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Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024

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Dissecting The Italian Defense Planning Document For 2022-2024
An Italian Air Force F-35B during a joint training mission with an Italian Navy F-35B. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

The Italian MoD is continuing the modernization of the military, with investments in many areas that will also sustain the national industry.

The Italian government published, during the summer, the new multiyear defense planning document (Documento Programmatico Pluriennale della Difesa) for 2022-2024, which illustrates the funding needed by the Italian military to sustain and modernize its forces. Many important investments can be found in the document, but let’s proceed in order.

The strategic situation is based, as last year, on a reference scenario, called the “extended Mediterranean” region, which is currently subject to many important geopolitical changes. Among the critical aspects of the region, the document mentions the Libyan situation, the tensions between coastal countries that are rearming their military forces, the disputes about sea boundaries and commercial routes. These challenges add up to the global situation, with COVID-19 and the new role of Russia and China becoming increasingly important.

The Italian Ministry of Defense is focused on maintaining a balanced military power, while also renovating and potentiating it with new capabilities. An important novelty in the last few years are the space and cyber domains, which are set to provide new space for innovation in the informational and decisional sectors.

The systemic shock caused by the dramatic evolution of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whose economic and social repercussions are noticeable in an international context already burdened by the echo of the pandemic and by multiple situations of unresolved conflict, will radically change the world order and European security that we have known so far, says the document.

The invasion brought back the attention to the importance of symmetrical conflicts against near peer adversaries, after decades of asymmetrical conflict against irregular forces, revealed a significant conventional, cyber and space threat, and even evoked again the nuclear threat. The return of war in Europe, which someone thought would accentuate the disagreements among the European countries, has instead determined the effect of cementing the cohesion of NATO and of raising the role of the European Union to an organization with a geopolitical value.

This is contrary to the expectations of Russia, which believed it could count on a disunited NATO and on a weak European Union unable to decide. Also, this was an eye-opener about the need for a strengthened military, after years of postponed investments which were needed to increase its deterrent value and to respect the commitments, undertaken in the NATO context, for the achievement of the threshold of 2% of GDP for the Defense budget.

In this perspective, the Defense minister Lorenzo Guerini outlined four fundamental strategic priorities: promote an appropriate positioning of Italy in the context of international security; give further impetus to the process of adapting the military instrument; fully exploit the potential that can be expressed by the Defense Industry; continue efforts in terms of policies suitable for addressing current and future challenges.

Let’s now talk about the programs in place to reach the objectives of this year’s Defense planning.

One of the main activities for the aerospace component of the Command, Control and Communications (C3) is the completion of the acquisition of the Gulfstream G550-based CAEW/BM&C capability, as well as a new Electronic Warfare capability. The program, known as P-MMMS (Piattaforma Multi-Missione, Multi- Sensore/Multi-Mission, Multi-Sensor Platform), is aimed at obtaining a modern asset that can be integrated in a net-centric C4ISTAR architecture and later adapted for multi-domain operations.

The resulting C6ISTAR-EW-enabled assets are the CAEW, Spydr and JAMMS aircraft that have been in the works for some years. As we reported last year, a number of “clean” G550 are being acquired to be converted at a later stage, like the one delivered earlier this year. These aircraft, that the document calls “green base JAMMS”, are scheduled to be converted in the Full Mission Capable CAEW and Electronic Combat variants. A contract for the conversion of two more CAEW aircraft might have already been signed.

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

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The first Gulfstream G550 delivered to the Italian Air Force to be converted for the P-MMMS program. (Photo: Aeronautica Militare)

An interesting piece of information possibly related to the P-MMMS program can be found under the Force Protection and Engagement Capability entry, which hints at the Electronic Combat variant of the aircraft possibly being the EC-37B Compass Call. In fact, the entry says: “Completion of the acquisition program for new aircraft equipped for and dedicated to Electronic Warfare operations (EC-37B)”.

