Ready to Rumble?

February 19, 2007

f22kadena.jpgWhat kind of action can the U.S. Air Force F-22 pilots now in Japan expect to see in the coming weeks? Well, according to the Japanese defense ministry, there’s plenty of activity in its skies to keep an air-to-air fighter busy.

The F-22 deployment got off to a somewhat delayed start, since the fighters’ arrival in Japan had to be postponed to fix a software issue associated with the aircraft’s navigation equipment. But now, the U.S. Air Force has finally gotten the first of a dozen of its top-of-the-line fighters to Kadena air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa as part of the first excursion for F-22s overseas.

Lt. Col. Wade Tolliver, commander of the 27th fighter squadron the F-22’s belong to says that “to opportunity to fly it here in the Pacific with the F-15s (Eagles) and other aircraft is something we are looking forward to.” There’s certainly seem to be ample amounts of “other aircraft.”

Although somewhat historic, data compiled by the Japanese Air Self Defense Force shows that in the first part of the fiscal year, there’s been a lot of activity to keep air-to-air interceptors busy. In the six months ending September 30 – Japan’s fiscal year starts in April – the Japanese air force had to scramble 149 aircraft to patrol its skies because of potentially hostile intruders.

 What’s particularly interesting, and maybe reflective of a geopolitical shift in the region, is that the source and intensity of transgressions. Russian aircraft prompted Japan to scramble air-defense fighters 139 times during the six months, that’s more than anyone else.

Russia has historically been the largest source of responses, but the scale of activity in those six months is notable. The figure is almost 20% higher than the number of times Japan’s air force had to take to the air to deal with Russian aircraft during the entire 2005 fiscal year.

By contrast, encounters between Japan and its other large neighbor, China, are on a major downturn and headed to more traditional, low levels. In 2005, Japan scrambled aircraft 107 times to deal with Chinese flights. That was a spike from the modest number of incidents in 2003 and 2004.

There’s been a modest number, five to be exact, of Japanese fighters scrambled to deal with Taiwanese aircraft, too, as well as four such actions for “other” countries that weren’t further identified. Whether the U.S. Air Force, or the Japanese for that matter, will let the F-22 get in on any action remains to be seen. The 27th Fighter Squadron detachment will be in Japan 90-120 days, so opportunities will likely arise to join Japan’s F-15Js in some air-to-air patrols.

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Out of Africa

February 15, 2007

africa.jpgNary a peep has been heard in Europe about the U.S. plan to establish Africa Command, despite the Pentagon expectation there would be a vocal outrcry about  America meddling in Europe’s sphere of influence.

 

Before unveiling the new organization, which still is defined rather vaguely, a senior Defense Department official in Europe said little was told to European Union allies deliberately, to avoid inflaming likely opposition. “If the EU doesn’t get Africa, they’ve got no place to play,” argues the U.S. officer.

 

France, in particular would squawk, the U.S. official suggested, saying that without the lead role in its former colonies it would feel it was playing second fiddle.

 

There’s history underscoring the U.S. expectation. In 2005, the U.S. and France were in a war of words over whether NATO or the EU should lead support of African Union operations in Darfur. The run-in has been hanging over transatlantic relations concerning Africa ever since.

 

So why the silence? A French former peacekeeper says it’s twofold. One, with France wrapped up in presidential elections, nobody has time to care about Africa.

 

But that’s not all. There’s a growing segment of the French military that feels it’s time to withdraw from Africa, even though some camps want to stay.

 

Moreover, ever since the U.S. made clear it considered the Gulf of Guinea of strategic interest, due the access to oil without choke-points, it was clear the Europeans would be pushed aside.

 

The European also are watching with some concern China’s growing influence in the region and faced with that, even the French think the U.S. presence may not be the worst of all options. “At least they look like us,” quips one military officer.


What’s The Buzz

February 6, 2007

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The attacks on several U.S. military helicopters in Iraq in recent weeks has put hardening these aircraft against attempts to bring them down back in the spotlight.

The spate of helicopter combat losses by ground fire, with the associated loss of soldiers’ lives, rekindles a concern that had taken center stage more than a year ago. But worries at the time subsided when incidents became rarer after
U.S. pilots started employing new tactics and helicopters were kitted with enhanced self-protection systems.

 But events this year indicate still more needs to be done, particularly when trying to counter less-sophisticated systems, such as small arms fire. The Pentagon plans several further enhancements to its helicopter fleet to strengthen self-protection capabilities. It also is looking at non-traditional approaches to spoof potential attackers. 

One of the more unorthodox ideas being advanced now is the development of a system that would sound like a helicopter and have the same heat-signature, but in fact be no more than a small unmanned aircraft. The idea is to fly the drone in a potentially hostile area and trigger a threat that otherwise could be used against a real helo.

The idea of using decoys to fool air defenses isn’t a new one. The Pentagon has been working with various versions of airborne decoys for years to help protect fighter or bomber aircraft from higher-end, radar-guided air-defense systems. But what is a chance is expanding the operational concept to helicopters, which operate much closer to the ground and are primarily exposed to a completely different type of low-tech threat.

Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which acts as the Pentagon’s in-house technology incubator, is starting up the program called the Battlefield Helicopter Emulator. Darpa concedes there are still hurdles that need to be overcome. Nonetheless, the vision for such a system is to “enable the military to locate and harmlessly engage anti-helicopter mines, man-portable air defense systems, and provide a source of confusion during special operations.”  

Although the stated concern is about anti-helo mines, which are often triggered by noise and then launch a projectile in the air to damage the rotorcraft, as well as the manpads — the shoulder-fired, heat-seaking missiles used on several attacks on military and commercial airliners in recent years — a unmanned aircraft-based decoy system could also be used to lure into the open individuals wanting to attack a helicopter with small arms or other devices. 

The decoy is supposed to be able to mimic a variety of helicopter types, from the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk that serves as the backbone of troop transport for the
U.S. military, to the MD500, which is the basis for the Army special operations AH-6 Little Bird attack helos. 

Developing the technology will not be quick nor easy. Field testing of such a device may be four years off, with some of the basic technology only being demonstrated next year. One of the challenges is to properly duplicate the sound of the main rotor and tail rotor, which means getting the noise ratio and harmonics just right. Similarly, replicating the heat (or infrared) signature of helicopters of different models also isn’t trivial. 

The decoy effort isn’t the only or first move to boost self-protection systems. The Naval Air Systems Command, for instance, which manages Navy and Marine Corps helicopter programs, is embarking on another round of upgrades using more traditional systems. In 2004, the organization shifted priority from funding advanced fighter self-protection equipment to helicopters.  

Now, according to a colleague at Aviation Week & Space Technology, the Marine Corps plans to put a laser-based IR-countermeasures systems, similar to the one already used on some Air Force C-17 transports, on its CH-53E troop-hauling helicopter workhorse. The upgraded helos should be in the field in about a year’s time. But those systems are designed to counter heat-seeking missiles, and will do little against less sophisticated systems that have been the source of the latest shoot downs. 

Other efforts are also underway. One example is an activity
Bulgaria is leading under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The work focuses on developing a system to protect rotorcraft against the ubiquitous RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). With heat-seeking missiles, the countermeasures generally fool a missile into chasing a false target. The challenge with RPGs is that they don’t have any smarts that can be spoofed in that manner, so the projectile has to be intercepted or deflected some other way. But those systems, which exist for ground vehicles, are large and heavy, and finding an airborne version that’s operationally suitable remains to be achieved.