Tag: f-35

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Who Says the F-35 Can’t Dogfight? You Just Gotta Jump Out of It for the Best Shot!

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F-35 Battlefield
A screenshot of the BF trailer. (All images credit: EA DICE)

BattleField 2042 debuts with wild trailer showing pilot ejecting from F-35 to shoot down a Su-57 Felon with a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon. And gaming fans are loving it!

Well, if you still have your doubts about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s ability to dogfight, the newly released BattleField 2042 should put those concerns to rest.

The new game reveal video (a big thank you to @malgordon for the heads-up!) shows us what the Air Force can’t, the real way to dogfight in an F-35: you just have to jump out and use your shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon against the enemy Su-57 Felon, then, climb right back in and hit the afterburner!

We’re not quite sure where you put an anti-tank missile in the cockpit of an F-35, why the throttle on this F-35 suddenly appears on the right side of the cockpit, or why the pilot isn’t wearing an F-35 helmet, but hey, this is gaming. We don’t sweat the details. It’s all about the action! Besides, with a soundtrack from L.A. bad boy rockers Motley Crüe, what’s not to love?

F-35 Battlefield
The sequence of the Su-57 downing.

And speaking of action, the new game play video shows plenty of cool new weapons systems, real and imagined, some super tacti-cool uniforms and gear, and a pretty crazy face-off between some Ka-50 Hokum gunships and a souped-up Little Bird that eventually gets creamed by a guy who does an XGames ghost ride big-air off a skyscraper into the chopper. They teach this stuff at Ft. Benning now, don’t they?

The latest installment in the popular BattleField gaming series, the 2042 edition was revealed in a new game play trailer on June 9, 2021. Over 2.2 million viewers, and counting, have watched the bizarre mix of X-Games extreme sports, fantasy special operations and apocalyptic, all-out global war so far.

In a particularly weird twist, the game also gives players control over the weather. So, if you ever wondered what it would be like to wage an all-out, close quarters battle in urban terrain in the middle of a tornado, well, now you can get your answer.

In a June 11, 2021 article by gaming columnist Vic Hood, game developer EA DICE’s chief studios officer Laura Miele told techradar.com that, “We are creating epic battles at a scale and fidelity unlike anything you’ve experienced before”. The visuals in this new trailer confirm what Miele says. As outlandish as the action is, the appearance of the game is stunning.

This is the 17th edition of the Battlefield series, and the new game releases on October 22, 2021, for the PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One and good ‘ole PC platforms according to techradar.com. Pre-orders are live now. There’s no word yet if the Air Force, Marines or Navy will use the F-35 dogfight scenes to develop new outside-the-cockpit close-quarter combat tactics though..

Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.

Russian Su-30SM and Italian F-35As Had Their First Close Encounter Over The Baltic Sea

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Russian Su-30SM Italian F-35A
A screenshot of the video released by the Fighter Bomber instagram account showing the Russian Su-30SM and the Italian F-35A.

A video shows an interesting intercept that occurred in international airspace off Estonia.

It was just a matter of time but, in the end, a pretty interesting (and quite relaxed) close encounter between a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM two-seat multirole aircraft and two Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft, took place in the Baltic Region.

One video and two shots, released today by the popular “Fighter Bomber” (@fighter_bomber_) Instagram account, show a Russian Su-30SM Flanker derivative flying alongside two F-35As over the Baltic Sea, somewhere off Estonia, where the Italian stealth jets are deployed to carry out QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) task in support of NATO Baltic Air Policing mission.

The short clip shows the two F-35s approaching what seems to be a An-12 (like the one already intercepted by the Italians in that scenario on May 14) aircraft that is probably flying to/from Kaliningrad oblast escorted by at least one Su-30SM.

The Italian F-35A involved in the intercept belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, the first unit of the Aeronautica Militare to receive the Lightning in 2016 and the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in November 2018. As explained in details in a few recent articles, the Italian jets have arrived in Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021, marking both the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to the Baltic and the first time 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States. On May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

The Italian F-35A jets carry out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service in the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay. They also carry RCS (Radar Cross Section) enhancers (so they don’t fly in stealth mode).

Interestingly, the Su-30SM in the video appears to carry an IR-guided R-27T/ET (NATO reporting name AA-10 Alamo) air-to-air missile. Even more worth of remark is the fact that the Flanker was escorting an An-12: unless this was some special mission variant of the “Cub”, it seems quite weird that the Russian Su-30SM was escorting a simple transport aircraft. Unless, they knew NATO would scramble the F-35s and wanted the close encounter to take place.  Anyway, let’s also wait for NATO to release some details (and possibly photo) of the intercept.

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 Are The Photos Of The First Ever Intercept Of A Russian Aircraft By F-35 Under NATO Command In The Baltics

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F-35 intercept An-12
An Italian Air Force F-35 fighter aircraft intercepting a Russian An-12 on 14 May 2021. This was the first intercept a modern fighter aircraft executed in the Baltic Sea region as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission. Italy has augmented the collective Allied mission safeguarding the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since beginning of May 2021. Photo by Italian Air Force (all rights reserved).

We have obtained the photos of the first intercept by F-35s supporting NATO Baltic Air Policing mission last month.

As already reported, the Italian Air Force F-35 aircraft deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, carried out their first intercept on May 14, 2021.

The Lightning II jets, belonging to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, were scrambled after the Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, detected an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad. Upon take off, the F-35s in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft flying in international airspace off Estonia.

Initially, no official photo of the intercepted Russian aircraft was released. “Actually, unlike the majority of the other allies, Italy rarely releases images of the “zombies” (as the targets of the intercept mission are called in fighter pilot lingo) taken by the Italian pilots during their QRA launches in support of NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing missions around Europe,” this Author commented back then.

However, responding to a request we submitted immediately after the news of the intercept had been released, NATO Allied Air Command has eventually provided us two images showing one of the two Italian F-35s escorting the An-12 over the Baltics: nothing special to be honest, since the configuration of the Lightning was standard (with RCS enhancers and no external air-to-air missile launchers) and the “zombie” was just a “Cub” transport plane, still interesting, as they represent the only photo evidence of the first ever intercept of an F-35 under NATO command in the Baltics for the records.

Noteworthy, you can also see the pretty distinctive wingtip vortices (similar to contrails) generated by the F-35.

The flaperon and wingtip vortices have long been subject of discussion here at The Aviationist. GAO claimed that these could affect the aircraft’s stealth performance; others suggest these visible “tubes of circulating air which are left behind the aircraft’s wing as it generates lift” may make the aircraft more easily picked up visually by an enemy pilot in a WVR (Within Visual Range) engagement even though some pilots have explained that they are not a factor because if you are close enough to see the F-35’s vortices, you are probably close enough to see the jet. True, although some images taken from the ground and posted online recently of F-35s trailing a tanker indeed seem to confirm that, under certain conditions, those vortices may highlight the presence of the jet from several miles away.

