Flight Path
24 Mar 2015|

Meanwhile, the competition in space has escalated.

In this week’s update, we review the aerial response to Cyclone Pam, drones in Syria and Europe, the potential for space war, Afghanistan’s close air support capability, and miniature air launched decoy jammers.

The destruction caused by Cyclone Pam, the category five cyclone that hit Vanuatu on 13 March affected over half the country’s population. As part of a $10 million relief contribution, Australia has launched Operation Pacific Assist, deploying aircraft for reconnaissance missions, transport of equipment from Australia and Port Vila, as well as helicopters for remote area access. While the RAAF KA350 King aircraft and AP-3C Orion are conducting reconnaissance missions for damage assessment, drones operated by media organisations have been useful in revealing the extent of the damage to the outside world (see footage here and here).

Over in the Middle East, drones have made headlines, with Syria shooting down an unarmed US Predator drone. While the AirForce Times suggests that US forces allowed the drone to stray into sensitive airspace, the White House—which has yet to publicly admit to the incident—warned that the Assad regime shouldn’t interfere with US efforts against ISIL. The fact that the drone was operated by the military’s European command has further complicated matters.

Turning to European unmanned platforms, the Netherlands, Italy, France and the UK already fly the US-built General Atomics Reaper, with the Germans considering a purchase. However, France, Germany and Italy announced they’ll launch studies for a European-designed and built medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV at the Paris Air Show in mid-June. The MALE agreement is currently seen as the first step to retaining industrial skills in aeronautics, intelligence gathering, and operational sovereignty, otherwise undermined by the US-regulated drone program. The study will also see Europe deliberate the difficult questions raised by armed drones.

Myanmar has denied responsibility for a bombing that killed five farmers in the Chinese province of Yunnan, stating that its air force never entered Chinese territory. A government spokesman said an ‘ethnic group’ was responsible for the attack, adding the insurgents may be attempting to ‘damage the relationship between Myanmar and China’.

Australia’s first F-35 pilot Squadron Leader Andrew Jackson took his first flight last Wednesday 17 March at the Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This comes as the F-35 begins development of a pod-mounted cyber-attack system. Over in Cameri, Italy, the first F-35A JSF was assembled outside of the main US plant. Italy is set to procure and build 90 F-35s for its own air force, as well as additional F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Italy will also provide maintenance, repair, and overhaul services for the F-35 air frame in Europe.

Meanwhile, the competition in space has escalated. Fears of Russian and Chinese attacks on US military satellites have pushed the Pentagon to spend US$5 billion on new initiatives to protect them. As US drones rely on satellites for navigation, communication and detection, their vulnerability hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for space policy Douglas Loverro said,

What we really want to do is let our adversaries know that space is not a good place to start a war…. But if it does, we’ll be ready for it.

Tensions in Crimea may be set to escalate. Last week marked a year since Russia annexed the territory. To mark the occasion, a Russian defence ministry source revealed last Tuesday that the country would deploy Tupolev nuclear-capable bomber jets to Crimea in a snap drill. It’s unclear when the drill will occur as no date was specified and no related activity has been reported since.

Over in Afghanistan, the first of 20 armed MD 530 helicopters for the Afghan Air Force have arrived in-country ahead of the 2015 ‘fighting season’. The MD 530s will operate alongside machine-gun-equipped Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ and machine gun and rocket-equipped Mi-35 ‘Hind’ helicopters, as well as the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, due at the end of 2015. The slow and incremental arrival of the helicopters does little to reduce the gap in close air support capability. In fact, writing for The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady predicts it will be another year before Afghan ground forces are able to call in indigenous close air support on a useful scale.

Finally, last Wednesday the USAF awarded Raytheon a US$91.6 million contract for Lot 8 production of the ADM-160C Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammers (MALD-J). The MALD-J system is designed to confuse enemy air-defence systems by mimicking the radar and flight signature of a manned fighter or bomber. It can also actively jam enemy air defences and loiter in the target area of an extended period of time (see Raytheon video). The MALD-J decoys have been integrated on the USAF’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and B-52 Stratofortress aircraft, as can be dropped from transport aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III.

Palmo Tenzin is an intern at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Dude of Lego.