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Swiss F/A-18D Hornet Sports Markings For MQM-178 Target Drone Kill With AIM-120C-7 During Tests in Sweden

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Swiss F/A-18D Hornet Sports Markings For MQM-178 Target Drone Kill With AIM-120C-7 During Tests in Sweden
The F/A-18D J-5233 taxies at Meiringen on Sept. 14, 2020. (Image credit: The Aviationist/Alessandro Fucito)

In September 2018, the Swiss Air Force sent two of its Hornets, from Emmen, Switzerland, to Vidsel Air Base, Sweden, for a testing campaign with the AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile). From Sept. 20 to Oct. 12, 2018, the Swiss aircraft (a single seater F/A-18C and a two-seater F/A-18D) were involved in a series of missile tests over the Vidsel Test Range, located in the north part of the country.

With its 7,200 km² of restricted airspace and 3,300 km² restricted ground space, Vidsel is the largest over ground test facility in Europe, often used by defense organizations and industries for testing various weapon systems.

Vidsel Range - Swiss F/A-18D Hornet Sports Markings For MQM-178 Target Drone Kill With AIM-120C-7 During Tests in Sweden
A map of Vidsel Range. (Image credit: FMV Vidsel Range)

The AIM-120C-7

The AIM-120C-7 (sometimes referred to as AIM-120C7) has been under development since 1998. It is an upgraded variant of the AIM-120C AMRAAM and features extended range and enhancements in homing capability.

AIM 120C on F 16 - Swiss F/A-18D Hornet Sports Markings For MQM-178 Target Drone Kill With AIM-120C-7 During Tests in Sweden
An AIM-120C on an F-16 at Aviano AB. (Image credit: USAF).

Back in 2010, at an estimated cost of 318M USD, the Government of Switzerland requested the purchase of 150 AIM-120C-7 AMRAAM, 6 AIM-120C-7 Telemetry Missiles, 24 AIM-120C-7 Captive Air Training Missiles, 1 spare Missile Guidance Section, missile containers, weapon system support equipment, spare and repair parts, publications and technical documents, repair and return, depot maintenance, training and training equipment, U.S. Government and contractor technical support services, and other related elements of logistics and program support. A first batch of equipment was delivered to Payerne Air Base, using a U.S. Air Force C-17A #07-7175 flying as RCH386, on Sept. 21, 2016.

As part of the firing activities carried out with the latest generation’s AMRAAM in 2018, the F/A-18C Hornet fired the AIM-120C-7 at Kratos MQM-178 FireJet target drones.

The MQM-178

The Kratos MQM-178 Firejet is one of the aerial target drones available at the Vidsel range (the other being the BQM-167i). According to the company’s website, “it fills a variety of end-to-end weapons-release training roles, including surface-to-air and air-to-air. Capable of flying a wide variety of speed and maneuverability profiles, Firejet delivers a high degree of versatility by providing the opportunity to test multiple weapon systems with one flexible and affordable aerial target system.”

The MQM-178 features a max speed of M0.76 and a high-maneuvrability: 10 g instantaneous and 6 g sustained.

With a length of 3.3 m and a dry weight of 59 kg, the MQM-178 is the smallest of Kratos’ aerial targets. It is capable of carrying a combination of internal and external payloads, including tow targets, proximity scoring, passive & active (RF) augmentation, and infrared (IR) augmentation. Depending on the scope of the test, it can carry Luneburg lens (LL), miss distance indicator (MDI), Infrared (IR), passive and active radio frequency (RF) and dispenser for chaffs and flares. It is pneumatically launched, meaning that it doesn’t need Rocket-Assisted Take-Off (RATO) equipment and facilities.

F/A-18D Markings

Interestingly, some time after the test, the two seater, J-5033, was given some special markings for deployment: the badge of the 2018 campaign along with the silhouettes of an AMRAAM and a FireJet target drone appear between the canopy and the LERX (Leading Edge Root Extension) in the nose section of the jet. The Aviationist’s contributor Alessandro Fucito took the photos of the aircraft last week at Meiringen Air Base.

Considered that two F-18s were involved in the firing campaign, it seems quite likely that the same markings were also applied to the C model, however, we haven’t been able to find it yet. If you have some details or photos about it, please let us know. In the meanwhile, it’s worth highlighting that it is not clear whether the D model fired the missile(s) or just supported the tests flying as “chase”, as planned.

Noteworthy, a Swiss Air Force F/A-18C had already fired an AIM-120C-7 missile as part of “Thor’s Hammer” exercise at Vidsel in December 2014.

