RAF Chinooks down low

A photo essay from Jamie Hunter to mark the centenary of No 27 Squadron

Earlier this year, Combat Aircraft editor Jamie Hunter flew a photo mission with the Royal Air Force’s No 27 Sqn from RAF Odiham to mark 100 years since the unit was originally formed.

Here is a photo essay from the flight around the southern UK.

Red Tails coming to Combat Aircraft!

Amazing Alabama ANG F-16 photos from Jim Haseltine

Regular contributor to Combat Aircraft with his incredible imagery — Jim ‘Hazy’ Haseltine has been working with the 187th FW, Alabama ANG, for a lead future in the forthcoming February issue of Combat Aircraft, due on sale from early January.

Combat Aircraft editor Jamie Hunter interviewed several key figures within the unit to support Jim’s amazing images.

In September 2007 the wing’s 160th FS was redesignated as the 100th FS in honor of the famous squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen, with bright red tails applied to at least two of the squadron’s aircraft in recognition of the heritage of the squadron identity.

A full report, which includes details of the unit’s recent combat operations – will appear in the February 2016 edition, currently in works.

A-10 looks safe… for now

USAF sings A-10’s praises as CAS mission is reviewed

On December 15, Lisa Disbrow, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the demand for the Close Air Support (CAS) mission had increased due to the current operations in Syria and Iraq.

‘We’re taking a hard look at it, and if confirmed, I look forward to working towards an acceptable plan for recapitalizing this incredibly important mission area.’ she said.

The A-10 was initially reluctant to turn to the A-10 in the fight against so-called Islamic State, but now the Warthog appears to be a platform of choice to strike these targets in the uncontested environment in the eastern deserts of Syria and in Iraq.

The US Air Force’s primary case for retiring the A-10 centers upon the fact that it says precision weaponry has removed the need for a CAS platform such as the Warthog to operate ‘down in the weeds’ over the battlefield. The broad plan is that the new F-35A Lightning II plus types such as the F-15E will easily assume the CAS role, if it is required. Others argue that the US Air Force will bid farewell to ‘true CAS’ forever.

A-10 political supporters argue that there is no suitable replacement for the A-10 mission and they point to current crises in the Middle East. However others point out that the latest block to retiring the A-10 has cost the DoD money that it simply cannot afford. A plan to fund the A-10 for one year under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act attracted opposition as it drew from the overseas war fund.

The USAF is desperate to ensure it has the correct and requisite funding in place in order to enable a full procurement of types such as its 1,763 F-35As and it therefore needs to make savings whilst protecting important future programs.

Cutting a portion of the A-10 fleet simply wouldn’t yield the level of savings required as all of the support infrastructure, etc, would need to remain in place. So it’s all or nothing.

Transferring the A-10s to another force such as the Army wouldn’t work either. The Army is struggling with funding as it is. It is cutting its entire OH-58 Kiowa fleet to save precious cash, and transferring that mission to the Apache.

Moving the A-10 to the Army would actually increase the funding burden of the A-10. A cadre of Army pilots would need to be trained, plus the support and infrastructure costs would need to be established and would be extraordinary. So, the Army isn’t an option.

What about a close ally? There are few that could take on a fleet such as this but it is an option that has been mooted.

The argument for the retention of the A-10 is pretty clear. The A-10 community is all about flying what it calls ‘true’ close air support. Jotting down the nine-line brief from the JTAC on the canopy in grease pencil, integrating with ground artillery, understanding in real detail what the ground forces require. This is the bread and butter of the A-10 community.

One A-10 pilot that CA spoke to said that his great fear was that other communities such as the F-16 don’t live and breathe CAS. They have a broad understanding and knowledge of a range of roles (multi-role), but they don’t have the same CAS-culture that exists with the A-10s.

So, this is more than an argument about the platform, it’s as much about the mission that the US government wants to meet. And the A-10 community argues that the mission that has been conducted over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan is not ‘true CAS’, but armed overwatch. Non-Traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (NTISR), it is argued, better describes the recent mission; supporting troops in contact in offensive and defensive positions, looking for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), orbiting around areas of suspicion, putting bombs on coordinates. This has redefined what leaders call CAS, and supports the argument that F-15Es and B-1s for example can do it — everyone does everything. However, one A-10 pilot argued that a B-1 would have a hard time engaging troops that are 50m from the friendlies.