F-35 intercept An-12
An Italian Air Force F-35 fighter aircraft intercepting a Russian An-12 on 14 May 2021. This was the first intercept a modern fighter aircraft executed in the Baltic Sea region as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission. Italy has augmented the collective Allied mission safeguarding the skies above Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since beginning of May 2021. Photo by Italian Air Force (all rights reserved).

The Italian F-35s deployed to Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021; on May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

The Italian F-35s will remain in Estonia for the BAP mission until August, supporting “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia. The F-35s will then be replaced by the Italian Typhoons as the plan calls for Italy to support NATO BAP in Estonia until the end of 2021.

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.

Northern Edge 21 Wraps Up Achieving Important Testing Goals Of New Capabilities For The Joint Forces

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Northern Edge 21
A view from the cockpit of the U-2 Dragon Lady as it flies over the USS Roosevelt during Northern Edge 21. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Beale AFB)

The high-end realistic scenario of Northern Edge 21 allowed testers to assess the behaviour of new systems and upgrades before their fielding to frontline units.

Northern Edge 21, the premier bi-annual joint exercise of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, took place this year through May 3 to May 14 in locations in and around Alaska. The exercise, which involved Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy, recreated high-end realistic warfighter training to practice tactics, techniques and procedures and to improve command, control and communication relationships, improving the joint interoperability and enhancing the combat readiness in a large force employment training scenario with a focus on multi-domain operations.

With all these characteristics, Northern Edge provides an ideal joint test environment for new systems and capabilities to be evaluated in realistic combat scenarios as part of their initial, culminating and milestone tests. The Nellis AFB-based 53rd Wing deployed more than 25 aircraft from its tenant units, alongside the Eglin AFB-based 96th Test Wing and the 926th Wing, to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, including the F-15C, F-15E, F-15EX, F-35, MQ-9, B-52 and U-2. The Wing achieved major test objectives for multiple weapons systems during the exercise, with a lot of useful data to analyze for further development.

“Northern Edge is an essential event for operational tests,” said Col. Ryan Messer, 53rd Wing commander. “It is one of only a handful of exercises that combine great power competition-level threat complexities with the joint interoperability necessary to realistically inform our test data. The individuals in the 53rd Wing continue to inspire me with how they challenge themselves and their programs in complex environments, ensuring we deliver the most lethal, ready and capable force for our nation.”

The common key objective for the assets deployed to Alaska was the integration of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, and in particular the integration of the newly arrived F-15EX Eagle with the F-35 Lightning II. Here below are some further details published by the 53rd Wing about the operational tests during Northern Edge 21, grouped by platform.

F-35A Lightning II

The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron recently fielded a new Operational Flight Program, called Suite 30P06, to the Combat Air Forces’ F-35s Lightning II. Northern Edge allowed operational testers to evaluate how the new OFP software functioned in a realistic threat environment to inform the tactics associated with the software. “At Northern Edge, we are validating our assumptions that we made in the OFP test process on a grand, realistic scale and incorporating WEPTAC Tactics Improvement Proposals,” said Maj. Scott Portue, 422 TES F-35 pilot.

Northern Edge 21
An F-35 Lightning II from the 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., taxis on a runway at exercise Northern Edge 21. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members participated in the joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces May 3-14, 2021, on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

These Tactics Improvement Proposals, known as “TIPs,” are established at the annual weapons and tactics conference, which brings together warfighters to discuss current and future issues and to find solutions for joint operations (in fact, while this is primarily an Air Force event, Army, Marines and Navy often take part to the discussion). TIPs tested this year at Northern Edge by the 422 TES included F-35 emissions control, which consist in minimizing the F-35’s emissions to get as close as possible to the adversary, and fourth-to-fifth (and fifth-to-fourth) electronic attack tactics, techniques and procedures.

“As a fifth-gen. asset, we have stealth, so we can physically get closer, but we may not have all the weapons that a fourth-gen. aircraft, like a (F-15) Strike Eagle, does. We’re trying to figure out how we (fourth- and fifth-generation platforms) can benefit each other so that we can get closer to the adversary,” Maj. Portue said. The F-35’s integration with 4th gen. aircraft has been the focus of many exercises, and this example represent the importance of the integration.

Talking about these benefits, Maj. Portue further explained that, for example, the AN/ALQ-250 Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS), which is being installed on the F-15, can allow an F-35 to control its emissions, while getting closer to the enemy, by not using its own radar or employing its own EA (Electronic Attack) capabilities. Additionally, the F-35 performed missions in the Gulf of Alaska focused on exploring maritime tactics and joint interoperability with the other branches of the military.

“When we talk about fourth- and fifth-gen. integration, we absolutely mean joint integration. Northern Edge is the biggest melting pot that we have as a joint force, in which we can test the most cutting-edge technologies, OFPs (operational flight program) and tactics and see how they match up against a near-peer threat,” Maj. Portue said.

F-15C Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15EX Eagle II

One of the main goals for the F-15 testers during Northern Edge 21 was the testing of EPAWSS by exploiting the complex electronic attack environment created for the exercise. According to the Air Force press release, EPAWSS was put to the test in the F-15E Strike Eagle, which is set to receive the new system as an upgrade, and the F-15EX Eagle II, which will be equipped with EPAWSS from the factory.

Northern Edge 21
An F-15EX Eagle II from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, takes flight for the first time out of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., April 26, 2021, prior to departure for Northern Edge 2021. The F-15EX brings next-generation combat technology to a highly successful fighter airframe that is capable of projecting power across multiple domains for the Joint Force. (U.S Air Force photo by 1st Lt Savanah Bray)

However, we can notice from the photos released that EPAWSS appears to be installed also on two F-15Cs deployed to Alaska for the exercise. Initially, the Eagle was set to receive the new system along with the Strike Eagle, however it was later decided to abandon the project because of the not-so-distant retirement of the aircraft.

One of the milestones reached during Northern Edge is the first-ever four-ship mission of F-15Es equipped with EPAWSS, which flew on May 14 and saw the Strike Eagles employing EPAWSS as it would be used operationally in a tactical formation. Lt. Col. Reade Loper, Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force F-15E test director, remarked the significance of this milestone as the large force, dense-threat environment of the exercise provided opportunities for growth that might be difficult to recreate during home-station flying.

One of these opportunities came from the continuous evolution of modern EW combat scenarios, with threats changing their emissions to avoid jamming and countermeasures. This kind of scenarios require a continuous work on the database that lies within systems like EPAWSS to adapt them to new threats, and the speed of this process is vital. A demonstration of this was performed by the system’s producer, BAE Systems, which was able to rapidly reprogram and improve the mission data files for EPAWSS during the exercise over just one to two days.

Another system that was tested on the F-15, and specifically the F-15C, is the Legion Pod IRST (Infrared Search and Track) system. Northern Edge 21 was the last step to complete the operational flight testing of the Legion Pod, a “graduation” test event as described by the Air Force, before the fielding of the new system with the frontline squadrons.

The Legion Pod integrates the IRST21 sensor, the same that was selected for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to be integrated on the centerline external fuel tank. Unlike the radar, the IRST is a passive sensor which does not have electronic emissions and can work also in presence of jamming systems. Last year, an F-15C used the pod during a test mission to target and launch an AIM-9X IR-guided air-to-air missile without the use of the radar.

Maj. Aaron Osborne, 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron F-15C pilot, explained that the IRST allows pilots to have an “out-of-band” sensor to find what an electronically scanned radar (AESA) cannot, particularly in the event of an electronic attack.  “IRST pod is an added capability to the warfighter and is proving capable in the dense electronic attack threat environment of Northern Edge,” Maj. Osborne said. “While at Northern Edge, I’m using the pod not as a test pilot, but exactly as I would in the CAF or in operations. We’re checking the final boxes of the test plan here before the pod fields and using it with the latest operational flight program.”

Northern Edge 21 was also the perfect opportunity to test the latest operational flight program for the F-15C and F-15E, called Suite 9.1RR (Re-Release), which is similar to the OFP  used by the F-15EX, Suite 9.1X. The new software, which will be soon fielded to the CAF, brings new capabilities that otherwise would have had to wait until Suite 9.2 in late spring of 2023. Among the improvements, one of the most notable is the new Data Transfer Module 2 (DTM II). The DTM is the system used to transfer all the data needed for a flight mission (route, IFF codes, radio frequencies, weapon settings and so on) from mission planning computers to the aircraft.

Northern Edge 21
Maj. Aaron Osborne, F-15C Eagle pilot with the 28th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., prepares to fly an operational test sortie at exercise Northern Edge 21 while carrying an Infrared Search and Track pod, known as the Legion Pod. NE21 is a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercise designed to provide high-end, realistic warfighter training, develop and improve joint interoperability, and enhance the combat readiness of participating forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

Until now, the F-15 kept using the same system that was fist developed in the 1980s, but the latest aircraft processor, the Advanced Display Core Processor 2, and new OFPs needed more memory than it was available on the DTM. “With 9.1RR, we’ve been able to upgrade the entire data transfer system to keep up with our new software. DTM II increases in memory capacity from 2MB to 256GB,” Lt. Col. Loper said. “With the increase in memory and processing power, we can now add all sorts of new tactical capabilities to the aircraft.”

Northern Edge 21 saw also the participation of the two recently delivered F-15EXs.

During the exercise, the Air Force assessed during 33 flight sorties how the F-15EX performs in the roles usually assigned to the F-15C and how to bring new capabilities to the mission. Air Force Magazine talked to Lt. Col. John O’Rear of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron, who provided some more details.

The Eagle II was paired with the older F-15C and F-15E, as well as the fifth-generation F-22 and F-35, both shooting down adversaries and getting shot down itself. “If you go into any large force exercise and you come back with everybody—with no blue losses—I would probably say that your threat is not as robust as it needs to be, in order to get the learning,” Lt. Col. O’Rear said. “In this kind of environment, most of your blue ‘deaths’ are probably going to be outside of visual range, just because of the threat we’re replicating.” The scenario was purposedly designed to be unforgiving so the blue forces would sustain losses that are used to discover weaknesses and find out how to mitigate or eliminate them.

Northern Edge 21
F-15 Eagles and Strike Eagles from the 53rd Wing and 96th Test Wing sit on the ramp at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska during exercise Northern Edge 21. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members participated in the joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces, May 3-14, 2021. The exercise was conducted on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

MQ-9 Reaper

Another asset that was heavily involved in testing activities at Northern Edge is the MQ-9 Reaper, with the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron operating out of Eielson Air Force Base while working with new pods, including the hardened targeting pod and Reaper Defense Electronic Support System, and auto-take-off and landing. The Reaper is in fact receiving new capabilities that will bring it to the new MQ-9 M2DO (Multi-Domain Operation) configuration, ensuring that it will be able to support operations over the next 10 to 15 years.

“The hardened targeting pod has an electro-optical counter-counter measure and testing that is one of our objectives at Northern Edge,” said Lt. Col. Mike Chmielewski, 556th TES commander. “We’re also demonstrating the capability of the RDESS pod, of which there is currently only one in the world.”

The RDESS pod is a broad spectrum, passive Electronic Support Measure (ESM) payload designed to collect and geo-locate signals of interest from standoff ranges, providing the MQ-9 the ability to find and detect threats from a safe distance in contested environment the one replicated during Northern Edge. Another upgrade tested is the anti-jam, anti-spoofing (AJAS) system TIP, which utilized new aircraft antenna capability to see its impacts on GPS effectiveness in a denied environment and mitigate potential jamming to the platform.

Northern Edge 21
An MQ-9 Reaper with three Ghost Reaper pods awaits takeoff at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, N.Y., April, 14, 2021. The pods will establish new and enhanced capabilities for the MQ-9 during operational assessments at exercise Northern Edge 21, May 3–14, 2021 in Fairbanks, Alaska. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Megan Fowler)

The 556th TES was not the only unit doing testing with the MQ-9 during the exercise.

The 174th Attack Wing, based at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse (N.Y.) tested three new pods while deployed at Eielson AFB, part of an Air National Guard program known as the Ghost Reaper which aims to integrate the MQ-9 in the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system in a contested battlefield.

The pods are the Northrop Grumman’s Freedom Pod, which houses a communications gateway system that connects fourth and fifth generation fighters via Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL), Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), Link 16, and Tactical Targeting Network Technology, the Ultra Electronics’ Rosetta Echo Advanced Payloads (REAP) pod, which improves targeting with improved connections to ground systems, and the General Atomics’ own Centerline Avionics Bay, which employs artificial intelligence and hardware expanding capabilities not originally built into the MQ-9 airframe.

B-52H Stratofortress

A B-52 from the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron flew a more than 13-hour sortie from Barksdale Air Force Base (Louisiana) to Alaska and back, conducting a successful simulated hypersonic kill chain employment from sensor to shooter and back on May 5. Obviously, the B-52 did not launch any hypersonic ordnance during Northern Edge 21, as the long-waited AGM-183A ARRW (Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon) first flight test has yet to happen (a first attempt in April failed preventing the release of the weapon).

During the test mission, the Stratofortress was able to receive target data from sensors via the All-Domain Operations Capability Experiment (a joint team that allows the synchronization of joint functions in forward, contested environment when traditional C2 structure effectiveness is degraded or denied), located more than 1,000 nautical miles away miles away at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and then successfully take a simulated ARRW shot at the target from 600 nautical miles away.

“We were really exercising the data links that we needed in order to complete that kill chain loop, and then get the feedback to the players in the airspace that the simulated hypersonic missile was fired and effective,” said Lt. Col. Joe Little, 53rd Test Management Group deputy commander.

U-2 Dragon Lady

The 9th Reconnaissance Wing deployed a U-2 Dragon Lady from Beale AFB which acted as a critical hub of ISR during the exercise. Details about the U-2 participation are scarce, but a press release of the 53rd Wing before the beginning of Northern Edge 21 mentioned that the 53rd Test Management Group, Det 5, at Beale AFB was to deploy the U-2 for communication gateway testing.

This testing might be related to Project Hydra, which recently allowed the F-22 and F-35 to establish bi-directional communications each using its own datalink, the IFDL and MADL respectively, via a “translator” payload installed on the U-2S. As we explained in past article, the F-22 and F-35 can’t talk freely between each other as the “language” used by their datalinks is different and needs to be translated in order for the receiving aircraft to interpret the data.

During the drills, a U-2 also flew at low altitude over an aircraft carrier (USS Roosevelt): something that we have rarely seen in the recent past.

Northern Edge 21
A view from the cockpit of the U-2 Dragon Lady as it flies over the USS Roosevelt during Northern Edge 21. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Beale AFB)

Other participants

In spirit with the joint employment of the forces, Northern Edge 21 saw also the participation of the Navy, Marines and Army. The Navy deployed the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) aircraft carrier, which conducted more than 300 aircraft launches and traps, and its embarked squadrons completed more than 830 flight hours during the exercise.

A P-8 Poseidon of the Patrol Squadron One (VP-1) “Screaming Eagles”, stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (Washington), was also deployed to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to provide the joint force participating in Northern Edge 2021 with a multi-mission maritime patrol, available for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and collateral Search And Rescue (SAR) missions, both over water and land.

The Marines deployed the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which executed various air and amphibious operations from the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8) and amphibious transport docks USS San Diego (LPD-22) and USS Somerset (LPD-25) while maneuvering over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. The Marine Wing Support Detachment of the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 164 (Reinforced) also established a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) at Cold Bay to provide around 85,000 lbs of fuel to multiple aircrafts from all branches of the military.

The Army conducted an airborne operation on May 11, with approximately 300 paratroopers from the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (assigned to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division) dropped by multiple C-17 Globemaster III and C-130 Hercules aircraft while A-10C Thunderbolt IIs provided close air support. The paratroopers seized Allen Army Airfield at Fort Greely (Alaska), allowing an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) battery from the 17th Field Artillery Brigade out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, forward deployed to Cold Bay, to be airlifted there and conduct a live fire exercise at the nearby Donnelly Training Area, demonstrating the ability of the joint force to quickly build and implement combat power.

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 Identifies Russian An-12 Off Estonia In First Ever Intercept By F-35 Supporting NATO BAP

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F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
File photo of an F-35A supporting NATO mission in Iceland in 2019 (Image credit: Author)

The Italian F-35 jets deployed to Estonia, scored their first intercept under NATO command in the Baltic region.

On May 14, 2021, the Italian Air Force F-35 aircraft deployed to Ämari Air Base, Estonia, to support NATO’s Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, were scrambled and executed their first intercept.

“The Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem, Germany, recorded an unidentified track in the Baltic Sea  flying from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad and ordered an alert scramble for the F-35s mission to identify that track. Upon take-off, the Italian NATO aircraft approached and identified a Russian An-12 transport aircraft executing the first ever intercept by an F-35 under NATO orders in the Baltic Sea,” NATO Allied Air Command said in a public statement.

“The Russian military transport plane was flying over international waters close to the Estonian coast; it was not on a flight plan and not sending a transponder signal causing a potential risk to other airspace users. Upon completing the identification, the Italian fighter aircraft returned to Ämari Air Base.”

The Italian F-35A involved in the intercept belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing), from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, the first unit of the Aeronautica Militare to receive the Lightning in 2016 and the first in Europe to achieve IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in November 2018.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
An F-35A of the Aeronautica Militare launches from Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

The Italian F-35A jets carry out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) service in the same configuration used to support the domestic SSSA (Servizio Sorveglianza Spazio Aereo – Air Space Surveillance Service) on a rotational basis, where the SCL (Standard Conventional Load) includes two AIM-120C AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) missiles in the internal weapons bay.

The Italian jets have arrived in Estonia, on Apr. 30, 2021, marking both the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to the Baltic and the first time 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States. On May 3, the Italian detachment officially took over the augmenting role in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission from the German Air Force Eurofighter detachment, starting providing QRA duties.

Italian F-35 Intercept
An Italian Air Force F-35A at Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

Under NATO command, the Italian F-35s will remain in Estonia until August, supporting “Baltic Eagle II” (as the mission has been dubbed at national level), operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia. The F-35s will then be replaced by the Italian Typhoons: in other words, Italy will support NATO BAP in Estonia until the end of 2021.

“The integration of the F-35 advanced capabilities demonstrates how the Allies bring their cutting-edge technology and support NATO’s enduring defensive mission in the region,” said Brigadier General Andrew Hansen, Deputy Chief of Staff Operations at Allied Air Command, said in a public release. “The mission in the Baltics epitomises NATO cohesion and solidarity; at Ämari, the deployed Allied fighter detachments have enabled us at AIRCOM to flexibly conduct the mission and at the same time assure the Baltic populations of NATO’s commitment,” General Hansen added.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
File photo of an F-35A about to launch for a QRA mission from Keflavik International Airport during the 2019 deployment in support of NATO Icelandic Air Policing. Note the AIM-120C inside the weapons bay (Image credit: Author)

Although it’s the first time they operate from Estonia, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets have already supported NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice: the first time was in 2019, the second in 2020, when the Italian Lightnings scrambled for the first time to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142s. As happened back then, no official photo of the intercepted Russian aircraft has been released. Actually, unlike the majority of the other allies, Italy rarely releases images of the “zombies” (as the targets of the intercept mission are called in fighter pilot lingo) taken by the Italian pilots during their QRA launches in support of NATO’s Enhanced Air Policing missions around Europe.

F-35 Intercept Russian An-20 in Estonia
An Italian Air Force F-35A at Amari AB, Estonia. (Image credit: ItAF)

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.

Nine U.S. Marine Corps And Eight RAF F-35Bs Have Embarked On HMS Queen Elizabeth

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USMC F-35B embark HMS Queen Elizabeth
One of the USMC F-35Bs launches from RAF Lakenheath to embark on HMS QE. (All images: Stewart Jack).

17 F-35Bs have already landed aboard British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth ahead of CSG21 deployment.

As already reported 10 USMC F-35Bs aircraft, belonging to the VMFA-211 Wake Island Avengers, based at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, have arrived at RAF Lakenheath, UK between Apr. 26 and 28, 2021 to embark on HMS Queen Elizabeth, for UK’s new aircraft carrier’s first operational cruise, named CSG21.