As you may know already, the Compass Call system is an airborne tactical electronic attack weapon system installed on a heavily modified version of the C-130 Hercules, called EC-130H Compass Call. This system disrupts enemy command and control communications, radars, and navigation systems and limits adversary coordination, which is essential for enemy force management. Following the type’s retirement announced in 2014, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Compass Call Rehost program, which will move the current Compass Call systems from the EC-130H to the new EC-37B, based on the Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (CAEW) airframe.

Staying on the Electronic Warfare topic, the EC-27J JEDI (Jamming and Electronic Defense Instrumentation) fleet is being expanded to a total of three aircraft, with two new ones in the RRP2 (Risk Reduction Phase 2) configuration being converted, together with the procurement of their ground segment and mission system. As we already reported, the EC-27J is a variant of the successful Leonardo C-27J Spartan military transport aircraft that has been heavily modified to perform EW missions: the aircraft carries an internal JEDI system that is coupled with a tail antenna to jam the frequency bands used to remotely operate IEDs and UAVs, in order to neutralize them and thus protect personnel on the ground around areas of interest.

The capabilities provided by the secretive EC-27J (whose official designation is YEC-27J in accordance with Italy’s MOD Mission Design Series) are intended for the execution of convoy escort missions where it provides from the air an electromagnetic safety bubble. The aircraft was deployed to Erbil, Iraq, for “Prima Parthica” (as the Italian Armed Forces contingent supporting Operation Inherent Resolve is dubbed at national level). Interestingly, the EC-27J of the Italian Air Force is the only non-American asset flying the Electronic Support and Protection mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Speaking of the C-27J, the planning mentions the works for the completion of the MC-27J Praetorian program. The MC-27 is a special variant of the Spartan developed to provide support for the Special Forces of the Comando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS). Three C-27J that were already in service and the ItAF were converted to the Praetorian configuration with the addition of mission systems, C3ISR equipment and a palletized ATK GAU-23 30mm automatic cannon, the same used by the USAF AC-130J.

The Defense planning also includes the Spydr, mentioning the leasing of an aircraft equipped with specialized sensors as gap filler until a dedicated asset capable of assuring a full threat detection. This entry should refer to the two King Air 350s, one of which is a mission-equipped aircraft and the other one used for training purposes, leased from L3Harris. The aircraft is expected to be replaced by Gulfstream G550 aircraft with AISREW Mission Systems whose Foreign Military Sale was approved by the U.S. State Department in 2020.

Two aircraft will be provided by Italy to be converted, with L3Harris being the company contracted to carry out the modification. The “final” shape of the Italian AISREW aircraft should be similar to the one of the Australian MC-55 Peregrine, a SIGINT-configured G550 that L3Harris is providing to the Royal Australian Air Force and developed based on the experience of the EC-37 Compass Call II and other variants. It seems likely that all the modifications will be embedded at a later stage and the first airframe will be initially used for training purposes.

Italy is also continuing its participation in the Maritime Multi Mission Aircraft (M3A) program with other NATO allies, whose aim is to procure a dedicated aircraft for long range surveillance above and belove the sea surface. The M3A is expected to create a new generation of maritime surveillance aircraft that will eventually replace older platform currently in service.

The planning then moves to the information superiority section, with its Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance capabilities enabled by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The first to be mentioned is the EUROMALE program, the first unmanned aerial system (UAS) designed for flight in non-segregated airspace. The airframe is a twin-turboprop with pusher-propeller engines being developed by an Airbus, Leonardo and Dassault consortium. The system is set to provide a generational leap compared to current assets, integrating open architecture, high modularity and ease of evolution.

The other programs in the ISR section are related to the continuation of the modernization, potentiation and completion of the MQ-9 fleet, all listed under the Mid Life Modernization (MLM) and operational capabilities maintenance programs. One of the focuses of these programs is the payload, with the upgrade of sensors and command and control systems to the latest standards.

The document mentions: ”The aircraft will guarantee increased levels of safety and protection in convoys escort missions, providing a flexible defense capability that can be expressed from the air. It will also introduce a new protection option aimed both at forces on the ground and for the benefit of aerial assets during high intensity operations and, ultimately, to protect civilians in the event of a hybrid threat”. This explanation, which was also in last year’s document, was said to refer to the weaponization of the MQ-9.

