Exclusive shots: Deep freeze at Payerne

Swiss Air Force patrols Davos summit in dreadful conditions

The Swiss Air Force has been central to the Air Policing mission for the current World Economic Forum summit in Davos.

This exclusive set of images from Rich Cooper shows Swiss F/A-18C Hornets and F-5E Tiger IIs operating from their home base at Payerne in treacherous conditions this week.

Despite heavy snow and low clouds the fighters made their combat air patrol slots to provide top cover for the high level conference.

Afghan Super Tucanos delivered

First aircraft delivered from the USA

The first four of 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos for the Afghan Air Force were delivered on January 15. The US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody AFB, is training the initial cadre of Afghan pilots on the type.

The introduction of the A-29 via Sierra Nevada Corpora-tion (SNC) to train Afghan Air Force pilots in the skills of close air support (CAS) suffered significant delays when the rival bidder, Beechcraft, took the decision to the federal court. After months of wrangling, the A-29 came out on top. With US forces fighting two very different wars in 2007 against insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Air Force began to focus on various projects involving irregular warfare, out of which was born the Air Warfare Tiger Team. This was a USAF-wide initiative that went to all the combatant commands look-ing to identify their requirements in the insurgency arena.

Out of this program emerged requirements such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), which was partly met by the Beechcraft MC-12W; other requirements included light airlift, leading to the PZL C-145A Skytruck that is now flown by the Air Force Special Operations Air Warfare Center (AF-SOAWC). The light airlift category also includes the Cessna 208 Caravan, a type that makes sound financial sense for countries that cannot afford to fly an air-craft as large as the C-130 Hercules but still need an airlift capability to fly out of austere airfields.

A second program was focused on light attack, designated O/A-X or Observer Attack Platform. The Tiger Team now looked around to see what was required in terms of sensors, endurance, weapons and other desired items, such as a data-link.

While the Tiger Team was running the irregular warfare concept, Air Combat Command (ACC) was working on a similar project titled Light Attack/Armed Re-connaissance (LAAR). The Tiger Team aligned the two projects to create an O/A-X enabler concept at ACC, which now reflected an Air Forces Central Com-mand (AFCENT) requirement for a Light Air Support program. The Tiger Team fed in the requirements and capabilities from both teams to a single program. However, with the USAF operating large numbers of A-10s, F-15s and F-16s that already have a significant air-to-ground attack capability it was obvious from an early stage that the airframe numbers required would not be significant in the long run. However, there remained a requirement for a LAAR squadron to serve in an air advisory capacity; very similar to the 81st Fighter Squadron role today.

While these programs were running there were other projects that would have an impact on the LAAR and LAS programs. For instance, the US Navy and Air Force were jointly working on ‘Imminent Fury’, a light attack program to support forces in Afghanistan. A concept of leasing four A-29s and deploying to Af-ghanistan for a combat demonstration was developed, though this was not funded and fell by the wayside while the LAAR and LAS programs progressed.

The aircraft were now to be solely Air Force owned, with 12 primary assigned aircraft (PAA) and another three for maintenance training. The vision was that the Air Force would serve as advisors to countries that wanted the same capa-bilities as the planned LAAR squadron. The first customer was Afghanistan.

Eventually the LAAR program was defunded since Congress decided there wasn’t a sufficient requirement for an air advisory squadron. However, as the LAS squadron is a combatant command vetted requirement and is run using the Afghanistan Security Force Fund (ASFF), it utilizes an entirely different funding stream and was allowed to continue.

In the end, there was only a requirement for 20 aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. The award for this contract was given in December 2011 but was pro-tested by Hawker Beechcraft through the Judge Advocates Office (JAO).

Eventually the decision was made to re-bid the whole contract. According to a senior officer in the Tiger Team this led to some turmoil: the Air Force had to reassign the LAS team as well as bring in a whole new team to conduct the bid-ding process all over again. Although the process was shortened it still took an additional 18 months.

The full version of Combat Aircraft’s coverage of the 81st FS appeared in our July 2015 issue, available here:


Harriers for Taiwan?

Reports suggest Republic of China Air Force has looked at a VSTOL requirement

Reports from the US suggest that Taiwan may be given the opportunity to purchase US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier IIs as they are retired. It is thought that the Republic of China Air Force favours F-35Bs, however, the Harrier II may be offered as a short-take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) alternative.

