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The curious case of the RQ-170

When dealing with the news organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, one can never go too wrong by taking their claims with a liberal pinch of salt. The regime has a long and storied history of making outlandish (if not patently false) claims about its military prowess and capabilities—to engender, one presumes, a feeling of patriotism and camaraderie amongst the hometown crowd. Sometimes they even manage to sell these knee-slapping fabrications to the more credulous members of the world media; other times even the journalists are laughing into their sleeves.

"Stealthy" Saegheh fighter, an F-5 variant. Sept 2006.

Doctored photo of Scud C & Shahab 3A missile test, Apr 2008.

Bavar 2 "radar evading" wing in ground effect craft, Sept 2010.

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It’s hard not to smile at the jaw-dropping audacity of the Iranian state media, so earnestly peddling the official fictions of the defence ministry. The most egregious embellishments—regarding the doctored photo of a missile test, the Saegheh‘s supposed stealth capabilities, and the “radar evading”, very lightly armed wing-in-ground-effect Bavar 2 craft—are also so unnecessary. Few people outside of Iran would actually believe the defence ministry’s overly optimistic statements.

So when one hears the news that Iran has miraculously acquired an American RQ-170 reconnaissance drone—in reasonably good condition—the immediate response must certainly be scepticism. The doubts are doubled when one learns that the Iranians have changed their story—at first claiming the drone was shot down, then claiming that they had taken command of it and forced it to land, mostly intact.

Still, the thing shown on Iranian TV looks an awful lot like an RQ-170, and some unnamed source who had no qualms about spilling the beans to CBS News claimed it was the genuine article, so… maybe it is?

Hard to say one way or other, based solely on the video. The Aviationist has a half-dozen higher-quality still images, over which one can puzzle and hunt for additional clues. The first thing your correspondent did was grab a nearly head-on shot and crank up the brightness, in order to see whether anything lurked behind the grill covering the engine inlet.

Engine inlet with brightness increased substantially.

If it’s a model or a mock-up, it was at least built by someone who had the foresight to include detail behind the grill; something that seems like it ought to lead to a turbine and compressor blades.

There’s plenty else, though, that doesn’t add up—hence my ambivalence. Instead of the medium blue-grey paint common to USAF aircraft, this drone sports a yellow-beige colour familiar to anyone who’s built an epoxy model kit. Then there’s the duct-tape-like adhesive covering breaks in the wings just outboard of the topside fairings. If the aircraft had been shot down, then showing it in a damaged state ought not to have been an issue. If it had been landed by Iranians after a successful cyberattack, one could also forgive a multitude of bumps and scrapes; the Iranian pilot, after all, wouldn’t know the particular handling qualities of that aircraft type. Nor would he have been presented with many prior opportunities to refine his descent profile and landing technique. Even if the thing had to be cut into thirds for transport, what would be the point in making such a sloppy repair job visible to the television audience?

The claim to have taken control of the drone is entirely spurious. In years past there have been media accounts of insurgents bootlegging Predator video feeds, but it’s important to note that what the insurgents saw was just the ISR output. The command and control signals are encrypted to prevent the sort of cyberattacks that Iran is trying to claim it can execute. I have no doubt that Iran could purchase jammers of adequate range and power, but this would merely cause the drone to fall back upon its loss-of-signal protocol.

The Pentagon confirms they lost contact with a drone last week, and that its last known position and heading would have brought it down just inside Iran. But this too presents problems. All military drones of a certain size have a Flight Termination System (or FTS)—which, in the dry parlance of the DoD, is designed to put an uncontrolled / hazard aircraft in a zero lift, zero thrust condition via some kind of destructive mechanism. The more expensive sorts of drones (and especially the high-altitude kind who must rely on SATCOM for their C2 signals) have less catastrophic safeguards, too. Their loss of signal protocol is to climb to best comm altitude and return to base (or designated orbit point) while trying to re-establish the C2 link and positive control.  This has been relatively standard practice for the larger UAVs, and was successfully implemented in 2002’s X-45 program; it’s hard to believe later designs don’t also incorporate these safeguards.

