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by MATT CETTI-ROBERTS
The sky above West Mosul is dark and brooding. Heavy rain-laden clouds stretch as far as the eye can see, lending an oppressive air to an already dangerous city.
At the entrance to a courtyard, the body of an Islamic State fighter covered in a large piece of red carpet lies where he fell, surrounded by piles of rubble and bullet-riddled metal sheeting. A small puppy, covered in dirt and unconcerned by the heavy fighting taking place, perches on the body and watches as a group of Iraqi soldiers with the Emergency Response Division jog by.
The soldiers pay no attention to the puppy as they pass — such sights are now all too familiar in the battle to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Phase III of the Mosul Offensive — the operation to reclaim the city’s western side, began on Feb. 19, 2017. On the assault’s southern front, the Emergency Response Division and Federal Police quickly retook the rural areas on the edge of the city, reaching Mosul International Airport after only five days of fighting.
On the sixth day, troops finally entered the city’s southern neighborhoods, making initial gains of around a mile by the end of day seven. However, the advance since then through the city has been slower and harder for the Iraqi Security Forces — but not without reason.A gray day on West Mosul’s Corniche. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The soldiers entering the courtyard include a major, a captain and their escorts. They are searching for a spot to set up and fire a 73-millimeter SPG-9 recoilless gun at a known sniper’s position.
Their task is not made any easier by the shape of the front line which, because of the urban environment, consists of many curves and kinks. The soldiers don’t always find the angle they want.
Enclosing the courtyard are the now-skeletal remains of an office building where large pieces of rubble, smashed from the surrounding walls, entirely cover the ground. The ISIS sniper has been harassing a group of Iraqi Federal Police officers stationed in the ruins, and they wave and smile at the approaching ERD soldiers.
Unfortunately, the major and his team investigate the ruined building but find no suitable firing positions. They need a new position with a better view.
The team selects another nearby building — it’s close, but that doesn’t mean the path there is safe. The soldiers must first sprint across open ground in an area known to be visible to ISIS snipers, some of whom are only around 100 meters away.
An ISIS mortar round falls from the sky and detonates nearby but out of sight, and the dust from the explosion is only visible when it rises above roof height.Federal Police and Emergency Response Division troops eat lunch on Mosul’s Corniche. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The dark, rainy clouds in the sky add to the challenge, as it makes close air support from coalition and Iraqi aircraft impossible.
As a result, the only available air support is from commercial drones, which at least gives the Iraqis the ability to scout the surrounding area. On the bright side, the rain has come during a pause in the main advance, but the weather doesn’t help those on the ground today.
House-to-house fighting is up close and personal by its very nature — and things are only going to get closer in West Mosul. The western half of the city, separated from the east by the River Tigris, is home to Mosul’s oldest districts — a myriad of winding narrow streets and ancient buildings.
“Some streets mean that two people cannot go in side-by-side,” Col. Abdul Amir, the chief press officer for the Emergency Response Division, said during an interview that took place two days later during an Iraqi advance near the city’s train station.
Once the battle reaches the narrow streets, the changing urban terrain will force both the Iraqi Security Forces and ISIS to change their combat tactics.Iraqi ERD soldiers watch a drone, hovering over a nearby Iraqi position, as they wait to find out if the drone belongs to ISIS or Iraqi forces. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
For one, the ERD, Federal Police and Iraqi Special Operations Forces — or ISOF — in this area of the offensive will not always be able to count on the armored support which has helped them so far, according to Col. Amir.
Equally, he points out, the narrow alleys will prevent the Islamic State from using the large suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices that the militants have employed against Iraqi and Kurdish forces since the conflict began in 2014. “We know they will switch to using more booby traps and men wearing suicide vests,” Amir added.
The group of ERD soldiers run around the corner of a smashed building and cautiously move forward next to a wall. Across the road ahead of them, known as the Corniche — a promenade which runs along the western bank of the Tigris — is an earthen berm thrown up by Federal Police bulldozers.
The dirt bank, just a few meters away, marks the limit of the Iraqi advance and is in full view of Islamic State positions in nearby buildings.An Iraqi Federal Police 2nd lieutenant listens to information about a nearby ISIS mortar strike. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Federal Police officers shout out warnings. The policemen, manning this section of the front, are just a few meters away from the berm and know that Islamic State snipers are hard at work.
The ERD and Federal Police have a clear process for working together in Mosul. First, ERD special forces teams perform the initial assault on an area, and then the Federal Police — more akin to a regular army in composition, and possessing heavier weapons than the ERD — move in and hold the ground.
The policemen, dressed in their distinctive blue urban camouflage pattern uniforms, stand in doorways and use their BTR-94 and M1117 armored vehicles for cover as the ERD soldiers sprint past and into a darkened doorway.An ERD officer, center, talks to a Federal Police officer about a nearby sniper. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The scant distance between buildings means that there is often little warning of Islamic State attacks on these positions. Everyone here is constantly on the alert.
Just a few days ago, an Islamic State SVBIED in the form of an armored bulldozer targeted Iraqi troops on the Corniche. Luckily, the Iraqis shot the driver before he could detonate his explosive cargo.
The soldiers run up a short set of stairs and enter the reception area of — what was — one of Mosul’s better hotels. Often recommended to foreigners visiting the city, Iraqi troops are now the building’s only occupants. The reception area is a collection of smashed glass, wood and rubble, but a board mounted on the wall still displays the prices clients once paid.
After a brief discussion with the Federal Police colonel responsible for the unit occupying the surrounding buildings, the ERD officers and their escorts ascend the hotel’s darkened, debris-strewn stairs.
On the third floor, Federal Police heavy weapons specialists have placed a tripod-mounted SPG-9 in a room with — the ERD soldiers hope — a good view of their target.An ERD officer uses a DJI Phantom drone to show colleagues landmarks and Iraqi front line positions. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos
Another factor that dictates how the Iraqi forces operate in West Mosul is the large number of civilians trapped in the city.
There are an estimated 400,000 people stuck inside West Mosul’s Old City, UNHCR representative Bruno Gheddo told Reuters on March 23. Reports suggest that the Islamic State forcibly moved many of these civilians from villages and towns elsewhere in the group’s territory with the aim of using them as human shields.
The Islamic State plays by a different set of rules. The militants consider civilians who do not join them to be expendable, and that non-combatants can be killed whenever it suits them — the Islamic State simply does not care.Iraqi ERD soldiers sprint across open ground known to be in view of ISIS snipers. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The Islamic State’s strategy of using human shields may have already affected efforts by the Iraqis and the coalition. An air strike dropped in support of the attacking ISF targeting an ISIS-placed VBIED may have killed civilians who were sheltering in homes in the immediate vicinity.
Such disregard for life on the part of the Islamic State is a hard thing to counter, especially when the militants have shown that they will still throw everything they have at the Iraqi military — even when surrounded and outnumbered with their inevitable defeat in sight.
Col. Amar, an ERD battalion commander, says that civilian lives are extremely important to the Iraqi forces. It would be possible for ERD and ISOF to make quick progress through the west of the city, but doing so would cause too many casualties among the trapped civilians and the attacking forces.
Instead the current strategy involves a slow and methodical advance.ERD officers and a Federal Police support weapons team prepare to fire an SPG-9 recoilless gun. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
“Our aim is to surround the Old City on all sides,” Amar explains.
Once surrounded, the Iraqi forces will look to open a humanitarian gateway. “If any ISIS fighters want to surrender they may also leave through there too,” he adds.
Although the militants rarely surrender, some have in the past and any more who can be persuaded to throw down their weapons will certainly erode the Islamic State’s fighting capabilities.
The ERD officers pass down a narrow corridor on the third floor of the hotel, carefully picking their way through the smashed furniture, electrical conduits and broken ceiling tiles that cover the floor.
Large clumps of electrical wiring dangle from the ceiling — the only light comes from a doorway at the end of the passageway and one of the hotel’s double suites.
Inside the suite, the Federal Police support weapons team trample back and forth across a ripped double mattress as they prepare the SPG-9 for firing. The room’s balcony, which offers a commanding view of one of Mosul’s souks, is now the firing point for the recoilless gun — the barrel of which points toward a small hole knocked through the balcony’s corner.Federal Police support weapons specialists unwrap the 73-millimeter ammunition for their SPG-9 recoilless gun. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
A young Federal Police 2nd lieutenant looks through the open breech and down the length of weapon’s 73-millimeter barrel. He calls out minor adjustments to one of his men, who reacts by nudging the SPG-9 according to his commander’s corrections.
The lieutenant is happy that the weapon is on target. Two of his men start to prepare several high explosive fin-stabilized projectiles. The plastic wrapping covering the ammunition joins the rest of the debris on the balcony floor.
With the weapon loaded, the ERD soldiers and Federal Police weapons specialists move into the corridor. They plan to use a long lanyard to fire the gun because of the concussive back-blast.
The soldiers and police stand and kneel in the corridor, and most stick their fingers in their ears and close their eyes. A policeman shouts and, with a loud crump, the SPG-9 fires its first round into the militant sniper position.
Dust kicked up by the blast instantly clouds the corridor, as loose dirt and debris lodged — somehow — in what remains of the ceiling rains down on everyone in the passageway.
The round successfully hits the target building, but is slightly high and around two meters off. Time for round two.Federal Police officers prepare to fire another round from their SPG-9 recoilless gun. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
In another room within the hotel, Federal Police spotters relay information about the impact point. The men, sitting on stools and crates, keep watch from small holes knocked through an external wall.
Although the policemen are watching for any possible Islamic State attack, they are in the perfect position to guide the support weapons specialists onto the target.
Behind the spotters, another group of Federal Police officers sleep on piles of blankets. Even with the battle raging outside they need rest, as it will eventually be their turn to keep watch. The men sitting at the observation holes say that they think some of the militant snipers are foreign because of their accuracy.A nearby minaret, often used by ISIS snipers, is seen from an Iraqi Federal Police front-line position. Matt Cetti-Roberts
Whether that’s true or not, everyone avoids a high-set window in the room which gives line of sight to a minaret a few hundred meters away. The police point out that ISIS snipers often use the scarred tower as a shooting perch.
It’s highly advisable — in fact, necessary for survival — to listen to what the Iraqi soldiers have to say. Bullet holes mark the wall which lines up with the window and minaret, a visual cue that whoever uses the tower can shoot at the police position.
The SPG-9 team fires a second shot. The weapon’s muffled boom and vibration carries through the hotel — and dust marks the projectile’s impact on the target building as a shower of debris falls into the street below.
This shot is slightly too far to the left, and blows a hole in the masonry surrounding the window into the room the Iraqis want to hit. It’s a good shot, but the officers want to fire one more — just to make sure and finish the job.
The SPG-9 team quickly loads a third round. The ERD officers turn observations by the police spotters into corrections before passing the information by radio to the SPG-9 crew at the firing point.
The gun fires with another crump. This time the shot is on target. The round flies straight through the window of the sniper position, and a dirty white cloud of dust billows from inside the shadows.
The sniper may have left, or he may have still been there, but either way the Federal Police and ERD have let the militants know that their firing position is compromised and under observation.A view, from a spotter’s hole, of a battered West Mosul building containing a sniper’s position. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The ERD major in charge of the group flashes a toothy grin and gives a thumbs up. His radio crackles with further confirmation from another Iraqi position that the gunners hit the target.
The fight for West Mosul is only going to get harder, and no doubt the obstacles set between the Iraqi soldiers and the victory they seek in the city will multiply. But at the moment, on the Corniche, it’s just about denying the enemy one less position.
In West Mosul, Iraqi Troops With Heavy Weapons Battle ISIS Snipers was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
by DAN GRAZIER
The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be ready for combat. That was the parting message of Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.
The Joint Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than $100 billion and nearly 25 years. Just to finish the basic development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion and two more years. Even with this massive investment of time and money, Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”
Gilmore detailed a range of remaining and sometimes worsening problems with the program, including hundreds of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. He also raised serious questions about whether the Air Force’s F-35A can succeed in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, whether the Marine Corps’ F-35B can conduct even rudimentary close air support, and whether the Navy’s F-35C is suitable to operate from aircraft carriers.
He found, in fact, that “if used in combat, the F-35 aircraft will need support to locate and avoid modern threat ground radars, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to unresolved performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage availability.”
In a public statement, the F-35 Joint Program Office attempted to dismiss the Gilmore report by asserting, “All of the issues are well-known to the JPO, the U.S. services, our international partners, and our industry.”
JPO’s acknowledgement of the numerous issues are fine as far as it goes, but there’s no indication that the office has any plan — including cost and schedule re-estimates — to fix those currently known problems without cutting corners.
Nor, apparently, do they have a plan to cope with and fund the fixes for the myriad unknown problems that will be uncovered during the upcoming, much more rigorous, developmental and operational tests of the next four years. Such a plan is essential, and should be driven by the pace at which problems are actually solved rather than by unrealistic pre-existing schedules.
What will it take to fix the numerous problems identified by Gilmore, and how do we best move forward with the most expensive weapon program in history, a program that has been unable to live up to its own very modest promises?Technicians perform checks on an F-35A at Red Flag on Feb. 2, 2017. U.S. Air Force photoElectronics used to justify cost — not delivering capabilities
The F-35 is being sold to the American people based in no small part on its mission systems, the vast array of sophisticated electronics on board the jet. A quick perusal of any of the hagiographic articles about the F-35 will find that they nearly always point to its capabilities to gather massive amounts of information.
This information is supposed to come through its onboard sensors and the data links to outside networked sources, and then be merged by the F-35’s computer systems to identify and display for the pilot the specific threat, target and accompanying force picture — i.e. “situational awareness.”
This process is designed to allow the pilot to dominate the battlespace. Based on the actual test performance of these systems during developmental testing, however, it appears the electronics actually interfere with the pilot’s ability to survive and prevail.
Overall, problems with the F-35’s sensors, computers and software, including creating false targets and reporting inaccurate locations, have been severe enough that test teams at Edwards Air Force Base have rated them “red,” meaning they are unable to perform the combat tasks expected of them.
One system, the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), was singled out by pilots as inferior in resolution and range to the systems currently being used on legacy aircraft. EOTS is one of the systems designed to help the F-35 detect and destroy enemy fighters from far enough away to make dogfighting a thing of the past. Mounted close to the nose of the aircraft, it incorporates a television camera, an infrared search and track system, and a laser rangefinder and designator.
These sensors swivel under computer control to track targets over a wide field of regard and display imagery on the pilot’s helmet visor display.
But the limitations of EOTS, including image degradation with humidity, force pilots to fly in closer to a target than they had to when using earlier systems just to get a clear enough picture to launch a missile or take a shot.
The report says the problem is bad enough that F-35 pilots may need to fly in so close to acquire the target that they would have to maneuver away to gain the distance needed for a guided weapon shot. Thus, the system’s limitations can force an attacking F-35 to compromise surprise, allowing the enemy to maneuver to a first-shot opportunity.Surrendering the element of surprise and enabling an opponent to shoot first is what we want to force the enemy to do, not ourselves.
Another often-touted feature that is supposed to give the F-35 superior situational awareness is the Distributed Aperture System (DAS). The DAS is one of the primary sensors feeding the displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system, and it is also failing to live up to the hype.
The DAS sensors are six video cameras or “eyes” distributed around the fuselage of the F-35 that project onto the helmet visor the outside view in any direction the pilot wants to look, including downwards or to the rear. At the same time, the helmet visor displays the flight instruments and the target and threat symbols derived from the sensors and mission system.
But because of problems with excessive false targets, unstable “jittered” images and information overload, pilots are turning off some of the sensor and computer inputs and relying instead on simplified displays or the more traditional instrument panel.
Here again, the system is little better than those it’s supposed to replace.
