Tag: Drones


The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft

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MQ-25 refueling
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels a Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This flight demonstrated that the MQ-25 Stingray can fulfill its tanker mission using the Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

The new MQ-25 unmanned tanker achieved the important milestone by refueling a U.S. Navy F/A-18F over Illinois.

The MQ-25 Stingray performed the first ever air-to-air refueling operation between an unmanned tanker and a manned receiver aircraft, in this case a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet. The successful test happened on June 4, 2021, with the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset flying from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah (Illinois) and employing the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), the same used by F/A-18s, to perform the refueling operation.

“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing – equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”

During the flight, as disclosed by NAVAIR, the Super Hornet approached the MQ-25 while conducting a preliminary formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking, before receiving the green light to go ahead and plug its probe in the ARS’s drogue deployed by the unmanned aircraft. According to the press release, the MQ-25 performed a “wet refueling”, effectively transferring fuel to the F/A-18 (as opposed to a “dry refueling” where there isn’t fuel transfer after contact, often used during test and training flights).

Some more details were provided by Boeing, specifying that the F/A-18 flew in close formation behind MQ-25 to ensure performance and stability prior to refueling, with as little as 20 feet of separation between the two aircraft, while flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes. After the safety evaluation, the MQ-25 drogue was extended and the F/A-18 pilot was cleared for the refuel. The MQ-25 T1 performed so far 25 flights, which were integrated by extensive digital simulations of aerial refueling.

“This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility and capability,” said Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268). “Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fueling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet.”

MQ-25 first refueling
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels the Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This test marked the first ever aerial refueling operation between a manned aircraft and unmanned tanker. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

This test flight provided important data on airwake interactions, as well as guidance and control, that will be analyzed to determine if any further adjustments are needed to improve the Stingray’s software before moving on with the program’s test schedule. The testing with the MQ-25 T1 will continue over the next several months to include flight envelope expansion, engine testing, and deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year. For the latter, the MQ-25 will be moved to Norfolk (Virginia).

The MQ-25 T1 flew for the first time with the Cobham ARS under its left wing in December 2020, about one year after the drone’s own first flight, testing how the aircraft’s aerodynamics changed with the addition of the ARS. The following flights contributed to test the aerodynamics of the aircraft and the ARS at various points of the flight envelope, before progressing to the extension and retraction of the hose and drogue used for refueling that paved the way for the first air-to-air refueling.

As we already reported, the MQ-25 T1 is the predecessor to the four engineering development model (EDM) MQ-25 aircraft being produced, the first of which is expected to be delivered later this year. The U.S. Navy is planning to procure more than 70 aircraft, which will replace the F/A-18E Super Hornets in the aerial refueling role they currently have as part of the Carrier Air Wing, becoming also the first operational carrier-based UAV. This way, the Carrier Air Wing will have more Super Hornets available for operational mission, without the need to reserve some of them for the air-to-air refueling mission.

Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Poland Procures Turkish Bayraktar TB2 Drones Almost Out of the Blue

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Poland Bayraktar TB2
The Bayraktar TB2 UCAV on the ground. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

Poland announced the procurement of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).

Polish Minister of Defence, Mariusz Błaszczak, announced that Poland will acquire the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones as a part of its Gryf UAV procurement program, on May 22, 2021. The first rumors emerged just last week, earlier on there was no sight of similar procurement on the roadmap. The Polish defense analysts were stunned by the news.

It all started with a tweet, by Mariusz Błaszczak, depicting a scale model of the Turkish drone, wearing the Polish Air Force checkerboard on its side. The tweet was posted on May 19. Yesterday, on May 22, the head of the Polish MoD confirmed Poland’s willingness to acquire the drones in question, during an interview for Polskie Radio 24.

The Bayraktar TB2 medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) has seen combat use recently in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh.

Poland is willing to acquire 24 UCAVs as such, armed with ATGMs. The Polish Gryf UAV acquisition program initially assumed that 15 UCAV sets would be procured (90 aircraft). It may be, that the Turkish drones are just a part of a broader procurement scheme. We do not know yet.

The Polish defense analysts criticize the procurement in a multidimensional manner, but none of the voices remain positive. Given the discourse created by the Polish MoD, suggesting that the Ministry is willing to support the Polish industry primarily, off-the-shelf acquisitions – such as the F-35 procurement (without any offset deal, and without any competitive procurement process), or the Bayraktar TB2 deal, both spark a lot of controversies.