J 5233 Meiringen - Swiss F/A-18D Hornet Sports Markings For MQM-178 Target Drone Kill With AIM-120C-7 During Tests in Sweden
The two-seater J-5233 takes off from Meiringen AB.

31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - 31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District
One of the two F-16s of “Venom” flight, flying through a valley of the Lake District. (All images credit: Simon Pearson-Cougill)

On Aug. 28, 2020, 16x F-16CM/DM Fighting Falcon jets of the 31st Fighter Wing, based at Aviano Air Base, in northeastern Italy, deployed to RAF Lakenheath, UK.

Among all the other things, the Aviano F-16s, belonging to the 510th Fighter Squadron “Buzzards” and 555th FS “Triple Nickel”, have already taken part in close air support training with the 321st Special Tactics Squadron, the 19th Regiment Royal Artillery and the 2nd Air Support Operations Squadron; have participated in Point Black 20-4, a Large Force Exercise with more than 50 aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force; and are expected to operate from the base in Suffolk, home to the F-15s of the 48th FW, for about one month.

Beginning on Sept. 15, 2020, the Vipers have also started flying low altitude in the Lake District Low Flying Area: a 2-ship flight, callsign “Venom”, was spotted in LFA17. Then, on the following day, two 2-ships and one F-16D, operated in the area using radio callsigns “Cobra 11”, “Sabre 11” and “Banshee 11”.

F 16 AV LFA17 - 31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District
One of the Aviano Vipers maneuvering at low level in the Lake District.

With 4,347 sq. miles of airspace available, which include Cumbria, East North Yorkshire, and North Lancashire, LFA 17 is one of the LFAs where British and allied combat aircraft can train flying as low as 250 feet (even lower over open water).

The images in this post, taken by photographer Simon Pearson-Cougill, show the F-16s of the 555th and 510th FS zipping low through the valleys earlier this week.

F 16 AV LFA17 4 - 31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District
One of the F-16s from the 31st FW flying low in LFA 17.
F 16 AV LFA17 1 - 31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District
A 555th FS F-16 flying low and fast.

As a side note, the 510th and 555th FS should, in the future, be joined at Aviano AB, by the 480th FS “Warhawks” from Spangdahlem, Germany: on July 29, 2020 during a joint briefing with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the relocation of the Warhawks’ 28x F-16CM-50s to Aviano as part of the plan to reduce military personnel currently stationed in Germany.

F 16 AV LFA17 5 - 31st FW F-16s Deployed To RAF Lakenheath Have Started Zipping Low Level Through The Lake District
“Venom” at low altitude in LFA 17.

Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
A detail of the graphic for the USAF 73rd birthday. (Courtesy Graphic via DVIDS)

The Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs has recently published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service an interesting graphic for the Air Force’s 73rd birthday. What catches immediately the eye is that the graphic features prominently, in the center and in the background, an unknown new aircraft that has not been confirmed as real or fictional.

The graphic, originally uploaded to the DVIDS website on Sept. 8, 2020, has started making the rounds today, after (a crop of) it was published by the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, to celebrate the Anniversary:

The timing is really interesting, as this graphic, comes just few days after the announcement by Dr. Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, that the Air Force has secretly designed, built and flown at least one full-scale prototype of a new generation fighter aircraft.

73rd Anniversary hi rez - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
The 73rd Anniversary Graphic. (Courtesy Graphic by Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs)

Having considered this, the aircraft in the image could be completely fictional or it could be a hint at the design that was chosen for the first prototype build for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program.

Even if a graphic motive has been superimposed over the aircraft, making it difficult to discern some of the details, the design looks based on a unique triangular shape from the nose to the tail, with an angle of about 50° at the nose. If correct, this feature already differentiates this design from the concept proposed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the NGAD program. However, the “masking graphic” could hide a more classic design with two different angles, one for the front and one for the wings, that could be exposed by a darker coloration of the aircraft and another grey “No Step” area inside the aircraft perimeter.

The next generation aircraft has a cockpit, sign of the aircraft being manned or optionally manned. Two engines are positioned beside the dorsal spine, with exhaust nozzles similar to the ones found on the YF-23, with the lower surface longer than the upper one to mask the engine’s infrared signature from below. We can’t see any kind of tail planes, hence the aircraft is based on the flying wing concept. The absence of vertical tail planes could be dictated by a further reduction of the Radar Cross Section, especially from the sides. An air-to-air refueling receptacle is also present on the dorsal spine.