Test pilots also had difficulty with the helmet during some of the important Weapon Delivery Accuracy tests. Several of the pilots described the displays in the helmet as “operationally unusable and potentially unsafe” because of “symbol clutter” obscuring ground targets.
While attempting to test fire short-range AIM-9X air-to-air missiles against targets, pilots reported that their view of the target was blocked by the symbols displayed on their helmet visors. Pilots also reported that the symbols were unstable while they were attempting to track targets.
Then there is the matter of pilots actually seeing double due to “false tracks.” There is a problem with taking all of the information generated by the various onboard instruments and merging it into a coherent picture for the pilot, a process called sensor fusion.
Pilots are reporting that the different instruments, like the plane’s radar and the EOTS, are detecting the same target but the computer compiling the information is displaying the single target as two.
Pilots have tried to work around this problem by shutting off some of the sensors to make the superfluous targets disappear. This, DOT&E says, is “unacceptable for combat and violates the basic principle of fusing contributions from multiple sensors into an accurate track and clear display to gain situational awareness and to identify and engage enemy targets.”
And as bad as the problem is in a single plane, it’s much worse when several planes are attempting to share data across the network. The F-35 has a Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) that is designed to enable the plane to share information with other F-35s in order to give all the pilots a common picture of the battlespace. It does this by taking all of the data generated by each plane and combining it into a single, shared view of the world.But this system, too, is creating erroneous or split images of targets. Compounding the problem, the system is also sometimes dropping images of targets altogether, causing confusion inside the cockpits about what’s there or not there.
All of this means that the systems meant to give the pilots a better understanding of the world around them can do exactly the opposite. According to the report, these systems “continue to degrade battlespace awareness and increase pilot workload. Workarounds to these deficiencies are time-consuming for the pilot and detract from efficient and effective mission execution.”
F-35 boosters say it’s the network that matters — what actually matters is that the network isn’t working.An F-35A takes off from Nellis Air Force Base on Feb. 2, 2017 during Red Flag 17–01. U.S. Air Force photoIneffective as a fighter
The F-35 was intended to be a multi-role aircraft from its inception. This latest report provides a clear picture of how it stacks up so far in its various roles, including in comparison to each aircraft it’s supposed to replace. The news is not encouraging.
The F-35’s shortcomings as an air-to-air fighter have already been well documented.
It famously lost in mock aerial combat within visual range (WVR), where its radar stealth is of no advantage, to an F-16 in early 2015, one of the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace as an aerial fighter. The F-35 lost repeatedly in air-to-air maneuvering despite the fact that the test was rigged in its favor because the F-16 employed was the heavier two-seater version and was further loaded down with heavy, drag-inducing external fuel tanks to hinder its maneuverability.
F-35 boosters argue that the plane’s low radar signature will keep it out of WVR situations, but the history of air combat is that WVR engagements cannot be avoided altogether. Missile failures, the effects of radar jamming and other hard-to-predict factors tend to force WVR engagements time and again.
This latest report confirms the F-35 is not as maneuverable as legacy fighters.All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.”
One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.
Transonic speeds, just below the sound barrier, are the most critical spot of the flight envelope for a fighter plane. These are the speeds where, historically, the majority of aerial combat takes place. And it is at these speeds where the F-35 needs to be the most nimble to be an effective fighter.
The program has attempted to fix the maneuverability performance problems by making changes to the F-35’s flight software rather than by redesigning the actual flight surfaces that are the cause of the problems.
The software, called control laws, translates the pilot’s stick commands into behavior by the aircraft. One would expect that certain force by the pilot on the stick would result in an equivalent response by the plane. Because of the software changes, that’s sometimes not the case.
For example, if a pilot makes a sharp stick move to turn the plane, the control law software now results in a gentler turn to prevent problems such as — and including — dig-in. F-35 apologists try to dismiss such issues by claiming that the F-35 was never intended for close-in aerial dogfighting, a claim belied by the Air Force’s insistence that the jet be equipped with a short range air-to-air gun.
As an air-to-air fighter, the F-35’s combat capability is extremely limited because at the moment the software version only enables it to employ two missiles, and they have to be the radar-guided advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs); in the future it will carry no more than four if it wants to retain its stealth characteristic.
The F-35’s capability as an air-to-air fighter is currently further limited because the AMRAAM is not optimized for close, visual-range combat. Eventually, upgraded software versions will allow the plane to carry missiles other than AMRAAMs, but not any time soon. This means that any fight the F-35 gets into had better be short, because it will very quickly run out of ammunition.
Its gun would be available in close-in fighting as well, but it’s not currently working because the software needed to effectively use it in combat hasn’t been completed.
The cannon in the F-35A sits behind a small door on the side of the aircraft that opens quickly an instant before the cannon is fired — a characteristic intended to keep the aircraft stealthy. Test flights have shown that this door catches the air flowing across the surface of the aircraft, pulling the F-35’s nose off the aimpoint resulting in errors “that exceed accuracy specifications.”
Engineers are working on yet more changes to the F-35’s control laws to correct for the door-induced error. Making these changes and performing the subsequent “regression” re-testing to confirm the effectiveness of the changes have delayed the actual gun accuracy tests. Until these tests occur, no one can know whether the F-35A’s cannon can actually hit a target.
The F-35B and F-35C will both use an externally mounted gun pod rather than an internal version like the Air Force model. Because of differences in the shape of the fuselage of the two models, the Marine Corps and Navy will use different model gun pods. Both have been test-fired on the ground, but the flight tests to see what effect the pods have on the jet’s aerodynamics are only just now beginning.
DOT&E has warned that, as happened with the gun door on the F-35A, unexpected flight control problems are likely to be discovered. The fixes to these will have to be devised and then tested as well. Only then will the program be able to begin the fuller in-flight accuracy testing, which is necessary to determine whether the gun pod is accurate.
Developmental testing delays, and the process of fixing the problems that testing will likely uncover, are severe enough that the program may not have an effective gun for Initial Operational Test & Evaluation. This could not only further delay scheduled testing but also, more importantly, prevent the aircraft from reaching the warfighter any time soon.An F-35 drops a 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bomb in April 2016. U.S. Air Force photoIneffective as an interdiction bomber
There are several major reasons F-35s will have extremely limited interdiction usefulness — the Air Force’s and Marine Corps’ declaration of “initial operational capability” notwithstanding.
For instance, defense companies in Europe, Russia, China and even Iran have been hard at work for years developing and producing systems to defeat stealth aircraft. And they have had some success.
We saw this clearly in 1999, when a Serbian missile unit shot down an F-117 stealth fighter with an obsolete Soviet-era SA-3 surface-to-air missile, a system first fielded in 1961. Serbian air defense crews discovered they could detect the stealth aircraft by using their missile battery’s longwave search radar.
Then, using spotters and the missiles’ own guidance radars, the Serbian forces were able to track, target and kill one stealthy F-117.
To show that was no fluke, the Serbian SAMs hit and damaged another F-117 so badly it never flew in the Kosovo Air War again.
Unaffected by the special shapes and coatings of modern stealth aircraft, these search radars easily detect today’s stealth airplanes, including the F-35. Since WWII the Russians have never stopped building such radars and are now selling modern, highly mobile, truck-mounted digital longwave radars on the open market for prices as low as $10 million. The Chinese and the Iranians have followed suit by developing similar radar systems.
An even simpler system that is even harder to counter than a long wavelength search radar is a passive detection system (PDS) that detects and tracks the radio frequency (RF) signals emitted by an aircraft — radar signals, UHF and VHF radio signals, identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) signals, data link signals like Link-16 and navigation transponder signals like TACAN.
A good example of a modern PDS is the VERA-NG, a Czech system being sold internationally that uses three or more receiving antennas spaced well apart to detect and track and identify the RF signals emitted by fighters and bombers. The system’s central analysis module calculates the time difference of the signals reaching the receivers to identify, locate and track up to 200 aircraft transmitting radar signals.
The VERA-NG is only one of many types of PDS used throughout the world — the Russians, Chinese and others produce PDSs as well, and these have been widely fielded for several years.
The beauty of a PDS, from the perspective of an adversary employing one, is that radar stealth is irrelevant to it ability to detect and track aircraft. If the aircraft has to use its radar, radios, data links or navigation systems to accomplish its mission, the PDS stands a good chance of being able to detect, track and identify it by these emissions.Every aircraft in the world is susceptible to PDS, stealth and non-stealth alike, and the F-35 is no exception.
The F-35’s main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120, is a beyond visual range radar missile — as a result, the F-35 has to use a large radar transmitting high-power signals in order to detect airborne targets and then guide the missile to them. Likewise, the aircraft has to employ high-powered ground mapping radar signals to find ground targets at long range.
Moreover, if the plane’s systems have to communicate with other aircraft in the formation or with off-board supporting aircraft like AWACS, it has to use its radios and data links. The F-35 is thus likely susceptible to detection by passive tracking systems. Several of these passive detection systems are significantly less expensive than search radars — and they are virtually undetectable electronically.
The DOT&E report also lists several major reasons for the limited interdiction usefulness.
One such reason is that the F-35’s Block 2B (USMC) and Block 3i (USAF) software prevents it from detecting many threats and targets while severely limiting the kinds of weapons it can carry.
For example, the F-35 can currently only carry a few models of large guided direct attack bombs. None of these can be launched from a distance like a power guided missile. Rather they fall on a ballistic trajectory from the aircraft to the target, which means they can only be released at relatively short ranges in view of the target.
For now F-35 pilots “will be forced to fly much closer to engage ground targets and, depending on the threat level of enemy air defenses and acceptable mission risk, it may be limited to engaging ground targets that are defended by only short-range air defenses, or by none at all.”
The small number of weapon types the F-35 can carry also limits its flexibility in combat. The current software can only support one kind of bomb at a time, which DOT&E says is only useful when attacking one or two similar targets. So, for example, when a flight of F-35s departs loaded with bombs designed to destroy surface targets, they wouldn’t be able to also destroy any hardened or bunker targets because they wouldn’t have the heavier bombs required.
The F-35 is projected to carry a larger variety of weapons as more software, bomb racks and testing to validate these are developed — but we will not know until 2021 which of those weapons are actually combat suitable. Moreover, in order to carry something other than two large guided bombs it will have to use external weapons and racks, significantly reducing the plane’s already disappointing range and maneuverability — and, of course, more or less eliminating stealth.
The ability to penetrate heavily defended airspace to destroy fixed targets deep in enemy territory is an often-cited justification for the F-35. Of course, the F-35’s limited range — less than legacy F-16s — means that it is unlikely to be able to perform what the Air Force likes to call “deep strikes” well inside the homeland of large nations such as Russia and China.
The 2016 DOT&E report describes some official foot-dragging that has delayed putting the F-35’s penetrating ability to the test. For instance, the program is only now starting to receive the critical ground radar simulator equipment, which mimic enemy radar systems, that are needed to conduct robust testing of the F-35’s effectiveness in highly contested, near-peer, scenarios.
It’s only receiving that equipment because it was sought and procured by DOT&E when it became clear that the Services and the JSF Program Office were not going to pursue a test infrastructure adequate for replicating the near-peer threats the F-35 is expected to be able to counter. Deliveries of this equipment have begun but will not complete until early 2018. The JPO has not planned or budgeted for developmental flight-testing against it.
The military does developmental and operational testing of stealth aircraft at the Western Test Range at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The tests are conducted against the ground radar simulator equipment and surface-to-air missile launchers. Aircraft being tested fly over these arrays to see if the aircraft’s onboard sensors — in particular its electronic warfare systems and ground mapping radar — combined with offboard intelligence provided via data links can detect the threats and respond appropriately, such as by warning the pilots, jamming the signals or firing defense suppression missiles.
The problem is a complicated one because the radar signals that reveal the presence of a SAM, for instance, thereby allowing the aircraft to either target the SAM or avoid it, are not necessarily distinctive and often closely resemble the signals of radars that pose no immediate threat to the aircraft.
The F-35 can’t carry enough weapons to bomb everything. Its sensor and sensor fusion system must be able to tell the difference between enemy SAM radars that pose a genuine threat and the many innocuous radars that may be within range of detection — general purpose air surveillance radars, short-range, low-altitude air defense radars targeting weapons and not aircraft, and even nearby civilian air traffic control and weather radar systems.
Equally crippling, until the ground radar simulator equipment is in place, the F-35 program will be unable to properly develop, validate and update the F-35’s mission-critical onboard software files, called Mission Data Loads (MDLs). MDLs are huge files specifying all target and threat locations together with their individual electronic and/or infrared signatures and all relevant mapping data.Without accurate, up-to-date MDLs, the F-35 cannot find targets or evade and counter threats — nor can it carry out the networking and sensor fusion functions that are said to be its primary strengths.
The F-35 cannot go to war without its MDLs. The MDLs also need to be updated continuously with information concerning such things as threats, targets and signals that is gathered on every F-35 mission. F-35 pilots can only be sure the MDLs they need to survive work properly after they have been tested over ranges equipped with the necessary ground radar simulator equipment.
New and complete MDLs must be created for each theater or conflict zone by a central reprogramming lab using massive data inputs from the relevant combat command. F-35s operating out of England would have different files from F-35s based in Japan, for example. Only one such reprogramming lab exists today and, due to JPO mismanagement, it is has only recently been scheduled to receive necessary upgrades to produce a validated MDL.
It takes the lab 15 months to produce a complete MDL. If F-35s are suddenly needed in a new, unanticipated theater of operation, those F-35s will not be able to fly combat missions for at least 15 months.
Because the full range of necessary ground radar simulator equipment for the reprogramming lab is not yet in place, DOT&E stated that the earliest the reprogramming lab will be able to produce validated MDLs just for IOT&E will be June 2018.
That is nearly a year after the planned IOT&E start in August 2017 — and two years after the Marines declared the F-35B initially operationally capable. DOT&E further stated that F-35 MDLs suitable for combat “will not be tested and optimized to ensure the F-35 will be capable of detecting, locating, and identifying modern fielded threats until 2020.”F-35Bs over Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. U.S. Marine Corps photoIneffective as a close air support platform
The F-35 has plenty of shortfalls performing air-to-ground interdiction missions well away from the immediate battlefield, but it is even worse in its other intended air-to-ground role directly in support of engaged troops, close air support (CAS).
DOT&E concluded that the F-35 in its current configuration “does not yet demonstrate CAS capabilities equivalent to those of fourth generation aircraft.” This statement is particularly disturbing in light of the Air Force chief’s recent statements that the service intends to renew its efforts to cancel the CAS-combat-proven A-10 in 2021.
CAS is the other major mission where a lack of an effective cannon will significantly limit the F-35’s combat usefulness.
An effective cannon is essential for many CAS missions where any size bomb, guided or unguided, would pose a danger to friendly troops on the ground or where there are concerns about collateral damage, such as in urban environments.
The cannon is even more crucial when our troops are being ambushed or overrun by enemies only meters away, in “danger close” situations where only pinpoint effects delivered by the most highly accurate fire can help our side and kill or disperse the enemy.
Ground commanders interviewed as part of a recent RAND study said they preferred the A-10’s cannon fire even to guided munitions because 80 percent of the cannon rounds fired hit within a 20-foot radius of the aiming point, providing exactly the kind of precision that danger close situations absolutely require. Cannons are also most useful for hitting moving targets because a cannon burst can lead the target in anticipation of movement.None of the three F-35 models in the current fleet can use cannons in combat. In fact, none of them are even close to completing their developmental flight tests — much less their operational suitability tests — for airframe safety, accuracy and target lethality.
Even worse, based on preliminary test experience, it appears that the severe inaccuracy of the helmet-mounted gunsight on all three F-35 versions that makes the cannon ineffective in air-to-air combat will also make it ineffective in CAS — and that the helmet’s accuracy problem may be technically inherent and incurable.