Even though Błaszczak noted that no Polish company is manufacturing UCAVs of capabilities equivalent to these of Bayraktar, the manufacturing of such aircraft would be feasible in the Polish industry, the experts argue – both the WB Group, as well as the PGZ Group – two major Polish defense umbrella companies – could easily design and manufacture a platform as such. Michał Gajzler, from Nowa Technika Wojskowa, commented on the above as follows:

Błaszczak’s statement probably means that the Polish MoD is not willing to spend a lot on R&D – we are coming back to a problem recently signaled by Tomasz Dmitruk: the R&D expenditure in the Polish MoD is too low. This, in turn, hampers the development of the Polish industry. It is difficult to expect the private or state entities to finance their R&D autonomously, using their own funds – regardless of whether it refers to tactical long-range UAVs, or MALE UAVs. The Polish businesses cannot carry out a project as such on their own – this is proven, for instance, by statements made by the Vice-President at WB Group, who, openly, stated that the company would not be able to finance a task as such on its own. It is not the first case of the Polish MoD procuring systems off-the-shelf, leaving the technical modernization plans aside. The TB2 procurement offset agreement is to only cover the maintenance, locally, in Poland. This is not a broad agreement. The Polish MoD does not seem to be interested in a transfer of technology of any kind. This is quite the opposite thing, from what was announced before, as the MoD and the PM of Poland were claiming that unmanned platforms would become a Polish specialty. The MoD took the easy way out here. The procurement of ammunition carriers for the Rak self-propelled mortar units announced on the same day, could be viewed as a fig leaf.

Other concerns refer specifically to the operational environment in which the Bayraktar TB2s have been and potentially will be operating.

The Polish defense and security analysts doubt whether a lack of systemic approach, seen in the procurement discussed within the present article, would bring any benefits other than the rapid acquisition of a system that would ultimately be a standalone, non-networked solution.

Michał Piekarski, Ph.D., a defense analyst, and security researcher from Poland (University of Wrocław) told us about his concerns, regarding the acquisition:

The decision is quite surprising, especially given the availability of the local industrial resources. Not only is the matter related to manufacturing alone, as local, domestic entities have been delivering UAVs already integrated within the Polish C2 network – this refers to the WB Group’s FlyEye platform primarily. In fact, the Polish artillery component is operating the FlyEye, as they are simply a part of the system. If Poland receives the Bayraktar TB2s, regardless of the politics, the platform may be isolated from the remaining components used in the multi-domain environment. The role of the aforesaid drones is another matter. 4 packages is the quantity, which means that 1 package would be assigned to each land forces’ division. It still remains unclear, however, how these drones would fare against the Russian IADS. The procurement announced out of the blue also begs another question: was it based on an in-depth analysis or made, because last year UCAVs became fashionable, following the tensions in Nagorno Karabakh?

Another dimension of the acquisition is related to the PR surrounding the Turkish drones, and the successful employment in operational conditions. The potential employment in the Armed Conflict on the NATO eastern flank might be much different than a limited scale warfare. Dawid Kamizela, Polish defense journalist (Nowa Technika Wojskowa, Frag Out!), expressed his doubts, being similar to the ones voiced by Piekarski, as follows:

The success of these UAVs, or tactical armed UCAV platforms in general, is dependent on the environment in which they are operated. In case of the famour US Predator and Reaper UAVs, they were usually used in an environment where virtually no enemy air defense systems were present. In case of the Turkish drones, these have been used on battlefields where VSHORAD (Very Short Range Air Defense Systems) assets were present – such as the Russian Pantsir solution. So how come, that the drones had a successful PR, being depicted as a platform capable of acting agaist assets protected by VSHORAD systems? The answer is buried in the systemic approach, as Bayraktar TB2s have been a part on an effective system tha also included ELINT assets and armament – such as tube and rocket artillery. The Pantsir systems on the other side had no systemic foundation at hand. They were used as individual assets, without early warning radars electronic warfare assets, or an efficient C2 solution – and it is difficult to claim that the Russian military does not have these assets at hand. Meanwhile, the challenge posed by the integration of the Turkish UCAVs with the Polish C2 assets (such as the WB Group’s TOPAZ system), is another point that is difficult to be discussed – it is an obvious doubt and unknown area.