Last week when this RQ-170 lost contact with its ground-based pilots, it ought to have turned around to come back to the barn. That it apparently did not (and now has a starring role on Iranian television) presents more questions than your correspondent could presume to answer. But perhaps the biggest is how—absent any positive control from the ground—would it manage to come down in such an intact state? The RQ-170 is believed to have an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and perhaps more usually inhabits the slightly less rarified altitudes common to long-haul airliners and fast business jets. Descending safely from such a height is not beyond the realm of possibility—the drone may have entered either a flat spin or a “falling leaf” stall, robbing it of much forward and vertical velocity, but arriving unscathed on the ground after such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare and unlikely.

I don’t know what to think, to be honest, but it will be fascinating to learn the truth one day.

Limitations

…UAVs have them.  Here’s a Georgian UAV versus a Russian MiG-29. No prizes for guessing the winner.

There will still be at least one more generation of manned air dominance fighters. If not several.

It’s also a lot easier to take out 50 guys sitting in stationary control vans on the ground, than 50 guys strapped into jets in the air. Things like that tend to make a difference in warfare.

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths

Surviving wing tips of the Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow, Storage Wing, Canadian Aviation Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Flickr: DSC_4420, originally uploaded by GRB_Ott.

We have all heard the Avro Arrow mythology promulgated for the public.  That the Canadian division of UK-owned A.V. Roe and Company was contracted to provide a supersonic delta-winged interceptor; that an interceptor of unprecedented capabilities was built, and flight tests begun; but then the American military-industrial complex and unconscionable perfidy from the Prime Minister of the day (John Diefenbaker) conspired to kill the wonder jet so that money would be made, political ambitions furthered, et cetera.  The power of the mythos is such that a 1997 made-for-television movie featuring Dan Akroyd was crafted with this storyline.

Problem is, the tragic fable is almost entirely false.

In the Spring 2010 edition of Airforce magazine, Colonel Layne Larsen, CD (Ret.) has penned a thorough takedown of the Arrow mythology.  The colonel goes to no small pains to debunk the three main myths of the Arrow legend:

  • That PM Diefenbaker’s short-sightedness or incompetence killed the Arrow program
  • That Diefenbaker ordered the destruction of all program materials to prevent it from ever being resurrected.
  • That the Arrow was so far ahead of its time, we would still be flying them today; also that we would not have bothered to buy four other fleets of foreign-designed aircraft (CF-101 Voodoo, CF-116 Freedom Fighter, CF-104 Starfighter, CF-188 Hornet).

[Point of clarification: There are two similarly named publications; Air Force magazine—often mentioned in this space—is the journal of the US Air Force Association, while Airforce magazine is the journal of the Air Force Association of Canada.]

I’ll try and summarise Colonel Larsen’s article here, but you’d be well-advised to pick up the magazine and read it, if you want the facts in greater detail.

Myth 1: Diefenbaker’s short-sightedness or incompetence killed the Arrow program

Although PM Diefenbaker made the official announcement on February 20th, 1959, the federal Cabinet made the decision, and it came after five months of deliberation—which was in fact initiated by a recommendation from the service chiefs of the Canadian military.  The minutes of that August 1958 Cabinet meeting are available at DFAIT’s website, and they clearly indicate that the program costs had escalated to the point where “the Chiefs of Staff felt that, to meet the modest requirement of manned aircraft presently considered advisable, it would be more economical to procure a fully developed interceptor of comparable performance in the U.S.”  In other words, the RCAF didn’t want the Arrow, and had already determined that its support and logistics costs outweighed its potential military value.

For what it’s worth, I have read elsewhere that the previous St. Laurent government had also decided it would kill the Arrow, had it been returned to office in the 1957 federal election.

Myth 2: Diefenbaker ordered the destruction of program materials to prevent it from being resurrected

Documents declassified in 1990 indicate that the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshall Hugh Campbell, was the source of this direction.  Normally the Department of Defence Production (DDP) had six months to dispose of program materials to other government departments, research centres, and scrap.  A memo from G/C Ray Footit (signing for CAS) to DDP ordered that everything was to be cut up before being sold as scrap, and that no major components were to be sold as intact entities.

