Tag Archives: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Don’t Fear the Reaper: A Rare Look inside Remotely Piloted Aircraft Operations at Holloman Air Force Base

We Went Inside USAF MQ-9 Reaper Training and Operations at Holloman AFB.

We never heard it. Out of the corner of my eye in a cloudless, bright blue New Mexico desert sky I saw the glint of a reflection over our bus. I glanced outside again. Nothing. No sound. Nothing in the sky. Then the glint flashed again, and this time I spotted it. But it was too late. The Reaper was already upon us.

This was the first time I had seen a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper combat aircraft in flight. The experience stands in stark contrast to the thunder of fast jets or the whine of turboprops. In fact, the quiet whirring of the little 900 horsepower Honeywell turboprop seemed oddly toy-like. It seemed that way, if it wasn’t powering one of the most effective combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal.

Holloman AFB in New Mexico is home to the U.S. Air Force 49th Wing Remotely Piloted Aircraft squadrons. The units include the 6th, 9th and unique 29th Attack Squadrons of the 49th Wing. This is the primary school for teaching new pilots to fly the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft. The school provides initial qualification training for the two person aircrews that fly the Reaper. In fact the 49th Wing’s 29th Attack Squadron (ATKS) is reported to be the only complete training unit for MQ-9 Reaper aircrews in the U.S. Air Force. This distinction puts their capabilities in high demand.

Out of the clear, blue New Mexico sky an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies over us at Holloman AFB.

Remotely piloted aircraft have been the subject of misconceptions that are largely the result of fiction about “drones” or equipment that somehow spins out of human control. It is almost no more possible with a remotely piloted aircraft like the Reaper than it is with an onboard manned aircraft using a modern fly-by-wire flight control system.

There have been rare instances of adversaries jamming or supposedly taking control of remotely piloted aircraft, as with a December 2011 incident when the Iranian military managed to capture a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft. But this incident is more of an anomaly than the risk of hijacks using a manned aircraft, as with the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.

In fact, because security for the signal transmission that links the remotely piloted aircraft directly to its flight crew is codified and constantly improving, it is more likely that a onboard-manned aircraft can be hijacked than a remotely piloted aircraft. Remotely piloted aircraft can also be destroyed without risking the loss of flight crew, as was the case with an incident in September of 2009 in Afghanistan when U.S. combat aircraft destroyed a remotely piloted aircraft that suffered a rare control malfunction.

Last week TheAviationist.com gladly accepted a rare media invitation to see the RPA training operations at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The school operates several versions of the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator aircraft primarily for training new Predator aircrews.

A distant shot of Reapers at Holloman AFB being used in training missions over New Mexico.

During our tour of the facility, aircrews wore opaque adhesive tape over their name badges for operational security. The missions these aircrews are training for are real world. One instructor related a mission when a new Predator pilot, after extensive training, was tasked with employing live weapons against actual operational targets in a conflict zone only 37 minutes after receiving their full qualification. That level of operational readiness is unprecedented in nearly all current tactical aviation.

His name obscured by tape for operational security, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper pilot describes the video feed from live missions being flown over Holloman AFB.

Predator operators and aircraft live behind additional layers of security within security in the remote New Mexico desert at Holloman. Because the nature of remotely operated combat aircraft reduces deployment time to near zero being in one of the control vans at Holloman was tantamount to standing on an operational forward airstrip in a conflict zone.

A sensor ball mounted under the nose of an MQ-9. This contains various spectrum sensors and cameras and provides the flight crew with their view of the flight operations.

As we received our briefings the cockpit feed from optical sensors and flight control instruments on live aircraft in flight appeared on monitors. It looked like flying any light aircraft, whether it is a Cessna general aviation aircraft or a small, stealthy combat aircraft like the MQ-9 Predator. As we watched an MQ-9 practice landing approaches we could see the response to the pilot’s flight control inputs. These really are just another form of highly capable light combat aircraft.

A rare look into the “cockpit” of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted combat aircraft.