Considering the global trend to integrate all domains on the battlefield, into a single, coherent battlespace, troubles in the integration of a new system into the national, coherent network, seem to be quite concerning. The general discourse, regarding the development of modern military operations, raises an argument of a multi-domain concept of operations. As no statements were made about the integration of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 platforms in Poland’s C4ISR network, this is undoubtedly a point to be aware of.

Poland Bayraktar TB2
Another file image of a Bayraktar TB2 drone.

Turkey is also expanding its involvement on the NATO Eastern Flank: recently its E-7 AWACS platform was deployed to Romania; yesterday the head of the Polish MoD also announced that the Turkish F-16 jets would be deployed to the Polish Malbork AB, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing operation.

Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of DefensePhoto.com. Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.

First Flight of Japan’s RQ-4B Global Hawk

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First RQ-4B for Japan
Image of the first RQ-4B for Japan. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)

The first Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk drone for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force has carried out its maiden flight.

On Apr. 15, 2021, the first RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle) destined to the JASDF (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) successfully completed its first flight from Northrop Grumman plant at Palmdale, California.

“The unarmed RQ-4B Global Hawk will provide Japan with on-demand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information supporting the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s missions of protecting borders, monitoring threats and providing humanitarian assistance in times of need,” said Jane Bishop, vice president and general manager, autonomous systems, Northrop Grumman, in a public release. “This successful first flight is a significant milestone in delivering Global Hawk to our Japanese allies.”

Japan’s decision to procure dates back to November 2014, when the Japanese MOD officially selected the RQ-4 over the General Atomics Guardian-ER. The U.S. Department of State approved the potential sale of three RQ-4 Block 30 (I) Global Hawk and associated equipment, including three Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suites and 16 navigation systems, worth up to 1.2B USD. The contract, worth 489.9M USD, was eventually awarded to NG by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in 2018, and will deliver three RQ-4 Global Hawks, two ground control stations, spare parts, and related services by September 2022.

“Once fielded, Global Hawk will integrate with other Japanese intelligence assets, including ground-based command and control units. The capability will provide solutions to monitor and deter regional threats to ensure Japan has a highly effective national security posture well into the future”, Northrop Grumman says.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a HALE (high-altitude, long-endurance) RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) with an integrated sensor suite that provides global all-weather, day or night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.

The Global Hawk provides persistent near-real-time coverage using imagery intelligence (IMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and moving target indicator (MTI) sensors. RQ-4s carry out ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in various hotspots across the world. As we write this article, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk from NAS Sigonella, Italy, can be tracked online as it performs yet another RQ-4 sortie near Crimea, over Ukraine and the Donbass area.

“Block 30 [the one destined to Japan] is a multi-intelligence platform that simultaneously carries electro-optical, infrared, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and high and low band SIGINT sensors,” says the USAF website. “Block 30 Initial Operating Capability (IOC) was declared in August 2011. Eighteen Block 30s are currently fielded, supporting every geographic combatant command as well as combat missions in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom/ New Dawn. Block 30s also supported Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya and humanitarian relief efforts during Operation Tomodachi in Japan. Block 40 carries the Radar Technology Insertion Program (RTIP) active electronically scanned array radar which provides MTI and SAR data.”

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Iran Unveils Indigenous Kaman 22 Armed Drone. But It Looks Like an American MQ-9 Reaper Rip-Off

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The Kaman-22 compared to the MQ-9 Reaper. (Composite image made by The Aviationist on Twitter and USAF photos)

The new Kaman 22 drone is clearly inspired by the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), although probably smaller in size.

As announced at the beginning of the month, Tehran has eventually unveiled the Kaman 22 UAV, “the first wide-body drone in the country”. Images of the new drone during a visit of Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh, Commander of the IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) provide a glimpse to the homegrown unmanned aircraft, with some weapons loaded on the external pylons and a few more bombs and pods on display next to the UAV, said to have a range of 3,000 kilometers, endurance of +24 hours and ability to carry 300 kg of payload.

“This drone is equipped with combat and optical cargo and is designed based on the operational needs of the Air Force and is in the final stages of production,” said the Commander of the IRIAF.

Take a look at the images. The resemblance to the American MQ-9 Reaper is pretty evident, although probably smaller in size (in the MQ-1 Predator class).

The Kaman shares with the successful U.S. drone the overall shape: the main differences appear to be in the nose landing gear, the wingtips and the concavity of the nose hump. The UAV seems to carry an unknown ventral pod along with six (four guided and two unguided) bombs.