BTW, the shape vaguely reminds the one of the mysterious aircraft spotted in the U.S. in 2014:

Texas vs Kansas vs 2020 rendering - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
The two mysterious aircraft spotted over Texas and Kansas in 2014 compared to the aircraft in the 2020 rendering (Image credit: The Aviationist using also Sammamishman composite based on Muskett and Templin shots)

Let’s keep in mind that all of this could just be speculation, at least until the first photos of the NGAD demonstrator will be available to the public because, as we said earlier, the aircraft in the graphic could be entirely fictional.

Here are the only verified info actually available about the demonstrator as written in the article published by The Aviationist on Sept. 15, 2020:

The existence of the demonstrator was first confirmed by Dr. Roper to reporter Valerie Insinna of Defense News during the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space and Cyber Conference 2020: “We’ve already built and flown a full-scale flight demonstrator in the real world, and we broke records in doing it. We are ready to go and build the next-generation aircraft in a way that has never happened before.”

While the details about the aircraft are still classified, including its appearance, the first new fighter jet designed and flown in 20 years, since the Joint Strike Fighter competition between the X-32 and X-35, was designed using advanced Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) techniques and Digital Twin concepts to build and test a virtual version of the aircraft, before moving to physically build and fly the prototype.

[…]

According to Defense News, Dr. Roper declined to comment on the number of prototypes, the manufacturer and the timing of development and first flight, the aircraft’s mission, unmanned or optionally manned capabilities, low observability and  supersonic or hypersonic speeds.

Moreover, we have already seen some nice graphics showcasing futuristic aircraft in posters celebrating the Air Force’s birthday. In 2017, one of such posters, created as part of a series of posters celebrating the lead up to the Air Forces 70th birthday, featured the proposed successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, the unmanned, hypersonic SR-72, that “would travel at twice the speed of the SR-71, penetrating defended airspace and striking a target before being detected.”

SR 72 - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
The SR-72 poster published in September 2017 ahead of the Air Force’s 70th birthday (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Maureen Stewart)

Easter Egg?

Update 21.30 GMT, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

After publishing the first version of this story, we have started receiving suggestions and comments from our readers. One in particular is worth a mention. Anastasis Tsilas noticed the story published by the U.S. Air Force on Instagram. The story has another hint whose shape *might* be hidden also in the 73rd birthday graphic.

The shape in the Instagram story immediately reminded us about the original graphic and a possible shape that appears to be hidden below the main one. Here it is.

73rd AF Instagram easter egg 706x395 - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
A next generation aircraft shape similar to the one in the USAF Instagram story can be found in the 73rd Anniversary graphic. (Image credit: The Aviationist).

What is more, this shape now appears to be strikingly similar to the one of the 6th gen. concept Northrop Grumman released in 2016:

NG 6th Gen fighter - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
Northrop Grumman 6th Gen. fighter as shown in a commercial released in 2016.

Also the AFRL 2030 video had something similar:

However, at the same time, as suggested by our reader Zackary Goldberg, most of the “hidden” aircraft in the original graphic seems to be a manipulated version of a render published in 2017 (in particular, the render at the bottom of the page) by artist Rodrigo Avella.

He also created an image to show how the concepts compare:

6gen - Air Force 73rd Birthday Graphic Features Rendering Of A Mysterious Next Generation Aircraft
There a certain resemblance between the somehow hidden aircraft in the 73rd birthday graphic and the concept by artist Rodrigo Avella.(Image credit: Zackary Goldberg)
Interestingly, Avella’s models have been used by the Air Force before. His “FX Drone” model was used to represent Loyal Wingman in the “Air Force 2030 – Call to Action” video published in 2018, embedded above.
Therefore, in the end, the 73rd graphics could have simply used a stylized, fictional aircraft that has nothing to do with the real thing; could be teasing an existing type; or could just be part of a deception operation. Who knows? Still, interesting.

Venerable Boeing 707 “Sashambre” Operated By MIT Lincoln Laboratory Has Flown Its Final Data Collection Mission

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Venerable Boeing 707 “Sashambre” Operated By MIT Lincoln Laboratory Has Flown Its Final Data Collection Mission
N404PA landing at KBQK on Jan. 8, 2020. (Image credit: @epicaviation47)

On Sept. 15, 2020, the Boeing 707-321B carrying civil registration N404PA, recently renamed “Sashambre” (previously, “Hannah” and “Paul Revere”), flew its final data collection mission. The following day, on Sept. 16, the aircraft flew its last training flight. It will be prepared and then it will fly to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to be retired at the “scrapyard”.

