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From the monthly archives:

October 2010

Here’s British comedy duo John Bird and John Fortune’s hilarious take on the U.K.‘s recent defense cuts  defense dilemmas (it’s three years old but still very relevant). They pay particular attention to the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the F-35s the ships will someday carry. Not always 100 percent accurate, but funny nonetheless. 

What will the once mighty Royal Navy do with just one operational carrier? Possible answer; lots more collaboration with the French. Maybe.

Happy Friday.

– John Reed

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Flight Global’s Steve Trimble is at it again today. He’s got a great and simple breakdown of the tech differences between the air superiority rock star F-22 Raptor and its jack of all trades 5th generation cousin, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Most interesting is his listing of the software and sensor differences between the two jets and the fact that Lockheed is proposing making the planes a lot more similar. 

F-35 detractors often point to the fact that its slower and less maneuverable than the Raptor. JSF supporters constantly point to the jet’s suite of pretty damn impressive sensors and data sharing tools as giving it a distinct edge over any other fighter. During a recent test flight over Virginia, the plane’s Distributed Aperture System (DAS) of infrared sensors, that give the pilot a 360-degree bubble of IR coverage, tracked a missile launch out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Lockheed Martin now wants to make it easier for the jets to share information and receive software upgrades by commonizing their computer architecture.

The concept involves installing the F-35 computing architecture and certain hardware in the F-22. Even Lockheed acknowledges the idea would require “significant initial investment”, but could yield “some cost savings” in the long-term. Discussions with the US Air Force are underway.

“Say, if we want to add something to [the F-22 Communication, Navigation, Identification] suite, F-35 could take that wholesale with minimal modifications,” says Jeff Babione, vice-president and deputy general manager of the F-22 programme. “So you’ll see this bouncing back and forth where F-22 develops something for F-35, and F-35 develops something for F-22.”

While this won’t make the F-22 the flying ISR monster that is the JSF and it won’t make the F-35 a pure air superiority machine, it would make it easier for the two to work together in doing things like passing data back and forth undetected in enemy airspace.

Considering we’ve only got a limited number of F-22s and the fact that the F-35 will be our  — and our allies’ — predominant stealth fighter for decades, this idea makes a lot of sense, especially if Lockheed can find a way to keep the cost down. (If you’ve tracked the F-35 program, you’ve got to be skeptical about its ability to do that. Though, it does appear the company is getting a handle on JSF costs.)  The same idea also applies to linking the fighters to our B-2 bombers and whatever stealth UAVs are in development.

Collaboration and information sharing give modern militaries a serious edge on the battlefield. If you can successfully link the planes in combat environments — and make it easy to upgrade their software with a shared architecture – they’ll be able  to play to each other’s strengths for decades to come in ways we haven’t even thought of.

Here’s Trimble’s post.

– John Reed

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An Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk CSAR helicopter lands

The Air Force introduced a flurry of changes recently to its request for information on what types of choppers industry can provide to replace the current crop of 112 overworked HH-60 Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters.

Most obvious is a change made on Oct. 27 requiring proposed aircraft to be “capable of sustaining 125 knots true air speed” while flying at 4,000 feet in 80 degree temperatures and loaded with 2,000 pounds of cargo along with enough gas “to meet [a]  maximum Combat Radius” of 195 nautical miles.

The original “sources sought” notice, published on March 23, lists a sustained speed of 130 knots at 4,000 feet altitude in 95 degree heat carrying more than 2,500 pounds of cargo with radius of 220 nautical miles.

The other major alteration made this week is that the service has extended its deadline to respond to the notice to 4:00 PM on Nov. 2. The  deadline listed in March was April 13, 2010, a date that has been adjusted all year as the service tweaks its requirements.

One question comes to mind; will this aircraft be able to perform adequately in hot climates?  The Army is looking at a high-hot requirement of 6,000 feet at 95 degrees for its armed aerial scout program. (Granted, that chopper will probably carry a lot  less than any CSAR bird.)

The Air Force wants to replace its CSAR helos with 112 of a new helo that is already in production rather than a new design.  Hopefully the new effort will be in sharp contrast to the CSAR-X contest of the last decade that was mired in protests and delays.

HH-60-maker Sikorsky plans to team with Lockheed Martin to offer a CSAR version of the UH-60M for the effort. Meanwhile, Lockheed’s former partner in the CSAR-X contest, AgustaWestland, plans to bid with its AW101, the same bird it offered during the last go ’round.