Front comparison of an MQ-9 and the Kaman-22. (Composite image made by The Aviationist on Twitter and USAF photos)

Along with the aircraft, an array of weapons and pods are shown next to the aircraft: one appears to be a GBU-12 Paveway LGB (Laser Guided Bomb) and another one seems to be an AN/ALQ-101 ECM pod lookalike.

Iran is not unfamiliar with domestic modifications to western drones: they have been able to recover/capture some U.S. remotely piloted aircraft, including a Scan Eagle (and the famous stealthy RQ-170).

Apart from the already known Shahed-129, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV that appears to be a hybrid of the Israeli Hermes 450 and the US MQ-1/9 Predator, the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191, are also drone developed from the RQ-170 captured by Iran in 2011. The American stealthy UAV, dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” when it was first spotted in Afghanistan in 2007, was either hijacked via GPS spoofing, as claimed by Iran, or, most likely, crash landed because of an unknown failure and later found by the IRGC.

David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Russia Working To Integrate S-70 Okhotnik UCAVs In Su-57 Felon Squadrons

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The Su-57 with bort number 053 wearing its unique pixelated camouflage that shows the plan form view of the Okhotnik remotely piloted aircraft was seen at MAKS 2019. (Image credit: Tom Demerly)

Russian MOD is developing the manned-unmanned teaming concept integrating Su-57 Felons and S-70 Okhotnik UCAVs.

The Russian MOD Is working on the idea of integrating the S-70 Okhotnik-B (or “Hunter-B”) UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) platforms with the Su-57 Felon squadrons, Izvestia reported. The solution seems to address the problems of the contemporary air operations expected to be conducted in an A2/AD setting.

Interestingly, the quantitative distribution between the types would assume that 2 to 3 Su-57 squadrons would have a single UCAV unity assigned to them. Between the airframes, a manned-unmanned teaming (MUM/T) scheme would be established. The Russians have already gathered some experience in operating UAVs, with unmanned recce assets becoming a part of the 689th Fighter Regiment stationed in Kaliningrad or the 318th Mixed Regiment stationed in Crimea.

The main goal of the Russian program is to establish a data link between the manned, and unmanned platforms. Noteworthy, the data sharing is also to support missile evasion. Izvestia claims that in the future the Felon pilots should be able to redistribute the tasks among the UAVs, in a “loyal wingman” scenario. Recently, it was also announced that drone was tested with air-to-air missiles in the fighter role. This test happened over the Ashuluk range (home of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Combat Training and Combat Application Center) in southern Russia recently and was reportedly the first weapon testing performed after months of assessments of the flight qualities and on-board systems. The S-70 also carried out several flights with captive training missiles. As explained, this could be a further demonstration that the S-70 could be intended also to act as a “Loyal Wingman” for the Su-57 in future.

Three S-70 prototypes are about to join the test program in 2022-2023. Procurement of the S-70 platform is a part of the planning documents issued by the Russian MoD, covering the period between 2024 and 2033.

The S-70 Okhotnik takes off for a test flight. (Photo: Russian MoD)

The Russian MUM/T involving the Russian 5th generation aircraft and the S-70 UCAV was not unexpected. One of the Su-57 prototypes was photographed wearing a special pixelated camouflage on the underside of the aircraft that mimics the plan view shape of the Hunter remotely piloted aircraft. Additionally, a silhouette of the Okhotnik drone, alongside a silhouette of the Felon has been painted on one of the vertical stabilizers of one of the jets. The silhouettes have a lightning strike between them, probably symbolizing the expected integration. Furthermore, the test flight program of the Russian Okhotnik UCAVs also involved the Su-57s.

The S-70 Okhotnik accompanied by a Su-57 during a test flight. (Photo: Russian MoD)

As already reported, the Russian Air Force received the first serial production Su-57 recently. The aircraft is going to be used by the Akhtubinsk test-flight center. The Russian Air Force is expecting to receive 76 examples of the Su-57. The production plans cover the period until the year 2027. The first series-manufactured example (T-50S1, serial number 51001, 01 ‘Blue’) made its maiden flight in early December 2019 and was to be received by the Air Force on December 27. Unfortunately, it crashed on Dec. 24. 2019. Two examples or Felon are scheduled for delivery in 2021.

Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of DefensePhoto.com. Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.

Armed U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle Drone Performs Emergency Landing In Northern Niger

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The pretty intact MQ-1C on the ground in Niger. (Author edit based on Twitter images).