The weapons were explicitly mentioned in a subsequent entry: “Modernization and renewal of the RPA fleet of the MLE category, the Predator platform, related weapons and interim solutions”. Actually, the U.S. State Department already approved in 2015 a possible FMS to Italy for the weaponization of the MQ-9, but there is no follow-on info about it. The FMS package included AGM-114R2 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 and GBU-49 laser guided bombs, GBU-38 JDAM and GBU-54 Laser JDAM bombs.

The Mid Life Modernization includes the procurement of two new MQ-9A Block 5 aircraft and a ground station, in addition to the upgrade of the other five to the same configuration. One of the new Predators (the name Reaper has not been adopted in Italy) will replace the one shot down in Libya in 2019. Also, the Italian MoD is looking for a new RPA that will replace the MQ-1C Predator A+.

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

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A rendering of the Tempest 6th gen aircraft. (Image: BAE Systems)

While it didn’t provide any new details, this year’s document mentions again the Tempest 6th generation fighter aircraft and the wider Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program. Tempest is intended to preserve the dominance of the air combat power by capitalizing the Italian and British participation to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. FCAS is described in the program summary as a system of systems, with an optionally unmanned aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced sensors and related technologies.

The UK, Italy and Sweden signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2021 to collaborate on the project, transforming the British FCAS project in a major international endeavour. As of now, Sweden has not yet fully committed to join Tempest, but it is closely observing the process while working on the wider FCAS effort. Anyway, the three countries aspire to develop the concepts, sharing workload while maximizing their national expertise as they strive towards a common goal. The goal of the MoU is to have an equal participation of the signatory countries in the activities related to Tempest, with positive effects on each own defense industry, small and medium enterprises, research institutes and universities.

Japan is also joining the FCAS program, after a Letter of Arrangement signed earlier this year with the UK. The two countries will conduct cooperative research in fighter jet sensor technology, focusing on what has been called the “Jaguar” system. The “Jaguar” aims at the development of universal frequency sensor technology to allow aircraft to “better detect future threats from air, land and sea, quickly and accurately locating targets and denying surveillance technology operated by adversaries. Japan’s expected role in the FCAS effort has since expanded, including the JNAAM long-range air-to-air missile (which will benefit from the Meteor BVRAAM technology) and a possible merge of the indigenous F-X program with Tempest.

After the 6th gen, the document moves to the current 5th gen with the F-35 Lightning II. The MoD says the program is proceeding as planned for the first two tranches of aircraft, called Phase 1 and Phase 2a. Phase 1 satisfied the requirements for the acquisition of the first 28 aircraft, their engines, equipment, initial expenses and retrofit, together with logistical support until 2022 and the preparation of the national sites in Amendola, Ghedi and the Cavour aircraft carrier.

Now, the Phase 2a has been initiated thanks to a strategy that will avoid further delays in the program and savings which could amount up to one billion euros. This phase covers the procurement of 27 new aircraft, together with their engines and equipment, and the extension of the logistical support. This will allow for a full operational capability from 2030. Also, by the end of the year, the MoD will start the preliminary negotiation for Phase 2b, which will lead to the acquisition of a further 35 aircraft. The total expense expected until 2032 is of seven billion euros. Also, the revenues from the F-35 program on the national industries have reached, by the end of 2021, a total of € 5.17 billion.

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

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An UH-169B of the Italian Army, used to train crews for the future AW169 LUH in the final configuration. (Photo: Leonardo)

The Defense planning moves on with the assets currently in service. The Eurofighter Typhoon program now mentions the development of next generation, advanced technology sensors to better promote the national industry in the transition towards the 6th generation. At the same time, the Tornado program is looking to the upgrade of the aircraft to solve obsolescence issues due to the aging technology and to extend the operational life until the planned phase-out date (which has not yet been officially decided).