In March of 2017 the website Military.com reported that USAF Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson told a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida that, “The U.S. Air Force now has more jobs for MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers than any other type of pilot position.”

With the expansion of remotely piloted aircraft operations and the demand for aircrews to fly them it is reasonable to expect that the 49th Wing at Holloman will continue to be a very busy place.

Operational security around reaper control vans is elevated since the training and missions are a critical asset.

 

Salva

Here Is The Route A U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk Drone Is Currently Flying During A Surveillance Mission Over The Black Sea And Ukraine

A gigantic U.S. Air Force RQ-4 is currently flying over Ukraine, broadcasting its position for everyone to see.

U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.

Beginning in 2015, they have started flying over Ukraine as well and, as already reported, instead of keeping a low-profile, they can be regularly tracked not only by “standard” ground radars, but even by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange while its imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors take a look at Russian bases in Crimea and gather information about the pro-Russia forces on the ground in the Dombass region of Ukraine.

As we write this story, 19:00 GMT on Jul. 20, a Global Hawk drone can be tracked as it performs an ISR mission over Ukraine at 53,000 feet.

The unmanned aircraft has been airborne for some 17 hours. It started tracking early in the morning after departing from Sigonella, then it has headed east, flown over Bulgaria to the Black Sea, “skirted” Crimea, performed some racetracks off Sochi and then headed back to make a tour of Ukraine.

Here are some screenshots taken by our friend and famous ADS-B / ModeS tracking enthusiast running the popular @CivMilAir @ADSBTweetBot Twitter feeds:

 

As reported several times here, it’s difficult to say whether the drone can be tracked online by accident or not. But 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 the unmanned aircraft purposely broadcasts its position for everyone to see, to let everyone know it is over there. Since “standard” air defense radars would be able to see them regardless to whether they have the transponder on or off, increasingly, RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Russian spyplanes can be regularly tracked as well: 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.

Top image: Flightradar24 screenshot via @CivMilAir who deserves the usual H/T.

 

Salva

Salva

Salva

U.S. Air Force Video Shows ISIS Militants Failing To Launch A UAV In Syria

ISIS Unmanned Aerial Vehicle fail as seen from above.

ISIS is known to operate a wide variety of UAVs. Surveillance, Kamikaze, grenade-dropping drones and quadcopters are often dispatched to perform both reconnaissance and bombing missions.

Their ability to drop small bombs with pinpoint accuracy has raised concerns that Daesh fighters could attack Iraqi and coalition troops as well as civilians, not only from the ground, but also from the air.

For this reason, increasingly, U.S. and allied aircraft flying over Syria and Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve are tasked with hunting COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) and Daesh-modified drones, their launch sites or production facilities.

However, sometimes kinetic air strikes are not even needed to destroy these small drones.

The following video was taken on Mar. 30, 2017, near Tabqah, Syria.

It shows a Daesh militant attempting to launch a small UAV from a roof. The scene, seemigly filmed from a Reaper or Predator drone, ends with the UAV crash landing in front of the building.

 

Polish Air Force Further Postpones Procurement of 5th Generation Fighters to replace MiG-29 and Su-22 jets

Polish Air Force Modernization Initiatives do not foresee 5th Generation Fighters until at least 2022.

The plan to acquire the 5th-generation jets that would prospectively replace the Su-22 Fitter and MiG-29 Fulcrum airframes, currently operated by the Polish Air Force alongside the F-16s, has been postponed by the leadership of the Polish Ministry of Defense.

Lacking the net-centric capabilities, data-links and modern precision guided weaponry Fulcrums and Fitters are becoming more and more unsuited to the conditions of the contemporary battlefield environment.

polish-air-force-future_5

As Tomasz Dmitruk of the Dziennik Zbrojny outlet speculates, the program in question could become a part of the subsequent planning period, between the years 2017-2026. The said modernization plan is expected to be developed next year.