A U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle landed on on the ground in Niger, with a live Hellfire missile on the left wing pylon.

Photos have started to emerge on social media on Jan. 24, 2021, of a U.S. MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone on the ground in northern Niger.

The images show that the remotely piloted vehicle (with U.S. Army marking and serial number) carried at least one live AGM-114 Hellfire missile under the left hand wing.

Responding to questions about the photographs on Twitter, the U.S. Africa Command acknowledged that an incident involving an MQ-1C Gray Eagle occurred on Jan. 23, 2021. The unmanned aircraft conducted an emergency landing near Agadez, Niger, after suffering an unspecified malfunction “while conducting a routine mission in support of operations in the region”.

The Gray Eagle is an advanced derivative of the Predator  specialized in providing direct operation control by Army field commanders. It can fly Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA); convoy protection; Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detection as well as providing live aerial imagery to ground patrols carrying also PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions): in other words, it can support a wide variety of missions including attack, assault, reconnaissance, infiltration and exfiltration, and any kind of known or unknown special operations you may imagine.

The type has been flying over the U.S. hot spots around the world for quite some time now (including Iraq, where one was lost in 2015). Dealing with Niger, armed U.S. drones have been operating out of Niger Air Base 201, located around 5 km southeast of Agadez, since 2019, thanks to a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Nigerien governments. Previously, U.S. remotely piloted vehicles, as well as other manned ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft had been operating out of Niger’s capital, Niamey.

“The U.S. military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, Commander, U.S. Africa Command in a public release in November 2019. “We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa. The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region.”

“Flexible and diverse postures across the African continent enable us to facilitate operational needs and better support our partners in the region,” explained U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa. “The location in Agadez was selected in conjunction with Niger due to the geographic and strategic flexibility it offers to regional security efforts.”

The Nigerien Air Base 201 is particularly useful to carry out missions against extremist groups in West Africa as well as North Africa, including Boko Haram and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Drones launched the new airbase in Niger are believed to operate as far as deep into Libya.

In March 2020 another MQ-1 was lost near Agadez, Niger.

The U.S. Air Force Established A Permanent Base For MQ-9 Reaper Drones In Romania

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File photo of a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper flies during RED FLAG-Alaska 19-2, June 19 2019, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Snider).

An unspecified number of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft will be base at Campia Turzii Air Base, from where they will perform a variety of missions over the region, including the Agile Combat Employment.

The U.S. Air Force announced that MQ-9 Reaper drones found a new permanent base in Romania. An unspecified number of the unmanned aircraft, accompanied by approximately 90 Airmen, are now at the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii Air Base, from where they will conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in support of NATO operations in the region. The base also hosts Romanian Air Force’s MiG-21 LanceRs fighter jets and IAR-330 (license-built SA-330 Puma) helicopters.

“The forward and ready positioning of our MQ-9s at this key strategic location reassures our allies and partners, while also sending a message to our adversaries, that we can quickly respond to any emergent threat,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, the United States Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander.

The drones seem to be independent from the ones deployed in Poland with the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2, as the press release reported that they will fall under the 31st Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 1, a geographically separated unit assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

The two MQ-9s assigned 52nd EOG Det. 2 are unarmed Block 5 aircraft flown and maintained by contractors, with the Air Force providing communications, intelligence analysis and force protection, but there is no mention if the ones based in Romania will be flown and maintained by contractors or by Air Force personnel.

The U.S. MQ-9 N428HK carrying the new pod and antenna on the right wing pylons. (Image credit: via Polish MoD)

This is actually not the first time that the MQ-9 operates out of Campia Turzii Air Base, as the drones of the 52nd EOG Det. 2 were redeployed there for a month while their homebase Miroslawiec Air Base underwent construction works in 2019 and again in early 2020 to take part in exercise Dacian Reaper. This time, other than ISR missions and international exercises, the Reapers will also support Agile Combat Employment concepts, fly freedom of maneuver missions and integrate with joint and coalition forces in the region.

A couple of months ago, we reported about the drones based in Poland being sighted with a new pod housing the L3 full-band Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) ISR capability, whose integration with the MQ-9 Reaper was announced during the Paris Air Show 2019. The pod would be used to generate the Electronic Order of Battle (EOB) and keep an eye on Russian activities in the Baltic (Kaliningrad) or the Black Sea (Crimea).

