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Planes, Copters, Blimps

Did “Gold Plated” Requirements Doom Air Force Light Attack Plane?

Friday, May 7th, 2010

A rep from an aircraft builder that was hoping to compete a plane for a notional Air Force light strike wing emailed last night saying Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz’s shooting down of the idea was not entirely unexpected:

“As with most Air Force aircraft we kept seeing the requirements become “gold plated” — ejection seat only, pressurized cockpit, retractable gear, HOTAS, HUD, fully integrated (non commercial/COTS) cockpit, Helmet Mounted Sight, and on and on…

Bottom line is that the requirements process and the price up from certain manufacturers was driving this to a $20 million aircraft. Cheaper to overhaul old F-16’s out of the boneyard.

In my humble opinion General Schwartz made a very wise political move because he was backed into a corner. The requirements were driving towards the Super Tucano and he could see that if that aircraft won he would be trapped in an Airbus tanker, General Buzz Moseley repeat.”

– Greg Grant

AF Chief Says No Need For New Light Attack Plane; Will Buy Light Trainer For Partnering

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Yesterday, Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz spiked the idea that his service would be adding a light attack wing to support the grunts in Afghanistan and other irregular wars. The F15Es, F-16s and A-10s can perform any and all close air support missions that a new, light strike fighter could, he said, speaking at a think tank in D.C.

“There is a not a need, in my view, for large numbers of light strike or light lift aircraft in our Air Force to do general purpose force missions.” It was a bit of a surprise — two congressional staffers in the audience asked him to clarify — as Schwartz himself had discussed the idea of a light attack plane.

Schwartz said the Air Force will propose buying 15 prop driven light strike and surveillance aircraft in the 2012 budget. But those aircraft will be used as a training wing, for security assistance work, building “partnership capacity” with foreign air arms, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent RAND title “Courses of Action for Enhancing U.S. Air Force Irregular Warfare Capabilities,” said the service should stand up a dedicated COIN air wing equipped with about 100 light attack aircraft. As “partners are more likely to want aircraft that U.S. forces are flying to great effect,” building and operating a COIN aircraft would simultaneously boost support for ground troops while “whetting the appetite of partners who are prematurely looking to acquire high-performance jet aircraft such as the F-16,” it said.

– Greg Grant

Managing the Navy’s Strike Fighter Gap

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

The other major topic up for discussion at yesterday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services AirLand subcommittee was the Navy’s “strike fighter gap.” Senator Joe Lieberman noted that the projected gap, which really hits out at around the year 2017, has fluctuated wildly between as many as 267 aircraft and as low as 125.

Marine Corps aviation chief Lt. Gen. George Trautman, admitted that the models used to calculate that gap are a bit shaky and susceptible to wide variations depending on the inputs. Critical variables include: JSF deliveries, force structure, usage rates, life limits, depot turnaround time, catapult launches and arrested landings and field landings. In 2009, the Navy estimated that the shortfall, or gap, to be 146 aircraft.

He thinks that with careful management of the legacy F-18 fleet, by which he means service life extension, close air support burden sharing between the Navy and Marines, and finding “depot efficiencies,” that fluctuating fighter gap number can be trimmed to no more than 100 in 2018. If JSF can be kept on track, that number can be reduced even further, he said.


Marjah and the Air Tractor

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Got a note from a friend of mine the other day who’s a big proponent of so-called “Counterinsurgency Aircraft.”

Truth be told, he nixed his cash-out career as a lobbyist to work for a COIN plane-making company, but the former Marine Hornet driver knows of what he speaks.

It’s a shame the Air Force seemingly deferred a decision on COIN planes and a COIN wing or squadron or whatever Mike Vickers said they were going to outline in the QDR.

And my friend noticed a connection on our posts about the COIN plane and Predator/Reaper losses.

I would like to get the “real” cost of doing business with a Predator, when you factor in additional Sat’s, people, ground stations, etc…

Compares pretty badly to the the Air Tractor — $5-$6 mil fully decked out, 10 hours time on station — from the austere strip at the FOB (or Camp Belleau Wood if it were there today) with no transit time. Imagine the difference if LtCol Christmas was able to brief face to face with the pilot and forward observer who would fly cover over his battlespace — for 10 hours at a time — one crew, feeding targets and imagery to each Cobra, Harrier and Hornet coming in for close air support.

We had that kind of long duration, manned capability in Vietnam in the O-1 Bird Dog, the O-2 Mohawk and the OV-10 Bronco. About time we had it again. 

Bottom line, is that no sensor today can give a pilot the same situational awareness when he is in a trailer north of Vegas looking at a few flat screen TV’s. For Airborne Forward Air Controller and Forward Observer duties a good man, with a lot of time on station, sensors and weapons can save dozens of lives.

I agree whole heartedly. I know those grunts waiting for the balloon to go up in Marjah would like nothing more than a couple Spads and Spectres to give the bad guys holed up there a what for.

