Tag Archives: Red Flag

Will this F-35 survive its enemy? We doubt it.

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.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force is one of the many countries that will field the F-35 as a successor to the F-16 (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The Royal Netherlands Air Force is one of the many countries that will field the F-35 as a successor to the F-16 (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Vegas

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 Sukhoi Su-35S (Flanker-E) (Image © Sukhoi Company)
The Sukhoi Su-35S (Flanker-E): F-35 killer? (Image © Sukhoi Company)

Adversaries

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.

Once upgraded to MS20 standard Swedish-made Gripen aircraft are said to be able to “see” stealthy adversaries very clearly (Image © Elmer van Hest)

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.

A French Rafale launching the new BVR Meteor AAM (Image © French Ministry of Defence)
A French Rafale launching the new BVR Meteor AAM (Image © French Ministry of Defence)

S-400

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.

An F-35A inflight. (Image © Lockheed Martin)
An F-35A inflight. (Image © Lockheed Martin)

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.

© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: Killer or prey? A hoovering F-35B at the Royal Internationl Air Tattoo in 2016 (Image © Elmer van Hest)

First Red Flag exercise for the F-35

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II on Monday 23 January kicks off its very first participation in the US Air Force’s famous Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The F-35s involved belong to the 388th Fighter Wing and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base.

Red Flag is widely regarded as the most prestigious  air warfare exercise anywhere. While involved in the exercise, the Hill F-35s will fly alongside dozens of other fighter aircraft and provide offensive and defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and limited close air support. Among the other aircraft are also Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors

The US Air Force declared the F-35A combat ready in August last year. Red Flag marks the first major exercise since then. “Our airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise,” said Col. David Lyons, 388th FW commander. “This battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”

“Red Flag is hands-down the best training in the world to ensure our Airmen are fully mission ready,” said Col. David Smith, 419th FW commander. “It’s as close to combat operations as you can get. Our Reserve pilots and maintainers are looking forward to putting the F-35A weapon system to the test alongside our active duty partners to bring an unprecedented combat capability.”

The current edition of Red Flag runs until 10 February.

Impressive Indian stop over in Portugal

Portugal welcomed some rare birds last week, as four Indian Sukhoi Su-30 Flankers and four Sepecat Jaguars landed at Beja airbase. The fighter jets were accompanied by two Ilyushin Il-78 tanker aircraft and two C-17 Globemasters whole on their long, long way to Alaska for exercise Red Flag.

India is sending the aircraft plus a contingent of 150 personnel to the prestigious military exercise within the framework of military cooperation between New Delhi and Washington. The last time India attended Red Flag was in 2008. Then, only Su-30s were involved and the stage was not Alaska, but Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
India_Su30_4India_Su30

Red Flag

Red Flag features aircraft from the US and other NATO countries and provides an opportunity for the Indian Air Force to train  in complex war environments. Aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and other fighter jet will be involved and thus provide a good experience for Indian Jaguar pilots and Su-30 crews in particular.

The ferry of the aircraft from India to Alaska was a complex operation. The jets and their support aircraft routed via Bahrain, Egypt, France and Portugal, from where they crossed the Atlantic to Canada before finally arriving in Alaksa for Red Flag.

© 2016 Airheadsfly.com contributor Jorge Ruivo – www.cannontwo.blogspot.pt
Featured image (top):  An Indian Air Force Jaguar on finals at Beja. (Image ©
Rafael Vieira)

India_il78India_C17Foto8

Safe, saver, simulation

A 4th generation fighter jet can cost 50,000 euro to fly per hour. That’s a lot of cash. More advanced missions are flown by four-ships. That’s 200k per flying hour. Then they need someone to fight.  That means a second 4-ship: 400k.

Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. This is his second blog on Airheadsfly.com. Interested in reading Nick's first? Find it here.
Nick Graham is a former Royal Air Force Tornado and Typhoon pilot who also flew F-16s with the Royal Danish Air Force. He’s is currently an instructor pilot, training future jet pilots in the United Arab Emirates. Find Nick’s earlier blogs at Airheadsfly.com here.
Add air-to-air refuelling, a ground based target to drop a weapon on, chaff, flares plus some more fancy stuff and the bill is easily at 500k per hour. Some high end missions cost 1 million euro. It’s easy to see how suddenly the cost becomes quite crippling. If that training can be flown in a simulator for “mere” thousands, it is easy to understand the huge advances the synthetic world offers. So how real can it get? Simulators have limits. G-force, how a radar will actually react to jamming or chaff, difficulty in finding a target coming at you from the sun, the reality that you can die if you mess up, the big entrance door at the back of the simulator dome which means you’ll never see the hostile in your deep 6, the play of light and shadow and how it helps or hinders you in making an ID of a ground target. The list is long, so other than saving money, what can the simulator do for us?

Practice Red Flag

Well, first of all, simulators can be linked up just like any on-line game. You can fly as a linked 4-ship and your friends will be seen from your sim dome (although there are no pilots to show hand-signals etc). You can fly in close formation, refuel off a tanker (nowhere near as tricky as the real thing), and fly anywhere in the world. We used to practice Red Flag missions before going to Nevada for real just to get used to the departure and recovery procedures. You can do the same for any war zone you can imagine.