Clearly the US military needs to stay at the leading edge, and requires types such as the F-35. However, ending the A-10 would see the end of the ‘true CAS’ culture.

Saving 283 aircraft would be sufficient to sustain the A-10 community, with some possible savings achieved through drawing down the active duty inventory, but many A-10 supporters say that the force is down to the ‘bare bones’ already.

This maybe points to US Air Force priorities. Top of the list is air superiority, followed closely by interdiction; long-range bombers striking targets behind the front line, with CAS being paid lip service further down the pecking order behind logistics and ISR.

However, one could ask when the last time this ‘true CAS’ was needed, in a dynamic confrontation of conventional forces — it was Operation ‘Desert Storm’ in 1991.

Some may argue that the change in the approach to CAS has come about with the advent of greater integration between the JTAC and the cockpit, with datalinks and the greater use of targeting pods and GPS/laser weapons, which means CAS can be conducted from medium level nowadays. A-10 pilots would disagree.

Future solutions

The arrival of the F-35 should, in the opinion of A-10 pilots, work in the favor of the A-10. Many argue that it is the Marine Corps that will suffer most from the arrival of the F-35B. It’s insistency on having a STOVL Harrier replacement in the F-35B that can be deployed to austere strips or operated from its LHD carriers is understandable, you rarely get a capability back once you lose it. But how relevant is the F-35B to the Marine Air Group’s core role of supporting the troops on the ground. The F-35B capability lends itself to the interdictor mission more than the CAS mission. How well will an F-35 lend itself to close air support? The stealthy fighter isn’t known for its agility, and would be unlikely to operate at low level over the battlefield. Instead opting to use the sensors and smart weapons to deliver effect from altitude, keeping armchair CAS supporters happy, but not best serving the troops on the ground in harms way.

What about strafe? Using the aircraft’s gun is very much on the need list for recent operations, with renewed emphasis on this old but effective low collateral tactic. To be accurate, this needs to be done from relatively low level. Pointing at the ground in a shallow dive for a not-insignificant amount of time is going to be a core part of what the Marine F-35B is going to need to do.

So what about the newer CAS applications such as the AT-6B Wolverine or the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Both of these have been evaluated as possible low cost CAS-specialist platforms. The Super Tucano in particular was evaluated under the ‘Imminent Fury’ program by the US military, with the type also now having been selected for the LAS requirement to supply a new aircraft to the Afghan Air Force. A-10 pilots argue that platforms such as these are only relevant in conflicts such as the Afghan counterinsurgency that we have seen over the last decade. Unlike the A-10, the turboprops lack the robustness of the A-10 would not stand up well in a contested environment. A-10 pilots point to the Warthog’s maneuverability, its battle-damage protection, redundancy of systems, effective use of electronic warfare, and speed. ‘Couple of pulls of the trigger and an AT-6 would be going home’ commented one pilot.

So, have the senior officers have got it wrong? A true CAS platform is still required, and the A-10 still best suits this requirement. Maybe CAS cannot be achieved from altitude and that the push for the F-35 is aimed more at politics and economics over tactical considerations. Time will tell as to whether the USAF decides it needs to retain some A-10s, or whether it will recapitalise with something like an AT-6 or an A-29.

The full version of this feature appeared in the September 2014 issue of Combat Aircraft.

Our forthcoming February 2016 issue features reviews of the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6 Wolverine.

F-22s, Typhoons and Rafales

Langley AFB hosts major exercise

The USAF hosted a major training exercise at Langley AFB, Virginia, in early December.

The resident 1st Fighter Wing F-22 Raptors hosted Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons from No XI Squadron plus French AF Rafale Cs during the Trilateral Exercise.

NG gives T-X preview

Model revealed to journalists ahead of rollout

Northrop Grumman has given journalists a sneak peek of a model of its new T-X trainer contender. The company is in a pack of OEMs vying for the lucrative USAF T-38 Talon replacement competition.

The manufacturer revealed the model off camera for only a few seconds, with reports suggesting the model bears a striking resemblance to its existing T-38.