In one of his interviews given to Dziennik Zbrojny, General Adam Duda, head of the Armament Inspectorate of the Polish MoD, claimed that “Harpia” program, which is to cover the acquisition of new fighters, would be scheduled to begin from 2023.

su-22-close-up-turn

According to the statement issued by the Polish MoD, responding to a parliamentary question issued by MP Paweł Olszewski, the operational requirements review carried out by the Polish Armed Forces resulted in an assumption that the Su-22’s operations are expected to be maintained, thus, acquisition of the new jets is going to probably begin next year – here we mean the sole initiation of the procurement program as the acquisition itself would be far down the road.

polish-air-force-future_1

The adopted modernization assumptions, when it comes to the military aircraft, are focused on several priorities, including combat and support helicopters. We do know though, that this tender faces a significant delay, for the reasons related to offset agreement negotiations and, reportedly, difficulties occurring within that process, as the current government reports.

The tender has been canceled and restarted. Polish MoD is also willing to acquire 32 attack helicopters, with logistics and training package.

Second of the priority tasks that is to be implemented by the Ministry is focused on UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and reconnaissance.

Operational MALE UAV systems, mini- and micro-class systems and satellite platforms are going to be acquired.

The Ministry is to procure four operational-level ZEFIR systems, 12 tactical medium range GRYF UAVs (in this case, the systems are to be manufactured by the domestic entities), 12 tactical short range Orlik systems, and 15 mini-class WIZJER aircraft.

However, all of the programs listed above were canceled on Jul. 15, 2016 and they are expected to be restarted with the new government urging the UAV systems in question to be manufactured solely by the companies controlled by the treasury and based domestically.

UAVs are also a subject to financial limitations and Polish Deputy Minister of Defence, Bartosz Kownacki, noted that extra funds would be required to finalize the procurement process.

Same conditions apply to the micro UAVs. One of the significant developments, when it comes to the UAV systems and considering the “treasury” condition mentioned above, may be seen in the fact that one of the major Polish manufacturers of such aircraft, the WB Group, has been excluded from the tendering procedures listed here, due to the fact that it remains a private entity, even though the said company offers systems that have a track-proven record and are highly advanced.

polish-air-force-future_8

Thirdly, the Air Force is in the process of acquiring a new training platform for the pilots, in order to replace the aging TS-11 Iskra trainers. This is being done through acquisition of an integrated training package founded around the M-346 Master AJT aircraft.

The Ministry of Defense acquired 8 such airframes already, with optional procurement of another 4 examples possible, within the framework of the very same contract. Two jets have been received this year, with the remaining ones expected to be delivered in 2017.

Furthermore, the Ministry also took a course to acquire VIP aircraft for the government officials, with two types of platforms to be procured. Small VIP jets will be delivered next year, while medium aircraft are expected to be supplied throughout the years 2017, 2020 and 2021, one jet each year.

Exact deadlines will be known after the negotiation is finalized with the potential contractors.

Moreover, the MoD is also focused on securing the Armed Forces transport capabilities, especially within the tactical dimension, as well as within the scope of the NATO, EU and UN commitments (humanitarian aid operations, evacuations and deployment of special forces).

However, this has been done already, as 5 CASA C-295M airlifters have been acquired throughout the years 2010-2015, with 16 being operated by the air force, with 8 M-28 [Polish An-28 derivative] Bryza aircraft complementing the fleet.

polish-air-force-future_9

The new aircraft to be procured will probably be imported, since no relevant potential is available and offered by the Polish industry. However, the Ministry claims that any new acquisition would have to entail a relevant offset agreement.

Considering the official information mentioned above we may assume that no plans exist, among the objectives defined by the Polish MoD, to procure any new fighter aircraft, at least at the moment. With the relevant program to be started next year, we need to wait for further developments. Back in 2014  rumors suggested that the Air Force would receive new fighter aircraft by 2020, hence the current situation shows that long-term forecast, when it comes to armament procurement, may often not turn out to be realistic.

The assets which could be allocated to procure the new fighters are going to be used, instead, in order to acquire relevant systems within the Wisła and Narew air defense programs, which are both expected to be costly, considering their complexity, and urgent, in the light of the current status of the Polish IADS (Integrated Air Defense System).

polish-air-force-future_4

Among the analysts in Poland, two views of potential Air Force expansion exist.