– Christian

COIN Attack Plane Not Til Next Year

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

The Air Force looks as if it has punted the establishment of a COIN Wing (though we’ll see when the authorization process starts) based on its budget submission yesterday. 

Air Force budget officials said the so-called “light attack aircraft” would not have any significant funding until the 2012 submission, where the service will allot $172 million for the so-called COIN plane. 

The Air Force did, however, take a step toward a COIN wing by ordering up 15 Light Mobility Aircraft to the tune of nearly $66 million. According to a submission to FedBizOpps, the LiMA must be able to carry a minimum of six pax and crew, operate from “austere landing surfaces” and carry a minimum of 1800 pounds with crew. The plane needs a loading door that can take litters and a 36 inch warehouse skid and have two pilot stations but be able to be flown by one pilot. 

The Air Force is budgeting for these planes in FY 2011 only. And part of the idea behind the plane is to help train other air forces during counterinsurgency operations. 

The Light Mobility Aircraft (LiMA) program will acquire Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) aircraft to satisfy the USAF light mobility mission requirement. These aircraft will be suitable for building partner capacity (BPC) especially in lesser developed partner nations (PN). This program supports irregular warfare efforts that help prepare PN to defend and govern themselves by demonstrating an airlift capability that is consistent with their needs for supporting infrastructure, performance, anticipated methods of employment, acquisition and sustainment costs, and multi-role/multi-mission capability. 

– Christian 

Banging Trons in The Stan

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

I just saw a short profile story from Navy PAO about VAQ-135, a Prowler squadron stationed aboard the USS Nimitz, and it got me thinking.

So the article is pretty vanilla…

“Our main focus of effort is to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum. That means we preserve it for coalition forces, and we deny its use to Afghan insurgents. If we can successfully do that, many times the ground commander may not need a bomb,” said Lt. Cmdr. Blake Tornga, maintenance officer from VAQ-135.

The missions Prowlers fly directly support the July 2009 tactical directive issued by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

What they mean by “tactical directive” is to limit collateral damage, so the PA who wrote the story is ham-handedly trying to highlight the Prowlers’ efforts as limiting the “kinetic” side of the Naval aviation equation. That’s all well and good, but of course — as with anything in “print” involving this community — there are no specifics in here. “Dominate the electromagnetic spectrum” has a lot of meanings, but what are they specifically for Afghanistan?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Afghanistan, but back in 2004 the Prowlers were flying mostly communications intercept missions, though I got this second hand from ground pounders since when I asked if I could interview the Prowler drivers at Bagram the PAO said “what Prowlers,” those ones on the tarmac there, I said…“I don’t see any prowlers” he deadpanned without looking toward the runway (nuf said). Now, I wonder if that’s all they’re doing as well, or are there enough electronic detonators for IEDs that the Prowlers are jamming signals or throwing out electrons to detonate the roadside bombs before friendlies get there. From this quote, it seems like that might just be what they’re doing…

“There are very few electronic attack platforms out there,” said Tornga. “We are the only tactical electronic attack platform. Mountain valleys, small turns, staying tight with a convoy, that mission right now can only be done with the EA-6B.”

So they’re escorting convoys? And conducting electronic “attack.” Now we’ll start to see IEDs rigged with pressure plates and IR trips that are signal neutral.

And the best line by far:

“Some of the real-time feedback we get from the ground troops after a successful mission makes me realize why we need to be here, and it makes this deployment very, very meaningful.”

Like “thanks for blowing up that freaking bomb before my MRAP got to it!”

(Gouge: NC)

– Christian

Classified Bomber Under Consideration

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A little late from our partners at Aviation Week, but I wanted to get this out by the end of the year]

The $2-billion question in development of a new bomber is whether a major black-world demonstration program is already underway, with Northrop Grumman as the contractor.

This hypothesis makes sense of a series of clues that have appeared since 2005. In that year, Scott Winship, program manager for Northrop Grumman’s X-47 unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS), mentioned that the company—responding to a U.S. Air Force interest in a bigger version of the then-ongoing Joint UCAS project—had proposed an X-47C with very long endurance, a 10,000-lb.-plus weapon load and a 172-ft. wingspan, the same as a B-2. The idea was to match extreme endurance with a “deep magazine”—a large and diverse weapon load for multiple attacks on different types of target. Soon after, in the Fiscal 2007 budget, the J-UCAS program was terminated. While the Navy continued with the X-47B—now undergoing tests before a first flight in early 2010—it was reported that USAF funds were transferred into a classified program. The service also introduced a budget line-item for a Next Generation Bomber (NGB), but the program had no visible funds for Fiscal 2008-10.


During 2007, Northrop Grumman leaders hinted that the company expected to win a major restricted program. A financial report in early 2008 then disclosed a $2-billion surge in backlog at the company’s Integrated Systems division—just after Boeing and Lockheed Martin agreed to join forces on an NGB proposal.

