ITF test team was completed one week early, demonstrating the team’s efficiency by accomplishing its test plan in 18 flights rather than the scheduled 20 flights.
The trials included day, twilight, and evening plugs between the F-35’s IFR (In-Flight Refueling) probe and the tanker’s hose (indeed RAF’s A330 Voyager tankers are only equipped with the U.S. Navy’s standard “hose and drogue” system).
The test trials generated data for the assessment of the wing pods and the fuselage refueling unit in anticipation of a flight clearance that will support the U.K.’s F-35B Lightning II Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in 2018.
BF-04 Flt 363. RAF Voyager (KC-30) air refueling testing on 26 April 2016 piloted by RAF Squadron Leader Andy Edgell.
The U.K. has 19 RAF and Royal Navy personnel embedded within the F-35 Pax River ITF. Many of these British military participate in the shipboard developmental test (DT) phases for both the F-35B and F-35C.
BF-04 Flt 364 piloted by Mr. Billie Flynn tanks off an RAF KC-30 (Voyager) tanker on 2 May 2016 from NAS Patuxent River, MD
BF-04 Flt 366. KC-30 Voyager AR Tanker Testing on 09 May 2016 with LCDR Ted Dyckman as the pilot.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will use a ski-jump ramp to help the launching plane take off with an upward flight path and a BAE Systems Test Pilot launched the F-35B from a land-based ski-jump for the very first time at Pax River in June last year.
BF-04 Flt 371 piloted by Lt Col Tom “Sally” Fields performs aerial refueling tests with a KC-30 Voyager tanker on 16 May 2016 from NAS Patuxent River, MD
Special thanks to Sylvia Pierson, F-35 Lightning II Naval Variants Public Affairs Officer (PAO). Photo Credits Lockheed Martin.
USS Harry S. Truman launched strikes against ISIL from the Mediterranean Sea. Also a response to Russia growing influence in the region.
On Jun. 3, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Truman launched air strikes against ISIL position from the Mediterranean sea, marking the first time a carrier conducted combat operations from the 6th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR) since 2003.
The Truman CSG (Carrier Strike Group) tour of duty, that has also included operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, in the Persian Gulf within the 5th Fleet AOR, has been recently extended by 1 month to fill the gap until the replacement carrier (USS Eisenhower) arrives. The extended tour of duty enables Truman to support US-led coalition’s air campaign against Daesh from the Med.
Until yesterday and for the last 13 years, the air strikes against targets in Iraq or Syria have always been launched by aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean with the Med used only as a transit “corridor” to Suez.
The raids from the Mediterranean Sea have opened a new direction of attack against the terrorist target in what many analysts consider an answer to Russia’s military presence in the region. In November 2015, two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers departed from a base in northwest Russia for a 13,000km journey around Europe, and launched cruise missiles against ground targets in Syria from over the Mediterranean Sea (while being escorted, approaching Syria, by at least three Su-30SM Flankers launched Latakia): a true air power demonstration.
The video below shows VFA-103 F/A-18F Super Hornets and VFA-25 F/A-18E Hornets launch (with 2x JDAM – Joint Direct Attack Munitions under the right wing and an ATFLIR pod and a laser-guided GBU under the left one) to carry out the first U.S. Navy air strikes from the Mediterranean Sea. The tactical warplanes were supported by VAW-117 E-2C Hawkeye.
The lessons learned during the Vietnam War showed that the fighter that the F-4 Phantom replacement had to excel in WVR (within visual range) engagements and feature those BVR (beyond visual range) capabilities essential for a premiere Navy fighter. Thus Tomcat crews were trained to conduct intercepts almost from the start of training in Pensacola and continuing with their assignment to the RAG (replacement air group, a squadron dedicated to training aviators for a specific type of aircraft).
According to “Bio” one of these sorties, flown with LT Jim McArthur (who would later become an admiral) as his instructor pilot, and their wingman in the second F-14 was Sandy Winnefeld (a student RAG pilot, Baranek’s college friend, and a future admiral himself) and his instructor RIO Willy Driscoll, the Vietnam MiG ace, was particularly memorable.
This hop was a “2 vs 2 intercept to engagement” with a TA-4 Skyhawk and an F-15 Eagle as opponents.
As Baranek recalls: “As with the Tomcat, the designers of the Eagle applied the hard lessons from aerial combat in Vietnam and took advantage of further advances in engines and aerodynamics. The Air Force jet was lighter, unencumbered by the heavy structure that the Tomcat needed for repeated carrier landings, nor by the Tomcat’s heavy radar and other systems that came with the Phoenix missile. With its incredible maneuverability, the Eagle was a challenge for the Tomcat.”
Noteworthy, given that the engagement took place in the skies over the range near Yuma, the rough terrain of the area challenged the AWG-9 in automatic modes and the Tomcat RIOs in manual modes. Flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and at 350 knots, both groups – the F-14s and their adversaries – were closing at a speed of 700 knots. As Bio says “It was cool to have a college friend and a flying legend on my wing.”
The intercept began and Bio started to direct the F-14s’ attack, when Driscoll came up on the radio and said: “My radar is acting up, Dave, you’re going to have to run this one.” His radar problems left their section without Driscoll’s experience during the engagement, but also reminded the aircrews that in the real world radar sometimes fails.
So, with encouragement and a little coaching from his pilot, Bio directed the two F-14s through the intercept, calling an AIM-7 Sparrow missile shot and describing the radar picture for the wingman.
“We got a tally-ho on both adversaries, streaked past them at the merge…and the fight was on! Though it was more maneuverable than the TA-4, the F-15 was also larger and easier to keep track of. Even so, duking it out with a nimble little guy and his big brother was challenging as our two F-14s maneuvered aggressively in a vigorous dogfight. I have to admit that the details are a blur: I don’t remember who took shots, who won or lost. After about two minutes the fight ended with “Knock it off” on the radio. […] One thing I do remember: Driscoll’s radar was fully functional on the second and third engagements of the flight. Did I get “sandbagged,” an old trick of instructors to see how I would handle it? Or did he just have a knack for fixing an AWG-9 during a dogfight? I’ll never know, but I do know I was in awe of his radar and communication skills. He (Driscoll) definitely lived up to his reputation.”
But for U.S. Navy aircrews being fully capable to man their aircraft during real combat operations is not enough: indeed, before being assigned to an active duty squadron they must be qualified to operate from an aircraft carrier and the biggest challenge they have to overcome during CQs (carrier qualifications) is called “night carrier qualification.”
In “Before Topgun Days” not only does the author bring the reader onboard a Tomcat during carrier night flight operations but also provides a unique description of these tense moments: “Surreal is not a strong enough word to describe the experience of calmly flying around a pitch-black sky for an hour, steadily monitoring red-lit instruments, breathing oxygen through a mask, talking on the radio and occasionally trading small talk or mission-related comments with your pilot. We really could have been sitting in a black room. Until the final two minutes of greatly increased activity and stress, followed by the physically jarring arrested landing that suddenly placed us on a small world dimly lit by orange lights. In this place we talked to each other and interacted with people outside for a frenzied few moments until we were again brain-scrambled by a cat shot into the serenity of darkness. This time it was only a few minutes of serenity before we again started the relentless rush of a night carrier approach.
No, surreal is not a strong enough word.”
“Before Topgun Days” tells how student RIOs were brought to this level of skill through a structured training approach that begins in Pensacola. Baranek gives detailed descriptions of his early training, which was exciting and challenging, and tells about the times he thought he might not complete the program. But he did. Several vignettes from Bio early days in a fleet F-14 squadron that show how well the training prepared him for the real world finish the book.