While there are no official reports of the pod being delivered to other Reaper units, given the area of responsibility of the 31st EOG Det.1 and the reasons of the deployment seemingly similar to the ones of the 52nd EOG Det. 2, we may see the new pod again flying with the new unit’s MQ-9s.

Memorial for Qassem Soleimani Erected in Lebanon Depicts The Moment His SUV Was Hit By A Drone Missile

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The Memorial for Qassem Soleimani erected in Lebanon. (Image via @AuroraIntel)

One year ago, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was killed in Baghdad. A somewhat weird memorial erected in Lebanon shows the moment a missile hit the SUV carrying the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.

On Jan. 3, 2020, at 12.47 AM LT, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, along with members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s PMF militias. The attack occurred just outside Baghdad International Airport, in Iraq, where Soleimani had just arrived (from Lebanon or Syria) to bring Iran’s response to a letter that Iraq had sent out on behalf of Saudi Arabia in order to ease tensions between the two countries in the region, according to Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.

The air strike on the convoy made by a Toyota Avalon and Hyundai Starex caused 10 casualties.

The details of the drone strike that assassinated Soleimani have never been disclosed and, one year later, there are still different narratives of the whole operation. According to one version, a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone, took off from Kuwait and carried out the raid. This version has never been confirmed; quite the contrary actually, as the Kuwaiti Armed Forces denied it. According to another version, as many as three MQ-9 drones took off from al-Asad airbase, the second largest airbase in Iraq, flew in the sky of Baghdad for 20 hours and then returned to al-Asad after the air strike.

Serviced by two parallel paved runways and at least 33 hardened aircraft shelters along with secured weapons storage facilities, Al-Asad Airbase was captured from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces by the coalition Australian Special Air Service Regiment on April 16, 2003 by a special operations raid during the second Persian Gulf War in Iraq. The airbase, along with Irbil, was targeted by more than a dozen ballistic missiles launched by Iran as part of of “Operation Martyr Soleimani”, a retaliatory strike for the assassination of the Iranian General.

The SUVs carrying Soleimani and his staff were hit by what most analysts have identified as AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. The Hellfire an anti-tank weapon with variants in the 45-50 Kg range and laser or radar guidance that has become the munition of choice for airborne targeted killings that have included high-profile terrorist figures. Some of these killings were executed using a particular variant that uses pop-out sword blades to kill targets with minimal collateral damage.

Interestingly, according to some analysts, the assassination of Soleimani may have been carried out with a weapon that is intended to replace the AGM-114, called the AGM-179 Joint-Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM).

Anyway, looks like a memorial for Soleimani was allegedly erected (according to some sources three months ago), in Arabsalim, Lebanon. The somewhat weird memorial (that has not received positive comments on social media as it is considered “disrespectful” or “tasteless” but most people) depicts the moment Soleimani’s SUV was hit by what seems to be a Hellfire air-to-ground missile. The following tweet shows two photos of the memorial. One, at night, has a missile mock up (on a cardboard) installed on the roof of the car (a Honda); the other one, in daylight, shows another mock up in the background, behind the SUV, as if it was yet to be installed (or just removed).

Leonardo Hack Allegedly Targeted Details Of nEUROn UCAV Program

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nEUROn technology demonstrator. (Image credit: Dassault)

Preliminary inquiry documents in the Leonardo hack suggest hackers were targeting nEUROn drone, C-27J and ATR-72 documents.

For almost two years, between May 2015 and January 2017, the IT infrastructure of Leonardo, the Italian multinational aerospace and defense company, and the 8th largest defence contractor in the world, was targeted by a persistent cyber attack (known as Advanced Persistent Threat or APT), carried out with installation in systems, networks and in the target machines, of a malicious code whose aim was the creation of active communication channels suitable to allow a slow and continuous leakage of technical and business data.

The perpetrators of the attacks were identified and arrested by Italian Police: the two individuals are a former employee and a manager of the company, who are accused of the crimes of unauthorized access to the computer system, unlawful interception of electronic communications and unlawful processing of personal data and misdirection.

According to the Italian Police, the first complaint, made in 2017, reported anomalous data traffic leaving the Pomigliano D’Arco plant, located near Naples. Pomigliano D’Arco is a Leonardo plant which hosts the B767 and ATR production lines.

Initially, the extent of the attack seemed limited to a small number of workstations with a data loss deemed to be “insignificant”.

