Tag: f-35

Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air Force

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A F-16 of the RNLAF with a celebratory special tail takes off for a training mission during Gioia Falcon. In the corner: the patch created for the exercise. (All images credit: Author)

11 Dutch F-16s deployed to Gioia del Colle Air Base to practice operations in non-familiar areas and fly COMAO missions.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force deployed 11 of its F-16 Fighting Falcons to Gioia del Colle Air Base in Italy for a two-week joint exercise with the Italian Air Force, dubbed “Gioia Falcon”, from Nov. 12 to Nov. 26, 2021. The fighters belong to 312 Squadron “Bonzo”, which is the last RNLAF unit to operate the F-16 from Volkel Air Base.

The F-16 is slowly nearing the end of its operational life in the Netherlands, after F-16 operations ceased at Leeuwarden with 322 Squadron this summer to make room for the F-35 Lightning II and the remaining aircraft were all moved to Volkel. The latter also used host a second F-16 unit, the 313 Squadron, but this is currently in the process of being converted to the . The F-16 is expected to remain in service until 2024/2025, when it is expected that the will obtain the Full Operational Capability.

We had the opportunity to visit Gioia del Colle to take photos of the flight operations and interview the aircrews during the two Media Days of the Exercise on Nov. 23 and 24.

During our visit we got to see which aircraft were deployed on the flight line, with their serials being J-005, J-014, J-062, J-063, J-136, J-197, J-509, J-512, J-515, J-644. As you can notice, these are only ten of the eleven aircraft in the detachment, as one of the F-16s reportedly suffered an engine stall during a training mission on Nov. 18 or 19 and subsequently performed a precautionary landing at Crotone airport. According to a low-resolution photo posted at the beginning of the exercise, the aircraft should be the twin-seater F-16B J-368.

One of the aircraft, J-197, sported the special tail paint which has been recently applied to celebrate the 70th anniversary of 312 Squadron. The special tail shows the crossed swords and the red lightning bolt of the unit’s insignia, as well as the writing “70 years 312 Squadron”. According to the reports, the first public appearance this F-16 with the new special paint was in early November when the aircraft was at the lead of 14 F-16s during an elephant walk at Volkel Air Base.

- Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air ForceThe assets which took part in the exercise. (Photo: Italian Air Force)

The Gioia Falcon exercise was initially planned for 2020 at Trapani-Birgi Air Base, however the plan had to be postponed for one year because of the COVID restrictions, requiring the choice of a new host base. Even if the preparations for the deployment in Italy were already completed, the new location required the restart of the six-month planning process, including the site surveys and the logistic preparations to support the 11 Vipers (as the F-16s are dubbed by the pilots) and about 150 people, including aircrews and support personnel.

The Italian Air Force assisted its Dutch counterpart in the logistical effort, giving access to briefing and debriefing systems and the ACMI (Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation) to allow aircrews to see and analyze the full picture of their mission in order to make consistent debriefings. The Italians also gave space for all the equipment that was brought over and an entire hangar for maintenance. In fact, the RNLAF brought over, in addition to the F-16s and the equipment in the containers, most of the vehicles needed for flight line operations, practicing for forward deployed operations.

Even if 312 Squadron is the last RNLAF F-16 unit, the aircrews are relatively young, with many having only recently joined the ranks after the graduation from the B-Course in Tucson, Arizona, and using this exercise to work towards their combat readiness. The squadron was not able to attend any international exercises abroad during the last two years, again because of COVID, so it was decided to deploy to Italy to practice operations from unfamiliar airfields and in different air spaces. Another reason was to gain experience while integrating with foreign units and different aircraft.

- Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air ForceAn Italian F-2000 Typhoon returns from a training mission.

Among the different assets involved in Gioia Falcon with the Dutch F-16s there were the F-2000 Typhoons and HH-139s of the local 36° Stormo Caccia (Fighter Wing) and the F-35As of the 32° Stormo from Amendola Air Base, as well the Italian G550 CAEW and NATO E-3A airborne early warning aircraft and ground-based fighter controllers from the Italian radar units located near the area of the exercise. NATO’s Deployable Air Command and Control Centre based at Poggio Renatico carried out the exercise’s command and control.

Most of the missions of the exercise were flown in the so-called “area Calabria”, covering a large portion of airspace which includes the Calabria region and the Ionian Sea from the surface to FL600 (60,000 ft). This airspace was then divided in the “Red” and “Blue” area, depending on the mission to be flown, but usually the Reds had the larger portion in order for the Blues to simulate deep penetration missions inside the adversary’s airspace.

Training involved multiple types of missions, such as Offensive Counter Air (OCA), with the fighters sweeping the airspace to create a path for strikers, bombing strike missions and Close Air Support (CAS) in support of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), as well as Defensive Counter Air (DCA) and Air Interdiction.

- Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air ForceA Dutch F-16 departs from Gioia del Colle during the morning wave.

The Commander of 312 Squadron provided some more details about the missions through his official Twitter account, mentioning that the Large Force Employment scenario involved the creation of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in the area of responsibility. The Red forces violated the no-fly zone multiple times, even trying to attack the Blue airfield in Gioia del Colle, before being repelled.

These actions were followed by strikes against several targets, which however gave the Red forces the chance to shoot down a Blue aircraft (obviously only simulated). Considering when the info about this simulated shot down was published, that F-16 might have been the one that performed the precautionary landing, transforming the unexpected event in a new chance for further training. The simulated crash was, in fact, followed by a Combat Search And Rescue operation to recover the pilot.

All these missions were performed both as “stand-alone” packages or as part of COMposite Air Operations (COMAO) with and without the Italian fighters. As a matter of fact, the exercise’s main focus were the COMAOs, but it was also used as an occasion to integrate during close maneuvering (such as BFMs and ACMs) with Italian assets, maintain pilot’s currencies and training upgrades.

Usually, the aircraft flew two waves each day, including night waves, one of those was dedicated to COMAOs and the other for the other training needs. During the first day of our visit, the night wave was dedicated to a COMAO with F-16s and Typhoons. Each wave involved about eight Dutch F-16s and variable numbers of Italian aircraft, with scenarios evolving day-by-day and increasing difficulty.

The exercise generated about 150 missions for an approximate total of 240 flight hours, which helped to consolidate the interoperability among the participating aircraft and to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency while using common standard Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs). These TTPs are adopted in multinational and complex scenarios and cover the entire spectrum of the missions that can be performed in modern air operations.