Note that the cannon accuracy requirements for CAS are considerably more stringent than for air combat: when shooting in close proximity to friendly troops, even minor accuracy problems can have tragic consequences. As mentioned before, the gun pods for the Marines’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C will likely add another source of inaccuracy — also possibly incurable — and remain untested for CAS.
The combat suitability of F-35 cannons for CAS will not be known until the end of Block 3F IOT&E, which is unlikely before 2021. Failure to complete these CAS tests realistically — a distinct possibility given JPO mismanagement and delaying of test resources — will certainly jeopardize the lives of American troops.
In addition to the critical cannon inaccuracy problem, the error-inducing chaos of symbol-clutter in the pilot’s helmet display is particularly dangerous in the CAS role. DOT&E says the current system is “operationally unusable and potentially unsafe to complete the planned testing due to a combination of symbol clutter obscuring the target, difficulty reading key information, and pipper [aimpoint] stability.”
Even when the symbols being displayed by the helmet do not obscure the pilot’s ability to see the target, the F-35’s canopy might. The jet’s canopy is a thick acrylic material with a low observable coating to preserve stealth. This makes the canopy less transparent and according to the DOT&E appears to be distorting the pilot’s view.
Further limiting the cannon’s effectiveness in each version of the F-35 is the number of 25-millimeter rounds it carries — 182 for the F-35A and 220 for the B and C. This is grossly deficient for CAS, especially when compared to the over 1,100 30-millimeter shells carried by the A-10. While the A-10 has enough cannon rounds for between 10 and 20 attack passes, any variant of the F-35 will only have enough for two, maybe four, passes.Even more limiting in the effective use of any CAS weapon, cannon or other, is the F-35’s inability to fly low and slow enough to find typical hard-to-see CAS targets and safely identify them as enemy or friendly, even when cued by ground or air observers.
Due to its small, overloaded wings, the F-35 cannot maneuver adequately at the slow speeds that searching for concealed and camouflaged targets requires — and being completely unarmored and highly flammable, it would suffer catastrophic losses from just the small rifle and light machine gun hits inevitable at the low altitudes and slow speeds required. In sharp contrast, the A-10 was specifically designed for excellent low and slow maneuverability and, by design, has unprecedented survivability against those guns, and even against shoulder-fired missiles.
Air Force officials have often argued that the lack of an effective gun or inability to maneuver low and slow won’t matter in future wars because the Air Force intends to conduct CAS differently — that is, at high altitudes using smaller precision munitions. But the F-35 will not be cleared to carry those weapons for at least five years.
In the meantime, the F-35 can carry only two guided bombs right now, and those are 500 pounds or larger. None of those models are usable in proximity to friendly troops. According to the military’s risk-estimate table, at 250 meters (820 feet), a 500-pound bomb has a 10 percent chance of incapacitating friendly troops. This means that within that bubble, the enemy can maneuver free from close air support fires.
A 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb II is now in low rate production and cleared for use on the F-15E; even that, though, is much too large to be used near friendly troops in “danger close” firefights, and the software and bomb racks necessary to employ it on the F-35 will not be available and cleared for combat until 2021 at the earliest.
Close air support is more than aircraft simply dropping bombs on targets. To be truly effective, CAS missions require detailed tactical coordination between the pilots and the troops fighting on the ground. For decades, this has been done effectively through radio communication, and in recent years, operational aircraft have been upgraded with digital communication links for voice and data over networked systems called Variable Message Format and Link-16.
In flight tests, the F-35’s digital data links have experienced significant difficulties, including dropped messages or information being transmitted in the wrong format. This has forced pilots and ground controllers to work around the system by repeating the information by voice over the radio. In a close firefight, when seconds count, this is a dangerous delay the troops can ill-afford.
F-35 defenders are always quick to point to the allegedly lethal capabilities of near-peer adversary air defense systems as justification for the necessity of using F-35s in CAS as well as in interdiction bombing. Introducing a sounder tactical and historical perspective, Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha points out that the scenario of flying CAS missions over an area of heavy air defense threats is unlikely at best.
The cumbersome, slow-moving, and logistics-intensive “high threat” missile systems are unlikely to be dragged along by a near-peer enemy conducting modern mobile warfare. Our close support pilots are much more likely to face lesser light and mobile air defenses (machine guns, light anti-aircraft guns, and man-carried heat-seeking missiles) just as they faced during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the wars of the past 15-plus years.
In announcing F-35 IOC, the Marines — who used to prize CAS as part of the unique Marine heritage — and the Air Force apparently deem these F-35 CAS limitations acceptable.
But it is shameful to see close air support treated as an afterthought tacked on to the F-35 program. To provide adequate CAS, the taxpayers’ money would be far better spent maintaining the battle-proven A-10 until a significantly more effective and even more affordable follow-on is tested and fielded.An F-35C launches from the carrier USS ‘George Washington’ on Aug. 21, 2016. U.S. Navy photoNavy’s F-35 unsuitable for carrier operations
One of the most important characteristics the Navy’s variant of the F-35 must have is that it has to be able to operate from aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what is the point of designing a specialized naval version of the plane? But the Navy’s own pilots say the F-35C doesn’t work with the ships.
Developmental testing revealed that a severe amount of jerking during catapult launches — termed “excessive vertical oscillation” — “make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots who conducted training onboard USS George Washington during the latest set of ship trials.”
Aircraft taking off from the confined decks of carriers require a major boost to reach the necessary speed to achieve lift and takeoff, which is accomplished with a catapult set into the flight deck.
Before the jets are launched, the pilots increase the engine thrust. To keep the jets from rolling off the front of the ship before launch, they are held down with hold-back bars. The force of the thrust compresses the gear’s strut as it is being held down. When the hold-back bar is released and the jet is launched, the F-35C’s strut is unloaded, causing the nose to bounce up and down, jarring the pilot according to a Navy report that was leaked to Inside Defense in January 2017.
The severity of this can be clearly seen here:Gif via Business Insider
The problem is dangerous to the pilot. The Helmet-Mounted Display is unusually heavy, currently weighing in at 5.1 pounds, and when that’s combined with the forces generated during a catapult launch, the extra weight slams the pilot’s head back and forth. In 70 percent of F-35 catapult launches, pilots report moderate to severe pain in their heads and necks.
The launch also impacts the alignment of the helmet. Pilots reported difficulty reading critical information inside the helmet, and they have to readjust it after getting into the air. The pilots say this is unsafe as it happens during one of the most critical phases of any flight. Pilots try to counter the oscillations by cinching down their body harnesses tighter, but this creates a new problem by making it hard to reach emergency switches and the ejection handles in the event of an emergency.
The F-35’s Program Manager, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, has said he will attempt a short-term tweak to the F-35C’s nose gear strut to fix the problem, but a longer-term fix may actually be required, such as a redesign of the entire front landing gear assembly. This is unlikely to begin until 2019 — the same year the Navy has said it intends to declare the F-35C ready for combat.
By that time, the Navy will likely have 36 F-35Cs in the fleet, each of which would then need to have the front landing gear replaced, at a yet-to-be determined cost.
The F-35C’s problems aren’t limited to the beginning of a flight. Just as a jet needs help taking off from a carrier, it also needs help stopping during the landing. This is accomplished by cables strung across the deck. When a jet comes in for a landing, a hook on the aircraft catches one of the cables, which uses a hydraulic engine inside the ship to absorb the energy and bring the jet to a halt.The test teams have found that the hook point on the F-35C’s arresting gear is wearing out three times faster than it is supposed to. Though it is supposed to last a minimum of 15 landings, the longest a hook point has lasted in testing is five. The program is reportedly considering redesigning the arresting gear to be more robust.
Another structural issue yet to be resolved on the F-35C involves the wings. During test flights, engineers discovered the ends of the wings were not strong enough to support the weight of the AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile. The F-35C’s wings fold at the ends to save space in the crowded confines of the deck and hangars on aircraft carriers. When the missiles are carried past the wing fold, the weight exceeds structural limits when the plane maneuvers hard and during landings.
According to DOT&E, until the problem is corrected, “the F-35C will have a restricted flight envelope for missile carriage and employment, which will be detrimental to maneuvering, [and] close-in engagements.” It’s more detrimental, even, than the F-35’s other inherent maneuvering limitations. The problem is bad enough that Lt. Gen. Bogdan has admitted the F-35C will need an entirely redesigned outer wing.
Launching and recovering planes is only one part of the challenge for naval aviation. Maintenance crews also have to be able to keep the jets flightworthy while at sea. One of the critical maintenance functions that crews have to be able to perform is an engine removal and installation (R&I). Crews performed the first R&I proof-of-concept demonstration aboard the USS George Washington in August 2016.
It took the crew 55 hours to complete the engine swap, far longer than it takes to perform the same action on a legacy aircraft. The engine on an F/A-18, for instance, can be replaced in six to eight hours. DOT&E noted the crew took its time performing all the necessary steps for safety purposes, and pointed out that future iterations would likely be a little faster as the crews gain more experience.
That said, the crew had full use of the entire hangar bay space, something they wouldn’t have with an air wing embarked on the ship. This likely sped up the process during this demonstration.
Replacing the engine in the F-35 is more complicated than in an F/A-18. Crews must remove several more skin panels and a large structural piece called the tail hook trestle in order to remove the engine, thus requiring more space in the maintenance hangar. These parts and all the tubes and wires associated with them must be stored properly to prevent damage, also taking extra space.
The maintenance crews must perform this process with a full air wing present in order to know whether the system is operationally suitable. And the process must become significantly more efficient to generate the sortie rate needed for combat.
Another problem uncovered during the trials on the George Washington involved the transmission of the massive data files the F-35C’s computers produce.
The F-35 program relies on the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the enormous and complex computer system all F-35s use for mission planning, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, parts ordering and more. To work properly, the system has to move large volumes of data across the network on and off the ship.
During the Washington trials, the crew had to transmit a moderately sized 200 MB ALIS file over the ship’s satellite network. It took two days. Bandwidth limitations and spotty connectivity had drastically impeded the transmission of the data. Many such transmissions — and even larger ones — will be required to support an entire air wing.
Additionally, the fleet often operates in periods of “emissions control,” or radio silence, to avoid giving away its position to the enemy, further bottlenecking the transfer of the data necessary to keep the F-35s flying.
The George Washington trials generated plenty of fawning press coverage. And publicly at least, the Navy claimed success. However, there is evidence that the Navy is not too excited with the program because of the kind of problems discussed above and, of course, the cost — the service has been slow to purchase the F-35Cs.
While the Air Force is set to buy 44 new F-35s in 2017, the Navy will only buy two. The Navy also requested 14 additional F/A-18s in its 2017 Unfunded Priorities (“Wish”) List and only two more F-35Cs. Moreover, this is the only variant the services have not rushed to prematurely declare combat ready.
Some Pentagon leaders have said the Navy variant is the only one threatened by a review that was ordered by the Trump administration and that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is currently conducting. This may prove to be one part of the program where a viable alternative to the F-35 is sought.F-35As at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. U.S. Air Force photoThe only thing stealthy about the F-35 — the price tag
Much has been said since the election about further F-35 purchases and affordability. President Donald Trump questioned the program’s value in a series of tweets before the inauguration, but hopes that the program would be dramatically altered were dashed when he declared he had convinced Lockheed Martin to shave $600 million from the price of the latest batch of F-35s.
Lockheed Martin and their partners within the JPO had already stated the price would be lower, largely due to improved efficiencies in manufacturing.
On the surface, this seems like a great development for the American taxpayers, but any money “saved” now will end up costing far more in the future because we are buying a bunch of untested prototypes that will require extensive and expensive retrofits later. And this problem will only be compounded if Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office get their way and Congress approves a three year “block buy” of 400 F-35s before the program completes the testing and evaluation process.
The prices quoted in the press are usually based on the cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A — the least expensive of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is only an estimate of future costs, one that assumes everything will proceed perfectly for the F-35 from here on out — which is unlikely as the program enters its most technologically challenging test phase.
As this latest DOT&E report shows, the program has a long way to go before the F-35 will be ready for combat.
The Joint Program Office recently claimed that the price for an F-35A went below $100 million each in the FY 2016 contract. Yet in its FY 2016 legislation, Congress appropriated $119.6 million per F-35A.
Even this amount doesn’t tell the whole story — it only covers the procurement cost, not what it will cost to bring F-35As up to the latest approved configuration, nor the additional Military Construction costs to house and operate F-35As.
And of course, the $119.6 million price tag does not include any of the research and development costs to develop and test the F-35A. The 2016 production-only cost for the Marine Corps’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C is $166.4 million and $185.2 million per plane, respectively.
First, they don’t include how much it will cost to fix design flaws discovered in recent, current and future testing — a not insubstantial amount of money. Nor do they include the costs of planned modernization efforts, such as for Block 4 of the aircraft, which will be incorporated into all F-35As in the future. The Government Accountability Office estimates the program will spend at least $3 billion on the modernization effort in the next six years.
For example, modifications to fix just some of the problems identified up to now cost $426.7 million, according to the GAO. Each of these aircraft were already modified and they will require more in the future. The Air Force has already acknowledged it must retrofit all 108 of the F-35As delivered to it and in the operational fleet. These costs will continue to grow as known problems are fixed and new ones are discovered, and they are an integral part of the cost per airplane.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing — the development or laboratory testing — and into the critical combat (operational) testing period in the next few years, even more problems will be uncovered.
A good example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35. Upon closer inspection, they found that the insulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant. And, when the GAO estimated it would cost $426.7 million to fix some of the known problems in the F-35As already in depot, the coolant line insulation problem had not been discovered.
Fixes to this and other problems will all have to be devised, tested and implemented throughout the fleet of aircraft already produced and purchased.
Second, the incomplete unit cost estimates used by the JPO, Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon in general — their so called “flyaway” unit costs — do not include the purchase of support equipment (tools, computers for ALIS, simulators for training, initial spare parts, and more) needed to enable the F-35A fleet to operate. Quite literally, the DoD’s “flyaway” cost does not buy a system capable of flight operations.
The Pentagon has already committed to purchasing 346 F-35s since the program entered into what DoD euphemistically calls “Low Rate Initial Production.”
The 798 jets the services would have at the end of the block buy of about 450 from 2018 to 2021 would be nearly 33 percent of the total procurement … all before the program completes initial operational testing and has discovered what works as intended and what doesn’t.
It is important to note that the real problem-discovery process will only begin when operational testing starts in 2019, as scheduled, or more likely in 2020 or 2021 when operational representative aircraft are actually ready to be tested. The 108 aircraft the Air Force has begun to modify are only the tip of the iceberg, and that number does not include the hundreds of Marine Corps and Navy aircraft to be similarly modified.
Would the Block Buy be consistent with the “fly before you buy” approach to acquisition advocated by the administration, as well as with the rationale for the operational testing requirements specified in title 10, U.S. Code, or would it be considered a “full rate” decision before IOT&E is completed and reported to Congress, not consistent with the law?
Federal law allows multiple-year contracts to purchase government property so long as certain criteria have been met. Congress typically authorizes most weapons buying programs on a year-by-year basis to ensure proper oversight of the program and to maintain incentives for the contractor to satisfactorily perform.
According to Title 10 U.S.C., Section 2306b, for a program to be eligible for multiyear procurement, the contract must promote national security, should result in substantial savings, have little chance of being reduced, and have a stable design. The F-35 seems to be failing at least two of the first three criteria and is most certainly failing the fourth.
An essential part of the question about F-35 costs is whether it makes sense to buy a large block of aircraft and worry about the costs to fix their yet-to-be-discovered problems later. It is certainly a good way to add to the cost but hide it in the interim.And there still remains the cost of actually operating the F-35 fleet. DoD has estimated that all training and operational operations over the 50-year life of the program — assuming a 30-year life for each aircraft — will be $1 trillion, making the cost to buy and operate the F-35 at least $1.4 trillion.