It is however, worth noting the enormous expense in operating and maintaining these aircraft. Thailand procured former-Spanish AV-8S Harriers and was never really ever able to realise their potential in service.

US Marine Corps will now retire its Harrier IIs in 2025. The Marine Harrier community, with its newly enhanced air defense capability, was previously expected to outlast the fatigued ‘classic’ Hornet squadrons. However, Marine Corps modernization plans and the push towards the F-35 Lightning II have turned that previous plan on its head. The Marine Corps TACAIR plan for 2015 is focused on paving the way to the F-35. Each squadron transition is laid out clearly in this roadmap to secure the future of Marine Corps fast-jet air power.

The Marines have flown these charismatic attack jets since 1970, when Marine Attack Squadron 513 (VMA-513) ‘Nightmares’ first received the original AV-8A, which was broadly based on the British Harrier GR1. Although its procurement was far from popular, the Harrier proved a good fit with the expeditionary nature of Marine Corps doctrine. Above all, the Harrier brought the ability to project air power from small-deck carriers and from austere landing strips, supporting the Marines on the beaches. Despite poor original performance and continued concerns over its meager payload, the Harrier carved a niche for itself within Marine Aviation history.

Harriers Train Aboard the USS Boxer from SldInfo.com on Vimeo.

Keeping the Harrier relevant

Lt Gen Jon ‘Dog’ Davis, the deputy commandant for Marine Aviation, says the service must ‘try to get the best utility out of old airplanes’. He wants every platform to be a sensor, a shooter and a sharer. For the Harrier, this aspiration is set to be completed.

As with other US military types, the Harrier II has traveled on a journey of Operational Flight Program (OFP) upgrades throughout its illustrious career. Of significance, especially given Gen Davis’ comments, was the H2.0 OFP fielded in September 2005, which integrated the Northrop Grumman Litening targeting pod. H2.0 allows ordnance to be employed against whatever the pod is tracking, as well as allowing pod-derived target co-ordinates to be passed to JDAM. The Harrier became a sensor as well as a shooter. A video downlink transmitter installed internally in the pod allows for real-time streaming video to be sent to a ROVER ground station. This capability greatly improves communication between JTACs and strike aircraft as well as greatly reducing the possibility of collateral damage and fratricide.

The 500lb GBU-38 JDAM served to enhance the AV-8B’s weapons load-out, and the subsequent smart triple-ejector racks allow multiple GBUs to be carried on each station and increase weapons load. In 2007 the Marine Corps received clearance to use the GBU-51 Dual-Mode Laser-Guided Bomb (DMLGB). The Litening AT can now be mounted on the centerline station (even with the 25mm gun installed), freeing up an underwing station for another weapon.

From 2009, the H4.0 OFP paved the way for the AIM-120 AMRAAM to become a new addition to the Marine Corps Harrier arsenal (carried on stations 2 and 6 only).

Completing the Harrier’s sensor suite is the ability to carry the Intrepid Tiger II communications intelligence and jamming pod. Conceived as an emergency measure to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it can be controlled by the pilot or by ground forces to intercept and disrupt enemy radio communications, and jam IED detonators.

In 2015, the Harrier is to transition support from Boeing to NAVSUP (Naval Supply Systems Command) and a number of new upgrade initiatives will kick in. The jet will receive new AN/ALE-47(V)2 countermeasures dispensers, AN/ALR-67 radar warning receivers, and AN/ALQ-164 electronic countermeasures pods. The Harriers will also be modified with variable message format terminals, full Link 16 datalink capability and possibly the Tactical Targeting Network Technologies high-speed datalink. The Harrier is becoming a sharer.

With full integration of the fourth-generation Litening pod, AIM-120C/D AMRAAM and AIM-9X Block II the Harrier will be at the leading edge of Marine TACAIR technology.

The full version of this feature appears in the April 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft:www.combataircraft.net/view_issue.asp?ID=6382

Desert Storm – 25 Years on

F-15C Eagle’s finest hour


In our March issue, in production as the 25th Anniversary of the beginning of Operation Desert Storm’ is marked, Warren Thompson provides a fascinating look back at some of the F-15C ‘kills’ during the campaign.