The F-35 participation provided a chance to train the integration between fourth and fifth generation aircraft, which are currently in service in both countries, adding training value to the missions. The Lightning II proved once again its versatility in “omnirole” tasks, with its sensors and data fusion allowing the 5th gen aircraft to best lead the mission package in every kind of scenario.

- Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air ForceThe pilot of the special tail F-16 salutes the photographers as he taxies to the runway.

Interestingly, the F-35s took part to Gioia Falcon in the ranks of both the Red and the Blue forces, much like the US Air Force is doing during Red Flag exercises, giving the 4th gen aircraft the chance not only to integrate with 5th gen aircraft but also to practice how to counter them and hunt them down. During our interview, the pilots mentioned that this is becoming the standard also during everyday’s training.

As we reported, during the same timeframe of Gioia Falcon, and precisely on November 21, the British and U.S. F-35Bs embarked on the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier practiced cross deck operations with Italian Air Force’s and Navy’s F-35Bs embarked on the ITS Cavour aircraft carrier. Even if the exercise tool place while both ships were in navigation in the Ionian Sea, the same area used by Gioia Falcon, the Dutch F-16s did not integrate with the embarked fighters as the activities of the two exercises were kept separate.

“Exercise Gioia Falcon provided great results. It demonstrated perfect synergy between flight crews and maintenance teams, allowing integration and interoperability among different generation of aircraft and between the air and surface components,” said Colonel Antonio Vergallo, Commander of the 36th Fighter Wing.  “It has been a great opportunity to exchange operational experience among NATO pilots and operationally assess the great swing role capability of the Eurofighter in an integrated scenario.”

- Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air ForceThe F-16 waiting for the night wave as the sun sets over Gioia del Colle.

The integration and synergy of the air component with the surface component in these complex multinational scenarios was highlighted during the Close Air Support missions in support of the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. The JTACs deployed in the area of operations, assigned to the “Fucilieri dell’Aria” (Air Riflemen) of the 16° Stormo, directed the fighters while performing simulated attacks both during day and night.

During our interview, the pilots of both nations highlighted the importance of this kind of exercises to have a chance for a confrontation with other NATO partners. In fact, training together allows to share experiences and lessons learned after the missions, as well as offering a different point of view about how the same mission set is executed by different air forces. This, in turn, allows the continuous refinement of the TTPs to better adapt to future scenarios.

On the other hand, training abroad offers the chance to train in a new unfamiliar environment, draining the situational awareness accumulated while operating from the habitual airfields and forcing the pilots to be more alert. The pilots, in fact, gain valuable training as they need to familiarize with new airspace regulations, new departure and arrival procedures and new reference points. As the Dutch pilots pointed out, only the basic layout of the area was the same they have at home, situated on the coast and composed in part by land and in part by sea from the surface to high altitudes.

The author would like to thank the Italian Air Force and in particular the Public Information Office for the opportunity to visit Gioia del Colle during the exercise Gioia Falcon, as well as the 36th Fighter Wing and its personnel for the hospitality and the help provided during the course of the two Media Days.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Successfully Complete Ex. ‘Gioia Falcon’ With The Italian Air Force
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.

F-35B Drops First GBU-53/B StormBreaker Small Diameter Bomb II

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F-35B of VX-23 dropping for the first time the GBU-53/B StormBreaker. In the box: the bomb with its wings unfolded. (Photos: Raytheon)

During the test, a nearby F/A-18F demonstrated the network connectivity capability by monitoring the weapon until the impact.

Few days after publishing a news feature about the GBU-53/B StormBreaker in which it was announced the first drop by an F-35 Lightning II, Raytheon released more details about the test flight. While the company did not specify how long ago the test happened, they mentioned that it was performed in late 2021 by the U.S. Navy with the weapon being released by a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23).

The press release mentions that, as part of the test, the naval aviator flying the F-35B “used the network-enabled weapon as a guided munition, following the same method one would use in combat, from mission planning to release”. After the weapon release, a nearby F/A-18F Super Hornet monitored the behavior of the weapon over a common network until the successful impact, demonstrating a successful network connectivity capability.

In a previous feature, Raytheon stated that the networking capabilities are one of the key benefits of the StormBreaker. This capability is intended to give an aircraft the possibility to drop the weapon and then hand off its controls to another aircraft connected to the same network. This is considered critical for a JADC2 (Joint All Domain Command and Control) battlespace environment as the U.S. military aims to connect sensors, platforms and weapon systems for multi-domain operations.

“The weapon’s operational flexibility increases the F-35’s capability and capacity, and it helps limit the time our warfighters spend in harm’s way,” said Alison Howlett, StormBreaker program director at Raytheon Missiles & Defense. “StormBreaker allows pilots to hit moving targets in adverse weather conditions, which our adversaries have relied on in the past to avoid detection.”

The GBU-53/B, also known as Small Diameter Bomb II, is planned to continue developmental and then operational testing to prove out safety and capability of the weapon when employed by the F-35. The SDB II is scheduled to complete the integration on all F-35 variants by 2023. The integration on the F-35B could be the most sensitive, as in 2015 it emerged that during initial fit checks the BRU-61/A four-bomb weapon rack could not fit inside the weapon bays of the STOVL variant, requiring a redesign of a hydraulic line and a structural bracket to be rolled out with the Block 4 upgrade. To address this problem, the US Navy is also developing a Joint Miniature Munitions rack.

- F-35B Drops First GBU-53/B StormBreaker Small Diameter Bomb IIF-16 taking off for a test mission with four SDB IIs mounted under a BRU-61/A bomb rack. (Photo: Raytheon)

The U.S. Navy will declare initial operating capability of the GBU-53/B StormBreaker on the Super Hornet after operational testing concludes in 2022. The U.S. Air Force cleared the weapon on the F-15E Strike Eagle in 2020, making it the first aircraft able to carry the weapon. The Air Force and Raytheon dropped 14 StormBreaker smart weapons in the 2021 Weapons System Evaluation Program, continuing the evaluation and tactics development to paves the way for operational use by combat air forces.

As for the F-35, it will be able to carry eight StormBreaker weapons internally and eight externally, providing the 5th gen. aircraft with the capability to hit moving targets in adverse weather, addressing a wide range of threats and scenarios. Further versatility is added by the multi-effects warhead, which is equipped with shaped charge jets, fragmentation and blast charge effects, and an option for a delayed smart fuze. The total weight of the weapon is just over 200 pounds, with half of it being the warhead alone.

“It packs a big punch. The multi-effects warhead really separates this air-to-surface weapon from its predecessor and other munitions in its class”, said Howlett. “There’s more possible for StormBreaker – options like adding propulsion or swapping out the seeker depending on the mission. The hardware and software can cover a range of threats. It’s a very flexible weapon – one-of-kind with world class technology.”

Another key feature of the GBU-53/B is its tri-mode seeker that employs imaging infrared and millimeter wave radar to see through fog, smoke and rain as the weapon glides over 45 miles to strike both fixed or moving targets on land or at sea. The other modes available for target acquisition are the more common semi-active laser homing and GPS/INS guidance.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - F-35B Drops First GBU-53/B StormBreaker Small Diameter Bomb II
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.

Italian Air Force F-35B Lands On Italian Navy Aircraft Carrier For The First Time

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Italian Navy and Air Force F-35Bs together on the flight deck of ITS Cavour. (All images: Italian MOD)

During the joint drills, the Italian Air Force and Navy F-35B integrated aboard ITS Cavour for the very first time and also landed on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

A joint exercise, involving both the Italian Navy aircraft carrier Cavour and the Royal Navy HMS Queen Elizabeth, was carried out in the central Mediterranean Sea in the last few days. The drills, which officially ended on Nov. 21, 2021, saw several “firsts”: an F-35B of the Italian Air Force landed for the first time on the Italian Navy aircraft carrier; the Italian Air Force and Navy’s F-35Bs integrated for the first time aboard ITS Cavour before landing for the first time on HMS Queen Elizabeth; two operational U.S. Marine Corps F-35B deployed aboard HMSQE operated from the flight deck on the Italian aircraft carrier for the first time.

The end of the international activity was closely observed by the recently appointed Chief of Defense Staff, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragon, who was accompanied for the occasion by the Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Enrico Credendino and by the Air Force Chief of Staff General Luca Goretti.

“The aerial activity aboard the Cavour aircraft carrier, carried out in full synergy between the Navy and the Air Force, represents a milestone in the development of the national ability to project the potential offered by the new fifth generation aircraft from the sea, the F-35B,” says a statement from the Italian MOD.

- Italian Air Force F-35B Lands On Italian Navy Aircraft Carrier For The First TimeThe Italian Navy F-35B next to the Italian Air Force F-35B aboard ITS Cavour.

Admiral Cavo Dragone, congratulating the Navy and Air Force personnel involved in the activity, highlighted how “in addition to the excellent skills already achieved by F-35A of the Air Force, both in the operational field and in real operations, today’s exercise represents a strong impetus in the process of developing the national air projection capacity from the sea, with the integration of fifth generation joint tactical multirole aircraft, allowing our country to be the only one able to guarantee this contribution within the European Union “.

As we have often commented in the past, the joint activity carried out in full synergy between the two Italian services was desirable as it paves the way for more integration: the Italian Government is currently procuring 90 F-35s, 60 of those are F-35As (that will be entirely operated by the Aeronautica Militare) and the remaining 30 ones are F-35Bs. Out of those 30 F-35Bs, 15 will go to the Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and 15 to the Air Force. The Lightning II will replace the Navy’s ageing AV-8B+ Harrier II and will be embarked on the Cavour aircraft carrier and the new LHD Trieste

As already explained in the past, the Gruppo Aerei Imbarcati “Wolves”, which will operate the F-35Bs within the Navy, is based in Grottaglie, close to the naval port of Taranto, home to the Cavour aircraft carrier [and to the Trieste landing helicopter dock (LHD), in the future] and not too far from Amendola, the Italian Air Force base that is the MOB (Main Operating Base) to both the F-35A and B of the Air Force. Although still far to become something real a joint Air Force/Navy flight line with common logistics and training, would make a lot of sense to make the best out of the whole Italian STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) fleet.

“The synergies between the Navy and the Air Force in the use of F-35Bs on board the aircraft carrier will also be achieved in use from the ground, operating jointly in operational situations where suitable landing strips for conventional aircraft are not available”.

- Italian Air Force F-35B Lands On Italian Navy Aircraft Carrier For The First TimeThe Chief Of Joint Staff Adm. Cavo Dragone greets the Italian Air Force F-35B pilot who have just landed on ITS Cavour.

Earlier this year, the Italian aircraft carrier ITS Cavour returned to Italy from the F-35B trials in the U.S. where it carried out an intense training activity with the U.S. Navy aimed at certifying its flight deck for new aircraft. After the successful Sea Trials, an Italian F-35B landed for the first time on the carrier in Italy. During the last days, as already mentioned, the carrier also interacted with the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on her way back to the UK after the maiden deployment dubbed CSG-21. Indeed, thanks to the high level of interoperability achieved, two Italian F-35Bs (one Navy and one Air Force) landed on HMSQE and at the same time two US Marine Corps F-35Bs, deployed aboard the British aircraft carrier, landed on the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour.

“In addition to the success of the joint activities carried out by the Italian Navy and Air Force aircraft on board Nave Cavour, today’s interaction with the British aircraft carrier group has made it possible to successfully test the joint technical-operational procedures aimed at achieving full interoperability between the two navies.

A few days ago, an F-35B of the RAF 617 Sqn embarked aboard HMSQE crashed for reasons currently being investigated.

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Italian Air Force F-35B Lands On Italian Navy Aircraft Carrier For The First Time
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.

Here Is What We Know About Yesterday’s British F-35B Crash

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A British F-35B prepares to takeoff from the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. (Photo: UK MoD)

The aircraft went down soon after takeoff this morning while the HMS Queen Elizabeth was sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Probably, recovery operation underway.

As you may know by now, a British F-35B crashed in the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 17, 2021, around 10AM GMT. The aircraft was one of the eight British F-35s and ten U.S. Marine Corps F-35s currently embarked aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. A very short statement by the UK Ministry of Defence Press Office, released this afternoon, stated that the pilot was rescued and returned to the ship following a successful ejection.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, as quoted by BBC’s Defence Correspondent Jonathan Beale, provided some further details, saying that the F-35 ditched soon after taking off from the aircraft carrier and that operational and training flights onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth are continuing despite the incident. Some reports mentioned the possibility of a British pilot flying on a US jet, however it has been later confirmed that both the pilot and the F-35B were indeed British.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently on her way back to the UK from the maiden operational deployment with the recently established Carrier Strike Group. The 28-week deployment, which has been dubbed Carrier Strike Group 2021, brought the British aircraft carrier to the troubled waters of the Indo-Pacific region as the flagship of the largest naval and air task force under British command since the Falklands war. The CSG was planned to visit 40 nations during the 26,000-nautical-mile cruise.