The Italian Air Force will also work on the completion of its helicopter fleet for the Search And Rescue and Slow Mover Intercept missions. The first entry sees the completion of the acquisition of the HH-139 rescue helicopter, which is an interim solution for a medium helicopter. Earlier this year, the ItAF took delivery of the last HH-139B and the service will now move to the conversion of the HH-139A helicopters to the new B variant. At the same time, the HH-101 CSAR helicopter will be upgraded to the Mission Enhanced standard to better sustain operations in non-permissive environments.

Talking about support assets, this year’s planning confirms the intention of the Italian MoD to acquire two new KC-46 tankers and upgrade the current KC-767s to the same standard. Moreover, the initiation of a strategic transport program is mentioned, without providing further details.

The next topic covered by the planning is the training. The ItAF will strengthen the Operational Training Infrastructure (OTI), focusing on a high integration between live, virtual and constructive activities, while continuing to work with the T-345 and T-346 programs. The OTI program will develop a geo-federate, modular, resilient and secure open architecture, connecting flight simulators, simulation systems and C2 systems to create a common synthetic environment that will reproduce real, complex and highly variable operational environments. An integral part of this program is the modernization of the Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra (PISQ).

Important news are coming also for the helicopter training, with a new helicopter flight school being established in Viterbo, currently home of the Army’s flight school. The new school will exploit the ItAF’s expertise in this sector, with the aim of satisfying the requirement for a joint national training centre for all helicopter pilots, as well as satisfying the requirements for the equivalent civilian licenses and offering training to international partners. The ItAF is also leading the efforts for the new school on behalf of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

The current plan is based around a training area, an operational area (with maintenance, storage and helicopter recovery functions) and a logistic area. The school will employ the new AW169 Light Utility Helicopter to satisfy the requirements of the phase 3b of the training, exploiting the gradual replacement of the six legacy helicopter fleets with the new helicopter. The phase 3b training on the LUH will follow the phase 3a currently performed on the TH-500 helicopter, providing an advanced training phase between the initial 3a training and the helicopters assigned to the operational units.

The school will have a structure similar to the one for the jet pilots at Lecce-Galatina Air Base. In fact, the project is based around an Integrated Training System (ITS) which will include the LUH and the Ground Based Training System (GBTS). The GBTS will be in charge of the ground school, with an Academic Training System, Full Flight Simulators and Flight training Devices, advanced briefing and debriefing systems.

Obviously, the Army will continue to work on the LUH program and, after a first tranche of 17 helicopters approved in 2019, a new tranche of 33 helicopters has been approved. This new combat support helicopter, as we already reported, is not the only new entry in the Italian Army. In fact, the works are proceeding also on the new Leonardo AW249 NEES (Nuovo Elicottero da Esplorazione e Scorta / New Exploration and Escort Helicopter), which is in the middle of an extensive flight test campaign. The MoD expects to procure up to 48 attack helicopters, which will replace the AH-129D currently in service.

Last but not least, the Italian MoD is also working on a Next Generation Fast Helicopter (NGFH)/ Next Generation Rotorcraft (NGRC). Contacts have been established with the U.S. Army for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, with the Minister of Defense also visiting Bell’s facilities to see the V-280 Valor tilt-rotor and the B-360 Invictus reconnaissance helicopter.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.

General Atomics Provides Detailed Look At Sparrowhawk Air-Launched And Air-Retrievable Small UAS

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Artist rendering of GA-ASI’s new Sparrowhawk Small UAS (SUAS), launched from an MQ-9B SkyGuardian in the distance. In the box: a robotic test of the integrated in-flight recovery system. (Photo: GA-ASI)

The company showcased the technology that will allow the in-flight recovery of the Sparrowhawk SUAS, as well as a first look at the new Longshot drone being developed for DARPA.

Last year, General Atomics (GA-ASI) unveiled its Sparrowhawk air-launched and air-retrievable Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS). Recently, the company released more details about the system, including the mechanism that will allow the inflight recovery by its “mothership”. The occasion was provided by the publication of an overview of the advent of SUAS and their evolution, as envisioned by GA-ASI.

Sparrowhawk is described by GA-ASI as a game-changing SUAS which an aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper can carry under its wings, as it might a traditional payload like a sensor pod or a fuel tank (it weighs just 500 lb), and which can be launched and then recovered in mid-flight when the “mothership” reaches an area of interest on a mission, something that few remotely operated aircraft have ever done until now.

