Tag: Troubled Areas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three U.S. B-52s Fly Mission Over Ukraine’s Sea of Azov Coast In A Clear Show Of Force Toward Russia

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Three U.S. B-52s Fly Mission Over Ukraine’s Sea of Azov Coast In A Clear Show Of Force Toward Russia
The track of B-52 near the Sea of Azov. (Image via Airnav Radarbox).

One week after taking part in the one-day Allied Sky mission that saw 6 B-52s flying over the capitals of the 30 NATO countries, the BUFFs of the 5th Bomb Wing, from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and deployed to RAF Fairford as part of BTF (Bomber Task Force) 20-4, have carried out another pretty interesting mission.

Launching from the UK shortly before 07.30LT on Sept. 4, 2020, three B-52s, #61-0034, #60-0005 and #60-0044, callsigns “JULIA 51-52-53”, flew all the way to Ukraine.

Two of the three bombers had their Mode-S transponder turned on, allowing them to be tracked during their trip toward the Black Sea region. Interestingly, the aircraft flew towards the Sea of Azov, then orbited for some minutes before heading north towards Kiev.

Although some sources reported that this was the first time U.S. strategic bombers entered the Ukrainian airspace, this is not true: on Sept. 26, 1994, a B-52, B-1 and KC-10 landed at Poltava AB, Ukraine, marking first time American bombers had landed there since WWII.

Anyway, the mission appears to be yet another clear signal sent to Russia, amid worsening USRussian relations, and reinforces the message that the Black Sea is considered strategic to the U.S. and NATO, as shown by the recent missions flown to the region by B-1s (training on LRASM attack profiles) and F-16s (flying JASSM cruise missile tactics training).

In particular, the Sea of Azov, a shallow sea bordered by Ukraine and Russia and divided from the Black Sea by the narrow Kerch Strait is a region where tension between Moscow and Kiev remains high. Tensions have risen since Russia annexed Crimea and built a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Since then, Russia controls ships entering the Azov Sea, on the grounds that it tries to prevent a terrorist attack. In March 2018, Ukraine’s border guards detained a Russian fishing boat. Russia accused Ukraine or ‘state piracy’ and last week, Russia detained two Ukrainian fishermen accused of poaching, the Russian State-sponsored reported.

Someone has also noted that the flight path flown today the could reflect a (nuclear) strike mission profile against targets in Russia using the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM).

Whatever, there are plenty of targets the U.S. bombers could attack from there with their stand-off weapons. Moreover, the fact that they were tracking online during their route also shows that they wanted to be seen, because, as explained, the B-52s not always have their transponders turned on during journeys across Europe and the rest of the world.

Anyway, the mission was closely monitored by several ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) assets flying in the Black Sea area, including RAF RC-135W Airseeker, Sentinel R1 and USAF Rivet Joint. They were probably recording the reactions of the Russian air defenses to the presence of the B-52s in the area.

ISR picture over Black Sea - Three U.S. B-52s Fly Mission Over Ukraine’s Sea of Azov Coast In A Clear Show Of Force Toward Russia
The “picture” of the ISR assets flying over the Black Sea as the three bombers operated northeast of Crimea. (Image credit: Planeradar.ru)

Last week, the B-52 flying over the Black Sea was intercepted by two Russian Su-27 Flankers. The Pentagon called the interception of its B-52H “unprofessional and unsafe” and published a video showing the Russian combat aircraft aggressively maneuvering close to the bomber flying in international airspace. On the very same day, a Russian Su-27 dispatched to intercept one of the B-52s taking part in Allied Sky mission over the Baltic, violated the Danish airspace.

While no Su-27s were probably scrambled this time, as the B-52s flew inside the Ukrainian airspace (not far from the Russian one over Crimea), it’s quite likely the mission (carried out on the very same day the North Atlantic Council is discussing the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok) will surely not go unnoticed.

boeing b 52 stratofortress e1591739281104 - Three U.S. B-52s Fly Mission Over Ukraine’s Sea of Azov Coast In A Clear Show Of Force Toward Russia
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Cockpit Video Shows Russian Su-27 Flanker Crossing Within 100 feet Of The Nose Of A B-52 Over The Black Sea

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Cockpit Video Shows Russian Su-27 Flanker Crossing Within 100 feet Of The Nose Of A B-52 Over The Black Sea
equence of screenshots from the video released by the Pentagon show the unsafe pass of the Su-27 on Aug. 28, 2020. (Image credit: DoD/TheAviationist)

As we have already reported with plenty of details, on Aug. 28, 2020, six U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers participated in Allied Sky, a single-day mission that saw the BUFFs overflying all 30 NATO nations.

In particular, one of the B-52s of the 5th Bomb Wing from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, currently deployed to RAF Fairford, UK, as part of Bomber Task Force 20-4, using the  radio callsign “NATO 01” and keeping its Mode-S transponder on, undertook an interesting tour flying from RAF Fairford across Eastern Europe to the Black Sea area and then back via (among the others) Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France.

During its 12-hour tour, NATO01/61-0034 was escorted by JAS 39 Gripen over the Czech Republic; by F-16s and MiG-21 Lancers over Romania; MiG-29s over Bulgaria; MiG-21s over Croatia; F-16s over Greece; Italian Air Force Typhoons and F-35s intercepted and escorted NATO 01 over Italy. As explained in the previous article, when over the Black Sea, off Crimea, the B-52 was also escorted by two Russian Air Force Su-27 Flankers that, according to the Pentagon, carried out an unsafe and unprofessional intercept on the U.S. bomber. We linked the press release in yesterday article but let’s have a look at in more in detail here:

At approximately 11:19 a.m. on Aug. 28, 2020, two Russian Su-27 Flanker pilots intercepted a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber that was conducting routine operations in the black sea over international waters. The Russian pilots flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner while crossing within 100 feet of the nose of the B-52 multiple times at co-altitude and while in afterburner causing turbulence and restricting the B-52’s ability to maneuver.