However, the subsequent investigations brought a much broader scenario to light. The person responsible for this attack was an IT security manager of Leonardo who was arrested. The investigators found out that he injected malware into target workstations by means of USB sticks. The malware started automatically at each execution of the operating system; it intercepted what was typed on the keyboard [hence it acted as a “keylogger”] and could also capture the frames of what was displayed on the screens. According to the Police, the targeted PCs were those of employees, including managers, who were involved in strategic activities.

The malware exfiltrated over 100K files from the workstations along with personal data of employees and “the design of components of civil aircraft and military aircraft intended for the domestic and international market.”

The Police is still investigating in order to understand whether the hacker was acting independently or at the behest of others, or the goal of the alleged activity. There might be several reasons to perform such an act: industrial and military espionage, revenge, use the stolen data to extort money or to damage the company image.

On Dec. 23, 2020, Reuters published an article based on the 108-page arrest warrant. The report says that “the preliminary inquiry cites evidence that one of the computers which was hacked belonged to a Leonardo technician who worked on the electronic system of the nEUROn, an experimental unmanned military aircraft which was designed in 2012 under a European defence programme led by France. […] Other computers belonged to Leonardo workers involved in the production of C27J military transport aircraft and ATR commercial and military turbo-prop planes used by Italy’s taxpolice and coastguard, the November-dated document said.”

While both the C-27J and ATR-72 (operated by the Italian Custom Police and Coast Guard) are possible targets of interest because in various variants they fly with several operators and are also offered to potential customers around the world, it’s at least worth of note the fact that some of data stolen was about the nEUROn UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle).

nEUROn is a project involving France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland and Greece. The first example of this full-scale technology demonstrator rolled out on Jan. 20, 2012, after five years of design, development, and static testing. After its roll out at Istres airbase in France the stealth combat drone (with a loosely resemblance to the Northrop Grumman X-47B) embarked on a three-year test campaign aimed at exploring the whole flight envelope of the UCAV. According to Dassault, the prime contractor of the European project, the first phase of tests in France included the opening of the weapons bay and evaluation of the EO (Electro Optical) sensor and datalink.

The second phase of testing focused on the assessment of the IR (Infra Red) and EM (Electromagnetic) signature of the aircraft in full stealth configuration, and was successfully completed at Istres in February 2015. Subsequently, the UCAV technology demonstrator was disassembled and moved, as planned, to Decimomannu airbase, in Sardinia, Italy, where it underwent operational testing in the Perdasdefogu range, before moving to Visdel, Sweden, for weapons trials. In 2016, extensive stealth and detection tests were conducted with the nEUROn and the Charles de Gaulle carrier group. In 2018, Spanish Eurofighters deployed to Istres, to carry out a testing campaign with the nEUROn that saw the Typhoons use their  radar, infrared search and track (IRST) system, electronic support measures suite, and the imaging infrared seeker in the IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile to try to spot the stealthy drone.

The nEUROn is set to serve as the technology demonstrator for a future family of serial production UCAVs part of the FCAS (Future Air Combat Systems) program, that Airbus described as a network-enabled system of systems that integrates a new generation fighter aircraft, unmanned MALE drones (medium-altitude, long endurance), the current aircraft fleet, cruise missiles and drone swarms. The Next Generation Weapon System (NGWS) will be the core of FCAS, comprising the NGF, the remote carriers and the Air Combat Cloud.

That being said, it’s not even clear what kind of details about nEUROn (or any other weapon system) the targeted Leonardo workstations and employees could store or access. And, were those workstations hacked because they were assigned to specific professionals or because they were known to store classified data? Or maybe they were injected with malware just because the perpetrator had the opportunity to plug the USB stick in one of the ports hoping to discover interesting data he wasn’t even aware it was stored on that PC beforehand?

Leonardo said that “classified, strategic information was not held on the computers that were violated. Leonardo does not store top secret military data at the group’s plant in Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples. As mentioned above, Pomigliano, is mainly focused on two production lines: ATR (fuselage and various other parts are built and assembled there) and B767. So, it seems more reasonable to believe that documents leaked from the plant might be mostly related to those types, rather than the European drone programme led by the French Dassault.

Anyway, we will follow this story and provide updates as new details about this hack emerge.

Boeing’s Loyal Wingman In New High-Visibility Paint Job Completes First High-Speed Taxi Test

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The Boeing Airpower Teaming System unmanned aircraft taxing to the runway for the first high-speed taxi test. (Photo: Boeing Australia)

The Boeing’s Loyal Wingman completed high-speed taxi test at RAAF Woomera Airfield.

