Beja airbase in Portugal was a hive of military aviation activity in for two weeks in March. Responsible for all of this, was exercise Real Thaw 2017, an air force exercise, planned and conducted by the Portuguese Air Command. The main objective of Real Thaw 17 was to evaluate and certify the operational capability of air power in a multinational joint training environment.
This ninth edition of Real Thaw saw participation of aircraft from almost every Portuguese Air Force squadron, ranging from F-16AMs from Monte Real airbase, P-3C Orion, Alpha Jets en Alouette helicopters from from Beja itself, plus C-130 Hercules and C-295M Persuader from Montijo airbase.
The US Air Force Europe took part with two C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft and approximately 70 personnel from the 86th Airlift Wing, Ramstein Air Base, in Germany. During the exercise, the 37th Airlift Squadron will focus on tactical airlift training including formation and low-level flying, assault landings, and personnel and equipment airdrops with paratroopers from US Army Europe and partner nations.
Also participating were two MV-22s Ospreys from VMM-764, one KC-130 and 60 U.S. Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Africa (SPMAGTF-CR-AF) staged in Moron Air Base, Spain.
Other ‘players’ were the Netherlands and Belgium with a C-130H-30 Hercules each, plus Spain with EF-18 Hornets and a single C212 Aviocar from Ala 37, a small aircraft that thanks to its hardness and ability to operate from unprepared runways, carried out infiltration and extraction missions of special forces during Real Thaw 17. Finally, NATO dispatched a Geilenkirchen-based E-3A Sentry for air surveillance.
According to all participants, Real Thaw 17 ended with the sense of mission accomplished on March 17. The development of techniques, tactics and procedures, as well as the sharing of knowledge and experience, have added value in achieving a more proficient and cohesive operational structure in the carry out of the missions.
The pending US Air Force competition for a light-weight ground-attack aircraft has been widely publicized. The US is expected to formally announce the OA-X competition this summer. The winner of this competition could very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Or could it?
Yes, the famed and feared Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt will continue to cause hazards to forces opposing the US for a few more years. However, unsure about exactly how many more years and if the Lockheed Martin F-35 will be able to fill the Thunderbolt’s shoes when it finally leaves, the US Air Force is looking at its ground attack capabilities. And the conclusion is that a small and flexible aircraft is needed.
That aircraft may very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. This Brazilian turboprop was designed in Brazil but is currenty also license-built in the US by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). As part of a contract awarded in February 2013, these aircraft are adding a ground attack capability to the Afghan Air Force. Pilots from Afghanistan learn to fly the A-29 with the US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Given this experience, the A-29 is likely candidate to enter in the OA-X competition. But ideal enough to actually win? The US-designed and produced Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine may fit the bill just as well. And how about an armed Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet?
Plus, let’s not forget there’s another competition running right now, and it’s called T-X. The candidates in that competition may also offer the flexibility the US is looking for. An armed version over Lockheed Martin’s and Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 trainer already exists, and its called FA-50. Meanwhile, Leonardo in Italy is already busy developing the M-346FT Fighter Trainer, an armed version of the M-346 Master.
Obviously, the winner of OA-X competition won’t be announced for some years. But it’s just as obvious that upon closer inspection, there are a lot more likely candidates than just the A-29.
The survivability of the future main combat jet of the US armed forces and many of their allies is again in doubt. Despite praising Red Flag Exercise after-action reports on deployed US Air Force and US Marine Corps F-35s, Airheadsfly.com feels the effectiveness in tomorrow’s air war against – let’s say – Russian or even Swedish fighter jets is not as rosy as we are “made” to believe.
A “Twenty-to-One kill ratio” by US Air Force F-35As and “extremely capable across several mission sets” for US Marine Corps F-35Bs. Wonderful statements in beautiful analyses on the most modern 5th generation fighter jet of US-allied armed forces going to “war” over the combat ranges of Nevada from Nellis Air Force Base. If we believe these reports flying the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II into combat is like winning the jackpot on The Strip in adjacent Las Vegas city.
But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas? What is not clear in neither the US Air Force statements as in the recent released report written by Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121’s Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo is how realistic the scenarios played at Red Flag are. We have no doubt they do mirror future war situations, but we do question if the more capable enemy aircraft are really put into play.