It is expected that NG will roll out and start test flying its T-X contender aircraft early in 2016 at Mojave, California. BAE Systems is also heavily involved in the aircraft, embedding key mission training systems from its Hawk T2 Advanced Jet Trainer.

The US Air Force released its eagerly awaited formal requirements list for its T-38 Talon replacement program in March 2015, kickstarting the process that will lead to selection of a new fast-jet training aircraft. This is the last step before contractors will be invited to respond to a request for proposals (RFP) for the T-X competition — expected to be released in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2016, with a contract award in the fall of 2017.

The USAF wants to buy 350 T-Xs to replace the 431 T-38s in Air Education and Training Command (AETC) with initial operational capability (IOC) currently slated for the end of 2023 in both the undergraduate pilot and introduction to fighter fundamentals (IFF) training roles. According to AETC, the period of operation for the T-X is 2026 to 2045, and the aircraft is set to fly 360 hours a year, at a mission readiness rate of at least 80 per cent.

The 1961-vintage T-38 has been a stalwart training aircraft and has been extensively upgraded with a partial ‘glass’ cockpit to help keep it relevant in the F-15 and F-16 era. The era of the F-35 and F-22, however, is not proving quite so forgiving for the Talon.

Officers say that 12 of the 18 advanced pilot training tasks that are prescribed cannot currently be completed in a T-38. This places the onus on operational conversion units to take up the slack — adding expensive flight hours in precious jets. The USAF is keenly aware for the need to ‘download’ some of this training to cheaper platforms — namely T-X — and the service thinks it could save 15 per cent in operating costs annually for advanced pilot training as this strategy becomes possible.

The key competitors rushed to offer off-the-shelf designs, with only Boeing saying that it was going to pitch a new ‘clean sheet’ design. However, as the performance requirements became clearer in 2015 it was obvious that many of the offerings wouldn’t make the cut.

Three significant performance characteristics stood out among over 100 points in the March 2015 requirements list for the T-X: a sustained turn rate of a minimum of 6.5g, simulator visual acuity and performance, plus aircraft sustainment. That minimum sustained G requirement of 6.5g and an objective of 7.5g immediately threw question marks over some of the significant platforms being offered for the competition. The G threshold was set at 6.5g but with an aspiration to hit 7.5g — this is considered sufficient to ensure students can operate at 9g in a front-line fighter.

Many speculated that Boeing’s clean sheet design would be prohibitively costly when having to factor design and development costs over an existing design. When the T-X program was first announced, the Air Force hinted to industry it was looking for an affordable, off-the-shelf system. However, Boeing stuck to its guns and remained confident with its strategy. Its teaming with Saab changed the game when it came to clean-sheet solutions for T-X. Saab has a strong track record of keeping development and flight-testing costs down, driving down production costs through smart new processes. It started to look like a clean-sheet design, built exactly to Air Force requirements, at an affordable price point, could be a way to win T-X — but the pressure would mount on the USAF to keep costs in check.

Indeed, now only one camp is offering an off-the-shelf solution.

Lockheed Martin remains faithful to Korea Aerospace Industries and the joint offering of the T-50. However, the company has stated that it could also offer a clean-sheet solution, but off the record LM says this is not likely.

Northrop Grumman had little choice but to ditch its Hawk bid in favor of another brand-new design. Company executives have said that decision was made after the service requirements became clear. Responding to questions, Northrop stated: ‘In 2011 we entered the fight with the Hawk and with an RFP schedule to be on the horizon in early 2012. We stood behind the Hawk as the best solution at the time. As the program moved to the right and the timeline grew, the Air Force requirements began to evolve and we gained greater insight into what capability was really needed for T-X. It became more and more clear to us that the Hawk was no longer the optimum solution in terms of requirements and affordability. We as a team made the decision to no longer offer the Hawk and to incorporate a new air vehicle into our T-X solution.’

While this came as a blow for BAE Systems and for the Hawk, it wasn’t all bad news. BAE Systems’ experience and capabilities in pilot training is seen by Northrop as crucial to its bid when it comes to embedded air vehicle training capability. The world-beating embedded synthetic training afforded by the Hawk AJT is viewed as being essential as Northrop develops its contribution for a T-X solution.