Naval AIS (Automatic Identification Systems) data showed the HMS Queen Elizabeth CSG passing through the Suez Canal during yesterday’s afternoon, as seen on multiple ship tracking websites like MarineTraffic. The info was also confirmed by satellite imagery. This restricts the area where the mishap happened to the area between Egypt, Cyprus and Crete. If the ship was to make a port call in Cyprus like it did in July before moving to the Red Sea, this would restrict even more the area that needs to be considered.

In either case, the F-35 wreck on the Mediterranean seafloor is quite a sensitive matter, as the area where the mishap happened is relatively close to the Russian bases in Syria. This crash sparks concerns similar to the ones that followed the crash of a Japanese F-35 in 2019, when reports mentioned the risks of Russian and Chinese units trying to recover the missing fuselage in the attempt to exploit its remains to gather intelligence about the F-35’s low observable and sensor technology.

In that occasion, the F-35 crashed in an area about 130 km from Misawa AB where the water depth was deemed to be about 10,000 feet. This might also be similar to yesterday’s crash, as it happened in open water with depths that can exceed, in some areas, over 3,000 meters, which correspond to about 10,000 feet. The area is also highly trafficked, given the proximity to the Suez Canal, and combined with the extreme depth, this reduces the chances of another country finding and exploiting any of the plane’s remains.

Even if someone succeeded, it is unlikely to gather useful data, as we wrote in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

“It could present problems depending on what is recovered, when it is recovered and, above all, in which conditions, after impacting the surface of the water,” our own David Cenciotti told Fox News via email. “The F-35 is a system of systems and its Low Observability/stealthiness is a system itself. It is obtained with a particular shape of the aircraft, a certain engine and the use of peculiar materials and systems all those are managed and tightly integrated by million lines of software code: this means that it would be extremely difficult to reverse engineer the aircraft by recovering debris and broken pieces from the ocean bed. However, there are still lots of interesting parts that could be studied to get some interesting details: a particular onboard sensor or something that can’t be seen from the outside but could be gathered by putting your hands on chunks of the aircraft intakes or exhaust section, on the radar reflectors etc.”

Yesterday’s F-35 mishap should be the sixth where the aircraft has been lost since it entered service, and the first non-US B-model crash. As of today, the list counts two US and one Japanese F-35A and two US and one British F-35B. Before the crash, the UK had 24 F-35Bs delivered, of which three in the USA for testing, eight on the HMSQE and the remaining ones at RAF Marham.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Here Is What We Know About Yesterday’s British F-35B Crash
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.

The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification
An F-35A Lightning II takes off to complete the final test exercise of the nuclear design certification process at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021 . Test pilots flew to the Tonopah Test Range at Nellis AFB and released two B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies from operationally realistic flight envelopes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

The Lightning II gets one step closer to become the next Air Force aircraft, and first 5th Generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) announced on October 4, 2021, the completion of an important milestone for the F-35A Lightning II, which is now one step closer to becoming the next U.S. Air Force aircraft, and the first 5th Generation platform, to achieve compatibility with the refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. This milestone saw the F-35 performing the first Full Weapon System Demonstration, considered the “graduation” flight test exercise for achieving nuclear design certification from an air-delivered platform.

The demonstration involved two F-35s assigned to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, according to the photos released with the announcement, but flown by pilots from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group. After taking off from Nellis AFB, Nevada, the two aircraft flew for 160 miles and conducted two separate drops of high-fidelity, non-nuclear mock B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs) at Sandia National Laboratories’ Tonopah Test Range.

The jets released the inert weapons at varying altitudes and airspeeds, clearing the desired operationally realistic flight envelopes in which the F-35A plans to operate. The flights marked the last of 10 guided releases of B61-12 test assets from the F-35A as well as the first release of the most representative B61-12 test asset from an operationally-representative F-35A (that might explain why Hill AFB’s jets were used instead of the 422nd TES own ones).

“The B61 series weapons are tactical gravity nuclear weapons that can be used on Dual Capable Aircraft like the F-15E and F-16C/D,” said Lt. Col Daniel Jackson, division chief, Headquarters ACC Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. “Having a 5th Generation DCA fighter aircraft with this capability brings an entirely new strategic-level capability that strengthens our nation’s nuclear deterrence mission.”

While the Lightning II is not yet fully certified to conduct real world nuclear operations, the successful completion of this Full Weapon System Demonstration concludes on-aircraft testing for F-35A’s initial nuclear certification effort. The nuclear certification is broken into two phases: nuclear design certification and nuclear operational certification. As already mentioned, this test concluded the first phase.

- The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design CertificationAn F-35A Lighting II carrying a B61-12 Joint Test Assembly sits on the flight line at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 21, 2021. Two F-35A Lightning II aircraft released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies during the first Full Weapon System Demonstration, completing the final flight test exercise of the nuclear design certification process. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

This demonstration was the culmination of years of planning and lead-up flight test activities and involved numerous organizations across the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DoE), which are now performing the technical analysis of the data collected during the test, with the goal of ensuring that all test requirements were met and that the B61-12 performs reliably and safely on the F-35A in all phases of operation.

“The B-2 bomber was the prominent nuclear capable stealth aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Jackson. “Adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a 5th-Gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet.” In addition to the F-35A, the B61-12 bomb will also be certified to fly on the F-15E Strike Eagle, B-2 Spirit, F-16C/D and F-16 MLU Fighting Falcon, PA-200 Tornado and B-21 Raider.

An estimated timeline for the completion of the full F-35A nuclear certification in support of real-world operations has not been released.

The successful completion of this test however covers a critical part of the nuclear certification process and ensures the F-35A will remain on track for future timelines, according to the JPO. The press release also specifies that not all aircraft will become nuclear-capable upon the full certification and only those units with a nuclear mission will be given the hardware and manpower necessary to configure and maintain nuclear capable F-35s.

The B61-12 capability on the F-35A also marks another significant achievement for the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin, as it becomes the first weapon to complete development and integration during F-35’s modernization phase. The F-35A will eventually play a critical role in the NATO nuclear deterrence mission as a complement, and later on as a replacement, of the F-16 and Tornado, fulfilling the requirements of the alliance’s nuclear sharing agreement.

The B61 entered service 50 years ago and has undergone a Life-Extention Program (LEP) to consolidate and replace four legacy bomb variants, the B61 -3, -4, -7, and -11 mods, into the B61-12. The refurbished B61-12 will allow the retirement of the larger B83, becoming the only remaining gravity delivered nuke in the inventory. The bomb will carry a low-yield nuclear warhead with four yield options, reportedly 0.3 kilotons, 1.5 kilotons, 10 kilotons and 50 kilotons, instead of larger warheads like the models it is replacing (which can reach 400 kilotons depending on the variants).