“Overall, the F-35 was far more survivable than the participating legacy aircraft,” commander Bardo writes on the six Marines F-35Bs participating in Red Flag 2016-3. Of course, the newer jet should be able to do a better job than the 4th generation F-16 Block 30 and 40s that were deployed. But can it match the Russian Sukhoi Su-37s or Swedish SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen MS20s?
The “professional adversaries” (Aggressor aircraft) during the Red Flag 2016-3 were above all 1980/1990s-era F-16s of the US Air Force 64th Aggressor Squadron as well as 1960s-era McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks flown by the Draken International paramilitary organisation. Hardly comparable to the most modern aircraft of today.
When it comes to manoeuvrability and range the F-35 is by far outmatched by its modern Russian rivals, such as the Sukhoi Su-35BM/S equipped with trust-vectoring (movable) engines. The Lightning II flies only a two-thirds (1,200 mls / 2,200 km) of the distance the Su-35 (1,980 mls / 3,600 km), while having tankers in a bandit-rich environment is not considered a likely scenario.
JAS 39 Gripen MS20
True, the F-35 has the stealth advantage but according to sources within Swedish SAAB and the Swedish Air Force the newest MS20 software upgrade of the JAS 39 Gripen jet enables the aircraft’s radar and other systems to detect and counter these stealthy aircraft quite well. Although it is unlikely American jocks will fly against Vikings the new Meteor missile has given the JAS 39 Gripen – as well as the French Rafale – a lethal weapon against enemy aircraft over the 60 miles (100 km) range.
The Swedes have fielded the upgraded Gripen MS20 and Meteor mainly to cope with the Russian Sukhoi PAK A/T-50 stealthy air-supiority fighter and the non-stealthy Flankers of the 4+ generation. But the technology as such can – in the wrong hands – quite likely turn a F-35 into a smoking hole in the ground as well.
What the largest country of Scandinavia has, is quite likely to be available soon in some sort to the jocks flying for Moscow. Add the newest generation of Russian electronic counter measures and the Red Bear outclasses the American Eagle. Especially if the threat from the ground is added. Russia’s S-400/40N6 surface-to-air missile system can kill targets up to 250 miles (400 km) away at speeds up to Mach 5.9 (4,500 mph or 2,000 m/s).
Moreover, Russia is traditionally keeping a better pace between aircraft and missile technology, while US puts more money into its aircraft technology and let its pilots often fly with somewhat antiquated anti-air weaponry and having its ground forces operating with less-good-than-what-the-Russians-have missile batteries.
Believe vs Make-believe
We do believe the F-35s state-of-the-art sensors give its users a great asset in any war scenario, but with still lacking basic things as stand-off weapons, the ability to bring just four air-to-air missiles to the air war in order to remain stealthy (all weapons internal) and with the newest electronic counter and detect developments made by other defence manufacturers worldwide the survivability as advertised by the Red Flag after-action reports may very well be nothing more than make-believe.
It’s not regularly that we celebrate aviation milestones at Airheadsfly.com. In fact we only did it once before and back then, it was the 40th birthday of the F-16 that was cause for celebrations. But when a legendary fighter jet such as the Saab Viggen turns 50 years of age, we gladly make an exception again. Time to dig up a few images – old & new! – of this prime and impressive example of Swedish aviation ingenuity.
The Viggen first flew on 8 February 1967 by the hands of Saab chief test pilot Erik Dahlström. The flight lasted 43 minutes, during which the jet performed as expected. In 1968, Stockholm ordered 175 jets, the first of which were delivered in 1971. The typical Viggen shape, dominated by the huge wings and the canards in front of it, became a familiar sight in Swedish skies – but not elsewhere.
The Viggen was successful in Sweden, which eventually made use of no less than 329 aircraft. But competing against – yes! – the F-16 on the international fighter jet market proved to be a bridge too far for the Swedish design, which was very practical but lacked the manoeuvrability and impressive thrust to weight ratio of the F-16.
The last of the Swedish Viggens were retired in 2007. Despite never being used by air forces outside Sweden, quite a number of Viggens are currently preserved in European aviation museums. One aircraft keeps gracing the skies as part of the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight.