First of all, I will be posting a BIG announcement this weekend that will effect Aviationintel going forward in a positive way. Stay tuned for more information. Now onto the good stuff:
PENTAGON ASKS PERMISSION TO RIDE ITS MOST TRUSTY STEEDS OFF TO THE GLUE FACTORY:
Well, it is just about as bad as I thought it would be. Under the upcoming budget, the DoD and the Obama Administration are looking to slash the armed forces’ budget, and in doing so, the USAF will take the biggest “platform” oriented hits. The A-10 Warthog, the U-2 Dragon Lady, and the OH-58 Kiowa fleets are to be dispensed with in full. In their place, the RQ-4 Global Hawk will take over the U-2’s duty, the OH-58’s roles will be filled mainly by AH-64E and UH-72A helicopters, and the A-10, well it will have no real replacement at all, as its demanding mission will be executed by existing platforms and eventually the F-35 Joint Strike fighter.
None of this is good, but some of these force structure moves are worse than others. The U-2 does much of the RQ-4s job more reliably and at lower cost, while carrying more capable sensors (in some cases). The simple and cheap to operate OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is being partially replaced by a heavy and complicated attack chopper, the AH-64E, while the Kiowa’s training role, one that it does efficiently all over the globe in different guises, will be replaced by the comparatively large twin-engine UH-72 Lakota. These choppers of european origin were just purchased for light logistical support duties and mainly serve with the National Guard. Swapping out the Jet Ranger based TH-67 trainers with the UH-72 is akin teaching driving class with a brand new fully BMW crossover. Then there is the kicker, axing the A-10 fleet as a whole. Getting rid of the most relevant attack aircraft of the last decade will save $5B over the next five years, or so they say. Personally, I would rather have a couple hundred or so upgraded A-10s than another 30 F-35s for that same dollar figure.
The idea that we are willing to gamble away the most effective close air support platform ever devised because we are sick of occupational warfare and obsessed with a cash gobbling “catch-22” defense program (F-35) is arrogant, near-sighted, sad, and a total mistake. With war-weary America’s weakening position in the world, the rise of peer state competitors and the persistent threat from rogue nations, the notion that going forward we will continue to “choose” the wars we are involved in, as we have in the recent past, is an absurd and unrealistic proposition. Just because America does not “want” a ground war in the future does not necessarily mean we will get our way. Most of all, this decision shows how near-sighted the people who are actually in charge of making these decisions have become. Those in charge will not “scale down” a platform’s community size to retain elastic capabilities because in their mind they must have 2500 F-35s. In the end the retirement of the A-10 fleet as a whole will probably end not just in fictional cost savings, needed so that the F-35 program can be protected, but in dead US servicemen and women who are relegated to fight this country’s wars on terra firma.
Close air support (CAS) over denied airspace is a debatable mission in the first place, but an A-10 with towed decoys, digital electronic warfare suite, helmet mounted sight, paired with its survivable airframe and its low altitude operating environment is debatably more “survivable” than a fragile fast jet that features “narrow band” low observability. Does the A-10 have a radar and beyond visual range air to air missiles, and can it turn at 9G and fly over the speed of sound? No, but can the F-35 whip around trees and hills at low altitude and in bad weather while carrying thousands of pounds of smart munitions and slinging over a thousand milk jug sized 30mm rounds at the enemy for hours, not minutes, at a time? Not a chance.
Considering that the A-10 is paid for, largely upgraded, and operates at a fraction of the price that the F-35 will, it is a serious bargain. Sadly, the Warthog’s demise is just another cost of “getting behind” the totally unproven and performance compromised F-35 program, and it disgusts me. If this is what the F-35 program is now costing our already highly depleted Air Force, maybe the USAF and the DoD should look at what is wrong with the F-35 and not what is wrong with battle proven A-10. An aircraft, that over decades of warfare, has saved countless young service people from returning home to their families in flag draped coffins.
The fact that this airframe is being treated as just another “niche capability” and “dated asset” by USAF brass is mind blowing. Since the mighty hog’s inception, the USAF has always been a fair weather friend at best to the A-10, but axing it after it has proved its worth for decades and saying “other platforms can provide this mission, just not as well in some respect” does not mean that less targets will be struck on a single night, or less enemy fighters shot down by a single jet, it means more American soldiers will return home in body bags should even a limited land war occur in the future. The whole thing is shameful and just another symptom of a disease riddled Pentagon. Hopefully Congress will continue to fund even downsized A-10 operations so that if a major conflict should occur this irreplaceable capability can be brought back in mass. Ideally, the Army would absorb the program as this is where the aircraft really belonged in the first place, but the cuts to this branch’s force structure are deep as well and it is highly doubtful that funding could be found for the mighty Warthog to operate with US Army proudly painted on its wings.
If these jets do get sent prematurely to the bone yard, then at least attempt to give some away to our allies and especially the Afghan Air Force, as they were in dire need of an indigenous close air support platform years ago…
FINALLY THE PENTAGON COMES TO TERMS WITH THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP’S IRRELEVANCE:
The news from the Pentagon was not all bad today. On the upside was the request to end production of the highly controversial and mostly toothless Littoral Combat Ship at 36 units. In its place a proper frigate seems to be in the Navy’s future, thankfully. This is fantastic news for so many reasons, many of which we have discussed here at great length. It appears that the 36 ships that will be built are more of a token program to get the Navy’s fairly arbitrary and over emphasized “numbers of hulls in the water” metric elevated. Ideally, this program would have been capped at maybe a dozen to eighteen units tops. In the LCS’s place, I have long suggested buying the Ingalls’ Patrol Frigate 4921, a ship that will be capable of area air defense, especially when paired with the new quad packed evolved sea sparrow missile, along with anti surface, submarine, and special operations warfare. These ships could also pack a surface launched version of the SLAM-ER missile for tactical strikes far over the Horizon. In addition, and to built up the Navy’s surface combatant inventory, a true Corvette would be useful for surviving and fighting in the littorals. An Enhanced version of Sweden’s stealthy Visby class would be at the top of my list.
Hopefully the 36 ship figure for the LCS program will come down by at least half and we can missionize these ships beyond the point of being glorified Coast Guard patrol vessels. In fact, maybe bailing them over to the Coast Guard makes great sense as their speed would actually be very useful in the homeland security and drug interdiction roles. Then maybe we could just cut the program fully and move on with procuring the multi-mission frigate we originally needed in the first place.
THE RQ-170 SENTINEL HAS A NICKNAME
A friend of the site, and a fellow defense journalist David Axe, who runs the site War is Boring, posted a great little piece about the RQ-170 recently. Through some great sleuth work he found out that the shadowy stealth drone actually goes by a different name than its manufacturer’s parlance. That name being “Wraith.” I always understood the definition of wraith to be an evil spirit, but Webster’s idea of what one is makes the name even more intriguing: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wraith
Called an aircraft something other than its original name is an overtly common practice. Today the F-16 Fighting Falcon is almost always referred to as a “Viper,” and the Super Hornet is called “Rhino.” Its close cousin, the E/A-18G Growler is known as a “Grizzly.” The B-1B Lancer is unanimously referred to as “The Bone” and the A-10 Warthog was actually born with the name “Thunderbolt II.” Some of these nicknames come from chance, developing over time within their communities, and others emerge due to logistical issues, such as distinguishing three sub-types of aircraft from one another when operating onboard an aircraft carrier. The RQ-170 Sentinel being called “Wraith” seems somewhat fitting, but that title would be even more relevant if the type has indeed grown larger and now accomplishes more roles than penetrating reconnaissance alone. In other words, a “Super Sentinel” that this website has predicted to have existed for some time. I will let you use your imagination with that one…
SOCOM’S NEW CRUISE SHIP:
Mr. Axe has another unique piece that unveils America’s new special operations sea basing ship. Currently the USS Ponce is deployed to the Persian Gulf to act as a floating outpost for special operations and mine-sweeping activities, but the decades old ship is more of stopgap measure than as a permanent solution for such a mission. Enter the soon to be militarized container ship currently named the “Cragside.” The conversion of a commercial container ship into a potent multi-role floating naval base is nothing new, nor is the concept of a floating base for special forces, an idea that dates back to the Vietnam War (see article linked at the top of this entry). Yet in an age where access to land bases can be denied via geopolitical or physical means, such a capability is more relevant than ever. Originally, the “Cragside” was built as a roll on, roll off commercial container ship, but after the US Navy drastically refits her, it will feature an expansive flight deck, large hangar, special operations planning facilities and weapons lockers, a gym, and the ability to deploy small boats and other waterborne vehicles with ease.
Basically, a militarized “Cragside” will be the “Love Boat” for Navy SEALs and the 160th SOAR, along with over special warfare units attached to SOCOM. One thing is for sure, the ship looks pretty damn cool as it is, and once it is painted haze gray and loaded with black choppers, communications gear, and a miniature navy of its own, it will be a very unwelcome sight off our potential enemies’ shores.