The 12-foot, 825-pound bomb is designed to be delivered from the air in either ballistic or guided-gravity drop modes, thanks to a new Boeing-built tail assembly that includes an Inertial Navigation System (INS) precision-guidance package and two spin rocket motors that improve the bomb’s stability on its longitudinal axis during the descent. The LEP is said to be increasing the B61’s accuracy so much (with a reported 30 m Circular Error Probability instead of the original 100 m) that it will have the same capability against hardened targets as the much more powerful weapons it is replacing.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - The F-35A Released B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies Completing Final Flight Test Of Nuclear Design Certification
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.

US F-35Bs Board Japan’s Aircraft Carrier Becoming First Fixed-Wing Aircraft To Operate From Japanese Ship Since WWII

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - US F-35Bs Board Japan’s Aircraft Carrier Becoming First Fixed-Wing Aircraft To Operate From Japanese Ship Since WWII
A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 242 conducts a low pass next to the Japanese Ship Izumo off the coast of Japan, Oct. 3, 2021. U.S. Marines and Sailors embarked aboard the Japanese Ship Izumo in support of the first ever F-35B Lightning II operations aboard a Japanese vessel. The U.S. and Japan continue to work closely together to broaden their operational capabilities, support the Treaty of mutual Cooperation and Security, and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Harmon)

The U.S. Marine Corps F-35s are the first fixed-wing aircraft to operate from a Japanese ship since WW2, following the decision to convert the JS Izumo from helicopter carrier to light aircraft carrier and the plan to buy 42 F-35Bs.

The Japanese MInistry of Defense announced today the first landing of U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jets on the JS Izumo, posting on Twitter photos and videos of the historic event. The JS Izumo completed the first part of the modifications required for the conversion from helicopter carrier to light aircraft carrier, becoming the first ship of this type in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since WW2. Also, the F-35s became the first fixed-wing aircraft to operate from a Japanese ship since WW2.

The JS Izumo is the lead ship of the Izumo class and, together with its sister ship JS Kaga, is the largest ship of the JMSDF. First launched in 2013, the Izumo already incorporated some design features to allow operations with fixed-wing wing aircraft, but the decision to finally convert it in an aircraft carrier only came in 2018. The first part of the modification works begun last year, with the ship receiving a new heat-resistant flight deck, new power supply equipment, lightning and deck markings.

The JMSDF then requested the collaboration of the United States for the testing, with the USMC deploying two F-35Bs of the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 242 “Bats” that landed on the Izumo for the first time on October 3, 2021. The two jets’ role is to verify that the F-35B can safely perform flight operations from the JS Izumo’s flight deck, before work resumes for the second round of modifications that will also involve the reshaping of the flight deck’s tapered ending to a squared surface.

For these trials, the JS Izumo was deployed to Iwakuni for a port visit before the beginning of the activities. MCAS Iwakuni is also home of VMFA-242, permanently stationed there together with VMFA-121 “Green Knights”. The unit declared the Initial Operational Capability last month, just 10 months after beginning the transition from the F/A-18 Hornet to the F-35B. During the trials, their F-35 also received the JS Izumo insignia on the tail, with a pilot showing a similar patch after landing.

“This trial has proved that the JS Izumo has the capability to support takeoffs and landings of STOVL aircraft at sea, which will allow us to provide an additional option for air defense in the Pacific Ocean in the near future”, said JMSDF Rear Admiral Shukaku Komuta, commander of Escort Flotilla One. “We still have work to do until the day the JSDF can regularly employ STOVL aircraft at sea, but I am confident that the strong partnership and mutual trust between our two counties will result in its realization.”

Following the decision to convert Izumo and Kaga from helicopter carriers to aircraft carriers, Japan decided to acquire an additional 100 F-35s, of which 42 are F-35Bs. The first 18 STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2023, forming the first of two Japanese F-35B squadrons. It is estimated that about 12/14 F-35Bs can be embarked on the Izumo when operational.

“We have the utmost confidence in the Joint Strike Fighter and are eager for our Japanese allies to have the same capabilities in their hands, which ultimately contributes to our shared goal of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Major General Brian W. Cavanaugh, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - US F-35Bs Board Japan’s Aircraft Carrier Becoming First Fixed-Wing Aircraft To Operate From Japanese Ship Since WWII
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.

MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air Refueling

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air Refueling
An MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, conducts its first aerial refueling test flight with an F-35C Lightning II Sept. 13 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.  (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

Following the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the unmanned MQ-25 tanker was now tested in conjunction with the F-35, moving at a fast pace towards the delivery of a fully mission-capable drone.

The U.S. Navy announced a few days ago the latest milestone of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker program, with the drone refueling for the first time the Navy’s newest fighter aircraft, the F-35C Lightning II. The successful test was conducted on September 13, 2021 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah (Illinois) and involved the Boeing-owned MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, an F-35C from Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) and an EA-18G Growler of the same unit as safety chase.

“Every T1 flight with another Type/Model/Series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 to the fleet,” said Capt. Chad Reed, the Navy’s PMA-268 program manager. “Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”

This event marked the third refueling flight for the T1 test aircraft, following the first refueling flights with an F/A-18F Super Hornet in June and with an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in August. Each aircraft type is aerodynamically unique so they will respond differently to the wake of a tanker and these flight tests are needed to assess how they will interact with each other and the refueling system. As we already reported, the MQ-25 employs the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), the same used by F/A-18s, to perform the refueling operation.

During the three-hour flight, as disclosed by the Navy, the F-35C approached T1, performed formation evaluations, wake surveys, drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225 knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS) and altitude of 10,000 feet. From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C. The data collected will now be analyzed to determine if any adjustments to guidance and control are required.

- MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air RefuelingThe F-35C Lightning II is refueled by the MQ-25 test asset as an F/A-18 chase aircraft hovers nearby during a test flight Sept. 13 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

The F-35C test will be the last land-based refueling test for now, as the Navy’s press release mentions that T1 will now enter into a modification period to integrate the deck handling system in preparation for a shipboard demonstration this winter. The MQ-25 T1 test asset has so far conducted 36 flights for a total of more than 120 flight hours, providing the program with valuable information on aerodynamics, propulsion, guidance and control in advance of the MQ-25 engineering and manufacturing development aircraft deliveries.