Myth 3: The Arrow was extremely advanced for its time, we’d still be flying them, and would not have bothered to buy other fighters.

The best way to answer this is to use Col. Larsen’s chart that accompanies the article.  It compares performance data from several aircraft designs of the time.

(click to enlarge)

The Arrow doesn’t lead the pack.  It has good top speed and an acceptable service ceiling, but a thoroughly mediocre radius of action.  Radius of action being the distance an aircraft can travel from its base and return, without refueling (this figure also includes a measly five minutes of combat engagement).  The Arrow would have been the last to achieve IOC—whereas the very similar Convair F-106 had comparable speed, a slightly higher service ceiling, almost twice the radius of action, was available four years earlier, and was several times cheaper ($2 million per F-106 versus $8-10 million per CF-105.)

The F-106, incidentally, remained the backbone of USAF’s interceptor fleet until replaced by the F-15 Eagle.

As Col. Larsen makes clear, the Arrow died because of multiple factors.  The RCAF had already accrued some bad experiences with the Avro-built CF-100, and they didn’t like the support they were getting from the company on that product.  The RCAF’s senior brass very much doubted whether Avro could build an even more complex aircraft and still make it reliable and easy to maintain.

Unfortunately, Avro’s CF-105 prototypes were not built with ease of maintenance in mind; in one case it would take 70 hours to inspect a part whose inspection interval was only 50 hours.  In other words, every two days’ flying time you had to ground the plane for three days in order to inspect the part.  And that’s for a brand-new airplane, where most things should not be breaking too often.  Imagine what would happen once that airframe had been in service for 10, 15 or 20 years.  The Arrow would have been a ramp queen par excellence.

Worst of all, in just four years the Arrow’s program budget nearly doubled (going from $261 million to $400 million) while completing only five percent of the scheduled flight tests, and the radar/fire control system had yet to be installed, let alone tested.  In 11 months the Arrow racked up only 80 hours of flight test time, while the F-106 managed to conduct 1,000 hours of flight testing in a year.

All our national myth-making aside, when you add up all the things that went wrong, the Arrow was a weapon system doomed from the start.

Thanks to Colonel Larsen for his bracing deconstruction of the Arrow mythos; if this is a subject that interests you, you ought to pick up the magazine and give it a read.

The CF-105 Arrow, as seen on Flickr

arrows2 (43), originally uploaded by Magnumcharger.

CF Photo Unit, Ottawa. 4 Oct 1957. 3/4 front right view of a Canadian-built CF105 (201) Avro Arrow interceptor sitting on the tarmac of DeHavilland’s hangar in Downsview (Toronto), ON.

PL107100, originally uploaded by Magnumcharger.

Prototype Arrow RL-201 landing followed by a CF-100 Canuck chase plane.

Avro CF-105 Arrow, originally uploaded by EyeNo.

Aircraft RL-201 exiting the runway at Malton Airport (YYZ) due to a landing gear failure. 11 June 1958. The undercarriage did not fully extend and lock, so when the test pilot applied the brakes, the left gear gave way and the aircraft skidded off the runway.

Arrow in Trouble!!, originally uploaded by Never Was An Arrow II.

The Avro Arrow (1958)

Filmed and produced by the Photograhic Department of Avro Aircraft Limited.

Controlling UCAVs from other planes

The E-3 Sentry has long been an critical asset for the US Air Force; each of the 32 active inventory aircraft can provide unparallelled air and surface situational awareness in a 250 nautical mile radius around the aircraft.

Now, manufacturer Boeing plans to test controlling a small UAV from an airborne Sentry in the annual (and presciently named) Empire Challenge exercise at USN’s Air Warfare Center Weapons Division China Lake.