Check out the notice here

– John Reed

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Ok, not really.  However, the usually unseen chief of Britain’s foreign spy agency, MI6, is on a PR campaign of late, making a rare appearance before journalists this week espousing the merits of secrecy and denying that the Brits get any info from torture. 

While one appearance doesn’t normally qualify as a media blitz, it just might for the notoriously secretive agency – also known as the Secret Intelligence Service. Until recently the identity of MI6 bosses was a closely guarded secret, they were only refereed to as “C.” In fact, London didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the organization until 1994.

From today’s New York Times:

Sir John Sawers, whose organization is widely known as MI6, devoted much of his 30-minute address to the central role of secrecy in maintaining security and to what he called Britain’s abhorrence of torture to extract secret information.

“Secrecy is not a dirty word,” he said. “Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure.”

“If our operations and methods become public, they won’t work,” he said.

His appearance reinforced a trend among Britain’s spy bosses to shed the traditional cloak of their trade. Sir John’s appearance followed a first public speech by Iain Lobban, the director of Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, and several appearances by Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5, which is responsible for domestic security in contrast to MI6’s focus on overseas operations.

The spy chief went on to explain why he chose to make a public plea for tolerance of MI6’s need for secrecy. (Let me guess, because it’s a spy agency?)

“Why now, might you ask?” Sir John said of his decision to go public. The answer, he said, was that despite its prominence in the news, the debate about MI6 was not well-informed and “in today’s open society, no government institution is given the benefit of the doubt all the time.”

While the article doesn’t mention it, I’ve got to wonder if this has anything to do with Wikileaks’ massive release of classifed docs from the Iraq war last week?

– John Reed

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The latest version of the OV-1D Mohawk Armed with a 30 MM chain gun

It looks like the trend toward taking vintage aircraft designs and installing a few modern gadgets and guns on them is starting to grow. While roaming the halls of the Association of the U.S. Army’s massive conference in D.C. yesterday, a colleague took me over to ATK’s booth where among the  guns and rockets on display was a model of the Army’s old OV-1 Mohawk armed with the 30 mm chain gun straight off the AH-64 Apache attack helo.

It turns out, ATK has teamed with two outfits called the Broadbay Group and Mohawk Technologies who specialize in building and sometimes operating small fleets of special missions aircraft for a variety of customers and the revamped OV-1D is the latest niche aircraft the team is pitching, according to Clay Bringhurst the company’s business development manager for ground combat systems.

While the Mohawk design dates to the late 1950s, ATK and company are looking at using  the dozens of 1980s-vintage OV-1Ds that were retired in the 1990s after service in Desert Storm, according to Broadbay’s COO, JT Young. 

The plan is to keep the planes — which have been basking in a boneyard in the Arizona sun since retirement — in pretty much their original state save for the installation of digital cockpit displays, a new electro-optical/infrared sensor ball on the nose and the chain gun that’s tied to the sensor ball, according to Young. The team has already pulled several aircraft from the boneyward and is testing the gun and camera on one of them.

While the team isn’t planning on marketing the plane to the U.S. Air Force for its highly publicized push to buy a light attack plane, they are looking to sell or lease the Mohawks to foreign nations with low-budgets and aging attack fleets or even domestic clients such as the special ops community and “other” government customers in the States. It could even be used to train U.S. ground soldiers to call in air strikes, according to Young and Bringhurst.

So, the OV-1D probably won’t be the Air Force’s new COIN plane, but it does have a long history of performing battlefield surveillance and strike for the Army with cameras, infrared sensors, side looking radar — sort of an early version of today’s 707-based E-8 JSTARS – and a variety of rockets and dumb bombs. The planes served all over the world during the Cold War and immediatly after, from Vietnam and Korea to Germany and Iraq. In fact, they performed so well that it’s rumored the Air Force was not at all comfortable with this fixed wing-capability being in the Army’s hands. 

This whole trend of reviving old designs for COIN-style missions has been rolling for a while now.  Just a couple of years ago Boeing announced that it was looking at dusting off the blueprints for the venerable OV-10 Bronco light observation and attack plane that was flown by the Air Force and Marines in Vietnam and Desert Storm. That plan might have stalled out now that the Air Force is signalling that it will only buy a handful of light attack planes, and it probably wants something that’s a slightly newer design.

– John Reed

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It’s not everyday a manufacturer will ask a customer in front of a crowd of people whether he was satisfied with a product. Not unrehearsed and unscripted, anyway.