Northrop Grumman is progressing only with a clean-sheet solution, and not retaining an off-the-shelf proposal. ‘Divided tracks lead to divided focus, and our team is committed to offering one integrated family of systems solution that affordably meets the requirements of the Air Force’, the company stated.

Yet another new T-X design is likely to be rolled out by Textron AirLand, which is reported to be preparing a modified version of its Scorpion ISR aircraft.

The complete version of this feature appears in the US Air Force Air Power Yearbook 2016, now on sale as a special issue of Combat Aircraft.

A-10s back in Europe

Another TSP brings 74th EFS Hogs

A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were once a familiar sight in Europe, and in 2015 that returned as various A-10 units deployed to Europe.

Lt Gen Roberson welcomed the 354th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) at Spangdahlem Air Base on February 18, 2015, as the first unit to fulfill a TSP deployment in Europe.

Home-based at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, the 354th EFS deployed more than 300 personnel and 12 A-10C Thunderbolt IIs to Spangdahlem Air Base, Ger-many. After a few days of familiarization flights, the pilots adjusted to the European theater and began training with their NATO allies. Six weeks later, the squadron moved to Câmpia Turzii, Romania, on March 30.

No sooner had the ‘Bulldogs’ touched down back in Arizona when 200 Reservists from the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), active duty airmen, and per-sonnel from the Air National Guard (ANG), along with eight A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from Whiteman AFB, Missouri, arrived at Ämari air base, Estonia on Saturday, August 22.The A-10s from the 303rd Fighter Squadron, which falls under the 442nd Fighter Wing, were in the smallest Baltic state for a three-week flying training deployment as part of Operation ‘Atlantic Resolve’ (OAR), a further phase of the collective security measures to help ensure peace and stability in the region.

They departed out of Ämari air base on September 14 as two separate four-ship cells.

Here is the latest deployment by the 74th EFS:

A full feature on the A-10 deployments in 2015 appears in the new USAF Yearbook – on sale now.

Growlers on the hunt

US Navy EA-18G Growlers track down targets in Syria

Details have been reported regarding US Navy EA-18G Growlers of VAQ-137 embarked with the USS Theodore Roosevelt being used to track high value targets in Iraq and Syria.

The Growler’s ‘brain’ is the Northrop Grumman AN/ALQ-218(V)2 re-ceiver that can detect, classify, and locate enemy radars and can then suppress those emissions using either anti-radiation missiles or AN/ALQ-99 jammer pods. It can also detect and disrupt communications, which has proven very useful in recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against so-called Islamic State (IS).

The US Navy plans a total of 16 Growler squadrons: nine carrier-based squadrons, five land-based expeditionary squadrons, one reserve squadron, and a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). At present, 13 Growler squadrons have stood up, including the reserve squadron, VAQ-209 ‘Star Warriors’. Of those units, all but one (VAQ-141 ‘Shad-owhawks’ which is forward-deployed with Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan) are located at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.

The Whidbey Island units currently include eight carrier-based squadrons, the EA-18G FRS VAQ-129 ‘Vikings’, and three expeditionary units: VAQ-132 ‘Scorpions’, VAQ-135 ‘Black Ravens’ and VAQ-138 ‘Yellow Jackets’. VAQ-142 ‘Gray Wolves’ will complete transition from the Prowler this summer and will be assigned to carrier duties. VAQ-134 ‘Garudas’ will complete the transition syllabus in 2016 and will likely be allocated to CVW-1. The final Growler squadron, the yet-to-be-named VAQ-143, will begin to form sometime in 2017 and will be the final expeditionary squadron.

VAQ squadrons operate with five Growlers, one aircraft more than the previous EA-6B squadrons. Studies are currently under way to determine whether the optimal squadron size is seven or eight aircraft. According to Boeing, which has performed its own internal studies, the Growler’s effectiveness is enhanced when operating in a three-ship flight versus the single or section operations often used by Prowlers. This flight configuration allows two Growlers to fly with active pods while the third EA-18G flies in a passive mode, using its sophisticated ALQ-218 electronic gear to listen.

In July 2013, VAQ-130 ‘Zappers’ deployed aboard USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) supporting Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’ and logged 226 combat sorties totaling 1,596 flight hours.