The cost just to operate the F-35 is so high because the aircraft is so complex compared to other aircraft. Based on the Air Force’s own numbers, in FY 2016 each F-35 flew an average of 163 hours at $44,026 per flying hour.
For comparison purposes, in the same year, each F-16 in the fleet flew an average of 258 hours at $20,398 per flying hour. A-10s flew 358 hours on average at $17,227 per hour. While these hours have never been independently audited, and it is it is impossible to know if they are complete, the available data indicates that the F-35 is more than twice as expensive to fly as the aircraft it is to replace.
One of the more significant ways the Pentagon is hiding the true costs of the F-35 is that it has put off until Block 4 the development and delivery of many key capabilities that should have been delivered in Block 3. Currently planned, but not included in the official cost estimate of the F-35 — or even as a complete separate acquisition program — is a four-part Block 4 upgrade costing at least $3 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In addition, DOT&E reports that there are “17 documented failures to meet specification requirements for which the program acknowledges and intends to seek contract specification changes in order to close out SDD [System Development and Demonstration].”
That means there are 17 key combat capabilities the F-35 program can’t yet deliver and that the program office is attempting to give Lockheed Martin a pass on delivery until the later in the advanced development process.
Although no one has publicly stated which 17 combat capabilities won’t be included now, they were all functions the F-35 was supposed to have, and for which the American people are paying full price. So we will be paying more money in the future to upgrade F-35s purchased now so they can perform the functions we already paid for.
The $119.6 million unit cost for the F-35A in 2016 is a gross underestimate, and the additional costs will not be fully known for years. Those who pretend the cost in 2016 is somewhere below $100 million each are simply deceiving the public.Combat effectiveness at risk
In every first-rate air force, turning out superior fighter pilots requires them to fly at least 30 hours a month to hone and improve their combat skills. Here lies the single largest cause of the F-35’s lack of combat effectiveness: because of the plane’s unprecedented complexity and the corresponding reliability and maintenance burdens, pilots simply cannot fly them often enough to get enough real flying hours to develop the combat skills they need.
Pilot skills atrophy if the pilots can’t get enough flight hours. Even with superior technology, less skilled pilots could be outmatched in the sky by highly trained pilots flying less sophisticated aircraft.
Inadequate flight time also creates a dangerous safety situation that threatens pilots’ lives in training. The Marine Corps suffered nine serious aircraft crashes in the past year, with 14 people killed. The Corps’ top aviator recently said the spike in crashes is mainly due to pilots not having enough flying hours.
This trend will worsen with the F-35. Given its inherent complexity and the associated cost, it is highly unlikely the F-35 will ever be able to fly often enough to turn out winning pilots.A crew chief prepares an F-35A for launch during Red Flag 17–1 on Feb. 7, 2017. U.S. Air Force photoCan the F-35 be where it’s needed, when It’s needed?
Even if, and this is a big IF, the F-35 could perform in combat the way Lockheed Martin says it can — to say nothing of how a competent replacement for the F-16, A-10 and F-18 should perform — the program is still next to worthless if the jets can’t be where they need to be when they are needed.
Several factors contribute to the difficulty in deploying an F-35 squadron in a timely fashion. One is the F-35’s mission planning system, a part of the ALIS network. After the details of a combat mission — such as targets, predicted enemy radar locations, the routes to be flown and weapon load — are worked out, the data needs to be programed into the aircraft. This information is loaded onto cartridges which are then plugged into the jet.
F-35 pilots program these cartridges on the Offboard Mission Support (OMS) system.
The problem, DOT&E found, was that pilots consistently rated the system used to support mission planning “cumbersome, unusable, and inadequate for operational use.” They report that the time it takes to build the mission plan files is so long that it disrupts the planning cycle for missions with more than just one aircraft.This means that when several F-35s receive a mission, they can’t go through all the pre-flight processes fast enough to launch on time if anything but a huge amount of planning time is allotted.
The Air Force conducted a major test of the F-35 program when it conducted a deployment demonstration from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho in February and March 2016. This was the service’s first attempt to use an updated version of the ALIS — the ground-based computer system that is supposed to diagnose mechanical problems, order and track replacement parts, and guide maintenance crews through repairs.
Whenever a squadron deploys, it must establish an ALIS hub wherever the F-35 is deployed. Crews set up an ALIS Standard Operating Unit (SOU), which consists of several cases of computer equipment. Technicians will use these to set up a small mainframe which must then be plugged into the world-wide ALIS network.
It took several days for the crews to get ALIS working on the local base network. After extensive troubleshooting, IT personnel figured out they had to change several settings on Internet Explorer so ALIS users could log into the system. This included lowering security settings, which DOT&E noted with commendable understatement was “an action that may not be compatible with required cybersecurity and network protection standards.”
The ALIS data must go wherever a squadron goes. Crews must transfer the data from the squadron’s main ALIS computers at the home station to the deployed ALIS SOU before the aircraft are permitted to fly missions. This process took three days during the Mountain Home deployment. This was faster than in earlier demonstrations, but Lockheed Martin provided eight extra ALIS administrators for the exercise.
It is unclear if the contractor or the Air Force will include this level of support in future deployments. When the squadron redeployed back to Edwards at the end of the exercise, it took administrators four days to transfer all the data back to the main ALIS computer. Delays of this kind will limit the F-35’s ability to rapidly deploy in times of crisis.Even if the jets can be positioned in enough time to respond to a crisis, problems like lengthy uploading times could keep them on the ground when they are needed in the sky. An aircraft immobilized on the ground is a target, not an asset.
Another time-consuming process involves adding new aircraft to each ALIS standard operating unit. Every time an F-35 is moved from one base to another where ALIS is already up, it must be inducted into that system. It takes 24 hours. Thus, when an F-35 deploys to a new base, an entire day is lost as the data is processed. And only one plane at a time can upload.
If an entire squadron, typically 12 aircraft, needed to be inducted, the entire process would take nearly two weeks, forcing a commander to slowly roll out his F-35 aircraft into combat.
There have also been delays with the program’s critical mission software. As mentioned before, the F-35 requires expansive mission data loads (MDLs) for the aircraft’s sensors and mission systems to function properly. MDLs, in part, include information about enemy and friendly radar systems. They send the search parameters for the jet’s sensors to allow them to properly identify threats. These need to be updated to include the latest information. They are also specific for each major geographic region.
The MDLs are all programmed at the U.S. Reprogramming Lab at Florida’s Eglin AFB and then sent out to all the relevant squadrons. The lab is one of the most crucial components in the entire F-35 program. According to DOT&E, the lab must be capable of “rapidly creating, testing and optimizing MDLs, and verifying their functionality under stressing conditions representative of real-world scenarios, to ensure the proper functioning of F-35 mission systems and the aircraft’s operational effectiveness in both combat and the IOT&E of the F-35 with Block 3F.”
Officials identified critical deficiencies with management of this lab in 2012. Taxpayers spent $45 million between 2013 and 2016 to address these concerns. Despite the warnings and the extra funds, development of the lab continues to be plagued with mismanagement that prevents “efficient creating, testing, and optimization of the MDLs for operational aircraft” in the current basic combat configurations.
The lab needs to be upgraded to support each software version being used on the F-35. The lab is currently configured to support the block 2B and 3i software versions. The first full combat capable software version for the F-35 will be Block 3F. The lab requires significant changes to support this version, which will be necessary for combat testing and, more importantly, full combat readiness.
The lab is so far behind that some of the necessary equipment hasn’t even been purchased yet. For example, this facility is also dependent on the specialized radio frequency generators mentioned earlier to re-create the kind of signals a potential adversary might use against the F-35. The lab will use these to test the MDLs before they are sent out to be loaded on the fleet aircraft to ensure the jet’s sensors will identify them properly.
In the rush to a pretend initial operational capability, the Air Force and the Marines have actually created an aircraft completely unready to face the enemy.An avionics specialist inspects an F-35A before takeoff in Idaho. U.S. Air Force photoF-35 reliability problems
Even if an F-35 squadron can get to where it is needed, when it is needed, what good is it if it can’t then fly on missions? This is one of the most enduring problems of the F-35 program.
The fleet has had a notoriously poor reliability track record — it failed to achieve many of its interim reliability goals, and continued to do so through 2016. As the program creeps towards the all-important operational test phase, there are real concerns the aircraft will not be able to fly often enough to meet the testing schedule. There are also concerns about how often the jets will be able to fly when called up for combat service.
“Availability” measures how often aircraft are on hand to perform at least one assigned mission. The services strive to maintain an 80 percent availability rate for their aircraft for sustained combat operations, as most aircraft achieved, for example, in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991. This is the same rate the testing fleet needs in order to meet the IOT&E schedules.
So far, the F-35 program has not even been able to meet its interim goal of 60 percent availability.
The fleet averaged a 52 percent availability rate for FY 2016. This is an improvement over recent years, but DOT&E cautions “the growth was neither steady nor continuous.” And the growth curve is behind schedule. The aircraft that will be used for operational testing need to be kitted out with specialized instruments to measure performance. There are currently 17 of these jets stationed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. The average availability rate of this test fleet was 48 percent in the first nine months of 2016.
There are several factors dragging down the availability rate for the F-35 fleet. Many of the aircraft have had to be sent back to the depots for major overhauls, a consequence of the program’s high concurrency level. For instance, 15 F-35As needed to be sent back to correct the manufacturing defect where the foam insulation inside the jet’s fuel tanks deteriorated casting debris into the fuel.
Other overhauls were necessary because there were basic design faults including major structural components that did not meet lifespan requirements, while still others were “driven by the continuing improvement of the design of combat capabilities that were known to be lacking when the aircraft were first built.”
Even when the aircraft aren’t away for major overhauls, they aren’t flying very much. Of the aircraft that are available, they can be broken down into two categories: the Mission Capable and Fully Mission Capable. Mission Capable aircraft are those that are ready to conduct at least one type of mission, even if it’s only a training mission; Fully Mission Capable aircraft are those ready to conduct all missions the aircraft is declared to be capable of. The latter is the real measure of a combat-ready aircraft.
The availability rates of both the Mission Capable and Fully Mission Capable F-35s went down in the last year. The Mission Capable rate for the fleet was 62 percent in FY 2016, down from 65 percent in FY 2015 [DG3]. The Fully Mission Capable rate was only 29 percent, compared to 46 percent the year before.
The Gilmore report cites failures of major combat systems like the Distributed Aperture System, Electronic Warfare System, Electro-Optical Targeting System, and the radar as the highest drivers of the drop in capability rates. Significantly, the systems said to give the F-35 its unique combat capabilities are the very systems that keep the F-35 on the ground — demonstrating no capability whatsoever.
On average, the Air Force’s F-35s could only fly two sorties a week in 2016 according to the recently released annual operational cost chart. By comparison, the F-16 averaged nearly three sorties per week and the A-10 fleet averaged nearly four. And the F-35 requires a great deal of maintenance to achieve even that.
While there have been public statements in official releases saying how easy it is for maintenance personnel to work on the jets, the DOT&E report paints a different picture.
Problems with the supply chain are already forcing maintainers to cannibalize planes; taking parts from one plane to install on another in order to ensure at least one will fly. Cannibalization has the effect of increasing the total time to make the repairs, as it adds the extra step of stripping the part from the donor jet rather than just taking a new or repaired part out of the box. It also requires the part to be installed twice: first in the repaired jet and then in the cannibalized jet.
For FY 2016, maintainers had to cannibalize parts for nearly one in 10 sorties flown, which is short of the program’s unimpressive goal of no more than eight cannibalization actions in every 100 sorties.
The problems with supplies are likely to lessen as production increases, but fundamental design issues will endure. A prime example is the unique maintenance requirements inherent to the F-35’s stealth coatings. It takes much longer to make some repairs to stealth aircraft because it takes time to remove low-observable materials, fix what is broken and then repair the stealth skin.
These repairs often involve using adhesives that require time to chemically cure. Some of these materials can take as long as 168 hours — a full week — to completely dry.Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program’s executive officer, speaks at AVALON 2017. U.S. Air Force photoOfficials hiding truth about F-35’s problems and delays from taxpayers
When Lockheed Martin first won the contract 17 years ago, the F-35 was expected to begin operational testing in 2008. Once they failed to meet that, 2017 was supposed to be the big year for the start of the combat testing process. We now know that this process will almost certainly be delayed until 2019 … and possibly 2020.
The first page of the DOT&E report lists 13 major unresolved problems with the F-35 that will prevent the program from proceeding to combat testing in August 2017. But you wouldn’t know any of that from the public comments made by officials in charge of the program.
During testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee in February, officials neglected to raise any of these issues with Congress even though the DOT&E report had been released less than a month earlier.
The scale of the challenge yet remaining with the F-35 is easily quantified in this year’s DOT&E analysis. According to the report, the F-35 still has 276 “Critical to Correct” deficiencies — these must be fixed before the development process ends because they could “lead to operational mission failures during IOT&E or combat.”
Of the 276, 72 were listed as “priority 1,” which are service-critical flaws that would prevent the services from fielding the jets until they are fixed.
Much has already been made about the F-35’s shortcomings in combat, yet structural problems still remain with the basic airframe. An example of this is a failure of an attachment joint between the jet’s vertical tail and the airframe. This has been a persistent problem, as the shortcoming was discovered in the original design.
Engineers discovered premature wear in a bushing used to reinforce the joint during early structural tests in 2010. The joint was redesigned and incorporated in new aircraft in 2014. In September 2016, inspectors discovered the redesigned joint had failed after only 250 hours of flight testing — far short of the 8,000 lifetime hours specified in the JSF contract.
Testing of the F-35’s mission systems continued falling behind schedule in 2016. Program managers identify and budget for baseline test points, or “discrete measurements of performance under specific flight test conditions.”
These are used to determine whether the system is meeting the contract specifications. Testing teams also add non-baseline test points for various reasons to fully evaluate the entire system. Examples include adding test points to prepare for the later, more complicated tests, to re-test the system after software updates to make sure the new software didn’t alter earlier results, or “discovery test points,” which are added to identify the root cause of a problem found during other testing.
The program budgeted for 3,578 test points for the F-35’s mission systems for 2016. The test teams weren’t able to accomplish them all, finishing 3,041 while also adding 250 non-budgeted test points through the year.
Despite the slipping schedule, the F-35 program office has expressed a desire to skip many needed test points and to instead rely on testing data from previous flights — where the test aircraft used earlier software versions — as proof the upgraded system software works. But DOT&E warns that the newer software versions likely perform differently, rendering the earlier results moot. Program managers essentially want to declare the developmental testing process over and move on to operational testing, even though they haven’t finished all the necessary steps.
This is a highly risky move. DOT&E warns that following this plan“would likely result in failures in IOT&E causing the need for additional follow-on operational testing, and, most importantly, deliver Block 3F to the field with severe shortfalls in capability — capability that the Department must have if the F-35 is ever needed in combat against current threats.”
The program office appears to be dragging its feet with regards to testing many of the capabilities that supposedly make the F-35 so indispensable.
One example is how long it has taken to develop the Verification Simulator (VSim). Lockheed Martin engineers had been tasked in 2001 with creating the VSim facility, which was intended to be an ultra-realistic, thoroughly test-validated “man-in-the-loop, mission systems software in-the-loop simulation developed to meet the operational test requirements for Block 3F IOT&E.”
That is, it was meant to test in virtual reality those complex and rigorous scenarios that are impossible or too dangerous to test in real life, short of actual war.