“Actions like these increase the potential for midair collisions, are unnecessary, and inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander. “While the Russian aircraft were operating in international airspace, they jeopardized the safety of flight of the aircraft involved. We expect them to operate within international standards set to ensure safety and prevent accidents,” he added.

Our B-52 Stratofortress aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace exercising our freedom of navigation and overflight. The U.S. Air Force routinely operates aircraft in the region in accordance with recognized international safety standards as prescribed in International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules of flight.

We don’t know where the intercept took place. However, we have an idea of the route the aircraft flew thanks to Planeradar.ru:

B 52 near Crimea - Cockpit Video Shows Russian Su-27 Flanker Crossing Within 100 feet Of The Nose Of A B-52 Over The Black Sea
B-52 flying off Crimea over the Black Sea. (Image credit: PlaneRadar.ru)

It’s not the first time and it won’t probably be the last one the Russian intercept is deemed “unprofessional” and “unsafe”. We have reported about several such incidents, most of time involving U.S. Navy P-8A Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft in the Black Sea or off Syria, when Russian and also Chinese fighters allegedly performed Top Gun-like stunts close to a U.S. aircraft. However, in most such cases just footage filmed by the onboard camera is released and we have never really seen interceptors aggressively maneuvering in front of the U.S. aircraft. Quite the contrary, the footage usually released only shows the interceptors closing on the wings of their target, without doing anything really dangerous, so much a former RC-135 aircraft commander who flew the S, U, V, W, and X models, commenting the intercepts, once told us “what passes for dangerous and provocative today was ho-hum to recon crews of my generation (although we weren’t shot at like the early fliers from 1950-1960).” Moreover, back in the days, some “stunts” were performed at the request of the intercepted aircraft.

This time, it’s different. The Pentagon has released a clip, possibly filmed with a smartphone, of the Russian Su-27 crossing extremely close to the nose of the B-52. That’s, by all standards, dangerous and unprofessional. Take a look by yourself (if you can’t see the video in the tweet below click here):

Thus far, these stunts have never caused real damage but we should not forget some incidents of the past.

On Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters. One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield. The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11, 2001.

On Sept. 13, 1987, a RNoAF P-3B had a mid air collision with a Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Barents Sea. While maneuvering below the P-3B, the Su-27P collided with the outboard right propeller of the Orion: the impact shattered a fin tip of the Su-27P and caused fragments of the propeller to puncture the P-3B’s fuselage, causing a decompression. The Orion experienced severe vibrations and the outboard right engine was shut down. Both aircraft were able to return safely to their bases.

Now, considered all the tensions of this Cold War 2.0 era, imagine the reactions would a Russian fighter collide mid-air with a U.S. strategic bomber..

U.S. RC-135U Combat Sent Flies 11-Hour Mission Quite Close To The Russian Airspace Over The Barents Sea

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - U.S. RC-135U Combat Sent Flies 11-Hour Mission Quite Close To The Russian Airspace Over The Barents Sea
File photo of an RC-135U landing at RAF Mildenhall in 2017. In the box, the route flown on Aug. 26, 2020. (Image credit: Airwolfhound via Wiki/TheAviationist/Planefinder).

On Aug. 26, 2020, U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent, registration 64-14849, belonging to the 55th Wing, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, but temporarily deployed to the UK, flew an 11h 20m mission over the Barents Sea.

The aircraft, radio callsign “ENID 51” flew outside Norway and reached the Barents Sea where it started flying several circles (actually, some uneven “racetracks” as usually done by reconnaissance and intelligence gathering aircraft) in international airspace off the Kola peninsula and the Murmansk region, that hosts some of the naval bases of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

The Combat Sent is one of the most secretive U.S. surveillance planes that can simultaneously locate, identify, and analyze multiple electronic signals. It provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information, performing signal analysis by means of a wide variety of commercial off-the-shelf and proprietary hardware and software, including the Automatic Electronic Emitter Locating System. The Combat Sent program was established on Apr. 17, 1970. Between 1971 and 1974, three RC-135C were converted to the RC-135U configuration: tail numbers 847, 792, 849. In 1975, tail 792 was converted to Rivet Joint, so from 1975 to present only two RC-135U remain operational.

RC 135U crew - U.S. RC-135U Combat Sent Flies 11-Hour Mission Quite Close To The Russian Airspace Over The Barents Sea
RC-135U crew composition. (Image credit: 55 Wing).

Several things about this mission are worth of remark. First of all, the fact that the reconnaissance aircraft could be tracked online for most of its mission. Spyplanes, including the U-Boat (as the RC-135U Combat Sent is nicknamed in the pilot community), usually operate in “due regard” with transponder switched off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts. Even though RC-135U can be regularly tracked online, they tend to keep a low-profile when reaching some area of operations (such as the Barents Sea where they were rarely tracked in the past), turning off the ADS-B to avoid being detected at least by commercial ADS-B receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.comPlaneFinder.net or ADSBExchange. In this case, the aircraft remained clearly visible. This visibility has allowed anyone using a web browser to clearly have an idea of the U-Boat’s area of operation that appeared to be unusually close to the Russian airspace (territorial sky is the nation’s sovereign airspace over territorial land and waters – that extend to 12NM from the coast).

While, obviously, we can’t track all the missions the two RC-135Us fly around the world, yesterday’s mission was by all standards, close to the Russian airspace.

“It is not known what missile shootings or other activities the Northern Fleet is doing in the Barents- and White Seas on August 26, but an American spy plane does not normally fly so close to Russian air space for no reason,” the Barents Observer noted.

“By 11 am Norwegian time, the plane had made four or five circles over the waters from Russia’s maritime border to Norway in the west to outside the closed-down naval base Gremikha in the east.”