The F-15C was a major force for the coalition in ‘Desert Storm’ and ended the war with the most air-to-air kills.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 1, 1990, US Air Force Eagles began arriving in the Gulf on August 6, when the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) sent its jets to Dhahran Air Base in Saudi Arabia. Initially, the F-15E Strike Eagle did not deploy, due to a lack of targeting pods for its LANTIRN system, which was being installed at the time. The second round of F-15C deployments to Saudi Arabia began in November 1990 when the 33rd TFW deployed its 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) to Tabuk AB from its home at Bitburg AB, Germany. As 1990 came to a close, the number of F-15C squadrons increased as a plan evolved to control the skies over Iraq and Kuwait.

The 53rd TFS deployed out of Bitburg on December 20, 1990 during the final stages of Operation ‘Desert Shield’, which involved the preparations for the war ahead. The 53rd’s base was to be Al Kharj AB, also known as Prince Sultan AB.

Once the Eagles had settled in, they began to fly combat air patrols (CAPs) and then commenced intensive training missions that were co-ordinated as part of the much larger force that would be employed when the fighting began. On the first night of the air war, January 17, 1991, six enemy aircraft were shot down over Iraq and the first to fall was an Iraqi Air Force MiG-29 downed by Capt John Kelk of the 58th TFS.

Ten days later, the air war over Iraq was in full force when element leads in the same flight downed four enemy aircraft. Capt Jay ‘OP’ Denney bagged two Iraqi MiG-23s while Capt Ben ‘Coma’ Powell shot down another MiG-23 followed by a Mirage F1. All four kills registered that night were credited to the 53rd TFS. Twenty-five years on, Capt Jay ‘OP’ Denney recalls the events of January 27, 1991, when he and his wingman flew what was probably the most successful single engagement of the entire war.

Dove Takes Off

The de Havilland DH.104 Dove and Devon collection is now available from Just Flight.

The DH.104 Dove and Devon collection for FSX and P3D features the Dove short haul airliner and the Devon military variant of de Havilland’s highly successful post-war aircraft with five variants in a total of six liveries, with analogue and modern digital avionics options.

The aircraft is a direct descendant of the Mosquito fighter/bomber. The DH.104 is an all-metal monoplane design, built as a short-haul passenger and executive transport to replace the Dragon Rapide.

The included Dove Mk.6 features two versions of the avionics: a conventional analogue set and a modern set of digital avionics for comms and navigation use, including a handy flight monitoring computer. Other features include accurate flight dynamics and an authentic sound set.

The cockpit is very atmospheric with either a full set of period instruments and analogue avionics or a mix of period instruments and modern avionics, depending on the model that you are flying.

Click here for more information on the Just Flight website

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‘The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first fifth-generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win’ Gen Joseph Dunford

On the last day of July last year, the US Marine Corps finally declared initial operational capability (IOC) for its F-35B Lightning II aircraft. In other words, the amphibious warfare specialists now have a squadron of 10 F-35Bs ready for deployment anywhere in the world.

The achievement was recorded by Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) ‘Green Knights’, based at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, which became the first squadron to become operational with any F-35 variant, and followed a five-day Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), which concluded on July 17.

The ORI saw VMFA-121 pilots take three written exams that tested them on immediate action procedures, general aircraft knowledge, and tactics. Then, during four flights and three rides in the simulator, the aircrews’ ability to conduct specified missions was assessed. The ‘Green Knights’ maintainers were also put through their paces, with an examination of the maintenance and supply programs currently in place.

The 10 VMFA-121 jets are in the Block 2B configuration, ‘with the requisite performance envelope and weapons clearances, to include the training, sustainment capabilities, and infrastructure to deploy to an austere site or a ship’, announced Gen Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps. This means the aircraft can fly close air support (CAS), offensive and defensive counter-air, air interdiction, assault support escort, and armed reconnaissance missions, either within a Marine Air-Ground Task Force, or in support of joint forces.

While the path toward IOC has taken more than two years, the exact requirements for IOC declaration were laid out in the June 2014 Joint Report to Congressional Defense Committees. In the run-up to IOC, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) warplane was put through its paces during seven weeks of flight operations on board the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), during large-force exercises, and in an operational evaluation (Opeval) that included multiple live ordnance sorties.

View from the top

Speaking to journalists on the eve of the declaration, Lt Gen Jon Davis, the USMC’s Deputy Commandant for Aviation, was in bullish mood. Davis highlighted the aircraft’s showing in the CAS and armed reconnaissance roles, where it is already performing ‘very, very well — great accuracy with the hits’. Meanwhile, the exchange rates and kill rates recorded by the F-35B against adversary aircraft in the course of a multi-mission profile had been ‘incredibly impressive’.