On her maiden operational deployment, HMS QE will travel to the Indo-Pacific region leading the largest naval and air task force under British command since the Falklands war. However, before reaching the troubled waters of the South China Sea, the F-35Bs will be quite busy: they will take part in Exercise Joint Warrior/Strike Warrior off Scotland; then in drills with NATO partners in the northern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea; and will also support counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria.

The deployment represents “the first time UK fighter aircraft are embarked on an operational aircraft carrier deployment since 2010, and will be the largest number of F-35Bs ever to sail the seas,” said the UK MOD in a news release. “The renowned 617 Squadron RAF (‘The Dambusters’) will operate the jets to provide tangible and impactful support to counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria.”

Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey MP said: “The F-35B Lightning jets will pack a potent punch against Daesh and help prevent them from regaining a foothold in Iraq. This is a prime example of the UK Armed Forces stepping forward with our allies to confront persistent threats around the world. It is Global Britain in action.”

The British F-35Bs have already grown experience in the air war against Daesh: 617 Sqn’s Lightning flew their first operational sorties over Syria launching from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, on Sunday Jun. 16, 2019, supporting of Operation Shader, the UK contribution to the Global Coalition’s counter Daesh mission in Iraq and Syria.

It’s still not clear whether the USMC F-35Bs will support OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve) too, although it seems quite likely. VMFA-211 is a Marine squadron with significant combat experience with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the F-35: on September 27, 2018, U.S. Marine Corps F-35B with VMFA-211, launched the first-ever combat mission by a U.S. military F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. The long-range strikes that struck insurgent targets in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, took off from the U.S. Navy Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) on station in the Persian Gulf. The aircraft flew that first raid with the gun pod and GBU-32 JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) in the internal weapon bays but bomb markings applied to some of the aircraft’s front landing gear door showed two different types of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions): the GBU-12 500-lb LGBs (Laser Guided Bombs) and GBU-32 JDAMs.

F-35Bs start embarking on HMS QE

In anticipation of the upcoming deployment, the U.S. Marine Corps and RAF F-35Bs have started, on Sunday May 2, 2021, to launch respectively from RAF Lakenheath and RAF Marham to embark on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

USMC F-35B embark HMS Queen Elizabeth
VMFA-211 F-35B takes off for HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The Marines F-35Bs took off in three sections, flying as “WAKE 11-12”, “WAKE 21-22” and “WAKE 31-32”. 617 Squadron also launched four aircraft from RAF Marham as “GHOST 11-12” (ZM150/016 and ZM154/020) and “GHOST 21-22” (ZM152 and ZM151).

The Aviationist‘s contributor Stewart Jack was at RAF Lakenheath and took the photographs of the USMC F-35Bs taking off from there on Sunday.

USMC F-35B embark HMS Queen Elizabeth
Close up on the cockpit of one of the USMC F-35Bs.

In the morning on Monday May 3, another four 617 Squadron jets went to the carrier: F-35B Lightning “Ghost 31-32” (ZM147/013 and ZM153/019) and “Ghost 41-42” (ZM155/021 and ZM148/014). Only three USMC Lightnings launched for the carrier as one went tech. Here are the serials: “WAKE41-42” (169608/CF07 and 169610/CF08) and “WAKE51” (169614/CF09). “WAKE52” (169416/CF03) aborted take-off at 10.20LT returned to parking.

The U.S. Navy has also shared some interesting images of the USMC F-35Bs aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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.

The Italian F-35As Have Deployed To Estonia For NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission

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Italian F-35 Estonia
Two Italian Air Force F-35As. (Image credit: Author)

It’s the first time 5th generation aircraft take part in BAP mission.

On Apr. 30, 2021, four Italian Air Force F-35A Lightning II jets landed at Amari Air Base, Estonia, to take over the NATO’s BAP (Baltic Air Policing) mission. It’s the first time the Italian stealth jets deploy to Estonia (even though the Italian Eurofighter Typhoons operated there for BAP in 2018) and also the first time that 5th generation aircraft support NATO’s mission in the Baltic States.

The Italian F-35s belong to the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 32° Stormo (Wing) from Amendola Air Base, in southeastern Italy, and their deployment to Estonia was supported by a KC-767A tanker, flying as IAM1447 (and tracking online), from Pratica di Mare Air Base.

As part of the “Baltic Eagle II” mission, the Italian F-35A aircraft, operating within the Task Group Falco of the Task Force Air Estonia will replace the German Air Force Eurofighters which have been deployed to Amari since late August.

At the same time, after leading BAP for 8 months, the Italian Typhoons have completed their rotation at Siauliai, Lithuania.

Although it’s the first time they operate from Estonia, the Italian Air Force F-35A jets have already supported NATO Air Policing mission in Iceland twice: the first time in 2019, the second in 2020, when the Italian Lightnings scrambled for the first time to intercept a formation of three Russian Tu-142s.

In case you are wondering why the F-35A, that is not a “pure” interceptor, is committed to provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert), an air defense mission in Estonia and the Batlic States, here’s the explanation this Author provided in a previous article about the participation of the Italian Lightnings to the Icelandic Air Policing mission:

Well, the reason is quite simple: deploying the 5th gen. stealth aircraft under NATO command allows the service (in this case, the Italian Air Force) to test the asset as part of a different chain of command, with different procedures, on a different base, and in different (sometimes adverse/austere) weather conditions. The peacetime air policing mission requires the aircraft in QRA to scramble with live air-to-air missiles when there is the need to intercept, identify and escort, aircraft approaching or “skirting” NATO Ally’s sovereign airspace: a task that an F-35 is more than able to conduct. Moreover, the deployment on a NATO mission is one of the milestones the Italian Air Force has set along the path to achieve the type’s FOC ( BTW, it’s worth remembering that, first in Europe, the Italians declared the F-35’s IOC on Nov. 30, 2018).

This time the ItAF F-35s will provide QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) from Estonia, much closer to Russia.

Previous U.S. F-35 trip to Estonia.

Dealing with the F-35 and Estonia, it’s worth remembering what happened in April 2017, when two U.S. Air Force F-35As belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, deployed to the UK flew from RAF Lakenheath, UK, to Amari for a short visit. In fact, the quick stopover was “accompanied” by a rather unusual activity of U.S. and British spyplanes in the Baltic region: as many as three RC-135s (including a RAF Rivet Joint) operated in the airspaces over or close to Estonia as the F-35s headed to, stayed and returned from Amari. Back then, we speculated the presence of the three spyplanes was related to the F-35s trip: they were probably “covering” the stealth jets, deterring the Russians from using their radars to gather details on the Lightnings at their first trip to Estonia. We also noted that it was not the first time U.S. stealth jets flying to the Baltics were directly or indirectly “accompanied” by Rivet Joints: on Apr. 27, 2016, two F-22s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania supported (so to say) by an RC-135W.