As we have reported just a few days ago:

N404PA is an experimental aircraft owned by the Air Force Systems Command and operated by a joint venture between the Air Force’s 350th Electronic Systems Wing and M.I.T.’s Lincoln Labs. It flew with Pan Am for many years since 1965 before being purchased by the Air Force. Based at Hanscom Air Force Base, Bedford, Massachusetts, “Sashambre” is one of the seven aircraft aircraft that research teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Labs Flight Test Facility’s staff can employ to test their prototype airborne systems: in fact, MIT researchers routinely schedule flight time with aircraft that range from the light C-152 to the heavy B707 “to evaluate new antennas, imagers for air surveillance, aircraft collision-avoidance tools, and long-range RF and laser communication systems,” as well as for for data collection missions.

Under the radio callsign “Research 4 Papa Alpha”, the B707 is used for testing airborne battle management, command, control and communication technology and concepts. The airframe has constantly been modified to accommodate new on-board sensors and equipment so much so the shape of the of the 55-year old Boeing 707, with a bunch of “bulks” and “humps” is pretty unique, and interesting.

The Lincoln Labs announced the final mission on their social media channels:

To read more about this legendary aircraft, read the post we published here.

H/T Misael Oscar for the heads up.

Astral Knight 2020 Exercise Kicks Off In Eastern Europe

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Astral Knight 2020 Exercise Kicks Off In Eastern Europe
File photo of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber aircraft assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, taking off from RAF Fairford, UK. The B-52s will take part in AK 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jesse Jenny)

Astral Knight 2020 is a multinational exercise focused on air defense capabilities.

Between Sep. 17 and 25, 2020, it is going to involve relevant air assets in Poland (airbases and aircraft), Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Interestingly, the Tobruq Legacy 20 exercise focused on air defense, is taking place almost simultaneously in Lithuania. Last year the Tobruq Legacy took place in Poland.

Astral Knight 2020 will see the participations of U.S., Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden forces.

The air assets involved in the drills include the USAF F-16s, KC-135s, KC-10s, E-3s, and B-52s, alongside the Polish F-16s, Su-22s, and the Mi-17 helicopters. Furthermore, U.S. Army Europe plans to provide soldiers and equipment to operate the Patriot surface-to-air missile system out of Szymany Air Base, Poland.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs release states that the exercise is aimed to “develop and exercise an enduring regional integrated air and missile defense architecture, command and control integration, coordination, and interoperability of air and land capabilities with overlapping operations into the integrated air and missile defense enterprise.”

Interestingly, the Polish MoD also outlined the threats that will be simulated or addressed during the exercise. These are going to include missile and air threats, UAVs, stealth cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and advanced ballistic missiles, because, as the Polish Ministry highlights, “close competitors are rapidly developing the military domain”.

Finally, the Astral Knight 20 will also allow the participants to test the command capabilities. This remains relevant, as it will involve cooperation between the allied nations and U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

The official press release also specifies the deployment location for the US Army Europe Patriot SAM system. The Patriot battery in question is to be operated out of the Szymany Air Base in Poland. The release may be misleading – Szymany is not an airbase; it is a civil airport located near Olsztyn. The airport issued a note that it would be hosting the US and Polish forces between Aug. 18 and Sep. 30. Thus, the civil airport would undergo a militarization. This is yet another important (and overlooked by most of the media outlets) aspect of the training. The Olsztyn-Mazury (Szymany) airport’s release places a major emphasis on the fact that the General Aviation and passenger flight ops would not be interrupted by the training undertaken by the military operations there.

This would not be a major issue also due to the limited amount of traffic that flies out of Szymany. The airport offers connections to Krakow, Dortmund (Germany), London Luton, and London Stansted. During July 2020 the airport has been a point of departure by 8,368 passengers, msn.com reports. The above translates into a 45.7% drop when compared to last year (15,408 passengers checking in). This renders the aforesaid airport a perfect spot for militarization. Not to mention its strategic location near the so-called Suwałki Gap. NATO views the region as a pain-point in the conflict with the potential adversary.

Another interesting notion is that the USAF Europe strongly emphasizes the fact that the exercise has been long-planned and is not associated with any current events. The statement above seems to be a preemptive measure, refuting the potential reaction of the Kremlin – Moscow could potentially create a narrative here, suggesting that Astral Knight could be a part of a military buildup in response to the crisis events currently unfolding in Belarus.