The contractors fell so far behind construction schedule that the JPO abandoned VSim in 2015. Instead, Naval Air Systems Command was tasked with building a government-run Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) to perform VSim’s mission. The contractors are supposed to provide aircraft and sensor models, but so far “negotiations for the F-35 models have not yet been successful.”
This is preventing the program from designing the virtual world where the F-35 and enemy aircraft and defenses interact as they would in the real world, causing further delays.
The F-35 cannot be fully tested without a properly prepared JSE. The simulation has to be designed based on real-world data gathered during flight tests or the simulation would only test what the contractor says the jet can do.
For example, a real F-35 has to fly over a test range where the same radar systems our enemies use are active so that it can gather data about how the jet’s onboard sensors react. This data is used to verify the simulation software. It is a highly complicated process that takes time. As DOT&E reports, “Previous efforts of this magnitude have taken several years, so it is unlikely that NAVAIR will complete the project as planned in time to support IOT&E.”
The program is also formulating plans to reduce the number of testing personnel and test aircraft just when the program needs them the most. These plans would see the number of test aircraft cut in half from 18 to nine and testing workforce reduced from 1,768 to 600.
Gilmore reported shortly after the Air Force IOC declaration that the program will not be able to produce enough F-35s in the necessary final configuration to proceed with operational testing.
“Due to the lengthy program delays and discoveries during developmental testing, extensive modifications are required to bring the OT aircraft, which were wired during assembly to accommodate flight test instrumentation, into the production representative configuration required,” the report states.
It goes on to say that more than 155 modifications have to made to the 23 planes specifically tasked for the upcoming combat (“operational”) testing and that some of these have not even been contracted yet, meaning that the start of IOT&E will be further delayed.Not only has the Joint Program Office failed to follow the operational testing plan it agreed to, it has failed to fund and test the equipment essential to conduct the tests. This includes no funding for flight-testing the Data Acquisition Recording and Telemetry pod, an instrument mounted to the F-35 that is used to simulate the aircraft’s weapons.
This is essential for reporting and analyzing the results of each simulated weapons firing. There can be no such tests until the pod is cleared for function and safety in conditions that the plane will fly during the engagement and weapons testing.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Pentagon and the contractors will continue to ignore the unpleasant information about the F-35’s performance in testing and the seemingly unending delays and instead attempt to create a false impression in the minds of the American people and their policymakers.
In the recent exchanges between President Trump and the Pentagon, it appears no one directed the president’s attention to anyone other than Gen. Bogdan at the JPO. It is apparent he has not spoken with anyone critical of the program, like Gilmore. If he had, based on the results of this report, it is difficult to see how anyone could honestly say the F-35 is “fantastic.”A Marine F-35 pilot. U.S. Marine Corps photoMoving forward
The DOT&E’s latest report is yet more proof that the F-35 program will continue to be a massive drain on time and resources for years to come, and will provide our armed forces with a second-rate combat aircraft less able to perform its missions than the “legacy” aircraft it is meant to replace. The men and women who take to the skies to defend the nation deserve something better.
Despite the conventional wisdom in Washington, the services do not have to be stuck with the F-35. Other options do exist.
1. To fill the near-term hole in our air-to-air forces, start a program to refurbish and upgrade all available F-16As and F-18s with life-extended airframes and the much higher thrust F-110-GE-132 (F-16) and F-404-GE-402 (F-18) engines. Upgrade their electronic systems with more capable off-the-shelf electronic systems.
This will give us fighters that are significantly more effective in air-to-air combat than either the later F-16 and F-18 models or the F-35. Add airframes from the boneyard if needed to augment the force. Most importantly, bring pilot training hours up to the minimum acceptable level of 30 hours per month, in part with money saved by not purchasing underdeveloped F-35s now.
2. To fill the far more serious near-term hole in close air support forces, complete the rewinging of the 100 A-10s the Air Force has refused to rewing and then expand the inadequate existing force of only 272 A-10s by refurbishing/rewinging every available A-10 in the boneyard to A-10C standards.
3. Immediately undertake three new competitive prototype flyoff programs to design and build a more lethal and more survivable close air support plane to replace the A-10, and to design and build two different air-to-air fighters that are smaller and more combat-effective than F-16s, F-22s and F-18s. Test them all against competent enemies equipped with radar missile and stealth countermeasures.
These programs should follow the model of the Lightweight Fighter and A-X Programs in the 1970s, particularly in regard to live-fire, realistic-scenario competitive flyoff tests. These programs resulted in the F-16 and the A-10, two indisputably highly effective aircraft that were each less expensive than the preferred Pentagon alternatives at the time. And they became operational after testing in less than 10 years, not more than 25.
4. At an absolute minimum, the F-35 test program already in place that both the JPO and Gilmore agreed to must be executed to understand, before further production, exactly what this aircraft can and cannot do competently. That means suspending further F-35 production until those tests are complete and honestly reported to the Secretary of Defense, the President and Congress.Conclusion
The F-35 program office has reached a crucial decision point. Bold action is required now to salvage something from the national disaster that is the Joint Strike Fighter.
The administration should continue the review of the F-35 program. But officials should not just talk to the generals and executives as they have no incentive to tell the hard truth because they have a vested financial interest in making sure the program survives — regardless of capability.
As this report shows, they are not telling the whole story. There are many more people lower down the food chain with other points of view. They are the ones possessing the real story. And, as the above suggestions show, there are still options.
It is not too late to make significant changes to the program, as its defenders like to claim.
Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight, where this article originally appeared.
by DAVE MAJUMDAR
While the U.S. Air Force’s OA-X program is once again coming to the fore as an alternative to using high-end jet fighters against poorly armed insurgents, the idea is not a new one.
While the last iteration of the concept came in 2008, in earlier years the U.S. Army led the charge to field a new light attack aircraft under the Low Cost Battlefield Attack Aircraft program, or LCBAA.
Though the program never reached fruition due to political infighting between elements within the Army and the Air Force, legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan build the Scaled Model 151 Agile Responsive Effective Supports, or ARES demonstrator, for the effort using his own money.
“A design study was performed by Rutan Aircraft Factory in 1981 for such an aircraft. Its mission goals were low-altitude, close air support, with long endurance, and with adequate field performance to operate from roads,” as Scaled Composites— now owned by Northrop Grumman — notes on its website. “Scaled followed up with the concept, and ultimately decided to build a demonstrator aircraft with internal funds. The ARES first flew on February 19, 1990.”
The Ares was a highly innovative design that eschewed high technology for the sake of simplicity and maintainability — not to mention cost. The light jet was built around a Pratt & Whitney JT15D turbofan that provides 2,950 pounds of thrust and is armed with a five-barrel, 25-millimeter General Electric GAU-12/U rotary cannon.ARES. Scales Composites photo
One of the unique features of the aircraft is that the engine and the inlet are offset eight degrees to port while the fuselage is offset to starboard of the wing centerline. The reason for the odd configuration is to ensure that exhaust gasses from the GAU-12/U are not ingested into engine. The unique feature also helps to cancel some of the recoil from the gun.
“During November of 1991, tests of the GAU-12/U gun system installed in ARES were performed, with outstanding results,” Scaled notes on its website.
Rutan designed the canard configuration aircraft to be easy to fly even without complex fly-by-wire controls. Indeed, the Ares’ flight control systems were completely mechanical and the jet even had a backup mechanical fuel controls for the JT15D engine. “ARES has flown more than 250 hours, and demonstrated all of its design performance and handling qualities goals, including departure-free handling at full aft stick,” Scaled states.
Nor did the jet’s lightweight and simple construction detract from survivability. It was extremely agile — with turn rate of 36 degrees per second at 7G — and it boasted armored fuel tanks. Indeed, the rugged aircraft proved almost ideal for its stated mission goals of “low-altitude, close air support, with long endurance, and with adequate field performance to operate from roads.”
But what happened? The answer is that internal politics within the Army and the Air Force killed the program.
LCBAA was the brainchild of Army aviators Jim Kreutz and Milo Burroughs for what was then the Army’s High Technology Test Bed at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the blessing of the service’s then Chief of Staff, Gen. Shy Meyers. For a time, the program enjoyed the support of legendary Air Force Col. John Boyd and Chuck Spinney — who was one of his disciples.
But the program fell apart after Meyers’ retirement as the effort faced stiff resistance from the Air Force — which jealously guarded its prerogative to operate all land-based fixed wing tactical aircraft as stipulated by the so-called Key West Agreement of 1948.
Both Boyd and Spinney were considered radical elements in the Air Force hierarchy.
Meanwhile, elements within the Army — fearing that the LCBAA threatened the Hughes AH-64A Apache helicopter gunship program — also worked to torpedo the Ares project. Ultimately, they succeeded — the Ares never completed development or entered production.
The sole Ares demonstrator continues to fly as a research aircraft. It even appeared in a movie as the secret Nazi-era Me-263 jet in the atrocity that was Iron Eagle III.
Burt Rutan’s Light Attack Plane Was Too Radical for the U.S. Military was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
by MATTHEW GAULT
For the past decade, unmanned aerial vehicles have been a cornerstone of America’s campaign against Islamic insurgents in the Greater Middle East. Predator and Reaper drones crisscross the globe firing Hellfire missiles. Other countries have operational drone fleets, but few match the might and ubiquity of America’s.
But journalists on the front lines in Iraq have seen a disturbing new trend — Islamic State using retail quadcopters to drop their own munitions with surprising accuracy. Mosul is the front line in the fight against ISIS as well as the front line in a new arms race. One that pits the tiny drones of the Islamic State against the budding anti-drone technology of the West.
To be clear, Islamic State’s retail quadcopters dropping grenades and manufactured missiles is nothing compared to the power of a Predator firing off Hellfire missiles with pinpoint accuracy. But that’s cold comfort to an Iraqi soldier killed by a handmade explosive dropped from above over the streets of Mosul.
This week on War College, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Kesling walks us through the drones of Islamic State. He’s just back from the fighting in Mosul and saw his share of quadcopters as well as the innovative solutions coalition and Iraqi forces are using to fight against them.https://medium.com/media/3be6602f7c73f48f2c1fa4c777ed6577/href
by PATRICK BURKE
As you walk through Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore City’s most violent neighborhood, the years of socio-economic degradation are readily apparent.
In violent areas of Chicago, such as the Austin neighborhood, the main thoroughfares are littered with liquor stores and boarded up buildings, but the residential areas are generally well-kept and the architecture is quite beautiful.
This is not the case in Sandtown-Winchester. It seems that at least half of the homes on every street have boarded-up or broken windows, soot marks from fires and even giant unexplained holes in the brick.
The structure below is across from a children’s playground.Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore. Patrick Burke photos
Sandtown-Winchester is also the neighborhood where Freddy Grey was arrested before dying in police custody in April 2015.
A series of murals devoted to the protests in late April 2015 after Grey’s funeral now line the route where he ran from police.
While standing amongst the murals and rows of dismal buildings as residents of Sandtown-Winchester described their relationship with the police and the government as one of “oppression” and “occupation,” it was hardly surprising that most call the events of that April the “Baltimore Uprising.”
The experience caused me to think of a line from the manifesto of the dominant gang in Sandtown-Winchester — “Conditions of oppression lead to revolution.”Murals in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore. At bottom right, a mural marks the spot where Freddy Grey was arrested. Patrick Burke photos
This line was written by Eric Brown, the former leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, and his fellow prison inmates in a manifesto known as The Black Book. The manifesto, which explicitly borrows from Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory, lays out the steps for “Black Nationalists” to “build for our people a nation, independently structured that has nothing to do with the American government.”
Released in 2008, the book prescribes reforming the BGF from a semi-criminal organization to a fully “Black Nationalist” separatist movement by indoctrinating its members into the mindset of pursuing political and economic independence, rather than self-enrichment.
“Once these stages are taken,” the manifesto states, “you began the transformation of the criminal mind into a revolutionary mind, into a socio-politically conscious rebel (Guerrilla) to the level of a bona fide Guerrilla. An organization can only be produced by an organized mind, and where there’s no organized mind, there can be no organization.”
The next step in the BGF’s revolution, according to the group’s manifesto, is to spread its ideology amongst black people in America through example and education.
But the unprecedented violence that erupted in Sandtown-Winchester following the uprising seems to indicate that the BGF has failed to become a cohesive “Black Nationalist” organization — and has failed to spread its ideology to the masses.
However, this can only be the case if the main theory for why shootings and homicides spiked throughout Baltimore is true — that the Baltimore Police Department greatly reduced proactive police work following the indictment of the officers who transported Grey, which in turn opened up a space for predatory criminal opportunists to act freely.
If this “opportunistic” theory is true, then the BGF could be seen as closer to a predatory criminal gang than as “vanguards of the community” in the midst of organizing a “Black Nationalist” revolution.
Alternatively, the rise in violence could be explained as a form of self-governance by the BGF in Sandtown-Winchester — albeit an unideal one. In short, the absence of policing, as well as the emotion of “revolution” propagated by the Uprising itself, may have led many in the BGF to believe they could police and govern their neighborhood as they saw fit.
A 2015 Justice Department report investigating the national uptick in violence raises the possibility of such an explanation.
The report found evidence that a pattern of decreases in police activity helps explain the rise in violence across the country, but then poses a more nuanced explanation.
“When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect, they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands,” the report states. “Interpersonal disputes are settled informally and often violently. Honor codes develop that encourage people to respond with violence to threats and disrespect.”
In other words, when policing decreases suddenly, current governing institutions become illegitimate, and the community begins to develop its own governing structures.
The report adds that such a sudden shift in views of governing institutions is especially likely to occur in disadvantaged black communities where preexisting views about the illegitimacy of police and government are brought to the fore by high-profile killings of black citizens and subsequent drops in policing.
The Justice Department admitted that its report could not directly test this theory because doing so requires detailed analysis of a relatively small area where local residents could provide information.
However, Sandtown-Winchester is a good case study to test both the Justice Department’s “revolutionary / self-governance” theory, as well as the more popularly held “opportunist” theory of criminal self-enrichment. This is because the neighborhood has the highest numbers of shootings and homicides in Baltimore city, and this violence has risen to unprecedented levels since May 2015.
In addition, Sandtown-Winchester has been deeply influenced by the BGF’s ideological and criminal activities.Baltimore police. Elvert Barnes photo via FlickrOpportunists or revolutionaries?
Looking at data from the BPD on arrests, shootings and homicides in Sandtown-Winchester, there is a strong indication that a significant drop in policing led to the spike in violence.
Before the Uprising, between January 2013 and April 2015, the monthly average for shootings/homicides stood at one, while 68 people were arrested on average per month. Between May 2015 and the present, shootings and homicides rose to a monthly average of four, and the arrest average decreased by 47 percent. This is a substantial spike in violence and drop in arrests considering the neighborhood holds only 9,000 residents.
It is true that the number of arrests in Sandtown-Winchester began to drop in 2014 after the BPD made it its strategy to decrease arrests of individuals for possessing low amounts of drugs — instead going after more significant dealers and illegal firearms.
However, had the monthly average of arrests in Sandtown-Winchester continued on the same trajectory as prior to the Uprising, the monthly average for the next six months should have been 27 percent higher.
There were in fact drops in arrests over the several years prior to the Uprising. However, the 54 percent drop in average arrests from April to May 2015 was 30 percent greater than any month-to-month decrease during a similar season prior to the Uprising.
In fact, when looking at the months with similar weather to May 2015, the closest number of arrests prior to the Uprising was 58 in June 2014. May 2015 saw only 26 arrests. In other words, the low numbers of arrests in May 2015 in Sandtown-Winchester was unprecedented and very likely part of an intentional strategy by local BPD officers.
Interestingly, shootings and homicides would have been 50 percent lower in the six months following the Uprising had they stayed on their prior trajectory. Still, the numbers given so far are merely descriptive, and do not allow any real inferences to be made.