AWACS as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Controller: Boeing plans to demonstrate control of the ScanEagle remotely piloted aircraft from an E-3 AWACS aircraft during the annual Empire Challenge coalition interoperability exercise that started Monday and runs through August 13 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “This will be the first time the company demonstrates full control of an unmanned aircraft by an airborne command and control platform during an operational scenario,” Boeing said in its release. A NATO AWACS will be equipped with a tactical common data link to relay commands to ScanEagle from an onboard operator. The scenario involves an antipiracy operation in which the AWACS detects suspicious activity and directs ScanEagle to a certain location to keep track of a suspect vessel—actually a truck acting as a surrogate pirate ship—while sending real-time video back to the AWACS to help determine whether the vessel is a threat.

–  Daily Report, Air Force Association, 27 July 2010.

Seems like an interesting concept, although AWACS birds are already extremely high-value targets, being exactly the sort of expensive, low-density/high-demand asset that has to be spread thin in order to cover the C2BM (command and control battle management) requirements of US unified combatant commanders all around the globe.

Putting a bunch of UCAV pilots aboard—especially once UCAVs evolve into ACM-capable fighters in their own right—will make it just that much more important for the OPFOR to destroy these assets as quickly as they can.

IRONY ALERT: From the same AFA Daily Report piece, we learn that the Pentagon is looking to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM).  For those not in the know, JFCOM is the sponsoring agency for the Empire Challenge coalition interoperability exercise.

JFCOM in Crosshairs of Pentagon Advisory Board: The Defense Business Board has identified the elimination of US Joint Forces Command as one way of trimming the Defense Department’s excess overhead. This move is among the initial observations from the senior advisory panel’s look into how the Pentagon could shed more than $100 billion in nonessential overhead between Fiscal 2012-16 to free up funds for modernization and personnel. Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for the board’s input. According to press reports, board members think Norfolk, Va.-based JFCOM is ripe for the ax since it is bloated with more contractors on its payroll than military and civilian personnel, and some of its organizations apparently have the same mission and even similar names. The panel is scheduled to submit its final recommendations to Gates in October. Already Virginia lawmakers, including Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), are circling the wagons to save the command. (See The Hill report and Virginian-Pilot report.) (McDonnell statement) (Cantor statement) (Scott statement)

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Adam Hebert, executive editor of the Air Force Association’s house magazine, wrote an interesting piece in the July issue about the history of MIRVed ICBMs.  He notes that the landmark SALT treaties had the opposite of their intended effect because they restricted only the number of launchers, not warheads—drastically increasing the desire for each side to MIRV their treaty-limited number of launch platforms.

Arms negotiator Paul C. Warnke memorably, and mistakenly, compared the superpowers to “apes on a treadmill,” with both “jogging in tandem on a treadmill to nowhere.” There was only one ape, though. Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown had it right when he said, “When we build, they build; when we stop building, they build.”

According to Natural Resources Defense Council estimates, the US and Soviet Union in 1975 each had roughly 2,200 warheads atop their ICBMs.

Over the next five years, the US total didn’t change, but Moscow more than doubled its MIRV force, winding up with 5,630 warheads fitted to its 1,400 or so land-based missiles. A huge number of these—more than 3,000 warheads—were found on the monster, 10-warhead SS-18 missiles. The Soviets had 308 of them.

– Hebert, Adam.  “Issue Brief: The Rise and Semi-Fall of MIRV.”  Air Force magazine, July 2010. [Emphasis mine]

Although we enjoy considerably less tension in relations between the great powers today, the old dynamic is still at work.  While the United States has agreed to de-MIRV its entire Minuteman III inventory (and currently has about 550 warheads aboard 450 launchers), Russia maintains an inventory of 1,100 warheads aboard its 331 ICBMs.

Canadian defense procurement shocker

(Image courtesy Lockheed Martin)

In defiance of 143 years of tradition, the government plans to replace our aging CF-18s before they enter their third or fourth decade of obsolescence.

DoD’s historical images of the Korean War, 1950-53

A reminder of how much effort it took to turn back North Korean aggression the last time, courtesy of the Flickr feed from US Army Korea’s Installation Management Command. Some 26,791 Canadians also served in the Korean War, among them one of my great-uncles.