The first one assumes that a MLU (mid-life upgrade) program will be launched to upgrade the F-16 jets (with AESA radars and integration of new armament including JASSM-ER missiles and possibly new Air-to-Air weaponry) along with the potential procurement of the F-16V to replace the aging Fulcrums and Fitters. Furthermore, Poland is also looking forward to expand its SEAD capabilities and the information available within the defense media-sphere suggests that procurement of the AARGM missiles for the F-16 could also be expected in the near future.

The second hypothesis assumes that new airframes, possibly Gripen-NG or the F-35, would be bought to replace the Polish Post-Soviet fighter force.

Whichever takes place, we need to patiently wait for relevant decisions to be taken.

The “procurement landscape” is quite varied, as back in 2015, when the Eurofighter Typhoon was also being promoted during the Radom Air Show, as a fighter for the Polish Air Force. What is clear though, the priorities assumed by the new right-wing government have been redefined, hence it is very unlikely that we would see any new combat aircraft in the Polish Air Force, within the upcoming decade.

This, on the other hand, would mean that whoever is elected next, would have a perfect pretext not to procure new fighters, for financial reasons.

Poland is going to be left with an air force counting of 48 F-16 jets, at least for now, as the combat usability of the Post-Soviet equipment, on the net-centric and dynamic battlefield, is highly dubious.

polish-air-force-future_2

Image Credit: Jacek Siminski/Wojciech Mazurkiewicz

 

Last U.S. Air Force Phantoms make rare appearance flying through the Star Wars Canyon!

Awesome video and photographs of the last USAF Phantoms thundering through the famous Jedi Transition.

On Tuesday, Oct. 25 two USAF McDonnell Douglas QF-4E Phantom II’s made passes through “Star Wars Canyon” (Jedi Transition) in Death Valley, CA. The lead Phantom (gray and orange) was piloted by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and the second jet (green camo) was piloted by Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins.

It was a very rare treat to see the QF-4s pass through the canyon. The Phantoms were in transit from NAS Point Mugu, CA to Hill AFB, UT and made the two passes at about 350 knots. Aviation enthusiasts are used to seeing modern and nimble aircraft such as F/A-18E/Fs and F-16s pass through the canyon and the QF-4Es did well, maneuvering aggressively in the canyon confines.

Actually even a C-17 made a series of cool passes lately

qf4_12

qf4_10

qf4_01

Though bearing the markings of the Tyndall AFB based 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (ATRS) the QF-4Es hail from Detachment 1, 82nd ATRS, based at Holloman AFB. The 82nd ATRS at Tyndall AFB has fully converted to the QF-16. The QF-4Es captured are two of seven remaining QF-4s capable of manned flight (an additional handful of remaining aircraft are capable of “unmanned” flight only).

The F-4 entered service with the US Navy in 1961, followed by the USMC and the USAF. The aircraft remained in service with the USAF through 1996 when it was retired. Subsequently many Phantoms were converted to service as manned and unmanned targets for weapons training with various USAF and DoD programs, including the White Sands Missile Range. The F-4 is one of the most successful multi-role fighter aircraft ever produced. Over 5,000 F-4s of various models were built and served in combat and keeping the peace with a variety of Air Forces around the world.

qf4_07

qf4_06

qf4_05

qf4_04

The days of manned QF-4 flight are short and the aircraft have been making a “pharewell tour” throughout the US, appearing at several air shows and bases. The aircraft’s last manned flight is planned for December 21 at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. It is anticipated a four ship will take to the skies with roaring ‘burners, break the speed of sound, make several crowd pleasing passes – and then back to earth.

Contact the Public Affairs Officer at 49th Wing, Holloman AFB for more information on this “last phlight” media event.

Image and video credit: Johnson Yang

Johnson Yang is a photojournalist who lives and works out of S. California. Johnson previously served in the Taiwanese Airborne and is a regular contributor to Asia Pacific Defense Magazine.