“These waters are well known for being exercise areas of the Northern Fleet, including rocket and missile launching. Russia’s Administration of Sea Ports of the Western Arctic has listed a few non-sailing areas for this week in the Barents- and Kara Seas, including an area marked for rocket shooting in the period from August 25-28. Another larger area is marked forbidden for navigation, but no reason are not announced. It could be an extension of a warning issued by Arkhangelsk Sea Port authorities covering larger areas of the White Sea and north to east of Cape Kanin. Warnings are issued when missile missile firings are to take place from Nenoksa test range near Severodvinsk or from navy vessels in the White Sea.”

“Russian missile firings are of interest to monitor by the Americans.”

The RC-135U mission just outside the Russia’s Northern Fleet bases took place amid increasing tensions in the Scandinavia and Baltic Region. Sweden has raised readiness in the Gotland area as a consequence of the Russian military activity. According to the Barents Observer, Russian landing ships were sailing close to the island of Gotland and Sweden responded by sending navy warships, soldiers and other military hardware to the strategically located island.

Actually, even U.S. special operations aircraft have been operating in the Gotland area these days:

But the MC-130s are not the only U.S. assets in the region.

On Aug. 21, the U.S. Navy submarine USS Seawolf made a brief surfacing for personnel outside Tromsø in northern Norway. On Aug. 22, 6x B-52H Stratofortress bombers belonging to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, flew over the Norwegian Sea together with Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16 figther jets, on their way to RAF Fairford, UK, where they are going to be based for some weeks as part of a Bomber Task Force.

Back to the Combat Sent, on both Aug. 19, 20 and 24, the same RC-135U flew intelligence gathering missions (that could be tracked online) off Kaliningrad Oblast, in the Baltic region:

During the Aug. 24 mission the aircraft, flying as EPHOR 31, was also intercepted by a Russian Flanker:

BTW, it’s worth of remark that the RC-135U was not intercepted – at least, no detail has been released thus far about an interception – when it flew off Murmansk on Aug. 26, 2020.

A big “Thank You” to our reader Lasse Holmstrom for sending this over to us!

Here’s The First Footage of The Modernised Tu-95MSM “Bear” Bomber Performing Its Maiden Flight

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Here’s The First Footage of The Modernised Tu-95MSM “Bear” Bomber Performing Its Maiden Flight
The first Tu-95MSM prepares for its maiden flight. (Image credit: screenshot from the YT video embedded in the article).

United Aircraft Corporation has just released the first-ever footage of the maiden flight of a heavily upgraded Tupolev Tu-95MSM (NATO reporting name “Bear”). The first flight took place on Aug. 22, 2020, at the Taganrog Aviation Plant, in Taganrog.

The video shows the iconic Russian bomber (with its peculiar coaxial contra-rotating propellers) taxiing, taking off, performing a fly by and landing, reportedly after 2.5 hours of test flight.

As part of the modernization program, the bomber received a brand new Novella-NV1.021 phased array radar, a new flight control and information display system, and the Meteore-NM2 airborne defence complex, “capable of jamming enemy ground and aircraft-based radar”. Moreover, the “new” Bear variant features a new SOI-021 information display system and a new weapons control system, as well as new engines, the upgraded Kuznetsov NK-12MPM turboprop engines. These are said to increase the range of the strategic bomber and halve the level of the motors’ vibration.

“The NK-12MPM engine developed by the Samara-based Kuznetsov public company (part of the UEC [United Engine Corporation] within Rostec) is a modification of the NK-12MP, the world’s most powerful (15,000 hp) serial-produced turbo-prop engine,” says a statement obtained by TASS last year.

“It allows improving the aircraft’s take-off characteristics and increasing the load-carrying capacity and the flight range of the missile-carrying bomber. The new powerplant uses more powerful propellers created by Aerosila Research and Production Enterprise while the new design solutions have almost halved the vibration level,” the statement reads.

“This is an aircraft with a new set of weapons, new onboard electronic equipment, new modified engines, new propellers. The combat capabilities of the plane have doubled after this modernisation,” Yuri Slyusar, general director of United Aircraft Corporation said commenting the first flight of the Tu-95MSM, according to the Zvezda television channel.

Thanks to the upgrade, the Tu-95, first introduced in 1956, is expected to serve with the Russian Aerospace Forces until at least 2040.

Here below the same footage released by UAC, published on Youtube by Sputnik News (just in case the one embedded above from Twitter doesn’t work):

Russia MOD Says A Su-27 Intercepted An Italian Atlantic MPA Over The Black Sea. But The Italians Retired The Type in 2017.

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Russia MOD Says A Su-27 Intercepted An Italian Atlantic MPA Over The Black Sea. But The Italians Retired The Type in 2017.
File photo of a Su-27 Flanker (photographed by a RAF Typhoon). (Image credit: RAF/Crown Copyright).

According to a spokesman for Russia’s National Defense Management Center, a Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) was scrambled to identify and escort an Italian Atlantic that was approaching Russia’s state border on Aug. 14, 2020.

“A Su-27 fighter plane from the Southern Military District’s air defense quick reaction alert forces was scrambled to identify the target. The Russian fighter’s crew consistently approached the aerial object at a safe distance and identified it as an Italian Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft. After the Italian plane moved away from Russia’s state border, the Russian fighter safely returned to its home airfield” the Center said according to the TASS News Agency.

Even before the Italian Ministry of Defense denied any Italian aircraft was operating in the area, the whole story sounded at least weird: in fact, while it has operated the BR-1150 Atlantic MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) with ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capabilities for some 45 years, logging 260,000 flight hours with a fleet of 18 aircraft, the Italian Air Force has retired the type once and for all in November 2017.