Whatever, although the peacetime NATO QRA configuration does not require the F-35s to keep their LO (Low Observability) – this is the reason why the Lightnings on alert are equipped with radar reflectors/RCS enhancers – it’s quite likely that the presence of the Italian F-35A 5th generation stealth aircraft in Estonia, not far from the border with mainland Russia, will attract some interest by the Russians land and airborne ELINT sensors, targeting, if not the F-35’s radar signature at specific wavelengths, at least its valuable radar emissions… We will see.

A big thank you to our friend Giovanni Colla for sending us additional details about the deployment!

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.

Israel Continues Development Of New External Fuel Tanks For Its F-35I Adir Jets

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Israeli F-35 fuel tanks
A F-35I Adir of the Israeli Air Force takes off during an exercise earlier this year. (Photo: Israeli Air Force)

A local newspaper reported that the development of external fuel tanks for the F-35 is still ongoing and will possibly be complete in two years.

It is no secret that the Israeli Air Force considers the combat range as one of the most important factors when adopting a new fighter aircraft and that, because of this, it was the first operator to ask for external fuel tanks for the F-35 Lightning II or, more specifically, for the customized F-35I Adir. The first studies for new fuel tanks started at least during the system design and development phase (SDD) of the 5th gen aircraft, but after 2019 nothing new surfaced, at least online. Until, a few days ago, the Israeli news website Walla reported that development is still ongoing.

According to Walla, the Israeli Air Force Flight Testing Center (FTC) at Tel-Nof AFB is developing the external drop tanks that will help the Adir to complete long-range missions over “third circle” targets, such a hypothetical strike against Iranian objectives, without the need for aerial refueling, while also allowing an extended time on station (TOS) over the targets. The report mentions also significant progress in the integration of Israel-made missiles on the F-35I.

Before moving on, here is a brief explanation of the “third circle” from the Times of Israel: “The “third circle” refers to the three levels of direct threats facing Israel, the first being small terror groups on Israel’s borders, like Hamas; the second being larger threats, like the Syrian army and Hezbollah; and the third being countries that do not share a border with Israel, like Iran and Iraq.”

The development of the new fuel tank is the result of the collaboration of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Air Force and defense industries that aims to upgrade the strategic capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against “third circle” countries. This process is quite delicate, as the new external fuel tanks need to not degrade too much the low observability of the F-35 and this can be done mainly through the shape and materials chosen.

Also, a detachable tank should include some measures to mitigate the effects that its pylon’s attachment points would have on the low observability, after the tanks are jettisoned once emptied before reaching the target. In fact, even though the tanks and their pylons are dropped, the attachment points and fuel lines would not be covered by any Radar Absorbing Material (RAM) and possibly expose the Adir to unwanted radar reflections.

IDF sources mentioned by Walla in their report said that the development and production process of the new external fuel tanks for the F-35I Adir will not exceed two years. The first reports about the ongoing planning and initial development process were published by Aviation Week in 2019, when Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Cyclone, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, completed the initial design studies on both a conformal fuel tank (CFT) design and a 600-gallon drop tank, respectively.

The F-35A, from whom the F-35I was developed, has an internal fuel tank capacity of slightly less than 18,500 lb (8,391 kg, the exact amount varies depending on the source) and a non-classified range and combat radius in excess of 1,187 nm (2,200 km) and 594 nm (1,100 km), respectively. The fuel is contained in several tanks inside the wings and fuselage to preserve the stealth profile. With the two 600-gallon drop tanks under its wings, the F-35I would increase its total fuel capacity by approximately 40%, as each tank would add about 4,000 lb of fuel for a total of more than 26,500 lb.

It is not known how the new external fuel tanks will be shaped. During the SDD phase, the F-35 was expected to use the U.S. Navy’s standard 480-gallon tanks already operational on the F/A-18. However, wind tunnel testing showed that the standard tanks would create dangerous store release conditions, with the released weapons possibly striking the aircraft. With the heavy use of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) modeling, different designs were tested and a safer aero-shaped 426-gallon tank was ultimately approved for the F-35, but it didn’t make it into the production stage

Israeli F-35 Adir Fuel Tanks
A F-35I Adir taxiing before a night training mission. (Photo: Israeli Air Force)

According to some sources, the Israeli Air Force inquired if it was possible to adapt the 600-gallon external fuel tanks of the F-22 Raptor to be used also by the F-35. And here comes again the shape problem: the F-22 uses the drop tanks only for ferry flights or flight without external air-to-ground ordnance (which is carried only internally); if the F-35 Adir was to use the drop tanks only, without external weapons, the Raptor’s drop tanks might be feasible, but if the Israelis want to use also the fuel tanks with the Adir for combat missions or in “Beast mode” and heavy external weapons, a tank redesign might be needed, as happened during the SDD.

If the 600-gallon fuel tanks become operational with the Adir, the IDF would have the capability to use the F-35 in long-range strikes against Iran in a similar fashion as the famous Operation Opera, with heavy loaded aircraft departing Israel fully packed with fuel and dropping the external tanks once empty, arriving on target with a clean aircraft and minimal degradation of the low observability. Also, this would allow the IDF to safely use their limited number of tankers, without having to put them at risk near hostile airspace.

According to The Warzone, Lockheed Martin is also now considering working to certify a 600-gallon drop tank design for all F-35As, possibly to be used also in conjunction with the “Beast mode”. Even for a country like the United States that does not lack tankers, the addition of new drop tanks to the F-35’s stores would be a much-welcomed option to reduce the reliance on the tankers during long-range missions in new theaters like the Pacific Ocean.

In a hypothetical conflict in the South China Sea, the F-35s might not be able to get inland far enough to hit their targets while leaving the tankers at a safe distance after the last of multiple refuels on their way in, with obvious downsides other than the reduced range and the higher “bingo fuel” required to safely reach again a friendly airport to land.

This problematic reliance on the tankers was notable in a recent exercise earlier this month, when four F-16CM Block 50 of the 35th Fighter Wing based at Misawa Air Base, Japan, flew all the way to the South China Sea to perform an overflight of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) aircraft carrier. For this mission, four KC-135 Stratotankers were required, with an unspecified number of air-to-air refuelings along the way.

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.

Force Multiplier: We Refuel F-35s, Tornado, Typhoons and Another KC-767 During Mission With Italian Air Force Tanker

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Italian Air Force KC-767
The Italian Air Force KC-767A. (The Aviationist)

We took part in a mission aboard the Italian Air Force KC-767 and had the opportunity to refuel receivers using different both the “flying boom” and “hose and drogue” systems.

The Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare) operates a fleet of four Boeing KC-767A Tanker/Transport aircraft. The KC-767s are assigned to the 14° Stormo (Wing) based at Pratica di Mare airbase, near Rome, and flown by the 8° Gruppo (Squadron). The 767s are among the most in-demand assets of the Italian Air Force: while their primary role is AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling), the KC-767A, in both Cargo, Combi and Full Pax configurations, can be used for strategic transport missions as well as MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation) or Bio-Containment missions. The latter have become particularly important last year, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, when the wide-bodies carried out both repatriation flights of Italian citizens stranded abroad by the first wave of lockdowns, and biosafety containment missions of Covid-19 patients.

The first Italian KC-767A (MM62229/14-04) was delivered to the 14th Wing little more than 10 years ago, on Jan. 27, 2011. Few weeks later, the type had its  “baptism of fire” in Libya, boosting NATO’s AAR capability by supporting Italian Eurofighter, Tornado IDS and ECR, and AMX jets involved in Operation Unified Protector. Since then, the fleet has achieved a lot of experience supporting all the various Italian real operations and deployments around the world (to Iceland for NATO Air Policing; to Kuwait for Operation Inherent Resolve; to Red Flag, just to name but few) and the major multinational exercises, as well as becoming the first international tanker to refuel an F-35.

With more than 30,000 flight hours since they entered active service (a milestone achieved in 2020), the KC-767 fleet has proved to be a force multiplier not only for the Italian MOD but also for NATO: for example, the Italian tankers refueled the British Eurofighters on their way to LIMA 13 airshow; dragged the Spanish EF-18 and Eurofighter Typhoons to Konya, in Turkey, for Anatolian Eagle; supported the Czech Air Force Gripen deploying to Keflavik to take over the Icelandic Air Policing mission. Support of allied air forces is pretty much routine.

In fact, the Italian KC-767s are also assigned to the EATC (European Air Transport Command), the multinational command headquartered at Eindhoven AB in the Netherlands whose goal is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the member nations military air transport efforts by “pooling and sharing” assets to optimize resources and fill the shortfall of EU tankers highlighted by the Libya Air War in 2011.

An Italian Air Force KC-767A T/T seen from the cockpit of another KC-767. (Image credit: Author)

The KC-767A

Based on the commercial B-767-200ER (Extended Range), the KC-767A is equipped with both the sixth generation flying boom (similar to the one of the American KC-10), and three hose and drogue stations (WARPs – Wing Air Refueling Pods). This dual capability gives the KC-767A a significant flexibility: during the same mission the tanker can refuel both aircraft equipped with onboard receptacle and those with an IFR (In-Flight Refueling) probe. The tanker is itself equipped with a receptacle, meaning that it can be refueled by another KC-767 extending its range (or on-station time).

KC-767
Air-to-air image of the KC-767A “Petrol 42”. (Image credit: Giovanni Maduli / The Aviationist)

The aircrews of the 8° Gruppo are also capable of “buddy refueling operations”: a KC-767 can refuel another KC-767 mid-air using the flying boom and the aircraft’s receptacle, further extending the aircraft endurance.

Unlike the “legacy” refuelers, as the U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, where the “boomer” (as the operator of the boom is nicknamed) watches the receiver through a rear observation window, in the KC-767 the ARO (Air Refueling Operator) move the boom using a joystick while watching the video coming from a series of cameras mounted on the tanker’s rear fuselage. The advanced camera system feeds a Remote Vision System (RVS) that provides high-definition stereoscopic imagery to the vision goggles attached to a sort-of flight helmet worn by the boomer during the air-to-air refueling.

The two AROs in the station located behind the cockpit. (Image credit: Author)

While a Boeing 767 derivative too, the KC-46A Pegasus the U.S. Air Force selected to replace the older KC-135 features a stretched fuselage, different engines, cockpit, wings and boom: in other words, it’s almost a completely different tanker.

We recently took part in an AAR mission aboard an Italian Air Force KC-767A of the 14th Wing. Here’s how it went.

“Petrol 42”

Pratica di Mare AB, Apr. 1, 2021.

Two KC-767s (callsigns “Petrol 41” and “Petrol 42”), along with a KC-130J of the 46^ Brigata Aerea (Air Brigade) from Pisa AB, are tasked to refuel all the assets involved in the second and last day of a COMAO (Combined Air Operations) exercise held by the Italian Air Force. The list of receivers the three tankers need to support includes all the tactical aircraft of the Aeronautica Militare: F-35As from Amendola Air Base; Tornado IDS and ECR jets from Ghedi AB; AMX Ghiblis from Istrana AB; and Eurofighter Typhoons from Grosseto, Trapani, Gioia del Colle and Istrana AB.

The three refuelers are assigned different chunks and levels of the R48, a large restricted area located over Central Italy. “Petrol 42”, in dual “boom” and “hose and drogue” configuration, is tasked to refuel two F-35As, two Typhoons from Istrana and two Tornado IDSs; “Petrol 41”, in “hose-only” configuration, is assigned Typhoons from Grosseto; the rest of the tacair jets will be “served” by the KC-130J (a type of tanker that can only refuel aircraft equipped with an IFR probe).

The two KC-767s will depart about 15 minutes apart: “Petrol 42” (with the Author on board) will take off first, followed by “Petrol 41”. Separated in time, the two tankers will head towards the refueling area, where they will operate at FL220 and FL200 respectively. The plan is to spend little less than 4 hours “on station”: after completing the aerial refueling of the COMAO “chicks”, there will be time for buddy refueling, with plugs that will allow some pilots and AROs of the 8th Gruppo to renew their currencies.

We depart Pratica in perfect time, at 12.45LT. We climb on the assigned SID (Standard Instrumental Departure), in contact with Rome ATC (Air Traffic Control), and after a few minutes, we are cleared to proceed direct to the R48. Approaching the area we are instructed to switch to “Pioppo”, the GCI (Ground Control Intercept) that will manage the operational traffic in R48 acting also as tanker management agency, assisting the receivers in their rejoin with the KC-767.

We take the northeastern part of the area and start the pre-refueling checks.

KC-767A “Petrol 42” with the lowered flying boom (Image credit: Giovanni Maduli / The Aviationist)

“Petrol 42, on station”: we are ready to refuel.

We have lowered the boom while the AROs, wearing the HMD (Head-Mounted Display) system of the RVS prepare for the first receivers. By the way, one of the two “boomers” wears a patch that celebrates his 4,000 FH aboard the KC-767 patch (!!).

Inside the cockpit of the KC-767A “Petrol 42”. (Image credit: Author)

Our first “customers”, two F-35As of the 32° Stormo, are already in contact with Pioppo. The controller provides BRAA (Bearing Range Altitude Aspect) and radar vectors to the two Lightning II jets as they approach the rendez-vous point 1,000 feet below the tanker’s level. As soon as they call the “visual contact”, Pioppo instructs the two stealth jets to contact us on a discrete “boomfreq”.