Boeing Australia and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) have completed the first high-speed taxi test of the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) unmanned aircraft, also known as Loyal Wingman. The unmanned aircraft is undergoing low-, medium-, and high-speed taxi testing at a remote test location in Australia, with Boeing’s technicians closely monitoring the aircraft’s performance and instrumentation from a ground control station.

“Our test program is progressing well, and we are happy with the ground test data we have collected to date,” said Paul Ryder, Boeing Flight Test manager. “We are working with the Air Warfare Centre to complete final test verifications to prepare for flight testing in the new year.” According to the press release, the joint Boeing/RAAF team will resume final taxi tests and preparations for flight in early 2021 when an unspecified range reopens.

Back in August we reported about some spotters who sighted the ATS being towed in an airport in Queensland, which was assessed to be RAAF Base Amberley, home of Boeing Australia. It appears that the aircraft has now been moved to a new remote location, as mentioned by Boeing, after the completion of the low-speed taxi trials. From the video posted by the company, we were able to geolocate the new test location by using publicly available satellite imagery.

The airport showed in the video is, in fact, RAAF Woomera Airfield, part of the RAAF Woomera Test Range Complex (the unspecified range mentioned in the press release) used by the Air Warfare Centre. The range is located in South Australia, approximately 450 km (280 mi) north-west of Adelaide and about 1080 km (670 mi) south-west of RAAF Amberley, where the Loyal Wingman was first spotted. The range is a major military and civil aerospace facility, which has also been recently used as a landing site for the sample-return capsule from the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 after visiting asteroid 162173 Ryugu. The same location was also used in 2013 for the first flight of the BAE Systems Taranis, a British stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) technology demonstrator program.

RAAF Head of Air Force Capability Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts visited the airfield to attend the test. “Seeing the Loyal Wingman during the trials has been extraordinary. There is something very special about testing an aircraft that takes technology to the next level. It is iconic in its own way,” she said. “Experiencing the enthusiasm of the Boeing and Air Force team reminded me of my early career testing aircraft. This is what innovation is all about – working together to achieve many firsts”.

A screenshot from Boeing’s video showing the Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft before the beginning of the test.

After the roll-out ceremony in May 2020, the test and evaluation program of the Boeing ATS moved quickly, completing the first engine run in September and the first low-speed taxi in October. By the way, the engine used by the ATS has not been revealed yet, with only available info describing it as a fuel-efficient business jet turbofan derivative providing about 8,000 lbs of thrust. Now that the aircraft is getting closer to its first flight, it has also received a new high-visibility paintjob, with the tips and leading edges of wings and stabilizers, the outline of the air intake and a large portion of the nose cone painted with a bright orange.

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.

Air Marshal Hupfeld, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, noted that the RAAF is working on the policies to understand the discipline that an airman should apply to a system like the Loyal Wingman, highlighting that this is one of the key points of the program: ”The heart of it is about the systems that are inside that platform. The artificial intelligence that we will start to put into there, the opportunity to program algorithms that allow it to do what we call manned and unmanned teaming”.

An interesting fact that was shared by Boeing after the first low-speed taxi test is that the Airpower Teaming System will be independent from runways and it will be able to self-deploy and land almost everywhere, as showed in that occasion in a tweet with a quick video of the aircraft preparing to land on an improvised runway. “Runway independence ensures the aircraft will be a highly flexible and adaptable system for our global customers,” said Dr. Shane Arnott, program director, Boeing Airpower Teaming System. “This latest test marks the first full unmanned movement of the Loyal Wingman with our Australian partners and takes us a step closer to first flight.”

Earlier this month, Boeing announced the completion of a series of flight tests with five high-performance surrogate jets operating autonomously in a team, testing the company’s advanced autonomy technology, including on-board command and control and data sharing capabilities. Testing lasted 10 days, with aircraft incrementally added until the five operated together. According to Boeing, the activity was the final milestone of the Advanced Queensland Autonomous Systems Platform Technology Project, one of the programs that are supporting the development of the Airpower Teaming System.

“The tests demonstrated our success in applying artificial intelligence algorithms to ‘teach’ the aircraft’s brain to understand what is required of it,” said Emily Hughes, director of Phantom Works International. “The data link capabilities enabled the aircraft to communicate with the other platforms so that they could collaborate to achieve a mission.”

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