Here’s what we wrote about the BR-1150 when the Italian Air Force bid farewell to the type:

Throughout its career, the Atlantic flown by mixed Air Force/Navy crew of 13 people in missions lasting up to 12 hours (actually the record of the Italian BR-1150 is 19 hours and 20 minutes!), carried out thousand Maritime Patrol, ASW and ASuW (Anti-Surface Warfare – limited to the reconnaissance and surveillance part since the aircraft was not equipped with ASuW weapons) sorties as well as Maritime SAR (Search And Rescue) operations taking part also in hundreds exercises: from Dawn Patrol back in 1973 to the recent Dynamic Manta, the BR-1150 have played a role in the Display Determination, Dog Fish, Vento Caldo, Daily Double, Mare Aperto, Tridente, Deterrent Force, Passex, Storm Two, Fleetex, Sharp Guard, Destined Glory, Tapoon and many more ones. The aircraft has flown to the North Pole in 1997, landed at all the major European airports, including Iceland, and reached India, Morocco, Canada, Egypt, Lebanon, UAE and the U.S.

Two units operated the type within the Italian Air Force (each being assigned 9 aircraft): the 41° Stormo (Wing), with its 88° Gruppo (Squadron) at Sigonella, and the 30° Stormo with its 86° Gruppo at Cagliari Elmas. The latter was disbanded on Aug. 1, 2002 with all the Breguet Atlantic aircraft (“P-1150A” in accordance with the current Italian Ministry of Defense Mission Design Series) taken on charge by the 41th Wing.

Although to a far lesser extent than the French Atlantique 2 (ATL2), that have been upgraded to extend their operative life beyond 2030 adding further capabilities, the Italian Atlantic fleet has undertaken a limited operational update between 1987 and 1997, as part of the ALCO (Aggiornamento Limitato Componente Operativa) programme, that has included, among the others and in different times, new INS (Intertial Navigation System), IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) system, along with new Iguane radar and ESM (Electronic Support Measures) sensors to perform electronic reconnaissance/surveillance systems as well as AIS (Automatic Identification System).

While the Italian Atlantics have been retired to be (partially) replaced by the P-72, a multirole Maritime Patrol, Electronic Surveillance and C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) aircraft that lacks an ASW (Anti-Sub Warfare) capability, the French Navy still operates a fleet of Breguet Atlantique 2 (ATL2), one of those was in the region to take part in the Romanian Navy Day celebrations over the Black Sea on Aug. 15, 2020.

The Russian pilot must have confused the Marine Nationale roundel with the one used by the Italian Air Force, not noticing that the color of the innermost circle, instead of green, was blue, and that there was also an anchor.

Roundels French Navy and ItAF - Russia MOD Says A Su-27 Intercepted An Italian Atlantic MPA Over The Black Sea. But The Italians Retired The Type in 2017.
The French Navy (left) and Italian (right) roundels.

The French Atlantique 2 (ATL2) fleet is being upgraded to the “standard 6” configuration to improve the MPA’s capability to support the Strategic Oceanic Force, to deal with modern threats (future nuclear or conventional submarines, naval forces at sea, etc.) and to support air-land missions, until 2030.

The “Standard 6” upgrade work includes:

  • A new radar: The Thales Search Master with active antenna,
  • A new acoustic subsystem by Thales: It gathers and processes signals from the latest-generation of sonobuoys for submarine detection,
  • A new navigation console designed by Dassault Aviation,
  • New consoles for the tactical display subsystem, developed by SIAé

Romanian Navy Days celebration aside, the French Navy ATL2 have already operated in the Black Sea region in the past, as happened in July 2019:

Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan
The MD-160, the sole completed Lun-class ekranoplan model. (All images: Lana Sator, unless otherwise stated)

On Jul. 31, 2020, Russia’s only completed MD-160 Lun class ekranoplan, towed by a tug, made its final voyage across the Caspian Sea. The trip, taking 14 hours in total, was required to move the gigantic non-operational ground effect vehicle (GEV) designed by Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeyev in 1975, from Kaspiysk naval base, where it had remained sitting unused since it was retired in the late 1990s, to Derbent, Dagestan, where it will will be put on display at the (future) Patriot Park on the Caspian Sea.

Officials and journalists were invited to the ceremony and the towing operations were widely reported in the media. However, it turns out that no Patriot Park was built in Derbent, and the ekranoplan lies on its belly near a wild beach where it has become a key local attraction.

Photoreporter Lana Sator made the trip to Derbent and took some really awesome shots of the impressive Lun class wings in ground effect (WIG) plane (including some pretty interesting ones of the cockpit and interior).

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Увидеть экраноплан “Лунь” изнутри – это было целью моего спонтанного возвращения в Дагестан. Редко рассказываю истории возникновения идей прогулок, подготовки и процесса, – но, может быть, именно такого контента здесь не хватает? Впрочем, инстаграм не так хорош для лонгридов, текст разбит на части и помещён в комментарии. Продублирую на английском, как обычно. Фотки снаружи, если кто не видел, – во вчерашнем посте. Seeing “Lun” ekranoplane from the inside was the main purpose of my spontaneous return to Dagestan. I rarely tell stories of ideas for walks, preparation and exploration process – but maybe this is the kind of content that is missing here? However, instagram isn’t so good for longread, – the text is broken down into parts and placed in comments. 🇬🇧 English text in comments below.

Un post condiviso da Lana Sator (@lanasator) in data:

Known as Ekranoplan in Russia, the GEV or WIG plane is a vehicle that is designed to attain sustained flight over a level surface (usually over the sea) by making use of ground effect, the aerodynamic interaction between the wings and the surface. The cushion of air reduces drag allowing the WIG to carry significant payload over long distances, very fast and very low: this makes a WIG equipped with missiles difficult to detect and a significant threat to any enemy warship.

Ground effect CIA - Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan
The ground effect explained. (Image credit: declassified CIA doc)

The Soviet WIG program began in the early 1960s. At the end of the 1980s, a then secret CIA document said that the WIGs “will add a new dimension to naval surface warfare when they become operational. They are designed to fly at speeds of 200 to 250 knots at about 5 to 10 meters above the water’s surface (the ground-effect zone)”.