Fight against a Flanker

The biggest positive for the simulated world though is the ease of manipulation. To get a real Su-27 to fight against is tricky. To get to fight against a Flanker with no restrictions, unless in real conflict, is never going to happen. In the simulated world, a click of the mouse can plonk 4 of them (or more) wherever you want. You can give them a skill capability and let them test your tactics on their own, or you can have a second operator control them to test a specific skill if you wish.

Night flying

Night flying is probably the way we would fight at the start of a war. If your squadron is training during daylight at the time (eg they are practicing dogfighting), you can keep current in certain night procedures using the sim without having to keep you engineering team in work for 20 hours. The UK has poor weather at times of the year. The simulator is used to renew instrument ratings with the examiner able to change the weather to force the pilot under test to fly the approach he wants to see. The examiner can make the weather below limits to see what actions the pilot will take when he can’t see the runway.

A very convincing digital flying world is created, with possible scenarios taking place anywhere. (Image © TSC)
A very convincing digital flying world can be created, with possible scenarios taking place anywhere. (Image © TSC)

Tactics

And now onto tactics. Simulators can be loaded with flight models of actual missiles and radar software. Tactics can be flown against smart hostiles who shoot back. Pulling the trigger and seeing a missile fly off the wing is excellent training, not least when you watch your wingman shoot. You know he has fired rather than relying on his radio calls. You can see hostile missiles flying towards you from a variety of threat systems and practise how to defeat them. Once all this flying is done, the simulator can play back what happened. A full mission can be watched on large cinema screens. Flight leads will check to make sure that what was there was actually found by his team’s radars and targeted properly. As an instructor, you can fly and then save a manoeuvre and then sit your student in the cockpit and they can watch what you did over and over again and then copy it. The demo is the same for every student.

Like Star Wars: a Full Mission Simulator. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Like Star Wars: a Full Mission Simulator. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Emergency

And then the final use, the one pilots don’t like the sim for: emergency handling. As a fighter pilot, you are drilled in emergency actions for every month of your flying career. Immediate actions must be known or else you lose your privilege to fly. Fighters are the formula one of flying machines. They are at the limit of engineering. They break. We are tested hard for an hour every month with head scratching puzzles. If you don’t work out the problem fast enough, you lose the jet. It’s excellent training and certainly saved my skin on a mission over Libya when my jet had a system failure. But that’s another story.

Air Force core capabilities

There is a second element to be considered. It is easy to find out what a country has equipped its air force with. Airshows have become huge trade events with big deals announced to the media to reassure stockholders that their chosen aerospace company is doing great business. Not just airframes, but avionics and weapons. These core capabilities drive how an air force can fight. They help us build and develop tactics. We practice those tactics in vast training areas. We sometimes use encrypted radios to talk to our radar controllers and formation members, but often our communications are “in the clear”.

The F-35 comes as one-seater only, making the need for simulators even bigger (Image © US Air Force)
The F-35 comes as one-seater only, making the need for simulators even bigger (Image © US Air Force)

Real-time radar

It is easy for the average member of the public to watch near real-time radar feeds of our fights and listen to our radio work on their computers. It takes very little to work out some of our tactics. We must be careful to keep our tactics secret. A simulator allows us to fight as we would for real, in secret. With new stealthy jets like the F-35 coming into service and the need to protect their tactical secrets, the age of the simulator is well upon us.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com contributor Nick Graham
Featured image (top): Take flight while staying on the ground; an simulator can get as real as it gets. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Full Mission Simulators provide an almost 360 degrees field of view. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Full Mission Simulators provide an almost 360 degrees field of view. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Norwegian Vipers in Red Flag 15-2

The Royal Norwegian Air Force has joined the large-scale air combat exercise Red Flag 15-2 in the Nevada desert this week. Ten Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcon jets and two Lockheed C-130J Hercules aircraft landed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

The operations are supported by about 200 men and women of the RNoAF. By letting half of the Norwegian tactical airlift fleet participating the Norwegians are trying to boost the capabilities of its transport crews in modern scenarios. “It is the most valuable training in complex air operations,” major Rune Johansen of the Hercules 335 Squadron was quoted by the Norwegian Defence media centre.

Norway planned to participate in one of the Red Flag exercises in 2011, but that was cancelled due to the air war over Libya. With all planes on the ground in Las Vegas, it is the first time the Royal Norwegian Air Force participates since 2009. On an average day the Red Flag exercise keeps 60 aircraft airborne and engaged at the same time.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger, based on source information provided by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence

↑ Check our full overview of the Royal Norwegian Air Force

RNoAF F-16s arriving at Nellis for Red Flag 15-2 (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
RNoAF F-16s arriving at Nellis for Red Flag 15-2 (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
RNoAF Major Egil Angell-Jacobsen clocked its 3000th F-16 flight hour while flying from Norway to Nellis. His reward was waiting for him (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
RNoAF Major Egil Angell-Jacobsen clocked its 3000th F-16 flight hour while flying from Norway to Nellis. His reward was waiting for him (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
Tiger Tiger in the Nevada desert (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
Tiger Tiger in the Nevada desert (Image © Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)