Regression analysis shows strong and significant evidence that drops in arrests in Sandtown-Winchester caused an increase in shootings and homicides, and vice-versa. In fact, when types of arrests are separated — i.e., weapons violations, narcotics and other — using multiple regression analysis, decreases in narcotics arrests have the strongest effect on the increase in shootings/homicides.
These numbers provide fairly convincing evidence for the “opportunism” theory. But they can’t tell the whole story.An excerpt on Cambone and Ben from the Black Guerrilla Family ‘Black Book.’Cambone and Ben
The Black Book itself shows that pursuing criminal enterprise is not necessarily antithetical to the BGF’s vision of how to bring about a Black Nationalist revolution. This is most evident in a chapter titled “Cambone or Ben?”
The definitions of these two words are so contentious that the chapter consists of essays from multiple leaders within the BGF on how they view they define “Cambone” and “Ben,” and what role each plays in the revolution.
It’s clear that “Cambone” is the political and educational wing of the BGF movement. Cambone is the means of indoctrinating recruits, and spreading the BGF’s ideology to the masses.
The definition and role of “Ben” seems more contentious, however. One leader of BGF, Rainbow Williams, states that “Ben” was introduced to BGF’s movement by one of its leaders in California in the 1970s and 1980s named James H. “Doc” Holiday, “due to the fact that…the organization needed some finances to push [BGF’s] vision as a political organization. Doc came up with ways to build the economics of [BGF] and used the criminal mentality to do so.”
Referring to “Cambone” and “Ben,” Williams goes on to say “we need both of them to be successful in the revolution.”
Other leaders of BGF, however, explicitly reject the need for criminal activity to form the economic structure of the BGF.
It seems that some BGF leaders believe that the black community can attain economic autonomy by establishing black-owned businesses, and ensuring that black residents solely patronize them.
The implication here is that, like many insurgencies throughout history, the BGF will tax these businesses in order to support the revolution. In fact, Eric Brown spends much of The Black Book denouncing the drug trade, even calling it “chemical warfare” against the black community.
Still, the federal conviction in 2011 of Brown, Rainbow and several other BGF members on drug charges, among other criminal activities, point to a different reality. I asked Kelvin Parker, a community outreach specialist at the Kids Safe Zone and former independent drug dealer and inmate in the Maryland system, to help explain this contradiction.Kelvin Parker walks past Gilmore Homes in Sandtown-Winchester where he grew up. Patrick Burke photo
Parker had two stretches in prison from 2007 to 2009 and again from 2011 to 2013 for assault with a deadly weapon and carrying drugs. He is well respected by many in the BGF, and knew Brown, his predecessor Tevon White and many other BGF leaders personally.
In fact, Parker even shared a cell with one of the “Original 7” men that brought the BGF to Maryland from California in the ’90s — a man by the name of “Benji.”
Parker was recruited several times, including by Benji, but chose to maintain his independence. Through his work, Parker still maintains regular contact with BGF members.
Parker said that Brown was aware of the contradiction between drug dealing and The Black Book, but simply accepted that participating in the drug economy is just “a part of having that seat, that power.”
Parker clarified that Brown accepted that there really was no other way for the BGF to gain funding, especially due to the reality that most of its leadership resides in Maryland’s prisons and jails.
Still, neither the chapter covering Ben nor any other part of The Black Book explicitly talks about the role of violence in achieving the BGF’s revolution. This is confounding since participating in the drug trade almost inherently requires violence.
The means by which BGF gained territory in the streets of Baltimore and increased its power in the Maryland prison system and jail indicates that violence is also seen as a necessary part of the revolution. Interestingly, the group’s rise also indicates a partial acceptance of the BGF’s ideology by the community — at least at one time.The Metropolitan Transition Center, center, and infirmary at left in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo via Google MapsCreative destruction
The BGF began its rise to prominence in a flash of violence.
In 2007, a member of the Bloods organization stabbed a Muslim inmate at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, according to Parker and his co-worker Akai Alston, who was once in an informal neighborhood gang and spent time in prison from 2011-2016 for being an accessory to a murder. Like Parker, Alston denied offers to join the BGF while in prison, and still maintains contact with BGF members.
The stabbing precipitated a massive prison fight in which the Bloods were overwhelmed by a mix of BGF and Muslim attackers. However, Parker and Alston contend that the stabbing was simply a pretext. Most in the prison were tired of the Bloods robbing, extorting and beating up other inmates, which was alluded to in news reports on the incident.
Following the fight, the BGF tipped the balance of power in the Maryland prison system to the point where Eric Brown issued a “No Bloods Order.” This led to a massive drop in membership in the Bloods gang. Many became Muslims, switched to the BGF or were killed, according to Parker, Alston and Robert Wolfe, a current member of the Bloods.
A year later, the “No Bloods Order” tipped the balance of power in the prison system even further in favor of the BGF by eroding the Bloods’ ability to compete for resources — including lucrative contraband — and recruits in the prison system, according to Wolfe.
This increase in power caused Brown to seek to expand his reach into the streets in 2008. According to Kelvin and Alston, the expansion began in Perkins Homes in east Baltimore, mainly because Brown’s family resided there.
As Kelvin and Alston tell it, the community welcomed the BGF’s revolutionary ideology. The Bloods had previously been in control of Perkins, and were deeply unpopular in the local community due to members preying on the residents.
Alston remembers Bloods robbing and beating innocent people for no reason, and groups of Bloods would drive around killing individuals for wearing the wrong colors. He said “You gotta understand when the Bloods came, the level of terror that they would inject into these neighborhoods; either you was going to be with them or against them, and a lot chose to rebel.”
Wolfe denies that such criminal actions were rampant among the Bloods, and says those who committed indiscriminate violence against innocents did not truly represent the Blood’s ideology as “vanguards of the community.”
However, later in our conversation Wolfe described his main function in the Bloods as “gangbanging,” meaning attacking individuals for wearing rival gang colors — although he has not participated in such activities for over a decade. Further, a federal indictment of several prominent Bloods around this period provide stronger evidence for Alston’s story.
The Bloods’ unpopularity made them a soft target for the BGF’s attractive ideology. And by 2008, the Bloods’ ability to physically resist a takeover was greatly reduced due to a fracturing of the organization after much of its leadership was caught up in the federal RICO case mentioned above.
The BGF, by contrast, at this time were well organized and initially conveyed to the community in Perkins that they would be “vanguards of the community.” The dissemination of The Black Book throughout Baltimore in 2008 helped to spread the BGF’s “Black Nationalist” revolutionary message. Even a few prominent individuals in Baltimore’s black community openly endorsed The Black Book.
In fact, the dissemination of the BGF’s ideology led many in Perkins to help the BGF eradicate remaining Bloods by providing information on their whereabouts through text messaging and phone calls, according to Parker.
As BGF members were released from prison over the next several years, high ranking individuals began to establish their own “regimes” across Baltimore city, including Sandtown-Winchester. The “regimes” met regularly to coordinate their activities. For example, Rainbow Williams set up a meeting of over 100 BGF members in Druid Hill Park in 2009, according to a federal indictment.
Had the violence following the 2015 Uprising occurred at this point in the history of the BGF, it would lend a great deal of weight to the “revolutionary” theory.
This is because, in the period between 2008 and about 2011, the BGF functioned as a fairly cohesive organization, and thus the use of violence could largely be seen as a means towards carrying out its revolution.
Although drug dealing dominated the economic wing of the BGF at this point, recruits were required to go through rigorous ideological training on The Black Book, including on the necessity of “Ben.” Potential recruits in the prisons would even have “graded tests” on the BGF’s ideology.
But by 2015, the BGF was an extraordinarily fractured organization with many non-ideological members simply using their positions as a means of self-enrichment.
How and why did this fracturing occur? The answer to these questions provides strong evidence that the violence after the Uprising is in fact “opportunistic.”A U.S. Marshal in Baltimore, Maryland. U.S. Marshals Service photoFrom grievance to greed
While the BGF began to extend its reach across Baltimore, federal agents and prosecutors were brought in by the BPD to build a RICO case against the BGF. As stated above, in 2009 Brown, Rainbow Williams and other leaders were indicted “for conspiracy to distribute drugs and gun violations.”
The effects of this indictment were immediate. Parker and Alston said that after the indictment, separate “regimes” of the BGF stopped meeting. Parker added that the prison leadership was no longer able to coordinate once it became known that law enforcement was listening in on Nation of Islam meetings — which are supposed to be private.
The void in leadership and inability to coordinate precipitated a fracturing of the BGF. Without guidance, and with only self-enrichment in mind, BGF members who held sufficient rank would take in recruits without any real ideological training or previous history.
Parker described the decrease in recruitment quality using an analogy to the business world. “When you expand out you’re not going to have the same quality,” he said. “Or you’re going to have to hire staff that doesn’t have the same vision for your business.”
One former member of the BGF, who spent nearly a decade in the gang, verified this claim. The source, who requested anonymity, described the mode of operation of their particular “regime” as basically a predatory criminal gang, robbing, fighting and selling drugs, with no ideological commitment to the revolution in mind.
When asked why the leader of the BGF could not bring his members back on to the revolutionary path, the source simply replied — “Because he has no power.”
Ish’mael Washington, 50, a longtime resident of Sandtown-Wichester, concurred. “They don’t understand the structure or organization of what gangs are really meant for,” Washington said. “What you do in your community is a reflection of who you are. And if you are continually causing harm in your community then your gang membership should be revoked because you not doing what you supposed to do. Anything you accumulate your supposed to put back into your community, into your area.”
He went on to say, “And you don’t see that. It’s like almost everyone in the city are J, which is BGF. And how can everyone be BGF in this city, and every time you turn around there’s a murder of one of their own.”
This fracturing among the BGF regimes also took place in Maryland’s prisons and jails. Around 2011 Tavon White took control of the BGF’s most lucrative operation, the city jail, after Eric Brown and many in the BGF leadership were indicted.
Alston, who was in jail when White took over, described White as a predator who only cared about self-enrichment. Alston said that his leadership — or lack thereof — caused the BGF to morph from a somewhat ideological organization into a predatory one that robbed and extorted other inmates, and physically abused resisters.
Parker added: “Yeah, it was anarchy.”
Alston said the “anarchy” caused many in the Maryland system to hold personal vendettas against members of the BGF long after they were freed.
“You know a lot of these dudes would come home with that stuff on they mind. Like you know, ‘that’s the nigga that did that to me like when I was in city jail. I’m going to get your ass,’” he added, “Because you can’t get them in the jail. They like 150 deep. They surround you. But when you outside and see these dudes it’s a different story.”
Parker added, “You know the favorite term in city jail [is]: ‘You know, Baltimore is a small place, I’ll see you again.’”
As White took over the jail, the BPD and federal investigators began building another RICO case against the BGF. This RICO case resulted in White turning state’s witness in December 2014, testifying against many of the BGF’s leadership.
According to Parker, many in the BGF began targeting those who worked directly under White, and led to further fracturing of the gang.
So, with a large and increasing number of individuals with vendettas against the BGF being released from prison, and an already fractured BGF now fighting internally over White’s testimony, the Uprising happened.
A few days later, after several officers were charged in the death of Freddy Grey, the police enacted a massive reduction in proactive policing.
The powder keg that was Sandtown-Winchester, having been filled since 2011, was set off.
According to Kelvin, Alston and other residents, those with vendettas carried out shootings and homicides of BGF members. Comrades of slain and wounded BGF then retaliated. And with the arrest rate in Sandtown-Winchester remaining at an all-time low, the tit-for-tat killings continue to spread across Sandtown-Winchester, like cancer cells multiplying at an exponential rate.
This violence seems to be anything but revolutionary. It’s opportunistic and personal.
Unfortunately, without any hierarchy to control the reciprocal killings, and with proactive police work remaining at an all-time low, it’s difficult to see how the violence ends.
I asked Parker if any of this would have happened had the BGF not fractured. He said, the BGF “wouldn’t have been oppressing the people,” referring to both inmates and civilians on the outside.
“So there wouldn’t have been a need for retribution if the higher-ups that are in place now would stick to the original goal of the organization and what it was formed for,” Parker added. “It would be no need for a feeling that we have to rebel or get back at these guys. Because they wouldn’t be doing the shit that they do.”
“They’re like sharks.”
A Gang Broke Apart, Then Baltimore Homicides Spiked was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
by BRIAN E. FRYDENBORG
Before Donald Trump was president or a candidate, and when he was hurting for investors as Wall Street had all but shut down loaning operations to him, his businesses established extensive ties to Russian oligarchs, including some allegedly affiliated with organized crime.
At the same time, associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government and future associates of Trump — most notably Paul Manafort, his future campaign chairman — were allegedly involved in a massive Eurasian natural gas and money laundering scheme worth billions of dollars, and part of Putin’s grand plan to control Ukraine.
At best, Trump may have had no knowledge of this scheme and these ties, but even this scenario highlights serious deficiencies in Trump’s judgment in terms of who he did business and politics with — and it is of urgent interest to the American people as Trump manages the nation as president.
While there is no direct proof of Trump’s knowing involvement or collusion in any single aspect of these dealings, the sheer number of them over a period of years and his close association with a number of key players, combined with his public statements as a presidential candidate, create a picture that stinks to high heaven and makes it more likely — not less — that something nefarious is going on between Team Trump and Team Putin.
We may never know exactly what happened or exactly who is responsible or exactly what Trump was and wasn’t aware of, but, despite ludicrous claims to the contrary, this has nothing to do with the media or with irresponsible speculation.With so many questionable people, actions and circumstances, the only sane and responsible course forward is to continue to vigorously demand more answers to the questions Trump and his associates have raised because of their actions, especially since their accounts of these events and people keep shifting as more and more evidence comes to light.
After all, contrary to American civil criminal law, in the court of public opinion, the burden on a sitting president with so many questionable connections is for him to shed light on his dealings and to clear any hint of suspicion if he wants to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Time to go over what we do know, and what that information — when put together and given proper context — makes clear and what it suggests.
To begin to understand the big picture, let’s go back to 2004.
In 2004, Carter Page — later a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser — moved to Moscow to set up a branch for the New York investment firm Merrill Lynch. His bio on the website of Global Energy Capital LLC, which Page founded and where he is currently a managing partner, states that “[h]e spent 3 years in Moscow where he was responsible for the opening of the Merrill office and was an advisor on key transactions for Gazprom, RAO UES and others.”
As Page was setting up shop in Moscow, future Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort began running Victor Yanukovych’s political life.
Yanukovych is a notorious, scandal-ridden Ukrainian politician who first attracted global attention during the 2004 Ukrainian elections. Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president during these elections, had appointed Yanukovych as his prime minister in 2002 and had backed him as a pro-Russian — and pro-Putin — candidate to succeed him in 2004.
Kuchna’s support extended to trying to rig the election for Yanukovych, which sparked the Orange Revolution that, in turn, led to victory for the more pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who had almost been killed by a mysterious poisoning incident.
Yanukovych had already developed a reputation for extreme corruption by this time, but that did not stop Manafort from running Yanukovych’s 2004 campaign. Despite the loss, Manafort stuck around and was hired to take charge of both rehabilitating the disgraced Yanukovych and strategizing for his political party, the Party of Regions.
This type of work was hardly out of the ordinary for Manafort, and his client list over the years has included dictators such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Somalia’s Siad Barre, Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi. Other clients included Jonas Savimbi of the Angolan guerrilla group UNITA, and the Kashmiri American Council, a front group for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
Interestingly enough, the Associated Press recently published a bombshell of a story in which it was revealed that Manafort proposed in 2005 — through a formal memo, no less — a massive lobbying effort designed to discreetly promote Putin, the Russian government and their agenda while undermining their critics, with efforts concentrated in the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics.