Since the Lightning II has been designed from the ground up with low observables in mind, Davis was at pains to point out that the CAS and armed recce scenarios in Opeval had involved a very high level of threat. ‘We would never put a ‘legacy’ platform in that kind of threat environment, but these guys went and did it’, Davis remarked, before noting the F-35B’s potential to conduct the type of ‘Scud’-hunting missions flown in the 1991 Gulf War — and to do so unescorted, even if targets were defended by high-end surface-to-air missiles. During Opeval, F-35Bs armed with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), Laser JDAMs and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs flew ‘Syria-type’ missions, but with the addition of medium and high levels of threat.

‘The guys did so well with the weapons we gave them’, Davis enthused. Asked whether the F-35B can do what an A-10 does in the CAS environment, Davis was sanguine: yes, it can match the ‘Warthog’, with or without the gun. Davis also pointed out that the highly relevant Small Diameter Bomb capability that the A-10 lacks is one that will be added to the F-35B in the future.

While the USMC describes the declaration of IOC as ‘the most significant milestone achievement in F-35 program history’, in truth, it’s simply the beginning of what will be a long path toward full operational capability (FOC), slated for the fourth quarter of 2017 — Davis quoted a window of plus or minus six months within which to achieve this. The roadmap has been especially complex, not just as a result of the game-changing technology involved, but also because developmental testing and operational flying have been run concurrently. It’s a concept that has had its critics, but one that industry and the military agree is vital to get working Joint Strike Fighters in the hands of the troops in the most expeditious way.

There will be many more hurdles to clear before the F-35B is mature enough to take its place as the centerpiece of Marine tactical aviation, replacing the AV-8B Harrier II, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6B Prowler. As a result, Lt Gen Davis has an extensive list of items that will need to be ticked off before the aircraft starts to truly fulfill its potential. On Davis’s personal wish-list right now are the Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II, ‘something I’d like sooner rather than later’), video streaming capability, four-ship data fusion (currently, the Marines are making do with two-ship fusion), and a pilot’s helmet with full visual acuity at night (i.e. with night-vision goggle capability).

The current Gen 2 helmet can be used for night work, including deck landings and aerial refueling, but the secondary night-vision camera lacks acuity. Rockwell Collins announced delivery of the first Generation 3 (Gen 3) helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) for the Lightning II to the Joint Program Office (JPO) on August 11. Before the new helmet comes on line with USMC units, Davis still judges F-35B performance with the existing Gen 2 helmet as ‘better than a ‘legacy’ platform with a Gen 4 helmet-mounted sight.’

As regards data fusion, latency issues with the current Block 2B software mean that four aircraft can’t be ‘tied together’, at least not effectively. In the interim, the Marines are working on the basis of two groups of two interconnected F-35Bs (known as 2+2). ‘There’s no latency at all with the first two airplanes; there’s no latency problems with ships three and four’, Davis explained. ‘It’s when I try and tie all four together that sometimes a target is kind of slightly misplaced on the ground, or it’s not but I’m not confident in 100 per cent of the cases exactly where it’s supposed to be.’

Davis expects Lockheed Martin to complete a software patch for the data fusion issue within six months to a year. Once this is up and running, four aircraft sharing data between them will significantly improve targeting accuracy, especially against moving ground targets. The four-ship data-fusion capability is also a prerequisite of the forthcoming Block 3F software standard.

In light of controversy surrounding the Lightning II’s supposed deficiencies in aerial combat, Davis took the opportunity to make the case for the F-35B against the nimble F-16. ‘The F-16 is a great airplane. But I would not want to get into a full-up fight [against an F-35B]. The Air Force did not change their buy from a total of 1,700 [F-35As]. They are a bunch of meat-eaters, and they are totally convinced this is the right way to go’. Davis highlighted the performance of a four-ship of F-35Bs put up against no fewer than nine bad guys — ‘It didn’t go so well for the bad guys. It went poorly for the bad guys, all of them.’

The full version of this feature appears in the October 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft.

Viking bows out

End of US Navy S-3 Viking operations

The US Navy has marked the final operations with the Lockheed S-3 Viking. Despite being decommissioned from Navy service in 2009, three S-3Bs continued operations with VX-30 ‘Bloodhounds’ at NBVC Point Mugu. The last of the three aircraft was retired by the unit on January 11.