Sparrowhawk is considered difficult to spot by adversaries as it is programmed to fly low and relatively fast, being able to fly between 80 to 150 KIAS at altitudes up to 25,000 ft. This way the small drone can provide distributed and disaggregated sensors across the battle space, below the weather sensor coverage, attritable sensor capability in highly contested environments and collaborative autonomy for kill chain closure, capabilities that are possible thanks to Sparrowhawk’s constant connection with the launching aircraft which is used to send back vital information for decision making.

The Sparrowhawk might surveil an area for hours and turn back to rendezvous with the mothership holding at a safe distance, thanks to its hybrid electric propulsion system that allows an endurance of more than ten hours and a range of 500 nautical miles. Once in the safe area, well away from hostile warplanes or anti-air systems, the larger UAS can snatch the Sparrowhawk out of the sky via the integrated in-flight recovery system and continue its mission.

The integrated in-flight recovery system is a very interesting piece of technology. The mothership, which in the GA-ASI video presentation is an MQ-9B SkyGuardian, deploys a towline from inside the pylon used by Sparrowhawk, trailing a small orange spherical mass which serves the double purpose of stabilizing the towline and allowing the SUAS to grab the cable.

Once Sparrowhawk is in position near the towline, a small flap on the left side of its fuselage opens to help the cable get near the aircraft as it maneuvers. Then, a second flap opens in front of the first one, blocking the towline in position as the orange mass is caught between the two flaps before both flaps close securing the line. The SUAS wings then return to their stowed position by rotating 90 degrees and the mothership starts retracting the towline to secure Sparrowhawk under the pylon.

The company had already anticipated last year that the expendable sUAS will enable EW/SIGINT (Electronic warfare/SIGnals INTelligence) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions in a contested environment, thanks to its swappable 60-lb payload in the nose. Among the payload options the company mentioned imaging radar, SIGINT/ELINT, jamming and day/night imaging sensor packages.

A further example was provided with this year’s overview, stating that a SkyGuardian could release a Sparrowhawk to search for hostile anti-air systems, probing a denied environment so that it could report back about the radar or other systems that powered on or detected it. Sparrowhawk could then respond with an electronic attack of its own to clear the way for other aircraft coming in behind it, jamming an enemy radar to deny its ability to sense a strike package passing through the area, or supporting Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions.

Another SUAS was also featured in the overview provided by GA-ASI, called Longshot.

Developed under a contract for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), Longshot is designed to be launched from larger UAS or manned aircraft while in hostile airspace and defend the mothership from hostile aircraft by using its air-to-air missiles, either by sweeping the route ahead of the manned aircraft or staying in formation in a close escort role.

An interesting example mentioned by GA-ASI is the employment of Longshot by bombers, giving them an “emergency” air-to-air capability: “Imagine if a friendly bomber was enroute during a combat mission and allied battle networks detected the approach of hostile fighters. LongShot would let the bomber crew go on offense against the threat without the need for its own escorts or the retasking of friendly fighters, preserving its ability to service its targets as planned.”

Artist rendering of GA-ASI’s new LongShot SUAS, currently in development with DARPA. (Photo: GA-ASI)

Longshot features a stealthy design with a V-tail, straight wings and internal weapons bays. No info were provided about the dimensions, however the drone is represented armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range radar guided missiles and the weapons bays where they are carried occupy about half the length of the drone, so the total length could be around 7 or 8 meters, as the AMRAAM is 3.7 meters long. Also, no info were provided about the engine, which is not visible in the image.

DARPA’s LongShot program was announced earlier this year and has awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for preliminary Phase I design work. Northrop Grumman also unveiled a concept art of the design that will be submitted for the program, showing a jet-powered drone with V-tail and sweptback or delta wings. Contrary to GA-ASI proposal, this one seem to be centered around the external carriage of the air-to-air weapons, however some panels on the fuselage may suggest also the presence of additional weapons bays.

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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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