Ekranoplan 3 - Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan
An aerial view of the ekranoplan at Derbent, in Russia’s republic of Dagestan.

Lun class ekranoplan was built in 1987 and given the reporting name Utka class. “The Utka class WIG is a tactical strike and coastal defense vehicle for the Soviet Navy” the CIA said. “It carries six supersonic SS-N-22 antiship cruise missiles. The Utka, can engage enemy ships out to its radar horizon (about 35 kilometers) but can fire the SS-N-22 out to the missile’s 100-kilometer range with over-the-horizon targeting data. The Utka is larger than a US Boeing 747 jet airplane and flies at about 250 knots. One Utka has been built”. That one is the ekranoplan currently waiting to become a museum on a beach of Derbent.

“We believe that an Utka strike force or coastal defense force would give the Soviets a quick-reaction capability against surface combatants. However, unless the Utka can pop up out of ground effect to extend its radar horizon, it will require external sources of targeting information”.

The ekranoplan had a crew of 15 (6 officers, 9 enlisted). Thanks to Lana Sator, we also get an idea of the aircraft cockpit and interiors:

Ekranoplan cockpit - Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan
The cockpit of the MD-160.

However, the Soviet WIG project was expensive and only the first plane, model MD-160, was completed. A second was nearly completed.

“While not requiring “high” technology, WIGs certainly require new integration of technologies. They are more complex than any ships or conventional aircraft, and they require extensive maintenance to keep them seaworthy. Turbofan engines on WIGs are especially maintenance intensive. Their performance degrades significantly in a salt-air environment without proper maintenance.”

The Lun was powered with eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbofans, mounted on forward canards, each producing 127.4 kN (28,600 lbf) of thrust, and was equipped for anti-surface warfare, with P-270 Moskit (Mosquito) guided missile (with a range between 10 and 100 kilometers). Six missile launchers were mounted in pairs on the dorsal surface of its fuselage with advanced tracking systems mounted in its nose and tail.

Ekranoplan top - Take A Look At These Incredible Shots Of The Russia’s Sole Completed Lun-Class Ekranoplan
Another dramatic shot of Lun-class ekranoplan model on the beach at Derbent.

A three-ship formation of MD-160 could launch 18 missiles at a target simultaneously, each one closing on the target at 2.3M and flying at 20 meters above the ground.

CIA believed WIGs could be configured to carry out different missions, including minelaying, ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) and SAR (Search And Rescue). To that respect, another version of Lun was planned for use as a mobile field hospital for rapid deployment to any ocean or coastal location. It was named the Spasatel (“Rescuer”). Work was about 90% done, when the military funding ended, and it was never completed.

While we wait for the only Lun class ekranoplan to become a museum, we can at least enjoy some really stunning photographs of this marvelous vehicle thanks to Lana Sator (that we want to thank for allowing us to post some of her shots).

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Экраноплан “Лунь” – бесконечно красивый гибрид корабля и самолёта, долгие годы томившийся на территории военного завода “Дагдизель” в Каспийске. Недавно его решили перевезти на новое место – якобы, в будущий филиал парка “Патриот” около Дербента. Операция буксировки была сложна и потребовала немалых усилий, на торжественное событие пригласили ответственных лиц и журналистов, а успех широко освещался в СМИ. Только вот закончился этот “успех” тем, что никакого парка Патриот в Дербенте не построено, экраноплан лежит на брюхе возле дикого пляжа и превращается в ключевую местную достопримечательность. Желающие сфотографировать приезжают с рассвета, поток машин по пляжу практически непрерывный. Дети купаются вокруг и прыгают с крыльев в воду. Экраноплан охраняют от мародеров и вандалов – сторожа находятся внутри круглосуточно, обслуживают генераторы для работы насосов. Зачем насосы? Внутри экраноплана вода. Тут два варианта – либо корпус потерял герметичность за время хранения на заводе, либо ему продрали днище, пока волочили тросами к пляжу. Тросы не выдерживали и рвались, подходящей техники для аккуратного перемещения и установки на постамент (которого тоже нет) предоставлено не было… Узнав обо всём этом, я срочно отправилась посмотреть на чудо своими глазами: зная российские реалии и вспоминая недавнюю историю с крымской подлодкой, можно всерьёз опасаться за судьбу уникальной машины. Помимо прочего, в таком виде – стоящий в морской воде, находящийся в своей стихии, – экраноплан выглядит гораздо более круто, нежели в сухом доке завода или на демонстрационном постаменте в окружении любопытных ротозеев. …Разумеется, ключевой целью этой поездки было не только увидеть Луня снаружи, но и пробраться внутрь – ведь я уже была внутри экранопланов Спасатель и Орлёнок, этого не хватало для полного комплекта. Операция прошла успешно, – в следующем посте расскажу и покажу, каково оно там. Следите за обновлениями! 😎 #ls_drone

Un post condiviso da Lana Sator (@lanasator) in data:

H/T Alex Snow for the heads-up!

Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
The Shahed 181 and Shahed 191 UAVs (in the box and in the main image respectively) in flight during the exercise. (Image credit: screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

Earlier this week, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) kicked off its annual exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. This year’s edition, called “Great Prophet 14”, included – again – an attack on a fake U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier on July 28, 2020. The fake ship was seen for the first time in 2014, when it was built as a movie prop, then blown up during Great Prophet 9 exercise in 2015 and repaired to be used again this year near the port city of Bandar Abbas. Another target seen in the videos of the exercise is a replica of the AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar, the eyes of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD).

During the exercise, the IRGC used different weapons and platforms, including multiple types of short-range ballistic missiles, Nasr-1 anti-ship missile (copy of the Chinese C-704) with a 22 km range launched from an Agusta-Bell AB-206 (or the Iranian copy Shahed-278), ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, commandos both rappelling from an Mi-17 and parachuting on the fake carrier’s deck, combat divers and swarming fast boats, Su-22M4 with glide bombs, drones and even a surveillance satellite, although there is no concrete evidence to support this latter claim.