Manafort sent the proposal to Oleg Deripaska, a fabulously wealthy Russian oligarch with ties to Russian organized crime who has a very close, generally good — if not always great — relationship with Putin and who was then working with Manafort to promote Russian interests in Montenegro.
Under the terms Manafort proposed, a contract was agreed upon in 2006 and lasted until at least 2009, one in which Manafort was paid $10 million a year and used a Delaware shell company — LOAV Ltd. — to conduct official business and transactions. AP obtained numerous documents, memos, and wire transfer records to corroborate its story.
In 2014, Deripaska and Manafort had a dramatic falling out, resulting in a $19 million Cayman Islands court battle related to their alleged efforts to launder money for Yanukovych and his allies, but not before the aforementioned working relationship was well established.
The AP story broke just hours before CNN would report that FBI officials have information describing how “associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
The AP soon after reported that U.S. Treasury officials are investigating Manafort’s offshore financial dealings. If these interactions seem dramatic, Manafort’s machinations involving Ukraine are even more so.Paul Manafort on July 24, 2016. C-SPAN screep captureDirty gas money
Court documents allege that Manafort first became acquainted with Yanukovych in 2003, a time when he also began cozying up to Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs allied with Yanukovych and Putin.
Throughout the rest of the decade, Manafort entered into a variety of shady business deals with some of these oligarchs and others, deals that generally seemed to have some ulterior motive in advancing Putin’s agenda in the background.
In particular, around the same time he began interacting with Yanukovych, Manafort befriended Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch, natural gas businessman and Putin ally, according to court documents.
Firtash, featured in the Panama Papers revelations, had been the main middleman bringing in both Russian and Central Asian natural gas to Ukraine since 2002 and was linked to Semion Mogilevich, the essential head, or “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia. Mogilevich is also a friend of Putin’s and was one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitives from 2009–2015.
In mid-2004, Putin and outgoing Ukrainian president Kuchma created a Swiss-registered company called RosUkrEnergo [RUE] to replace the company represented by Firtash that handled Ukraine’s Russian-related natural gas imports.
The imports ostensibly came from Turkmenistan, but also involved shady deals that seemed mostly orchestrated and subsidized by Gazprom dominated by Putin allies. Additionally, the gas traveled through pipes wholly owned by Gazprom that went mostly through Russian territory.
But not much changed with RUE in that Firtash ended up owning 45 percent of the new company, a stake that is partially a front for Mogilevich to control the company. Gazprom owned 50 percent of RUE, making clear the incestuous nature of the entire arrangement.But there was a bigger picture, a greater purpose, to all these machinations than just Gazprom dominance of the region’s gas industry, and the specifics of the deal make the following scheme quite easy to understand.
Gazprom would basically sell billions of dollars of gas to Firtash through RUE at a steal of a price. Next, Firtash would sell billions of dollars of gas at hiked-up prices to Ukraine, with the profits directed to funding pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Finally, Putin’s allies in the financial industry would open up lines of credit for Firtash in the billions of dollars so he could buy key Ukrainian assets and multiply his influence further.
It’s no coincidence that this scam came into being not long after Yanukovych’s defeat at the hands of a more pro-Western candidate. Unsurprisingly, some of the disputes between Ukraine and Russia involved fighting over gas deals. This all culminated in January 2006 when Russia shut its gas flow into Ukraine and therefore into much of Europe as well, which received the vast majority of its gas from pipes passing through Ukrainian territory.
After the shutoff, Firtash and his allies rearranged their business.
First, RUE became the exclusive and direct supplier of all natural gas coming from Central Asia and Russia, and, along with Gazprom and Gazexport — a subsidiary — it would sell to Ukrainian industrial customers via a joint venture with Naftogaz Ukrainy, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company.
The new joint venture was called UkrGazEnergo, and would sell gas to Naftogaz to distribute among Ukrainian households and municipalities.
But there was another key factor in the deal: RAO UES — Russia’s state-owned power company — would buy and import Ukrainian-generated electricity into European Russia, with the Ukrainian government providing that energy from the gas that RUE was being paid by Ukraine to import from Turkmenistan. And again, RUE would act as the intermediary.
One of the reasons for this confusing complexity is that at each stage along the way there was the possibility of marking up or down the price when it suited the purposes of those who set up the system in the first place.
Naturally, this overall deal was so unpopular with Ukrainians — who felt cheated at getting sold gas at hiked-up prices by entities with little supervision and with opportunities for massive corruption — that Ukraine’s parliament voted against the deal, albeit it ended up being a nonbinding vote and the agreement went ahead anyway.
This arrangement would last from 2006 through early 2009, when another dispute derailed it.Carter Page in February 2017. PBS NewsHour screen capturePage-Manafort connection
Which brings us back to Carter Page. It is important here to note that Page’s tenure at Merrill Lynch was from 2004–2007, and the only two companies his aforementioned current bio mentions in relation to this tenure are Gazprom and RAO EUS, claiming that he was an adviser on “key transactions” of theirs.
It is hard to imagine transactions more “key” than those involving natural gas being transported from Central Asia and Russia to Ukraine and Europe, the creation of RUE, and RAO’s subsequent deal with Ukraine.
If Page is telling the truth about his role, then it is virtually inconceivable — considering that he advised both Gazprom and RAO and the way they would be tied together starting in 2006 — that he would not be aware of what was going on.
And after all, as someone with a Ph.D. and an MBA and a graduate the U.S. Naval Academy, Page would certainly have been aware of the geopolitics of these deals, and that they went against American interests at a time when Ukraine was trying to escape the stranglehold of the Kremlin.
However, Julia Ioffe’s profile of Page raises important questions about whether Page is exaggerating his role, and her story is filled with anecdotes from people knowledgeable about these types of deals who had never heard of Page — and people who did know of him suggested he was a nobody.
Maybe Page deliberately kept a low profile. Without a more formal investigation, it is impossible to know what the full picture is. Even if Page exaggerated his role, if he was still talking to people at both Gazprom and RAO at this time — even if his discussions interactions may have been more informal than formal — it is certainly a realistic possibility that he still knew a lot and performed an advisory role, one that was perhaps unknown by his colleagues at Merrill.
Finally, if he knew what was going on and was involved, there is certainly a possibility of interest being piqued if he came to know that Manafort — another American — was involved on the other side of these deals, with the same being the case with Manafort. Interest on either side could have led to either one making contact with the other, which may have led to some sort of coordination.
This is admittedly speculative, but a real possibility nonetheless, and is certainly not one bit less speculative than an enormous portion of the mainstream media discussion and reporting on both the e-mail/server situation with Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
The question of a possible Manafort and Page link, and the fact that they were involved on one level or another in the massive Eurasian gas scheme, deserve more official scrutiny and need to be answered through a formal investigation, because it is clear that those in question have no intention of sharing the truth.Yulia Tymoshenko in June 2008. European People’s Party photoManafort and Putin’s allies prep Yanukovych’s comeback
As for the dispute that derailed the 2006 gas deal, the foundations were laid with the unpopular deal itself.
In 2007, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and gas tycoon in her own right and a co-leader of the Orange Revolution, rose to become prime minister again. It was clear that she was on a mission to drive out Russian domination of the whole gas system and push against Russian influence in Ukraine overall.
This meant taking on Firtash, Mogilevich and the Russian mafia, and RUE.
Tymoshenko’s first step was to get rid of UkrGazEnergo, run by RUE and Naftogaz, but then Tymoshenko set her sights on taking RUE and Firtash — and thus Mogilevich and the Russian mobsters — out of the loop, which lead to a series of hostile exchanges between Russia and Ukraine.
In October 2008, Tymoshenko finally worked out a deal with Putin to remove RUE from Ukrainian gas deals, but they were subsequently unable to agree on pricing, leading to Russia to again shut off gas going into Ukraine, and by extension, most of Europe, for almost three weeks in January.
But on Jan. 19, 2009, a long-term, 10-year agreement was reached, and only a few days later normal flows were restored, much to the relief of not only Ukraine, but also Europe, as it was the middle of winter. Additionally, the parties agreed to take future disputes to arbitration in an international commercial dispute court in Stockholm, Sweden.
If it seemed the players of Team Putin gave up too easily on having RUE taken out of the game, they had other plans in motion to counter Tymoshenko’s effort to limit Russian influence in Ukrainian politics.Manafort linked to possible money laundering during crackdown
Even before Putin agreed to let Tymoshenko shut down RUE, his agents — including Firtash, Mogilevich and Yanukovych (the latter with Manafort acting as his right-hand man) — were already putting in place plans to go around and escape her efforts.
Some of these involved setting up a U.S. investment fund initially capitalized with $100 million. Firtash paid Manafort and Rick Gates — who had joined Manafort’s efforts as part of his consulting firm in 2006 — $1.5 million to handle the money. The main purpose of the fund was to allegedly act as a conduit to launder money from the Firtash gas dealings that were being scrutinized by the Tymoshenko government.
Among the various deals Firtash and Manafort went into was one in 2008 for $895 million for the site of the famous Drake Hotel on Park Avenue in New York, with Firtash wiring $25 million toward the project to make it look legitimate, and a further $25 million was later laundered through the project, according to a U.S. court indictment.
But rather than move forward and apply the money to the project, the Drake property was never actually purchased.
The deal, like their other deals, never closed and eventually fell through after many third parties had spent a lot of time and money trying to close it out and after many employees were not paid, but not before Manafort, Firtash, Mogilevich, Yanukovych and their allies were able to keep substantial funds away from the prying eyes of Tymoshenko and Ukrainian authorities during crucial periods of her time as prime minister.
Unfortunately for Firtash, Mogilevich and their backers, natural gas is not something that can be laundered. In early 2009, Tymoshenko orchestrated a seizure by Ukraine’s own state-run Naftogaz —allowed under the agreement she made with Putin — of 11 billion cubic meters of gas from RUE’s gas stockpiles, a quantity worth billions of dollars at the time.
Tymoshenko had effectively cut out the middlemen who had been hiking up prices and using those profits to poison and pollute Ukrainian politics.
Playing a longer-term game, Firtash initiated a lengthy arbitration process through Stockholm.
Other planted crops were already bearing fruit. Unfortunately for Tymoshenko, though she had risen to be prime minister late in 2007, in that election and even in the prior 2006 parliamentary elections, Manafort had built Yanukovych’s Party of Regions into a political force that campaigned with modern, highly effective techniques and tactics.
In both elections, the Party of Regions ended up having the most seats in parliament of any single party by significant margins, but ended up being in the opposition because of alliances made between Tymoshenko’s bloc and other parties.
Of course, Manafort and the Party of Regions were operating with a gigantic advantage — the enormous amount of money flowing from the massive Eurasian gas scam.
All this meant that Yanukovych’s opposition was certainly within striking distance of taking over the government, and that even by 2006 Manafort and the gas scheme had already achieved great success in rehabilitating Yanukovych and his party.
The distance would close in 2010.Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2011. Kremlin photoThe downfall of Tymoshenko
Early in 2010, Yanukovych won the presidential race, defeating Tymoshenko in a runoff election, the culmination of over five years of work with Manafort and the whole gas scheme crew. Not long after, Tymoshenko lost her position as prime minister in a vote of no-confidence.
Meanwhile, in the wake of his victory, Yanukovych worked to undo many of the Orange Revolution reforms, curbing democratic freedoms in areas ranging from the courts to the press. Most notably, in December 2010, Tymoshenko was retroactively charged with abusing her power during her stint as prime minister, and, after a widely condemned politically-motivated show trial, was sentenced to prison in October 2011.
Paul Manafort and Rick Gates actually lobbied American lawmakers on behalf of Yanukovych’s government from 2012–2014, defending the imprisonment of Tymoshenko and trying to discredit her, as well as trying to improve the image of their client and his government. They did this without disclosing their lobbying activities as required by U.S. law.
Incidentally, these efforts were paid in part by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest man for the last eight years, a client of Manafort’s since his earliest days in Ukraine, and for whom Manafort helped arrange a meeting with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.
Manafort and Akhmetov utilized the services of two Washington, D.C. lobbying firms, including Podesta Group Inc., run by the brother of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and later victim of Russian-government hacking and WikiLeaks disclosures.The day after this information was made public in mid-August 2016, Manafort resigned from his role as the chairman of the Trump campaign. As for Gates, it was unclear at the time if he had stayed on board or left and the Trump campaign refused to clarify the matter.
Lobbying efforts throughout the Yanukovych period were also hardly limited to Manafort and Gates, with those efforts having for years been tied to prominent Republicans in the United States.
Perhaps most prominent among the lobbyists, former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole — for whom Manafort had been a strategist — was paid more than half a million to lobby for Deripaska, who was then, and is still, denied a U.S. visa for his links to the Russian mafia.
Yuri Bokyo, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and a close Yanukovych ally, and a former minister of several energy-related sections of Ukraine’s government — and was heavily involved in setting up the Eurasian gas scheme — paid nearly $100,000 to a Washington lobbyist to meet with top Republicans.
Barbour Griffith & Rogers, co-founded by the former Republican governor of Mississippi and influential GOP insider Haley Barbour, was also paid more than $800,000 for lobbying efforts by a lawyer who “structured” the legal aspects of the Eurasian gas deal.
Though Mogilevich had been on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, he strangely enough has been able to retain the lawyerly services of William Sessions, a Republican who was the FBI director from 1987–1993, to lobby on Mogilevich’s behalf for deals with the U.S. government to clear his charges.
Those talks, which failed, were arranged by Neil Livingston, a prominent consultant whose firm, GlobalOptions, serviced many Russian and former-Soviet-republic-businessmen. GlobalOptions was introduced by Barbour Griffith & Rogers to a shell company called Highrock Holdings used by none other than Firtash as a prominent vehicle for money laundering in the Eurasian gas scheme.
Highrock paid GlobalOptions for at least two projects, one a mysterious “special operation” as named in a subsequent lawsuit for an unnamed member of the Ukrainian government. And just to give one example of Firtash’s European outreach, his relationship with several Conservative MPs in the United Kingdom may prompt an official investigation.
For his part in engineering Yanukovych’s comeback and Tymoshenko’s downfall, Firtash also got some $3 billion in gas assets returned to him that had been seized by Tymoshenko’s government as a result of proceedings at the arbitration court in Sweden.
Which was a logical move. Once Yanukovych was in power, Ukraine and Firtash essentially became the same party in the case, with Ukraine’s lawyers dropping opposition to Firtash’s attempts to recover the seized gas — and now quite happy to see $3 billion in gas go from the ownership of the Ukrainian people back to Firtash.
It was clear that Yanukovych’s government was willing to fight for the interests of Putin and Firtash, but not its own people. Without Ukraine’s representatives making any case whatsoever, the court simply sided with Firtash in June 2010.
Firtash also got his aforementioned credit lines from Putin’s bankers not long after Yanukovych’s victory, specifically some $11 billion in credit from a consortium of banks arranged by Gazprombank, the flagship banking arm of Gazprom.
Gazprombank would not disclose which other banks were part of this arrangement, but by itself it lent him $2.2 billion, the largest possible amount under Russian law and almost one-quarter of the bank’s total capital, making him Gazprombank’s single largest individual borrower.
Firtash used this cash to expand his holdings — especially in the chemical and fertilizer industries — and power in Ukraine, all while staying close to Yanukovych. These moves actually made him the fifth-biggest fertilizer maker in Europe and helped him establish relationships with politicians throughout the continent.
When reporters asked him where all the money came from to enable him to do all this, he coyly replied: “It’s a secret.”
From January 2011 on, Firtash was again buying Gazprom gas at a discount through shady international front companies, then selling that gas back at a far higher price to his new assets, to the tune of billions in questionable profits to his shell companies, in something of a return to the old system before Tymoshenko had rocked the boat.