DDE-219 HMCS Athabaskan, one of the three Canadian destroyers sent to Korean waters to serve under General MacArthur, Commanding General for the unified U.N. forces assisting the Republic of Korea in defense against the invasion by North Korean Communist forces. (DoD/National Air and Space Museum, #50-9086-306-PS)

Korean War – HD-SN-50-00936, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

Two North Korean boys, serving in the North Korean Army, taken prisoner in the Sindang-dong area by elements of the 389th Inf. Regt., are interrogated by a U.S. soldier shortly after their capture. September 18, 1950. (US Army/Pfc. Francis Mullin. NARA File #111-SC-348805)

Korean War – HD-SN-99-03153, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

LSTs unloading at Wolmi-do, Inchon, Korea on D-plus and Marine trucks taking supplies to advancing troops. (DoD/NARA File #127-GK-234P-A408288)

Korean War – 127-GK-234P-A408288 LST’S unloading at Wolmi-do, Inchon, Korea , originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

MARINES LAMBASTE ENEMY AT NIGHT—Tanks of the 1st Marine Tank battalion bark death and devastation into the briefly day-lighted Korean night, as Marine tankmen fire a night mission at enemy supply installation somewhere in Korea. (DoD/NARA File #127-GK-233I-A157650)

Korean War – 127-GK-233I-A157650 1st Marine Tank battalion, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

Airview of bombs dropped by U.S. Air Force, exploding on three parallel railroad bridges across Han River, southwest of Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea. Bridges were bombed early in war to delay advance of invading North Korean troops. (DoD/National Air and Space Museum, #50-9025-306-PS)

Korean War – HD-SN-50-00935, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

Hit the Silk—Paratroopers of the veteran 187th Regimental Combat Team jump from FEAF C-46 transports during a training operation carried out in Korea. (DoD/National Air and Space Museum, #82298 AC)

Korean War – HF-SN-98-07354 187th Regimental Combat Team, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

GENERAL MACARTHUR INSPECTS KOREAN WAR FRONT: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Commander in-Chief, Far East Command, on an inspection tour of the South Korean Forces after the surprise attack by the North Koreans. (DoD/NARA File #111-SC-343024)

Korean War – 111-SC-343024, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

Korean women and children search the rubble of Seoul for anything that can be used or burned as fuel. November 1, 1950. (US Army/Capt. F. L. Scheiber. NARA File #111-SC-351697)

Korean War – HD-SN-99-03162, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

In "Operation Comeback" thousands of Chinese and North Korean Communist POWs were released from Prisoner of War Compoundss, in Korea after renouncing Communism for freedom. Here, at Seoul, Korea crowds are gathered to greet Chinese ex-POWs prior to flight to Formosa. (DoD/National Air and Space Museum, #85043 AC)

Korean War – HF-SN-98-07419, originally uploaded by US Army Korea – IMCOM.

There are literally hundreds more of these images in the Korean War Historical Images set; go have a look.

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The other lesson of Cheonan‘s sinking

Via the always insightful Bubblehead at The Stupid Shall Be Punished:

Now that submarine torpedoes are in the news, expect more less-than-knowledgeable commentary like this post at the Human Events blog, which brings up not-infrequent meme that supercavitating torpedoes are a superweapon that can’t be countered (and that they’re somehow superior to regular homing torpedoes). The author also says:

The evolution of submarine warfare has been a cat-and-mouse game in which a technological advantage can turn the hunter into the hunted. The March 26 incident may now give the submarine the advantage.

As if that hasn’t been the case for about 50 years. Sure, it helps skimmer morale to run exercises where they think they’re actually tracking a submarine in real-world conditions, but the fact remains that the best defense against a well-handled submarine is another submarine (or a clever minefield). This incident only shows that even a crappy submarine is superior to most surface ships, especially unalerted ones.

– Bubblehead.  “The Submarine Advantage.” The Stupid Shall Be Punished, 19 May 2010. [Emphasis mine]

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

Also not-to-be-missed are the stories of ASW adventures in the comments; this one is my hands-down favourite.

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