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.

Later this year, the U.S. Navy will stand up Unmanned Carrier-Launched Multi Role Squadron (VUQ) 10, the fleet replacement squadron; then, two MQ-25A squadrons, VUQ-11 and 12, will be established. These squadrons are set to deploy aboard U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers. The MQ-25 will be the first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft and will provide critical aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support the Air Wing of the Future – a mix of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, manned and unmanned platforms, and netted sensors and weapons.

Along with organic tanking, the Navy mentions that the MQ-25 will pave the way for manned and unmanned teaming (MUM-T) of carrier-based aircraft that will extend the strike range and enhance maneuverability, possibly opening to new concepts in the future for carrier-based Loyal Wingman-type unmanned aircraft.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air Refueling
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.

What Remains Of F-35A That Crashed At Eglin Last Year Will Be Transformed Into Training Aids For F-35 maintainers

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - What Remains Of F-35A That Crashed At Eglin Last Year Will Be Transformed Into Training Aids For F-35 maintainers
The fuselage of a condemned F-35A Lightning II Aug. 23, 2021, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, that has been decontaminated, painted and made safe for further handling. The aircraft was involved in a landing mishap in 2020 at Eglin AFB, Florida, but is now being transformed into sectional training aids by Airmen at Hill AFB for use during instruction of F-35 maintainers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

Some parts of the F-35 involved in a landing mishap at Eglin Air Force Base will be used for instruction of F-35 maintainers.

On May 19, 2020, F-35A aircraft tail number 12-005053, operated by the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Operations Group, assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing, crashed 4,600 feet down the Runway 30 (slightly left of the centerline) at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Florida.

The pilot ejected safely from the aircraft (sustaining non-life threatening injuries) while the aircraft, valued at $175,983,949, rolled, caught fire, and was completely destroyed (you can read more about the causes of the mishap here).

Although it was initially thought to be scrapped, Airmen in the 372nd Training Squadron, Det. 3, at Hill AFB found a way for the aircraft (or what remained of it) to bolster maintenance training opportunities for military and civilian F-35 maintainers assigned to the base’s 388th Fighter Wing, 419th Fighter Wing, and Ogden Air Logistics Complex.

“Initially, the jet was to be scrapped and destroyed,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Wilkow, 372nd TRS in a public release. ”However, we explored the possibility that some parts such as avionics, fuel cell and gun system might still be in relative pristine condition inside the damaged crust and usable for training.”

In fact, some major components needed for the training aids were still usable.

- What Remains Of F-35A That Crashed At Eglin Last Year Will Be Transformed Into Training Aids For F-35 maintainersAirman 1st Class Andrew Simpson and Airman 1st Class Fabio Velazquez Gonzalez, both with the 388th Maintenance Squadron corrosion control shop, work on decontamination and surface sanding a condemned F-35A Lightning II July 20, 2021, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The aircraft was involved in a landing mishap in 2020 at Eglin AFB, Florida, but is now being transformed into sectional training aids by Airmen at Hill AFB for use during instruction of F-35 maintainers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Cromar)

“Obviously, accidents are unfortunate, but when it comes to aircraft involved in a mishap, I have always found that there is a silver lining and something to be gained,” Santos said. “In terms of the wreckage being recycled and used for other purposes, these kinds of innovative efforts save the DoD and taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Especially on pretty “young” fleets, maintenance training is usually carried out on frontline aircraft. However, this is not always doable, as most of times, jets requiring maintenance are to be immediately returned to flying status and can’t support training activities of ground personnel.

- What Remains Of F-35A That Crashed At Eglin Last Year Will Be Transformed Into Training Aids For F-35 maintainers(Left to right) Staff Sgt. Cameron Salmon and Staff Sgt. Steven Kuethe, Ogden Air Logistics Complex aircraft battle damage and repair, and Master Sgt. Andrew Wilkow, 372nd Training Squadron, Det. 3, cut off the wing of a condemned F-35A Lightning II and prep it for transport at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The aircraft was involved in a landing mishap at Eglin in 2020 and Airmen at Hill AFB, Utah, are currently involved in transforming it into sectional training aids for use during instruction of F-35 maintainers. (Courtesy photo)

“Until now, maintenance training has been accomplished using operational aircraft,” said Tech. Sgt. Dennis Corcoran, 372nd TRS. “Obviously, this is a significant challenge because often units are unable to support training evolutions, simply due to operational commitments or the real-world need for jets requiring maintenance to be immediately returned to flying status, in order to maintain the squadron’s readiness requirements.”

Therefore, the aircraft was relocated to Hill in July and activities conducted in coordination with a U.S. Navy unit also interested in some of the aircraft’s components for test and evaluation. The project is expected to be completed during the next year.

First task to be completed, is to clean remove from the airframe all the potentially hazardous materials.

“Our shop is involved with removing contaminants, cleaning up any fluid or chemical residue, trimming off exposed burnt composites, and removing sharp edges or metal damage,” Tech. Sgt. Kevin Browning, 388th Maintenance Squadron NCOIC of corrosion control, said. “Then we prep and paint the components, so that they are safe to handle.”

The next phase of the project will include cutting the entire fuselage lengthwise and then into individual component sections. The sections will then be framed and mounted on stands to give maintainers as much access as possible to the training aids.

“The whole process has been a team effort from the beginning and only possible through the time, effort and cooperation put forth by many individual professionals throughout the Air Force, as well as many highly skilled Airmen, from multiple units across Hill Air Force Base,” Corcoran said.

By the way, the images released by the Air Force give an idea of the extent of the damage the aircraft suffered as a consequence of the accident. The fact they found something re-usable in that airframe looks like almost a miracle….

H/T to Ryan Chan for the heads-up!

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - What Remains Of F-35A That Crashed At Eglin Last Year Will Be Transformed Into Training Aids For F-35 maintainers
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.

Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise
An F-35 Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 23, 2021. Red Flag was created to increase interoperability, leveraging common perspectives against shared threats. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Miranda A. Loera)

Red Flag 21-3 saw the participation of all services from the U.S. Armed Forces to train next generation joint warfighting against more modern, stronger and dangerous threats, including Aggressor F-35s.

Blue air participants of Red Flag 21-3 found themselves fighting for the first time against F-35 Lightning II aggressor pilots, in one of the most complex exercises ever held at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) which included every domain of the modern warfighting. Red Flag exercises have been around for 46 years to tactically train fighter pilots but, as the threats posed by potential adversaries evolve, time has come for the exercise to evolve to its next generation.