Two of the three aircraft have been retired to AMARG at Davis-Monthan, while a third has joined NASA at its Glenn Research Centre, which has to date operated a single S-3.

More detailed report including farewell photos in the March issue of Combat Aircraft, currently in works and on sale from early February.


CA compares the AT-6 with the Super Tucano

In the February issue of Combat Aircraft – now on sale – we compare the light attack Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine and the Embraer S-29 Super Tucano.

Though Embraer claims that its A-29 Super Tucano is the most successful turboprop light attack and advanced training aircraft currently on the market, it faces strong competition from the Wolverine.

The AT-6 was originally dubbed Coyote (at least internally), but it is now known as the Wolverine or sometimes as the AT-6 Light Attack. The aircraft is a purpose-built derivative of the T-6 advanced trainer that has been fully optimized for light attack and armed reconnaissance.

Beechcraft T-6C/AT-6 (Long Version) from 3DF on Vimeo.

To purchase the latest issue visit:www.combataircraft.net/view_issue.asp

End of Prowler work

Last deep maintenance for EA-6B as drawdown continues

The US Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE) at Jacksonville, FL, held a ceremony on December 17 to honor the workers of the EA-6B line as the last Prowler nears completion. The ceremony, marking the end of more than 20 years of Prowler work, signified the end of an era.

The first EA-6B came to FRCSE in October 1994. The last aircraft to undergo deep maintenance will rejoin the Marine Corps’ Prowler fleet at MCAS Cherry Point. The US Navy may have bid farewell to the EA-6B Prowler, but the US Marine Corps is set to fly on with this charismatic electronic warfare aircraft until 2019.

Having bowed out of US Navy service, these rugged, combat-proven, 1960s-era products of the Grumman ‘Ironworks’ will continue to dominate the electronic warfare spectrum until 2019, despite calls from some Marine Corps observers to keep them in service longer pending the establishment of a true replacement.

The four Prowler squadrons at Cherry Point consist of the training unit VMAQT-1 ‘Banshees’ and three operational squadrons: Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 (VMAQ-2) ‘Death Jesters’, VMAQ-3 ‘Moon Dogs’ and VMAQ-4 ‘Seahawks’. These are all part of Marine Air Group (MAG) 14, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW). The recent Marine Corps Aviation plan 2015 states that they all now operate the latest standard of EA-6B — the Improved Capabilities (ICAP) III.

With the US Navy having now retired the EA-6B, the Marine Corps has settled on a fleet of around 22 ICAP III standard aircraft. Prowlers have been upgraded under a number of programs since they entered serv-ice, with ICAP III representing the ultimate standard for the type.

The full version of this feature appeared in the February 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft.


Rich Cooper’s favourite five from 2015

CA’s special correspondant shares his best shots from the past year

Light is everything. Whether there’s none of it, streams of it, a pinpoint, the last rays or artificial swathes. When shooting military aircraft in action, there’s only so much you can control. The action unfolds very quickly and, more often than not, you have to get it right there and then – there’s no second sitting.

The five I’ve chosen for 2015 were hard. I love shooting military hardware in all conditions (sometimes the worse the better).

I settled on this set, showcasing a range of aerial assets from all walks of life in a cross-section of settings. Pictured here during incredible sunset air-to-air is a fully-armed MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ on NATO QRA over the Baltics. Sunset is something of a speciality of mine, and heading to RAF Fairford to catch the USAF B-2A Spirit on finals to the base one late summer’s night was surreal. Of course, when the sun completely disappears, the camera should not… This JAS39 Gripen on 24hr NATO QRA is shown being guarded by a Lithuanian AF Security Force member in the silent dead of night. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the delta eclipse caused by Vulcan XH558 during its final year in the air. Here, the aerospace icon is taking its tribute at RIAT in bright, summer skies. For all the impact that low, soft or midnight light can bring, sometimes the sheer clarity of the heavens provides all you need.

The MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ left Bulgarian skies in 2015 and this shot, taken at 13,000ft from an open ramp in-between thunderstorms over Eastern Europe provided my final choice.

Rich Cooper

Special Correspondent, Combat Aircraft

More of Rich’s work can be found at:www.centreofaviationphotography.com