Astral Knight 2019

Last year, Astral Knight was a 4-day exercise held in the Adriatic region: more than 30 USAF aircraft took part in the exercise, including the F-35A Lightning IIs deployed to Aviano as part of TSP (Theater Security Package) on May 23, 2019, (and moved to Spangdahlem, Germany, on Jun. 11, 2019), F-16 Fighting Falcons, KC-135 Stratotankers and E-3 Sentry aircraft. The Italian Air Force took part in the exercise with the F-35A Lightning IIs and Eurofighter Typhoons deployed to Istrana as well as a G550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft from Pratica di Mare airbase. The Croatian Air Force took part in the drills with its MiG-21s.

The focus of the multi-national exercise, was to defend several key areas of terrain from cruise-missile and aircraft strikes. Integration was one of the key themes of Astral Knight because it will be essential in any future war, and for the first time, U.S. Air Force F-35As (belonging to Hill AFB’s 421st Fighter Squadron) integrated operationally with Italian Air Force F-35As and communicated with each other over the MADL.

boeing b 52 stratofortress e1591739281104 - Astral Knight 2020 Exercise Kicks Off In Eastern Europe
This B-52 model is available from AirModels. Click here to buy yours.

Lockheed Martin Releases New Animation of F-16s Using Tactical Airborne Laser Pod

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Lockheed Martin Releases New Animation of F-16s Using Tactical Airborne Laser Pod
An F-16 using its laser to target an incoming threat. (Screenshot from LM video).

An interesting new video has just been released by Lockheed Martin. Focusing on the Tactical Airborne Laser Weapon System (TALWS), the animation shows F-16s equipped with laser pods cooperate with a Boeing KC-46 Pegasus equipped tactical infrared sensors able to passively detect and track threats. Once the tanker (a High-Value Aerial Asset that can be targeted by several different threats) detects an incoming missile, it passes its position to the two Vipers that can use their the beam director in their pod to put high-energy light on-target and keep it there with high precision to defeat the threat.

Some parts of the animation were already included in another video that was released last month, but this time we get to see the whole “scene”.

Laser Weapon Systems

Two laser systems could be seen in the previous video released by LM: a pod mounted under the centerline hardpoint of an F-16 and a fixed system mounted in a fairing under and AC-130’s fuselage. As already explained, the systems are based on fiber laser technology, a type of laser which uses as active gain medium an optical fiber, as opposed to solid-state laser which uses a glass or crystalline solid material.

You can read everything about the Lockheed Martin Airborne Defensive Laser System for F-16 and C-130 in this article we published last month. Here is an excerpt:

The name of the laser system has not been mentioned, however, in 2017, the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for the design, development and production of a high power fiber laser, as part of the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program to protect aircraft from air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.

In the press release for the contract award, SHiELD is mentioned as including three subsystems:

  • SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE): the beam control system, which will direct the laser onto the target;
  • Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD): the pod mounted on the tactical fighter jet, which will power and cool the laser;
  • Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE): the high energy laser itself, which can be trained on adversary targets to disable them.

[…]

The SHiELD pod was to be tested in 2021, however DefenseNews reported that the test will be delayed to 2023 due to technical challenges and complications that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager for AFRL. Adding to this, then Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin was quoted as saying: “I’m extremely skeptical that we can put a large laser on an aircraft and use it to shoot down an adversary missile even from very close.” It is not completely clear if Griffin was referring to a specific system, which most probably could be some anti-ballistic missile defense system, however this raised some concerns.

[…]

As of now, we don’t know officially on which aircraft the AFRL will test the SHiELD pod, however AirForceMagazine reported last year that the defensive laser system may be demonstrated on the F-15, while Lockheed Martin showed the pod on the F-16C and C-130J-series aircraft. An older rendering showed the pod also on the F-16V Block70.

Boeing Has Completed Engine Run on First Unmanned Loyal Wingman Aircraft For Australia

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Boeing Has Completed Engine Run on First Unmanned Loyal Wingman Aircraft For Australia
Boeing Australia has completed the engine run on its first Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft as part of ground testing and preparations for first flight. (Boeing photo)

Boeing Australia has just fired up the commercial turbofan engine on the first Loyal Wingman, as part of ground testing and preparations for first flight (planned before the end of the year), the company has announced on Sept. 14, 2020 (EST).

Very few details can be found in the official press release:

“This milestone comes on the heels of Boeing completing the first unmanned Loyal Wingman aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force earlier this year, a major step forward for the unmanned vehicle serving as the foundation for the global Boeing Airpower Teaming System, an artificial intelligence-powered teaming aircraft developed for the global defense market,” says the official statement released by Boeing.