“I have air-to-air aggressors. I have surface-to-air aggressors. I have space and information aggressors. The aggressor is the person who’s here to train blue by providing a realistic and robust adversary that they, being blue, have to actively fight against. They have to use every bit of the capabilities that they have and every bit of integration that they can compile to achieve what their intent is for that day”, said Col. Scott Mills, commander of the 57th Operations Group and an F-35 aggressor pilot. “Knowing what I know about those blue air capabilities and the blue air integration, my job is to pick that apart, to pull at the seams,” he continued. “The aggressor nation here is one of the best in the world at finding those niches, finding those gaps and seams, and absolutely punishing those mistakes that blue air makes.”

Lt. Col. Chris Finkenstadt, commander of the 64th Aggressor Squadron, said in the press release that Aggressor F-35s are being introduced during this Red Flag to expand upon the F-16 aggressors’ threat capabilities, so the exercise’s scenario more accurately represents advanced enemy fighters. It should be noted that F-35s already took the adversary role during past Red Flags, but the important difference here is that this time the 5th gen aircraft are operated by 64th Aggressor Squadron pilots, which are specialized in the threat replication thanks to their lengthy certification process where they gain a comprehensive understanding of U.S. adversaries and their tactics.

“What aggressors are able to present to them is a more challenging problem for blue air assault,” said Lt. Col. Finkenstadt. “The aggressors know the threat replication a little bit better, and they have studied the adversary and the way that the adversary would actually react to a specific situation. Based on our focus toward great power competition, we need to make sure that those guys are ready, and we do that by presenting the best possible atmosphere we can.”

The role of the F-35 as Aggressor during Red Flag is important as it will showcase what blue forces can do against low-observable type threats similar to what potential adversaries are developing, like the Russian Su-57 Felon and Su-75 Checkmate and the Chinese J-20 Mighty Dragon and FC-31 Gyrfalcon. The pilots of 4th gen aircraft might be at a disadvantage against those threats, so the F-35’s new Aggressor role should help to develop the tactics that will help pilots to fight and win against 5th gen threats.

“At the end of the day, my job is not to give blue an easy day. My job is to give blue the absolute toughest day that I can. And the way for me to do that is to bring the F-35 into the fight. And the F-35 is going to make it exceptionally difficult for blue to achieve their objectives. They’re going to need to take every bit of capability they have, every bit of integration they can, to achieve their intent,” said Col. Mills.

- Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag ExerciseAn F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, taxis in preparation for a mission during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 21, 2021. Red Flag takes place over the Nevada Test and Training Range and provides the warfighter a flexible, realistic and multidimensional battle space to conduct advanced training of U.S. military services and coalition forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Hicks)

Air Force officials did not provide precise info about the performance of the F-35 during the simulated engagements however, even if they did, those numbers would not make much sense as they are strictly dependent on the actual Rules Of Engagement (ROE) and the training scenario. In fact, the scenario and ROE might even put the fighters in situations that would never happen in a real engagement, just for the training value to have pilots ready for anything and prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“The first two days, blue’s nose gets pretty bloodied. And then by the end of week one, you start to see their lessons learned are getting passed around and they’re starting to figure things out a little bit,” said Lt. Col. Finkenstadt. “Then, day one or two of week two, they may get their nose bloodied again, because we tend to ramp it up a little bit. It usually takes a couple of days to start figuring out different game plans and how they want to package their forces to solve their problems.”

During exercises like Red Flag, the de-brief after each mission is invaluable and maybe even more important than the mission itself, as pilots and crews will go all over their flight planning again, taking a look at how they reacted, what the threat was, what they didn’t see and what they didn’t do. At the same time, the debriefing is where the new lessons learned will help figure out how to best combine everyone’s capability so the joint effort can successfully reach the mission objectives.

“We see walls come down between communities. We see stovepipes disappear. We see teams that have never before worked together, not only working together, but truly integrating their capabilities to achieve an end result. And I’ll tell you when blue air does that, it’s exceptionally difficult for red air to pull that game plan apart,” said Col. Mills. “At the end of the day, the truth is that no one of us, no one capability is outstanding or the best in the world. Our outstanding capability comes from the fact that we work together well through exercises like this. We operate across our joint and coalition partners to form one truly unstoppable blue force.”

And here we reached the second focal point of the latest Red Flag exercise, the joint forces. Red Flag-Nellis 21-3 involved only U.S. personnel, allowing the joint participants from other services and major commands to focus on details and sharpen their skillsets at a high classification and high tactical level against a stronger, more dangerous threat. Alongside the Air Force, the exercise included the Navy, Marine Corps, Space Force, Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves, with more than 100 airframes, including 40 5th generation aircraft.

“When you can bring joint units along with the Air Force in an environment like this, it’s no longer part-task training,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Stef, Red Flag commander. “It is full integration… We will better know and understand their service culture. Red Flag is the opportunity people get to come and start to build those relationships that will ultimately last a career.”

Lt. Col. Stef said that Red Flag 21-3 was focused on a Pacific region threat, an area where the great power competition continues to bring the tensions between China and the USA higher and higher. As mentioned in the press release, Red Flag is another way to prepare and allow participants to experience situations similar to those possible in the real-world, so the Pacific Air Forces brought to the exercise their insight about the different problem sets and unique perspectives of the Pacific region.

“Joint interoperability is important,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Tim Miller, VMFA-115 Marine Fighting Squadron commanding officer. “It allows us to practice how we are going to operate in the event that some real-world combat operation was to arise. That’s kind of where the Department of Defense is focusing now, which has put some additional emphasis on exercises such as Red Flag. It’s all about integration, and we’re still able to get that done in an extremely professional environment. For our maintainers to understand how the airfield operates and functions is a huge combat readiness enabler for us”.

- Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag ExerciseA U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet, assigned to the All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533, taxis out during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 3, 2021. Red Flag exercises are conducted on the Nevada Test and Training Range, which houses more than 12,000 square miles of air space and 2.9 million acres of land. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

However, while everyone is working to build the joint warfighting machine, someone has to give them some obstacles to face. While the 64th AGRS provides cutting-edge air-to-air threats, the 414th Combat Training Squadron makes air-to-ground employment more challenging with complex target areas, camouflage and concealment techniques across multiple spectrums and advanced surface-to-air threats.

Red Flag, in fact, unleashes the aggressor nation as they refine threat replication, apply advanced jamming and increase threat capabilities to maximize training in non-permissive environments. “Red Flag’s goal is to challenge, disrupt and if able, deny our communication and interoperability,” said Lt. Col. Evan Parr, 27th Fighter Squadron director of operations. “They force errors and punish mistakes. We get better by working through these problems in the air and as we debrief each fight.”