Read more about the “Cragside” in David’s post linked here.
BAE’S CONFUSINGLY NAMED “REPLICA” STEALTH AIRCRAFT MOCKUP MAKES ANOTHER APPEARANCE:
BAE’s “Replica” 5th generation mockup made another rare appearance at Warton Aerodrome recently as seen in the video above. “Replica” was BAE’s early 2000’s study into a 5th generation light stealth fighter. The aircraft’s advanced composite stealthy structure and shape, something akin to an F-35 crossbred with a YF-23, with UCAV wings attached, was designed using an advanced CAD process and built using laser measurement. Some of these design processes and philosophy behind “Replica” helped secure BAE a stake in the F-35 program.
The mockup of the jet has been seen multiple times mounted on a pole for radar cross-section testing, often times with different exterior applications. The fact that this aircraft is still seen in different surface configurations long after its time as potential flying production aircraft ended may lend us a clue as to its continuing use as a “control variable” for exterior “signature control” applications, such as radar absorbent materials and structures.
Regardless of “Replica’s” utility, a decade and a half after the concept’s inception, I would bet that the information gleaned from its continued testing, even as a surrogate for new stealthy structures and external applications, would have had a large impact on the design of “Teranis,” BAE’s proof of concept UCAV demonstrator that just made its first “publicly acknowledged” flight. Teranis is a fairly promising and advanced design, featuring some very “stealthy” features, many of which have not been seen publicly yet on US drone incarnations. Like Teranis, I would have to say that Replica’s concept is above all else aimed at proving “broadband” stealth, where the aircraft’s radar signature drove its design above many other requirements.
For more on cutting edge laser location/measurement low observable manufacturing and application techniques take a look at this video:
THE BELL JET RANGER RIDES AGAIN!!!
Heli-Expo 2014 had some interesting helicopter developments, but possibly the biggest was Bell’s new and extremely relevant 505 Jet Ranger X. The 505 will go after Robinson Helicopter’s newish R66 short light turbine model. The new chopper may cost under a million bucks but it will feature some advanced tech, such as the very capable and proven GARMIN1000 “glass” avionics suite and full authority digital engine control (FADEC) for its Turbomeca Arrius 2R powerplant. Additionally, the pint-sized Jet Ranger will feature a 350 mile range and a 125kt cruise. Multiple configurations will exist with seating for five in the standard layout, with others featuring clamshell doors and missionized equipment packages.
The Jet Ranger X will almost certainly ride on its predecessor’s legacy and become the go-to choice for TV News, policing, economical executive point to point transport and general utility applications. Then there is the trainer market. With lower fuel consumption, operating and acquisition cost than its highly successful predecessors, the Jet Ranger X will most likely become “thee” turbine helicopter trainer. Currently, Robinson’s R66 has seen penetration into this space, but seeing as the R66, with its unique flying qualities and cockpit layout, is the top of the Robinson line, Bell’s 505 may offer an aircraft for pilots to learn on at discounted rates while offering enticing platform migration to heavier Jet Ranger and other Bell models in the future.
The advent of the Bell 505 brings us back to the first story posted in the this article, the DoD’s budget cuts. Currently the Kiowa (earlier Jet Ranger derivative) is used to train Army pilots with great success. Under the Army’s “make the force structure fit” plan, these aircraft will be retired in mass, along with the OH-58 fleet, in an attempt to wipe the whole platform from the Army’s books. The turbine helicopter training role will then be fulfilled by the recently purchased, $6M a pop, twin engine UH-72 Lakota. How stupid is this when the Army could buy almost six brand new and super efficient Bell 505s for the price of one Lakota? Not only that, but the cost of running the Lakotas, maintaince and fuel costs, is a total waste. Simply put, using a ten person, twin engine helicopter for a job as menial as basic helicopter training is not just dumb, it is straight up wasteful. If we no longer need the Lakota, seeing as the National Guard will be trading their Apaches for Black Hawks, then sell them. Shoehorning them into a role they were never meant to perfrom when a platform that cost a fraction of the price to buy and operate is now going to be available, is an insult to the American tax payer.
BROKEN BONE: B-1B LANDS WITHOUT ITS NOSE GEAR
Our good friend David Cenciotti over at the TheAviationist.com has a fun little piece up featuring a video of B-1B crash landing on Edwards dry lake bed back in 1989. I have never seen this video before but it is pretty damn dramatic. David has some background on the event shown in the video, and as always make sure to check his page regularly for aviation news from around the globe.