“This engine run gets us closer toward flying the first aircraft later this year and was successful thanks to the collaboration and dedication of our team,” said Dr. Shane Arnott, program director of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. “We’ve been able to select a very light, off-the-shelf jet engine for the unmanned system as a result of the advanced manufacturing technologies applied to the aircraft.”

However, two new images of the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aircraft, developed for the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) have been released alongside the pretty short official statement (one is the headline photo, the other one can be found here below).

ATS engine testing 9844 hi res - Boeing Has Completed Engine Run on First Unmanned Loyal Wingman Aircraft For Australia
ATS Engine Test. (Image credit: Boeing)

A video was also shared online:

Although Boeing has been tight-lipped and has provided no detail about the location where the first three aircraft are being built, the ATS was sighted in the open while undergoing ground testing in preparation for the taxi trials at an unspecified airfield in Queensland, a location that we believe could have been RAAF Base Amberley, some 40 km south-west of Brisbane, home of Boeing Australia.

Here are some details about the ATS included in the article on the program, written by Stefano D’Urso, we published few weeks ago:

As we wrote in occasion of the roll-out, this drone is the first clean-sheet design created by Boeing outside the United States and also the first RAAF’s clean-sheet design in more than 50 years. The project, which involved several Australian companies, used new development techniques, like the “digital twin” concept, and new automated production systems.

One of the key features of the ATS is an 8.5 ft (2.6 m) long modular nose cone with 9000 cubic inches internal volume to house different payloads, which can be entirely swapped quickly according to the mission’s needs.

A similar AI-based program, called Skyborg Vanguard Program, is also in development by the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Skyborg is described as “an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments.”

The system’s functioning looks similar to the Boeing ATS: “Military pilots receive key information about their surroundings when teamed aircraft with integrated autonomy detect potential air and ground threats, determine threat proximity, analyze imminent danger, and identify suitable options for striking or evading enemy aircraft. Embedded within the teamed aircraft, complex algorithms and cutting-edge sensors enable the autonomy to make decisions based on established rules of engagement set by manned teammates. Field tests will ensure the algorithms’ accuracy and verify that the system continuously operates within the constraints established during mission planning.”

For a quick comparison, the ATS will be flown by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and controlled from the back seat of a Super Hornet or a Growler for smaller formations, or from a control station aboard a Wedgetail or a Poseidon. Boeing didn’t provide details on how the AI specifically works, but explained that the controller will simply signal the mission intent to the Loyal Wingman and the AI will figure out by itself mission specifics and navigation, while keeping a safe separation from other manned and unmanned aircraft.

Boeing plans to submit a variant of ATS for Skyborg. Other companies competing in the program are Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Kratos.

Four Italian Air Force Typhoons Perform Opening Flyover At The First Ever Tuscan F1 Grand Prix at Mugello

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Four Italian Air Force Typhoons Perform Opening Flyover At The First Ever Tuscan F1 Grand Prix at Mugello
Two Typhoons perform a low pass over the starting grid of the Tuscan F1 GP on Sept. 13, 2020. (Image credit: ItAF image/edit TheAviationist)

On Sept. 13, 2020, four Eurofighter Typhoon jets, two belonging to the 4° Stormo (Wing), based at Grosseto Air Base, and two belonging to the 36° Stormo, from Gioia del Colle, performed a flyover at the first ever Formula 1 race hosted by the Ferrari-owned track, at Mugello, near Florence, in central Italy.

The four jets literally rocked the starting grid with a formation pass, right after the national anthem, followed by a couple of cool, noisy low passes in pairs.

Although the flyovers in Italy are traditionally carried out by the Frecce Tricolori, the Italian Air Force aerobatic display team, today’s mission was carried out by the F-2000As (as the Typhoons are designated in Italy) to celebrate the 1000th Formula 1 race of the Scuderia Ferrari: in fact, both the Eurofighters and the famous Italian racing team’s cars sport the worldwide known “Prancing Horse”, a symbol inherited from the Italian WWI ace Francesco Baracca.

Mugello Flyover - Four Italian Air Force Typhoons Perform Opening Flyover At The First Ever Tuscan F1 Grand Prix at Mugello
Four Typhoons in diamond formation perform the flyover at Mugello GP. (Image credit: ItAF)

The red cars from Maranello and the Italian Air Force jets have always been intrinsically linked by their use of the Prancing Horse emblem: for instance, the first Eurofighter wearing the markings of the 4° Stormo made its first public appearance at Grosseto on Dec. 11, 2003, during a famous event that also featured the race between a Eurofighter (the aircraft serialled MM X614 IPA2 operating with the Alenia flight team at the Turin-Caselle facility, piloted by the Italian astronaut and Alenia test pilot Maurizio Cheli) and the Ferrari F2003-GA piloted by Michael Schumacher.

Back to today’s Grand Prix, it’s also worth of remark that, in order to take part in the flyover at Mugello at 14.55LT, two F-2000s flew from Gioia del Colle, in southeastern Italy, to Grosseto, in the central part of the country, in the morning on Sunday Sept. 13: during the ferry flight, the two aircraft were “diverted” to intercept and perform a VID (Visual IDentification) on an ultralight aircraft that had lost radio contact with the civilian Air Traffic Control (a typical “COMLOSS” mission – from Communication Loss). The two Typhoons continued their flight to Grosseto after the “zombie” (as the intercepted aircraft is dubbed in the fighter pilot “lingo”) was identified and re-established the radio contact with the ATC agencies.

Typhoon ItAF 36 Stormo - Four Italian Air Force Typhoons Perform Opening Flyover At The First Ever Tuscan F1 Grand Prix at Mugello
Two F-2000A of the 36° Stormo. Its child units are the 10° and 12° Gruppo. (Image credit: ItAF)

Since Sept. 8, 2020, four Eurofighters from the 36°, 4° and 37° Stormo are deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission: the Typhoons of the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” performed their first A-Scramble (Alert-Scramble) to intercept a Russian Il-20M ELINT aircraft on Sept. 11.

Last week, on Sunday Sept. 6, 2020, the Monza F1 GP was opened by the Frecce Tricolori:

As happened today, also on Sunday Sept. 6, the Italian Typhoons were scrambled to intercept an aircraft following a COMLOSS event:

The Italian Typhoons Supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing in Lithuania Intercept A Russian Il-20M ELINT Aircraft

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The Italian Typhoons Supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing in Lithuania Intercept A Russian Il-20M ELINT Aircraft
An Italian Air Force F-2000 escorts a Russian Il-20M. (Image credit: Italian MOD)

The Italian Air Force F-2000, currently deployed to Šiauliai, Lithunia, to support NATO Baltic Air Policing mission, have carried out the first alert scramble: the Italian Typhoons were launched to identify a Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” aircraft on Sept. 11, 2020.

While these missions occur quite frequently in the Baltic region, it’s worth of remark that the Italian MOD (Ministry Of Defense), unlike what has happened in all the previous BAP rotations carried out by the Italian Air Force jets, this time has released an image of the Russian aircraft that caused the activation of the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) cell.

The “zombie” (as an unidentified aircraft that triggers a QRA launch is called in the interceptors lingo), is particularly interesting. The Il-20M is an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) platform: it is equipped with a wide array of antennas, IR (Infrared) and Optical sensors, a SLAR (Side-Looking Airborne Radar) and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing. It can be used for intelligence gathering missions, eavesdropping the communications, detecting ground, maritime and aerial systems’ emissions and pinpointing their positions to build an Electronic Order of Battle of the NATO assets in the region.

GAF Il 20M - The Italian Typhoons Supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing in Lithuania Intercept A Russian Il-20M ELINT Aircraft
A photo, released on Sept. 10, of a Russian IL-20M intercepted by a GAF Eurofighter scrambled from Amari, Estonia. (Image credit: GAF/NATO).

As often reported here at The Aviationist, the Russian Il-20s regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic region, flying in international airspace with their transponder turned off; a standard practice for almost all ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. The missions of the Russian spyplane close to the NATO airspace in the Baltic region have also caused some concern in the past. In 2014, Russian Coot spyplanes flying close to civilian airports or congested airways were involved in two “air proximity” incidents: in March 2014, a SAS Boeing 737 with 132 people almost collided with an Il-20 Coot, about 50 miles to the southwest of Malmö, Sweden; in December 2014, a Canadair CRJ-200 from Cimber Airlines was involved in a near collision with an Il-20 halfway between Ystad, Sweden and Sassnitz, Germany.

Since Sept. 1, 2020, the Italian Air Force has taken the lead of the NATO BAP mission. On Sept. 8, the Task Force Air “Baltic Thunder” and its four 4x F-2000A Typhoons, belonging to the 4°, 36° and 37° Stormo (Wing), have achieved the FOC (Full Operational Capability), providing H24 QRA duties in the Baltic. Also deployed in the region, as “augmentees” supporting the BAP mission from Amari, Estonia, are the German Air Force Eurofighters. The German detachment carried out its first scramble of the current rotation on Sept. 10, 2020, to intercept an Il-20M (perhaps, the same aircraft intercepted also by the Italians).