Two F-35As of the 13° Gruppo prepares to refuel from “Petrol 42”.

“Confirm nose is cold, weapons safe, you are cleared echelon left”. The two Lightnings, approaching the tanker from astern, move to the left observation position before being instructed to move in trail.

Once the F-35 is the right position, the ARO guides the boom to the dorsal receptacle of the stealth jet. All is “green” after the plug: the refueling starts. In a matter of minutes both the Lightnings are “happy”, move to the “right observation” position and leave the tanker 1,000 feet above us.

One of the F-35As waits on the “right observation” after AAR. (Image credit: Author)

As the F-35s depart the tanker to continue their mission, the KC-767 is configured for the next receivers: two Tornado IDS aircraft. Since these are equipped with probe, the boom is retracted and the hoses are extended from the two underwing pods. The “switch” from one configuration to another one takes only few minutes and we are soon ready to refuel “Devil” flight.

Only one Tornado needs fuel today and the procedure is always the same: left observation, then clearance to move astern one of the baskets (in this case the left one). Once in pre-contact position, the “Tonka” is cleared to contact: in this case, the AROs have little to do besides monitoring the refueling operation through the displays that show the video feeds from the back cameras, and talk to the receiver on the radio.

“Devil 53”, a Tornado IDS of the 154° Gruppo/6° Stormo from Ghedi on the left observation position before the AAR.

The Tornado IDS unplugs the probe from the basket, moves to the right observation and leaves the tanker to continue the assigned mission.

The next receivers, coming in 45 minutes, will be two Eurofighter Typhoons from Istrana AB: there’s some time for a first round of “buddy refueling” with “Petrol 41” that has also completed its AAR with the F-2000As (as the single-seat Typhoons are designated in Italy) from Grosseto.

We retract the hoses and lower the flying boom while the other KC-767 climbs, under radar control, to rejoin with us. Some 15 minutes later, “Petrol 41” is in pre-contact position, just behind us. We follow the refueling operation through the ARO’s displays.

The view of “Petrol 41” during the buddy refueling operations. (Image credit: Author)

The size of the other tanker is quite impressive even when observed through a remote camera system. While the earlier contacts of the flying boom with the F-35’s receptacle were almost imperceptible, the plug with the much larger KC-767 is far from subtle: it shakes the whole tanker a bit.

We carry out multiple “dry” and “wet” (with actual fuel transfer) plugs, before it’s time to reconfigure for the next receivers.

KC-767
“Petrol 42” seen from the cockpit of “Petrol 41” during the buddy refueling.

“Petrol 41” remains with us, in a loose formation, far enough so that it does not interfere with the refueling operations of the arriving F-2000s.

Close up view of the nose section of the KC-767 with the air refueling receptacle above the cockpit. (Image credit: Author)

Soon, the two Typhoons are on the tanker’s left wing, ready to refuel: they are from the 51° Stormo (Wing) and assigned to the 132° Gruppo (Squadron), the most recent Italian Air Force Typhoon unit (the 132nd currently flies both the Eurofighters and the last AMXs).

The two jets move from the left observation to the pre-contact position astern of the hoses and then start refueling, concurrently, from “Petrol 42”.

Two F-2000s of the 132° Gruppo about to refuel from “Petrol 42”. The one in the foreground carries a centerline Litening targeting pod. (Image credit: Author)

Once again, in a few minutes the procedure is completed: the two Typhoons leave the tanker, while we retract the hoses in the WARPs and prepare for some additional buddy refueling operations inside R48 at different levels.

After some 3h 30m of aerial refueling ops inside R48 we call “off station” and start returning home, splitting from “Petrol 41”.

We land at Pratica di Mare shortly before 17.30LT, about 5 hours after take off: “business as usual” for the aircrews of the 14° Stormo; an extremely interesting experience for us.

“Tanker break”. (Image credit: Author).

The Author wishes to thank the ItAF Public Information Office and the 14° Stormo for the help provided before, during and after the flight.

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.

U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey Conducts Qualifications Flights Aboard Italian Aircraft Carrier Cavour

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USMC MV-22B Osprey pilots conduct night deck landing qualifications aboard the Italian Navy aircraft carrier Cavour, off the Maryland coast. (Image credit: USMC)

After completing the Sea Trials with the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, the aircraft carrier Cavour conducted training with a USMC MV-22B Osprey.

As already reported, the Italian Navy has recently declared the successful completion of the “sea trials” for the operational use of the F-35B, the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter that will replace the service’s AV-8B+ Harrier II jet.

The “Ready for Operation” campaign included various compatibility tests carried out with two specially-instrumented U.S. F-35Bs belonging to VX-23 (Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23) from Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River), Maryland. The “sea trials” lasted four weeks and ended on Mar. 26, 2021, with the return of the carrier to Norfolk.

Interestingly, the Italian Navy’s flagship was also involved in take-off and landing training with a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

The purpose of the activity was to verify the compatibility of the flight deck with the American tactical transport aircraft.

Back in 2015, Boeing considered the Italian Navy among the possible export customers for their V-22 platform, considered its ability to carry the F-35’s Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan in its cargo bay (a capability required to support blue waters engine replacement) and to operate from the flight deck of the current and future aircraft carriers, including the new LHD Trieste.

While the interest in the Osprey has probably cooled now, the interoperability between the platform and the Italian Navy’s flagship is needed to “increase interoperability between the USMC and the Italian Navy, and increase the operational reach of Naval forces for crisis or contingency response or in the event of conflict.”

Moreover, Italy has shown interest in the U.S. Future Vertical Lift helicopter initiative, that sees the Bell V-280 Valor tilt-rotor aircraft, developed by Bell and Lockheed Martin, among the contenders. Tilt-rotor designs are also being developed as part of the unmanned V-247 Vigilant tiltrotor concept for the US Marine Corps (USMC) and might be considered for the US Navy’s (USN’s) Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Maritime Strike programme: this means that interoperability tests with tilt-rotors make perfect sense for the Italian Navy and ITS Cavour to prepare the future at-sea operations.

Interoperability tests aboard ITS Cavour. (Image credit: Italian Navy)

After completing the “Sea Trials”, the ITS Cavour will carry out carrier qualification of the six Italian Naval Aviators that completed their transition on the F-35B at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina, and then head back to Italy, where the Italian Navy is planning to perform the first flight activities with an Italian F-35B from the Cavour. The aircraft that should be used will be the fourth F-35B built in Italy and the third to be delivered to the Navy. As we mentioned in previous articles, the first two aircraft built went to the Navy and are now in Beaufort for pilot training, while the third one was delivered to the Air Force. Italy has plans to procure a total of 90 F-35s for the Italian Air Force and Navy: 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs (15 for the Marina Militare and 15 for the Aeronautica Militare).

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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