But the spirited Tymoshenko was not content to only be on defense during this period. During her trial and from prison, she filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan in April 2011. In it she named Firtash, Manafort, Mogilevich, Yanukovych and their front companies as defendants, including initially RUE — although RUE was switched out to name the front companies that controlled it for Firtash and Mogilevich in later amended complaints.
The suit accused them of setting up a series of racketeering, fraud and money laundering enterprises in the United States designed to keep dirty gas money away from Ukrainian authorities when she was prime minister, and that such activities resulted in material harm for her since they contributed to the downfall of her government and her unjust trial and imprisonment.
After being rejected several times, a fourth and final version of the suit was rejected in September 2015. While not ruling out criminal wrongdoing on the part of the defendants, the judge ruled that the higher-than-average standards for convictions under the RICO statute were not met.
Still, in the longer ruling rejecting the third complaint, it was noted that “the Court accepts as true the allegation that some of the money that passed through the U.S. Enterprise was ‘funneled back to Ukraine’ — albeit by unidentified actors — and somehow used as ‘financing’ for Tymoshenko’s ‘persecution.’”Berkut riot police in Kiev during Euromaidan. Ivan Bandura photo via FlickrPutin allies expelled from Ukraine
Yes, after the 2010 election, everything was going perfectly in regards to Ukraine for Putin, Yanukovych, Manafort, Gates, Firtash, Mogilevich and their teams. But, as in 2004, there was one thing that they did not plan well for, and it was the same thing that confounded Soviet leaders for decades and led to the downfall of the USSR.
Many Ukrainians — especially younger ones — realized what was happening to their country, and were hopeful of better opportunities and a better future by having Ukraine orient itself more to the West, toward Europe and the United States. Yanukovych sought to placate these desires by courting a major trade deal with the European Union.
But in November 2013, protests erupted over Yanukovych’s about-face backing out of this long-desired E.U. trade deal in the face of a Russian counteroffer.
Protests erupted in a main square in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, which became known as the Euromaidan protests. After months of a tense situation, security forces shot and killed dozens of protesters on Feb. 20, 2014. In response to state violence, the protests swelled exponentially, fueled by mass public outrage at the bloodshed. By Feb. 22, the Ukrainian parliament had voted Yanukovych out of office.
Tymoshenko was freed from prison — in a wheelchair, recovering from what she said was physical abuse and ill-treatment at the hands of her guards and authorities — and Yanukovych fled the city. Soon, he would flee the country to Russia with the help of none other than Putin. Today, he is still wanted by Ukrainian authorities for the deaths of the protesters, but he hopes to one day return to Ukraine again as president, which he still contends he is legally.
Putin had overplayed his hand. His royal straight flush of an ace of natural gas, a king in Yanukovych, a queen in Firtash, a jack in Mogilevich, and a 10 in Manafort did not anticipate a wild-card joker in the form of Yanukovych’s allies fleeing him.
But Putin had invested a lot into Ukraine over many years — and into controlling its politics and energy sector through gas. Faced with his whole house of cards collapsing in on itself in the face of popular resistance, and with a government hostile to him, Putin went to Plan B — the dismemberment of Ukraine and war.
Firtash has fled Ukraine as well, and is also wanted by U.S. authorities for a separate racketeering and bribery scheme. He was living in a sort of exile in Austria, but just late last month, a U.S. extradition request based on bribery and corruption charges in a Chicago-based case was approved in Austrian court, though in a bizarre twist he was arrested mere minutes after the ruling by Austrian authorities on a Spanish warrant related to charges of money laundering and organized crime.
In light of ties to Manafort and the related implications for Trump’s presidency, the scandals and ensuing war in Ukraine, the connections to the Russian organized crime, and importance to Putin, this could be one of the most sensational and important internationally focused trials in many years.
And, not to be macabre, but it is highly doubtful that either Putin or the Russian mobsters will give Firtash the chance to prove his loyalty or show his disloyalty, as powerful men willing to orchestrate murder for far less have little reason to allow him to be tried and risk so much.
Meanwhile, Manafort and Gates made millions.
Hand-written records from the office of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions show the party had set aside payments totaling $12.7 million specifically for Manafort from 2007–2012 alone. Gates was also involved with Manafort in the $19 million Cayman Islands fiasco with Deripaska, who accused both of the other two of illegally bailing out on him.
The fate of that $19 million is still unknown. All of this is totally apart from the newly-revealed annual $10 million Manafort got from his Deripaska-brokered deal.
The culmination of their work for over a decade can be seen in the first war on European soil in two decades. And it was this resume which earned them spots on Trump’s campaign as he sought to become the leader of the free world and succeeded. For some time it even seemed Manafort had more influence on Trump than anyone whose last name was not Trump.
Less is known about Gates and his role, but after he was brought onto the Trump campaign by Manafort, he was important enough to be trusted with the vetting of Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech, a task at which he famously failed.
It was not clear what Gates’ status was once Manafort resigned, but reports have indicated he kept a low profile afterwards and acted a link between the Trump campaign and the RNC.
Once Trump won, Gates apparently planned Trump’s inauguration, and since then he was shipped off to a pro-Trump and strangely quiet-ish nonprofit called America First Priorities, where he stayed until the new reporting on Manafort’s pro-Putin proposal, after which it seems Gates was nudged out just days ago.
As for Page, it still isn’t even clear who brought him into the Trump campaign.
Julia Ioffe’s account of Page, the most exhaustive yet, illustrates how multiple answers have been given and none have been confirmed. What is known — and it isn’t much — is that he was one of only five foreign policy advisers Trump could actually name in a Washington Post interview from a year ago, suggesting his influence on Trump could be far from insignificant.
As his relationships with important Russian businessmen are being looked into by the U.S. government, to simply dismiss him as being a charade would be premature — especially in light of information on Page apparently meeting with Russian officials coming out of the partly-substantiated dossier from an ex-MI6 intelligence officer.
What is certain is that questions about Page’s role remain, questions which need to be answered, especially in light of his incredibly anti-American, pro-Kremlin views that could just as easily be coming from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or a “pundit” on RT and his continued investment in Gazprom.
This is part one of a two-part story. The second part will detail how Mogilevich simultaneously links the Eurasian gas scheme to multiple crooked Trump real estate deals.
Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelance writer and consultant based in Amman, Jordan. You can follow him on Twitter: @bfry1981. This is a condensed and edited version of the original story. The full version with expanded analysis is available here.
Trump Aides and Russian Mobsters Pulled Strings in Putin’s Massive Ukraine Gas Scheme was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
by PAUL IDDON
Israel’s Arrow missile defense system saw its combat debut in March 2017 when it shot down a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile, which was fired at Israeli fighter jets. The jets were returning home from an air strike inside Syria, reportedly targeting Syrian military positions in the country’s Homs province.
This strike possibly constitutes the deepest Israeli air mission into Syrian territory so far during the civil war.
“The next time the Syrians use their air defense system against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared following the incident.
For its part, the Syrian regime threatened to fire Scud ballistic missiles into Israel in retaliation for future strikes. This response, a Syrian government statement added, would target Israeli military bases were Israel to attack Syrian military targets, and Israeli civilian targets in retaliation for Israeli attacks which hit Syrian civilian targets.
“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” said Bashar Al Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Israel, he added, “will now think a million times before striking again.”
The latest Israeli strike and the exchange of threats are very serious, and the possibility of a military confrontation raises the question as to what Russia — which is friendly with both sides — could or would do. But whatever Russia does, it would stand to lose either way, which is why it has reacted to previous Israeli strikes hardly at all.
“Escalation of the confrontation between Syria and Israel would mean that Russia has limited influence on both actors,” Timur Akhmetov, an analyst who specializes on Russia’s Middle East foreign policy, told War Is Boring.
“Of course, it may damage Russia’s image in the region as a power that can keep order,” he said. “Any serious confrontations will make Russia face a serious decision — either increase its involvement in the Middle East and suffer inevitable casualties or renounce its plans of becoming a leading power in the region.”
Before the latest air strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iran’s presence in Syria. The Assad regime and Hezbollah are Tehran’s main allies in the Levant. The flow of Iranian troops and weapons into Syria have been vital to both sustaining Assad’s grip on power and turning the civil war’s momentum in the regime’s favor.
Israel vehemently opposes Iran establishing a second front along the Golan Heights or acquiring formidable Russian-made anti-air and anti-ship missiles from Syria’s arsenal — which is the primary reason Israel has launched intermittent raids into Syria since at least January 2013.Russian anti-aircraft missiles at its air base in Khmeimim, Syria. Russian Ministry of Defense photo
But Israel wants to stay out of Russia’s way, and the Kremlin seems to think it’s in its interest to do likewise. Immediately after the Russian military build-up in Syria in September 2015, Netanyahu visited Putin and established a “deconfliction” agreement to avoid clashes.
Russian warplanes breached Israeli airspace in the past but were not targeted, which is in stark contrast to how Turkey has dealt with unwanted aircraft. In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber which briefly strayed into Turkish skies, resulting in the death of the pilot who was killed by rebel ground fire while still in his parachute.
The shoot-down resulted in a tense seven-month-long estrangement between Moscow and Ankara.
But Israel’s latest Syrian air strike is the first time Russia has openly demanded an explanation from Israel — the air strikes in Homs reportedly impacted near Russian troops.
The Israeli government claimed the raid was part of its consistent policy of preventing any potential Hezbollah missile acquisitions. Russia has never attempted to directly hinder Israeli air strikes into Syria — although it could.
The Kremlin has deployed sophisticated, long-range S-400 air-defense missiles to Syria, which are well capable of threatening Israeli aircraft if Russia chooses to. Russian warplanes — including fighter jets — are in the air.
However, this doesn’t mean Putin has given Israel the green light to attack Syrian military targets. It’s possible he is willing to overlook them provided they do not fundamentally threaten Russia’s goal keeping Assad’s regime intact.
In November 2016, Russia convinced the Syrian government to stand down after it threatened to shoot down Turkish jets operating over northwest Syria, where the warplanes were providing air support to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation.
The Kremlin would likely attempt a similar move to deescalate any potential clashes between Israel and Syria. If it failed to do so this would gravely harm Russia’s image as a leading power and arbiter in the region, as Akhmetov pointed out.
“I think the Russians would pull back as much as possible in the event of a confrontation between Israel and Syria,” said Neil Hauer, an analyst focusing on Russian-Syrian relations at the Canadian intelligence firm SecDev.
“While Russia and Israel have problems in their relationship, Russia certainly does not want to torpedo relations by backing a reckless and counter-productive escalation by the Assad regime, which is what would likely spur such a conflict.”
“Israel has no real qualms with Russia’s presence in Syria and as such the two sides would likely be able to work out contingencies to avoid Russian casualties,” he added. “Russia and Iran have a tense relationship in Syria as they have different goals and resent each other’s influence, and I don’t see the Russians backing Assad/Iran/Hezbollah against Israel.”
Russia Has a Ton of Problems in Syria — Israeli Air Strikes Are Not One of Them was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
by DAVE MAJUMDAR
The U.S. Air Force is expected to hold demonstrations this summer to show off the capabilities of a new light attack aircraft the service might eventually purchase under a new OA-X program.
The Air Force had attempted to buy a light attack aircraft in 2008 under a previous iteration of the OA-X program, but ultimately that effort came to naught. The previous OA-X effort came at a time when the Air Force was fighting two counter-insurgency wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan, but political forces and bureaucratic inertia within the service carried the day.
How this latest iteration of the OA-X will fare is an open question — but undoubtedly there are those within the Air Force who will vigorously fight the purchase of any new tactical aircraft that isn’t the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Nonetheless, the Air Force is proceeding with its planned demonstration effort. The hope is that an operational OA-X would eventually free up more expensive fighter aircraft such as the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle or F-35 Lightning II for missions against more challenging foes.
“We want to see if there’s a business case there,” acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow said during a speech at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.
“This concept could free up higher-cost, higher-performance platforms from doing low-threat missions, which would allow us time to prepare for more complex threats with those assets. It could also help us absorb new pilots and be useful as we work with allies and partners.”
But at its core, the Air Force faces a dilemma between investing in expensive high-end multi-role combat aircraft or cheaper counter-insurgency — or COIN — machines that might not be useful outside of certain specific situations.Afghan A-29 Super Tucanos. U.S. Air Force photo
“The Air Force is torn,” Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group aerospace consultancy told The National Interest.
“On the one hand, it wants to be seen as helpful in the current Afghanistan and anti-ISIS conflicts, but on the other hand it doesn’t want to make a big investment in a fleet of planes that would have absolutely no relevance outside the current Afghanistan and anti-ISIS conflicts. COIN proponents tend to emphasize tactics over strategy; this is kind of the aeronautical equivalent of that tendency.”
Former Air Force B-52 pilot and air power analyst Mark Gunzinger at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said that this time around, the Air Force is likely serious about the OA-X.
The service desperately needs more aircraft to provide more flying hours for its pilots and a low-cost OA-X could be just the answer the Air Force is looking for.
“The Air Force has been clear it is pursuing a light attack aircraft — perhaps more than a single variant over time — that could support counter-insurgency operations in permissive environments as well as increase the number of cockpits available to season pilots at an affordable cost per flying hour,” Gunzinger told The National Interest.
“I think the latter point is too quickly dismissed by some critics of this initiative. The Air Force has a pilot shortfall that is projected to grow to over 700 in the next couple of years,” Gunzinger added. “Moreover, while the Air Force’s Combat Air Force has shrunk to 55 fighter squadrons and a handful of bomber squadrons, there are other critical positions that require pilots such as joint staffs, operational planning staffs, etc.”
“The Air Force is going to produce more pilots, but they will need cockpits for them — and a light attack aircraft with a two-pilot cockpit and a cost per flying hour of $4–5,000 could be a cost-effective alternative. Add to that the availability of several off-the-shelf (or nearly so) aircraft; this becomes an option the Congress could fund that would have a near-immediate impact on the Air Force’s readiness. There is also the potential for foreign military sales to allies and partners. So, this said, I think the initiative has a good chance of succeeding.”
Col. Michael Pietrucha — one of the originators of the 2008 OA-X concept — wrote in War on the Rocks that the demand for aircraft fighting counter-insurgency wars shows no sign of abating.
“We can no longer pretend that the demand for combat air power in irregular conflicts will end soon,” Pietrucha wrote.
“The re-emergence of great power competition does not automatically translate into a reduction of irregular threats. Faced with a problem set that will not go away and a fighter/attack fleet that has been ridden hard and put away wet, it makes perfect sense to add combat capability quickly, and it is entirely reasonable that that air power be designed for the conflicts we face today.”
“OA-X is intended to be an additive capability — not to replace any other element of the fighter/attack fleet,” Pietrucha added. “The Air Force is not trading away its ability to fight a peer adversary, but it is making sure that the forces necessary for a modern theater war are ready for that fight by not frittering the lifespans of our advanced legacy fighters away on tasks that could be done as well for far less cost.”
“The Air Force has done this before, and it has good reason to try again.”
Gunzinger agreed that the Air Force needs the OA-X. However — like Pietrucha — he noted that a light attack aircraft is not a substitute for a high-end warplane that can take on the most capable threats coming from Russia and China.
“Of course, I do not see a light attack aircraft as a weapon system that should take the place of current and planned 5th gen and eventually 6th gen combat aircraft,” Gunzinger said.
Ultimately, only time will tell if the Air Force ends up buying the OA-X.
Institutional forces within the service are strong, and only determined leadership from the chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein — and whomever the next secretary is — can push the OA-X through to fruition.
Is the U.S. Air Force Ready for a New Light Attack Aircraft? was originally published in War Is Boring on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.