But that’s what Frank Dlubak did Oct. 26 at the Association of the US Army conference in Washington, after hearing Army Spc. Jim Mata tell of being wounded in Baghdad by an explosively-formed projectile that entered through his back and exited his abdomen, bursting open his body armor. Mata, a gunner in an armored vehicle, had been in a Suspended Ergonomic Adjustable Tactical sling-seat when the projectile tore through the turret and his body.

“If the seat would have been better, could it have stopped some of the damage?” Dlubak asked Mata, who was speaking to the AUSA audience by satellite link from Iraq, where he was once again deployed.

After a few seconds delay while Dlubak’s words reached him, Mata replied: “Actually, they said that it was a very good seat. They said two things. They said if I would’ve been standing up I would have been split completely in half [by the EFP] …. Also the seat, as soon as the EFP hit, it did the right thing by just breaking away. I’m not sure how they described it but they said the seat actually helped me a lot by taking some of the impact.”

“I make the seat,” Dlubak said.

Mata looked surprised when the words reached him after the few seconds delay, then he smiled and laughed. “Thank you so much, sir,” he said.

For Dlubak, president of Dlubak Corporation in Pennsylvania, Mata’s words were absolute validation of the seat, which was designed by retired Army Lt. Col. Lou Gaston, a partner in the company.

“To hear him say it!” Dlubak told Military​.com in a brief interview following his exchange with Mata. “Did you see how excited he was about that seat?”

Dlubak said the seat was designed so gunners could “get out and get down fast.”

Dlubak now has about 47,000 of the seats out in the field. But he also said the company is making new version of the seat that will provide additional protection from shrapnel underneath. The newer seat is currently going through testing at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., he said.

“The goal was to make something for the Soldier’s comfort, and also for safety,” he said. “I believe in what we do so much it was nothing for me to say what I said. We build it for the Soldier. It’s a big deal. It’s a good product. It’s all American made.”

— Bryant Jordan

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Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic revealed yesterday that about 50  Minuteman III ICBMs controlled out of F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming were sidelined on Saturday despite recent infusions of millions of dollars worth of upgrades to refurbish the four-decade old missile fleet and its support facilities. All of this comes just as the service appeared to have put its nuclear-related woes behind it.  Here’s an excerpt from Ambinder’s report:

On Saturday morning, according to people briefed on what happened, a squadron of ICBMs suddenly dropped down into what’s known as “LF Down” status, meaning that the missileers in their bunkers could no longer communicate with the missiles themselves. LF Down status also means that various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline.    In LF Down status, the missiles are still technically launch-able, but they can only be controlled by an airborne command and control platform like the Boeing E-6 NAOC “Kneecap” aircraft, or perhaps the TACAMO fleet, which is primarily used to communicate with nuclear submarines. Had the country been placed on a higher state of nuclear alert, those platforms would be operating automatically.

Just last month at the Air Force Association’s annual conference near Washington, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and his top nuclear officer Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz were saying how the service’s nuclear forces were finally on solid footing to restore the rigor and zero-defect performance in the nuclear arena. In 2009, the service created Global Strike Command, led by Klotz, to bring back the sense of mission and discipline to the “nuclear enterprise” lost after the disbandment of the legendary Strategic Air Command in 1992.

The events that lead to the establishment of Global Strike Command were largely based on human error, with nukes accidentally being flown cross country on a B-52, ICBM launch facility officers falling asleep while on watch and nuclear triggers being flown to Taiwan by mistake. This latest episode looks like a technical failure. Still scary because, well, you have the word “failure” appearing in the same sentence as the word “nuclear.”  (Generally not a good thing.)

And better yet, this kind of thing has happened before, Ambinder writes:

According to the official, engineers discovered that similar hardware failures had triggered a similar cascading failure 12 years ago at Minot AFB in North Dakota and Malmstrom AFB in Montana. That piece of hardware is the prime suspect.

Still:

“We’ve never had something as big as this happen,” a military officer who was briefed on the incident said. Occasionally, one or two might blink out, the officer said, and several warheads  are routinely out of service for maintenance. At an extreme, “[w]e can deal with maybe 5, 6, or 7 at a time, but we’ve never lost complete command and control and functionality of 50 ICBMs.”

Ambinder’s piece goes on to say that the Pentagon believes the failure was caused by faulty cabling.  Again, troubling since we’ve known about this for years and we’re currently investing millions to upgrade the Minuteman III fleet and its facilities in an effort to keep them in service for several more decades.

– John Reed

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