Reportedly, three missiles splashed down in the waters near Al Dhafra Air Base (UAE) and Al Udeid Air Base (Qatar), prompting them to switch to a high alert posture.

Iranian drones 2 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image of the fake carrier as seen from a drone after being hit (left) and the AN/TPY-2 radar replica about to be hit by a missile (right). (Photo: screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The most interesting aspects about the latest iteration of the drills, are the drones that took part in it.

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

Before we continue, it is important to note that the videos of the drones during this week’s exercise are mixed with videos from another exercise carried out last year in the same area, so it may be difficult to confirm which images were actually recorded during “Great Prophet 14”.

Once they got their hands on the RQ-170, the Iranians immediately started to reverse-engineer the aircraft, creating a full-scale exact copy that they called Shahed 171 Simorgh (Phoenix), unveiled in 2014. Another copy of the RQ-170 is the scaled down, about 60% of the original size, Shahed 161, called also Saegheh (Thunderbolt) and unveiled in 2016. This drone presents some differences, mainly the absence of the two fairings on the sides of the air intake and landing gear, and can be armed with four Sadid-1 TV-guided anti-tank missiles mounted semi-recessed under the fuselage.

After that, the next to be developed were the two drones seen during this week’s exercise, the Shahed 181 and Shahed 191, both called also Saegheh-2, which are essentially the same aircraft except for the engine and weapons’ placement.

Like the S-161, both UAVs are smaller than the original RQ-170 copy. Some analysts suggest that the drones may be made of fiberglass.

Iranian drones 3 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image of the Shahed 191 showing, from the upper left, the drone with EO/IR turret, weapon bays open and its engine, Sadid-342 guided glide bombs being loaded (note the rather simple engine exhaust), the drone in flight and a bomb being released. (Photo: Iran media/screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The S-191 is powered by a micro turbojet engine which Iranian media claim is capable of pushing the UAV up to 300 km/h at 25000 ft, with an endurance of 4.5 hours and a combat radius of 450 km. The UAV can mount an EO/IR (Electro-Optical/InfraRed) turret under the nose that however seemed to miss in the photos from the exercise (but a closer look still shows a panel for mounting the turret). According to the Iranian media, the drone can also carry a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) turret instead of the EO/IR turret. It is interesting to note that both turrets have a heat sink that protrudes from the upper part of the fuselage, just in front of the engine’s air intake.

Instead of using a normal landing gear, the S-191 uses two retractable skids, but it also has a parachute to be used when a runway is not available. The takeoff is performed by using a rail installed in the back of a pickup truck, which then speed up on a runway until the UAV lifts off. Some earlier versions of the S-191 missed the two elevated fairings on the sides of the air intake.

The weapons are installed in two internal bays (which sometimes lack their doors, remaining open for the entire flight and thus nullifying the drone’s claimed “stealthiness”), each capable of holding a Sadid-342 guided glide bomb with fragmentation warhead, which is also extremely similar to the Sadid-1 anti-tank missile, so much so that often is difficult to discern one from the other in the photos (the same difficulties are also valid when identifying the S-171 and S-191 UAVs, with the only external differences being the size and the different landing gear). According to some analysts, the weapon could use “man in the loop” guidance.

Iranian drones 4 - Iran showcases Shahed 181 and 191 drones during “Great Prophet 14” Exercise
Composite image showing the Shahed 181 from below and above. Note the pusher prop and the bombs between the landing skids from below and the missing elevated fairings and different air intakes for the piston engine from above. (Photo: IribNews/screenshots from IMA Media YouTube video)

The Shahed 181 is a variant of the S-191 propelled by a piston engine and with a different air intake design than the S-191 and missing fairings on the sides of the air intake. The retractable skids are replaced by four fixed skids, along with the weapon bays replaced by semi-recessed attaching points between the skids. Apart from these differences, the two airframes are identical.

Iran claims to have used the jet powered S-191 operationally to attack unspecified terrorist targets in eastern Syria in October 2018, with a video of the drone flying over an unspecified city at night and showing a weapon drop and the bay’s doors closing before landing on its skids on a runway. The prop-powered S-181 was instead used in February 2018 to infiltrate Israel from Syria and was subsequently shot down by an IAF Apache helicopter, prompting retaliatory strikes that resulted also in the loss of an F-16I Sufa.

Other than the drones, a new weapon seen for the first time in operation is the Yasin GPS/Glonass/INS guided glide bomb with a 300 kg warhead and range claimed to be between 50 and 100 km. The Su-22M4 was seen carrying a single bomb under the inner left pylon, with what could possibly be a datalink pod under the inner right pylon. Interestingly, the Su-22’s cockpit was upgraded with the addition of Garmin Aera and 430 GPS systems and another unknown radio system.

The last claim made by the IRGC during “Great Prophet 14” is the usage of a Nour satellite to monitor the exercise. Video distributed by Iranian media show the satellite’s orbit, designated “IRAN_SAT” in the graphics, showing a conic shape that could be a representation of the satellite’s field of view. The same video shows what is claimed to be satellite recon imagery of Al-Udeid Airbase in both the visible and thermal spectrum, but it is difficult to prove their authenticity.

U.S. F-15 Performs “Visual Inspection” of Iranian Airliner Flying Near U.S. Base in Syria.

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - U.S. F-15 Performs “Visual Inspection” of Iranian Airliner Flying Near U.S. Base in Syria.
A screenshot from a video posted by @iribnews showing the US F-15 during the intercept.