Another novelty of Red Flag 21-3 is the integration of space components into both blue and red forces. “As non-kinetics and Space itself, we’ve already infused with Global Positioning Systems, satellite communications (SATCOM) and bringing what we offer at Red Flag on the electronic warfare side,” said 2nd Lt. Joshua Miller, 16th Space Control Squadron. Miller explained that electronic attack and electronic surveillance assets provide an option to help monitor and detect Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) for the blue forces’ signals and its health, while also allowing to do the same against the red force’s EMIs.

The 414th CTS planned a multitude of joint space assets and tools to rival both red and blue forces during the exercise. “Without space-based capabilities, you lose access to GPS satellites, around the world communication, SATCOM, along with convenience,” said Maj. Paul Sula, 26th Space Aggressor Squadron standards and evaluation flight commander. “I believe there is a role to play, and space is a fantastic enabler.”

Meanwhile, this seems to be just the first of many renewed Red Flags, as the Air Force is planning to make more space at Nellis AFB for 5th gen fighters. The 4th generation A-10 and HH-60 squadrons will move from Nellis AFB to Davis-Monthan AFB (Arizona), starting in fiscal year 2022 and freeing additional range capacity necessary to test and train warfighters in 5th-generation aircraft.

“Our nation and joint force commanders depend on us to control and exploit the air. To do that, we need the additional range and aircraft maintenance infrastructure capacity at Nellis to fully test and train with our most advanced capabilities,” said Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command. “Our rescue squadrons will continue to train and hone their critical skills in support of operational missions from their new location.”

The move however will also allow personnel recovery units to take advantage of the synergy provided by collocating with other rescue units, as Davis-Monthan AFB already hosts HH-60s and HC-130s, in addition to A-10C squadrons. The A-10 Weapons Instructor Course and Test and Evaluation operations will transition to Davis-Monthan AFB in 2022. The HH-60 WIC, Test and combat coded units to include the 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 66th Rescue Squadron, 58th Rescue Squadron, the 34th Weapons Squadron and the 855th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron will move beginning in 2024.

By the way, the Air Force is planning to modernize and maintain only 218 of the current fleet of 281 combat-capable A-10s, according to Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Plans and Programs deputy chief of staff. Among the aircraft affected by the cuts there are 35 A-10C already based at Davis-Monthan AFB. The decision however is not final, as the retirement of the first 42 A-10s is subject to congressional approval.

“Under this plan, Davis-Monthan will play a critical role in reshaping U.S. airpower as home to the Air Force’s close air support and rescue Centers of Excellence,” said then Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth. “This realignment will consolidate all A-10 and HH-60 test, training, and weapon school activity at one location, allowing Airmen in these mission areas to train together for future threats.”

With these changes, the Air Force plans to transform Nellis AFB in a 5th Generation Center of Excellence. The base is currently on track to receive more F-35s to support F-35 operational test requirements and additional F-35As from Eglin AFB (Florida), as part of the reactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron, and additional F-22s for testing from Tyndall AFB (Florida), as well as further improving the Nevada Test and Training Range to train 5th generation systems in a live environment.

As we already reported here at The Aviationist, the Air Force has been working for a couple of years already to reactivate the 65th Aggressor Squadron. The unit will receive about a dozen early production non-combat capable 5th generation aircraft by 2022 (with the first possibly later this year) as Eglin AFB receive newly produced aircraft to replace them. While during Red Flag 21-3 the F-35s flown by the 64th AGRS pilots were in the standard USAF livery, the 57th Wing confirmed that a threat representative color scheme will be used on some of the Aggressor F-35s.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Aggressor F-35s Joined The Fight During First Next Generation Red Flag Exercise
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.

NATO Fighters Intercepted Two Rare Russian Il-22PP ‘Mute’ EW Aircraft Over The Baltics For The Very First Time

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A file photo of the Il-22PP Mute. (All images: Alex Snow)

The Il-22PP Special Mission Aircraft were intercepted over the Baltic Sea for the very first time.

Some pretty interesting close encounters between NATO fighters supporting BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission and Russian aircraft flying in international airspace close to the airspace of the Baltic States took place on Jul. 29, 2021: overall, two Il-22PP “Mute” Electronic Warfare Aircraft, one Su-24 Fencer and an Il-76 Candid transport were tracked, intercepted and identified in the same area as they were on their way to Russia from Kaliningrad Oblast.

According to NATO, NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem in Germany launched the allied fighter aircraft to intercept and identify them. The Russian aircraft did not have flight plans nor transmit transponder codes, and thus posed a potential risk to civilian flights.

The intercept mission was carried out by Spanish Air Force Eurofighters and Italian Air Force F-35s, both on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duty in the Baltic region.

Noteworthy, it was the very first time NATO intercepted the Il-22PP Porubshchik (NATO designation “Mute”) in that region. The “electronic escort” aircraft made its first appearance in 2017, during the celebrations of the 105th anniversary of the Russian air force over Kubinka. According to Piotr Butowski, the aircraft is a SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and stand-off jamming platform, based on a converted Il-22 “Coot-B” aircraft (a command post and radio relay aircraft based on the Il-18D airliner).

According to Mikhail Khodorenok, a retired colonel and military analyst of the Gazeta.ru online newspaper, the Il-22PP was a necessity for the military when no other options were available:

“At one time, a few more options were considered: AN-140 and AN-158 planes with turbojet engines as well as the Tu-214,” he told RBTH. “However, at the time of the formation of the ‘defense procurement’ in 2009, none of these models were not yet fully ready to be equipped with the latest electronic warfare [EW] systems.”

“Of course, this is not an ideal solution,” he added, explaining why the new weapon has been placed on a “trusty old horse.” “However, for lack of a better option, a choice had to be made – either to stay without the EW aircraft, or to mount the equipment on the tested wings.”

While it might be a gap filler until  it is replaced by a more modern aircraft in the future, the Il-22PP aircraft (also nicknamed “Fridge” by the Russians – because it’s large and white..), is equipped with antennas so that it scans radio signals in the area of its activity and selectively jam those on which enemy aircraft, drones or air defense systems work.

- NATO Fighters Intercepted Two Rare Russian Il-22PP ‘Mute’ EW Aircraft Over The Baltics For The Very First TimeAnother image of the Il-22P. Note all the bulges of this special mission aircraft.

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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.
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