In August 2014, VAQ-139 ‘Cougars’ deployed aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) to provide support for air operations over Syria as part of Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’ and returned in early 2015.

VAQ-137 ‘Rooks’ is now deployed aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).

The full version of this feature appears in the US Navy and Marine Corps Air Power Yearbook 2015, a special edition of Combat Aircraft, which is currently on sale.


Tornados strike

RAF Tornado GR4s strike Syrian oil fields

RAF Tornado GR4s launched missions against IS targets in Syria just hours after a parliamentary vote approved the expansion of the UK mission into Syria.

Four Tornados employed Paveway IV munitions against targets in eastern Syria.

Six RAF Typhoons also deployed on the morning of December 3 to join UK missions from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus.

Having entered front-line service with the Royal Air Force in 1982, the RAF Tornado GR Force (TGRF) has assembled an unparalleled service record. It has been in constant combat action since 1991, and these very same aircraft still provide the backbone of the RAF’s precision-strike force.

Such is the value of the Tornado that last year No 12 (Bomber) Squadron was reactivated in order to maintain three front-line squadrons within the Tornado GR4 Force (TGRF). On August 3 2015, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that No 12(B) Squadron would be extended beyond the initial one year of its rejuvenation — now to March 2017 — to help maintain the required combat air mass to support the current Operation ‘Shader’ strike and tactical reconnaissance missions over Iraq and now Syria.

The Tornado is still the only platform capable of carrying and surgically employing the MBDA Storm Shadow stand-off cruise missile and the similarly impressive Dual-Mode Seeker (DMS) Brimstone. Both of these weapons are slated for Typhoon integration under the forthcoming P2E and P3E spiral upgrade phases, but until that time the ‘Mighty Fin’ still earns its status in the RAF.

A constant set of refinements and mission-specific enhancements has continued to trickle down to the TGRF over recent years. The Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) — still commonly referred to unofficially as ‘nav’ or navigator — now sits in front of a large central screen in the rear cockpit that came about as a result of the Tornado Advanced Radar Display and Information System (TARDIS), which replaced the old circular moving map with a new radar processor and digital map. The TARDIS upgrade also saw the retrofit of former Tornado F3 WSO hand controllers, which has made manipulation of the Litening pod far more straightforward. Ultra’s Secure Communications on Tornado (SCoT) radios provide for robust communications and the long-awaited Tactical Information Exchange Capability (TIEC) datalink is now also found across the fleet and includes Link 16 with an Improved Data Modem (IDM). IDM data is displayed on the left-hand color screen in the rear cockpit that has replaced the legacy TV-Tab screen and can receive in-flight target data. Litening pod imagery is also still shown on the left- and right-hand screens, with a clear desire to have this displayed much larger on the central TARDIS display.

No one can argue with the combat pedigree of the Tornado GR4: from Operation ‘Granby’ (the 1990-91 Gulf War), through the following years of Iraqi no-fly zones, Operations ‘Jural’ and ‘Desert Fox’, Operation ‘Allied Force’ over Kosovo, Operation ‘Telic’ in 2003 and the enduring Iraq mission, Operation ‘Herrick’ in Afghanistan, Operation ‘Ellamy’ over Libya, not to mention various other vital missions and now Op ‘Shader’. The Tornado has earned an unequalled place in the RAF history books.

The full version of this feature appeared in Combat Aircraft November 2015 issue.

UK airstrikes

What will RAF bring to Syria airstrikes if mission is expanded?

As British politicians debate the UK’s involvement in airstrikes in Syria it is worth evaluating what the RAF can bring above and beyond the assets already involved.

The obvious discriminator is the MBDA Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone missile. DMS Brimstone is laser-guided and can be fired from the RAF’s Tornado GR4s and is extremely effective at precision-tracking and engaging high-speed moving ground targets.

If Tornados are to be pressed into Syrian operations – it is Brimstone and the Tornado’s advanced RAPTOR reconnaissance pod that could help make a difference.

US military aircraft use laser JDAM, AGM-65 Maverick and GBU-39 Small Diameter bombs. Whilst these are all very effective and accurate, they are not as effective is the DMS Brimstone in attacking fast-moving targets.