U.S. Central Command has confirmed that a U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle performed a visual daytime intercept and inspection of an Iranian Mahan Air A310 passenger airliner flying as IRM1152 from Tehran, Iran, to Beirut, Lebanon, over Syrian airspace in fair weather conditions. The F-15 maintained a horizontal separation of over 3,000 feet (about 1,000 meters) during the intercept according to statements from U.S. Central Command. Video taken from the Iranian airliner later released by the Iranian State TV shows the moment the two jets approached the A310. Initially, the two F-15s were mistakely reported as being Israeli Air Force fighters.

While standards for minimum separation distance of aircraft in flight vary with altitude, weather and regional air traffic requirements, the distance maintained by the U.S. F-15 is generally within accepted safety standards for military aircraft performing a visual security intercept in fair weather.

IranianIntercept 20 - U.S. F-15 Performs “Visual Inspection” of Iranian Airliner Flying Near U.S. Base in Syria.
File photo of Iranian Mahan Air airliner. (Photo: Paul Spijkers via Wiki)

Iranian news media did show passenger video of what appeared to be the airliner maneuvering during the encounter as passengers screamed. Additional video showed one man with bleeding injuries to his nose and forehead. A report from Beirut, Lebanon, where the Iranian airliner landed, said that injuries sustained by passengers were minor.

IRM 1152 - U.S. F-15 Performs “Visual Inspection” of Iranian Airliner Flying Near U.S. Base in Syria.
The route of IRM 1152 (Image credit: Flightradar24.com).

According to Flightradar24.com data, the A310 made a climb followed by a quick descent: that must be the moment when the F-15s approached the airliner to perform their VID (Visual Identification). Based on the video and reports, it looks like the Iranian Mahan Air pilot performed a sort of avoidance maneuver when he saw the fighters or had a warning from the TCAS (Traffic Collidance Avoidance System).

Generally speaking, the interception of a civil aircraft is performed in accordance with the special recommendations of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) RAC (Rules of the Air) Appendix 2 and subsequent Attachments. ICAO recommends all the parties (ATC, pilots of both the interceptor and civilian aircraft) to be made aware of the actions that are being undertaken. In the case of IRM1152 flight, it’s not clear whether the civialin ATC control was informed of the intercept (depending on the airspace where the VID takes place, the civilian ATC agency is informed by its military counterpart – where direct communication links exist – of the intercept so that the civilian pilot is warned and prepared to the sight of two combat aircraft approaching it) or the Eagle pilots made an attempt to contact the airliner on the international emergency VHF frequency 121.500 Mhz.

Anyway, here are some other interesting guidelines provided by ICAO to keep in mind when analysing such intercepts:

A standard method should be established for the manoeuvring of aircraft intercepting a civil aircraft in order to avoid any hazard for the intercepted aircraft. Such method should take due account of the performance limitations of civil aircraft, the need to avoid flying in such proximity to the intercepted aircraft that a collision hazard may be created and the need to avoid crossing the aircraft’s flight path or to perform any other manoeuvre in such a manner that the wake turbulence may be hazardous, particularly if the intercepted aircraft is a light aircraft

An aircraft equipped with an airborne collision avoidance system (ACAS), which is being intercepted, may perceive the interceptor as a collision threat and thus initiate an avoidance manoeuvre in response to an ACAS resolution advisory. Such a manoeuvre might be misinterpreted by the interceptor as an indication of unfriendly intentions. It is important,therefore, that pilots of intercepting aircraft equipped with asecondary surveillance radar (SSR) transponder suppress the transmission of pressure-altitude information (in Mode C replies or in the AC field of Mode S replies) within a range ofat least 37 km (20 NM) of the aircraft being intercepted. This prevents the ACAS in the intercepted aircraft from using resolution advisories in respect of the interceptor, while the ACAS traffic advisory information will remain available

Dealing with the intercept procedure:

Phase I

The intercepting aircraft should approach the intercepted aircraft from astern. The element leader, or the single intercepting aircraft, should normally take up a position on the left (port)side, slightly above and ahead of the intercepted aircraft, within the field of view of the pilot of the intercepted aircraft, and initially not closer to the aircraft than 300 m. Any other participating aircraft should stay well clear of the intercepted aircraft, preferably above and behind. After speed and position have been established, the aircraft should, if necessary, proceed with Phase II of the procedure.

Phase II

The element leader, or the single intercepting aircraft, should begin closing in gently on the intercepted aircraft, at the same level, until no closer than absolutely necessary to obtain the information needed. The element leader, or the single intercepting aircraft, should use caution to avoid startling the flightcrew or the passengers of the intercepted aircraft, keeping constantly in mind the fact that manoeuvres considered normal to an intercepting aircraft may be considered hazardous to passengers and crews of civil aircraft. Any other participating aircraft should continue to stay well clear of the intercepted aircraft. Upon completion of identification, the intercepting aircraft should withdraw from the vicinity of the intercepted aircraft as outlined in Phase III.

Phase III

The element leader, or the single intercepting aircraft, should break gently away from the intercepted aircraft in a shallowdive. Any other participating aircraft should stay well clear ofthe intercepted aircraft and rejoin their leader.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said that the U.S. F-15 performed a visual inspection of the Iranian airliner as it passed within the vicinity of a U.S. air base in Syria. Capt. Urban said that the F-15 was on a “routine air mission” near an American military base in the region and that the aircraft had flown a, “Standard visual inspection of a Mahan Air passenger airliner to ensure the safety of coalition personnel at al-Tanf garrison”. Capt. Urban went on to say that, when the F-15 Eagle made positive identification of the Mahan Air airliner, the USAF pilot responding, “safely opened distance” between his aircraft and the airliner. Capt. Urban also said, “The professional intercept was conducted in accordance with international standards”.

As for the reasons for the intercept, it would be interesting to know if something suspect was reported (maybe based on U.S. intelligence) or if the route the aircraft followed brought it closer to al-Tanf base than expected.