Since that time, sources in Washington and elsewhere have reported that the company did win a demonstrator program for a large stealthy platform, and that the program has survived the budget cuts announced in April 2009.

A possibly related development is the construction of a large new hangar at the USAF’s flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nev. Unlike other buildings on the secluded site, it is screened from the closest public viewing point by a specially constructed berm.

The most likely focus of a flight-demonstrator program would be on the aerodynamic and aero-propulsion aspects of a very stealthy flying-wing design. The B-2 was designed in the earliest days of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), before the complex 3D airflows over an all-wing aircraft could be simulated properly, and represented a low-risk trade between aerodynamics and signatures. Thirty years later, vastly more powerful computing makes it possible to design shapes with better signatures and higher efficiency that nearly ensure they will work in the wind tunnel and in flight. However, a large-scale flying demonstrator can incorporate engine inlet and exhaust effects in the design and evaluate stability and control.

High-altitude performance could be another goal. The Air Force does not regard the B-2 as survivable in daylight because of the risk of visual detection by a fighter aircraft. The B-2 cruises at the same altitude as most fighters and can be caught in the best position for visual detection—silhouetted against the horizon. A high-altitude aircraft operating at 60,000 ft. or above is less likely to be in this position, and the sky above it is dark.


Helicopter Protection Enters New Era

Friday, November 13th, 2009

This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

The Defense Department is kicking off a program to design, build and demonstrate prototypes of the Joint and Allied Threat Awareness System (JATAS) to protect U.S. Navy and Marine Corps helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft from dumb and smart weapons.

The two current competitors are Lockheed Martin and the team of Alliant Techsystems (ATK), BAE Systems and Goodrich. The teams were awarded two 16-month Navy contracts.

JATAS is to be the core of a system that can grow — as technology and funding allow — to detect and later retaliate against small arms fire and shoulder-fired rockets as well as surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles.

Digital integration among operational forces in the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force – after generations of talk, but little success – is showing surprisingly vibrant signs of life. A key concept behind JATAS is to better network the information that is collected by a growing package of advanced sensors.

Demand for the missile-detection capability is being accelerated by the heavy volume of automatic small arms fire often encountered in Afghanistan and by the availability on the black market of Russian-built SA-16 Gimlet, SA-18 Grouse and SA-24 Grinch man-portable, air defense missiles.

Because of that changing threat, JATAS has designed-in flexibility that offers a portal for eventual integration of electronic attack and warfare capabilities.

“We really need to work the whole [electro-magnetic] spectrum now, not just because of manpads [man-portable air defense systems],” said Burt Keirstead, BAE Systems’ director of Navy programs for survivability solutions.

For the early phases of development, JATAS is to be compatible with the Army’s self-defense sensor package — the ALE-47 countermeasures (chaff and flares) dispensing system. In addition, those expendable countermeasures would be augmented with a device to disable the sensors of attacking guided missiles.

“As a requirement for the program, the Navy would like to evolve to a directable infrared countermeasure [DIRCM] — a jammer — which is part of the JATAS interface requirement,” Keirstead said. The Army already uses the advanced threat infrared countermeasures (ATIRCM) jamming laser.

Read the rest of this story, see what Brazilian defense company the Israelis have their eye on, check out new defense ties in Asia and ponder the future of Iron Dome with our friends at Aviation Week, exclusively on Military​.com.

– Christian

Newest ISR plane — from buy-to-fly in 8 months

Friday, September 25th, 2009


In a Defense Department world where multi-million-dollar contracts for aircraft will likely first net you long waits, missed deadlines and demands for millions more bucks before a plane appears on the horizon, the Air Forces latest counter-intelligence aircraft is an anomaly.

From the time the Air Force contracted for its first order of MC-12W Libertys until one was flying a mission over Afghanistan was just eight months, says Lionel G. Smith, director, Strategic Development Special Programs for L3 Communications.

Thats the power of modifying an existing aircraft, in this case the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 long a fav plane of the well-to-do. Those ordered by the Air Force, however, swap luxury accommodations for sophisticated ISR technology.

It costs about $7 million [per plane] from Hawker Beechcraft, and about $10 million in modifications. From contract to combat was about eight months, Smith said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Symposium in Maryland. L3s integrated systems division manages the modifications.

The plane, with a crew of four pilot, co-pilot, signals intel systems operator and full-system video operator flew its first mission from Balad Air Base, Iraq, in June. Of 300 missions flown to date it has a mission capable rate of 98 percent, Smith said.

The MC-12W is a response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ call for increased ISR support for ground combat troops, Smith said. The Air Force plans to field a fleet of 38 Libertys, most of them built into the ER, or extended range, version of the Hawker Beechcraft plane.

– Bryant Jordan

Say What You Want About the Russians.…

Friday, July 10th, 2009

…they can still throw together a great fly-by. Combat employment of the same assets? Dubious.
Russian flyby.jpg
–John Noonan