BAP FOC 1 - The Italian Typhoons Supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing in Lithuania Intercept A Russian Il-20M ELINT Aircraft
One of the four F-2000A (as the Italian Typhoons are designated) taxies at Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania. (Image credit: ItAF)

MQ-9 Reaper Drone Fires Live AIM-9X Block II AAM At BQM-167 Target Drone Simulating a Cruise Missile

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - MQ-9 Reaper Drone Fires Live AIM-9X Block II AAM At BQM-167 Target Drone Simulating a Cruise Missile
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X missile sits on the ramp on September 3, 2020 ahead of the ABMS Onramp #2. In the test, the MQ-9 successfully employed a live air-to-air AIM-9X Block 2 missile against a target BQM-167 drone simulating a cruise missile. (U.S. Air Force photo by SrA Haley Stevens)

The U.S. Air Force has recently employed a live AIM-9X Block II air-to-air missile as part of the Advanced Battle Management System Onramp #2. From August 31 to September 3, 2020, the Department of the Air Force, in partnership with U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Space Command, conducted a field test of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a complex “system of systems” that “allows a joint force to use cutting-edge methods and technologies to rapidly collect, analyze, and share information and make decisions in real time.”

The latest iteration, known as “onramp”, saw operators use ABMS “to detect and defeat efforts to disrupt U.S. operations in space in addition to countering attacks against the U.S. homeland, including shooting down a cruise missile “surrogate” with a hypervelocity weapon.”

ABMS builds an “internet of (military) things” where weapon systems and personnel in the air, on the ground, at sea as well as space and cyber domains are all linked. ABMS collects and fuses information so that information available instantaneously across geographically-separated forces spanning the operational to tactical levels of combat. AI is used to “blend” all the sources and sensors’ data so that a summarized and weighed “picture” of the battlefield can be built, preventing information saturation and freeing up a portion of the cognitive capacity that the warfighters can use to perform other tasks.

Among the test carried out during ABMS Onramp #2 at various sites, one is particularly interesting: a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron successfully employed a live air-to-air AIM-9X Block II missile against a target BQM-167 drone simulating a cruise missile. The crew received off-board cueing information, found and tracked the target, then maneuvered the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) to validly employ the AIM-9X against the surrogate cruise missile. The official public release states that such a concept of using a drone to target and destroy a cruise missile reportely emerged as a feedback to the Weapons School.

The AIM-9X Block II is an upgraded variant of the “baseline” AIM-9X with increased range alongside Lock-on After Launch and High Off-Boresight (HOBS) capability. Although its exact range is classified and can vary a lot depending on the launch characteristics, target attitude etc, it’s safe to say that the missile, that is also equipped with a two-way datalink, must be fired from a relatively short distance from the in-coming target: this would suggest that the U.S. Air Force envisages the use of unmanned aircraft to provide point and anti-cruise missile defense.

MQ 9 Reaper AIM 9 - MQ-9 Reaper Drone Fires Live AIM-9X Block II AAM At BQM-167 Target Drone Simulating a Cruise Missile
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X missile sits on the ramp on September 3, 2020 ahead of the ABMS Onramp #2. In the test, the MQ-9 successfully employed a live air-to-air AIM-9X Block 2 missile against a target BQM-167 drone simulating a cruise missile. (U.S. Air Force photo by SrA Haley Stevens)

In order to carry out this Proof of Concept, several different components had to be connected to share information in the timeframe required to intercept the target: according to the Air Force, the squadron operations cell and the ground-base control station (where the drone cockpit is hosted) was connected to the ABMS network so that the MQ-9 could target the BQM-167.

“Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) provided critical data to the MQ-9 and crew for timely and accurate target information. The network integration and cross-domain solutions proven during the ABMS demonstration significantly decreased the total time from target discovery to engagement to battle damage assessment,” said the U.S. Air Force release.

It was the second test to see an MQ-9 fire an AIM-9x since the first air-to-air shot in November of 2017 against a target drone.

“Since 2017, the MQ-9 community has investigated and proven the efficacy of the MQ-9 in a counterair role utilizing the AIM-9X and future non-kinetic effects. The combined test, weapons school, and industry team since 2009 has demonstrated the capability to integrate the MQ-9’s effects in major combat operations across a variety of missions during large scale exercises at the USAF weapons school, integrating with Naval assets, and flying in numerous combatant commands,” said Lt. Col. Michael Chmielewski, commander, 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

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