Tensions between U.S. forces and Iran in the region have remained high since Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani was killed in a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft strike in Iraq on January 3, 2020. During a subsequent incident on January 7 in Kerman, Iran, 56 mourners of Gen. Qassim Soleimani were trampled to death and 212 more were injured at a memorial service.

On Jan. 8, 2020, Iranian forces launched a retaliatory missile strike at two U.S. bases in Iraq. No U.S. personnel died in the attacks but nearly 100 persons were reported as having head injuries, possibly from the concussion of missile warheads on impact.

Iran and the U.S. have since maintained rhetoric condemning the actions of the other as tensions in the region remain high.

U.S. F-16s Involved in JASSM Cruise Missile Tactics Training Take Part In “All Domain Mission” Over The Black Sea

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - U.S. F-16s Involved in JASSM Cruise Missile Tactics Training Take Part In “All Domain Mission” Over The Black Sea
File photo of a 31FW F-16 (Image credit: Author). In the left box, one of the HC-130J that took part in the exercise (Image credit: Claudio Tramontin); in the right box, a screenshot showing the ADS-B/Mode-S tracks of the aircraft involved in the exercise (via @GDarkconrad)

An interesting exercise was carried out in international airspace over the Black Sea, on July 22, 2020. Designed “to train U.S. forces to integrate, operate and communicate while executing all domain operations” the “all domain mission” was led by the U.S. Forces in Europe and involved assets from U.S. Naval Forces Europe, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, and U.S. Space Command.

Among the assets taking part in the operation, there were U.S. Air Force F-16Cs from the 31st Fighter Wing, based at Aviano Air Base, Italy; KC-135 Stratotankers belonging to the 100th Aerial Refueling Wing, from RAF Mildenhall, UK; MQ-9 Reapers belonging to the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2, Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland. U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. 6th Fleet integrated the USS Porter (DDG 78), currently operating in the Black Sea for Exercise Sea Breeze, and Patrol Squadron (VP-4) P-8 Poseidon from CTF-67.

Interestingly, the mission saw the Aviano F-16s involved in training scenarios utilizing Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM) cruise missile tactics. The AGM-158 JASSM (with a range in excess of 200 nautical miles) and its extended-range version, the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER) with a standoff distance of over 500 nautical miles, are GPS-guided radar-evading cruise missiles with 2,250-lbs penetrator/blast fragmentation warhead. The JASSM cruise missile employs precision routing and guidance in adverse weather, day or night, using an infrared seeker in addition to the anti-jam GPS to find and destroy high-value, well-defended targets. “Training to this capability enhances Air Force readiness and deterrence capabilities,” says the official U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa release.

Noteworthy, this is the second mission to the Black Sea region in the last few months to involve the simulated use of a standoff weapon: as we reported in details here, on May 29, 2020, two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing, based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, performed a Bomber Task Force Europe mission over Eastern Europe, flying along the way with Polish F-16s and MiG-29s, Romanian F-16s and MiG-21s, Ukrainian Su-27s and MiG-29s and were also intercepted by Russian Su-27s over the Black Sea. The focus of that mission was on the training on the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability. Based on the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, the AGM-158C LRASM is the new stealthy anti-ship cruise missile developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy already integrated on the B-1B Lancer and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

Back to the Jul. 22 mission, U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance assets integrated into the 20th iteration of Exercise Sea Breeze, an annual multinational exercise in the Black Sea co-led by the U.S. and Ukraine while U.S. Special Operations Command Europe integrated MC-130J Commando II aircraft from the 352nd Special Operations Wing, RAF Mildenhall, UK, within the training scenario to exercise special operations forces insertion capabilities that enable all-domain operations. The USAFE-AFAFRICA release does not mention them, but the Sea Breeze exercise also saw the involvement of two HC-130J Combat King II, whose role is to rapidly deploy to execute combatant commander directed recovery operations to austere airfields and denied territory for expeditionary, all weather personnel recovery operations to include airdrop, airland, helicopter air-to-air refueling, and forward area ground refueling missions. The two Combat King IIs, 16-5873/LI of the 102nd RQS/106th RQW (New York ANG) based at Westhampton Beach/The Francis S. Gabreski ANGB (NY, Long Island) and 14-5864 of the 130th RQS/129thRQW (California ANG) based at Moffett Field (CA), have arrived in Europe, to support Silver Arrow 2020 mission on Jul. 8, 2020. According to USAFE-AFAFRICA, Silver Arrow missions provide an augmenting force to increase tactical airlift capacity to U.S. Air Forces in Europe during the period of highest demand. The program also focuses on U.S. European Command engagements that support NATO.

HC 130J Aviano - U.S. F-16s Involved in JASSM Cruise Missile Tactics Training Take Part In “All Domain Mission” Over The Black Sea
HC-130J 16-5873/LI of the 102nd RQS/106th RQW (New York ANG) landing at Aviano AB on Jul. 21, 2020. (Image credit: Claudio Tramontin).

The two HC-130J redeployed to Aviano AB to take part in the Black Sea exercise on Jul. 21, 2020. On the following day, during the Black Sea exercise, at least one of them (14-5864) using callsign “JUNO 22” could be tracked online by means of its Mode-S/ADS-B transponder, along with many other participants (beware, the below tweet says JUNO 22 was an MC-130J but it was the HC-130J from Aviano):

Tanker support, NATO E-3 and U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon could be tracked as well:

“Conducting operations in the Black Sea ensures stability throughout the region. Our combined presence strengthens relationships with our allies and partners while sending a message to any adversary that we are committed to collective defense and ready to respond in a complex security environment,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander in the public release, a statement that highlight the growing importance of the region for the U.S. Air Force and NATO.

U.S. and NATO activity in the area almost often causes Russian Su-27s and Su-30SMs of the Southern Military District to scramble from their bases to intercept and identify the “targets”. For instance, last time the B-1s flew over the Black Sea for their LRASM training, they were escorted by at least one Flanker. A video of the intercept was later released by the Russian MoD.

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