Volkswagen Jumps on the V2V Bandwagon, Plans to Launch System in 2019

Your next car may not be able to drive itself, but it might be able to “talk” to other cars. Automakers like Cadillac are beginning to deploy vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) systems that allow cars to send information back and forth using a WiFi-like communications band.

Now, Volkswagen is jumping on that, err, bandwagon. VW will begin selling cars equipped for V2V beginning in 2019. Initially, they will warn drivers of traffic hazards like construction zones. But Volkswagen hopes to partner with governments and other companies to expand the use of this tech.

At launch, VW claims its system will have the capability to warn drivers of potentially hazardous traffic conditions or weather. Some examples include warning nearby drivers when a car makes an emergency stop, or using onboard sensors to detect black ice, then sending that information to other cars.

Eventually, Volkswagen hopes to partner with emergency services to allow its cars to tell drivers when an emergency vehicle is coming–even if it’s too far away to see. It also wants to connect cars with infrastructure like traffic lights. VW’s Audi luxury division demonstrated a system that used similar to tech to predict when lights go green last year.

Volkswagen’s V2V pitch echoes that of other automakers, but VW will also have to deal with the same issues those companies face in implementing V2V. Because it relies on a network of cars transmitting and receiving information, V2V only becomes effective when a large number of “talking” cars are deployed.

VW may try to address that by making V2V standard, although it will still take awhile to amass a significant number of V2V-equipped cars. Another major issue is the government and emergency-service partnerships Volkswagen discussed. It will have to develop a lot of them in order to ensure all V2V features are available in all areas.

Implementation of V2V is more an issue of coordination than technology. Getting the various stakeholders together will be a challenge, and if they don’t cooperate, V2V may never get off the ground. After all, what good is a “talking” car if no one is listening?

2018 Dodge Durango R/T Is Getting an SRT Appearance Package

The Dodge Durango SUV is getting a new snout on the R/T trim. With the introduction of the new SRT model which shares a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 with the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT comes an aggressive new appearance package. The SRT look includes a different front fascia, LED fog lights, and a particularly muscular three-vent hood that reminds us of the Hellcat hood. Dodge ditched the corporate crosshair grille in favor of a wide open mouth kind of like the one found on the higher trims of the Charger including the SRT models.

You won’t get the 475-horsepower 6.4-liter Hemi at this level, but the cool new SRT appearance package is now standard on the R/T. You can also get the SRT hood as an option on the lower GT trim. That means you can get the SRT hood on every available drivetrain of the Durango. In addition to the facelift, the newish Durango R/T will be available in B5 Blue which you may have seen on Chargers. Under the hood, you’ll have to settle for the 360 horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that’s shared with the Charger and Challenger R/T.

As for a full update on the Durango, we’re still waiting and not getting our hopes up for any major changes soon. The current third-gen Durango hasn’t changed much since its introduction in 2011 other than a facelift in 2014. No word on pricing yet for the 2018 Dodge Durango R/T, but the current one starts at $42,095. This would be a great way to turn heads and make people wonder if you drive an SRT without dropping the extra coin.

Legislators Want To Know Fate Of Navy’s Reserve F/A-18 Aggressor Squadrons

The U.S. Navy has already announced plans buy more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and upgrade others to a new, even more capable Block III configuration. Now Congress wants to know what the service plans to do about its oldest Hornets.

On June 26, 2017, the House Armed Services Committee released Chairman Mac Thornberry’s mark of the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Bill. In it, the Texas Republican pointed out his committee’s concern about the “health and readiness” of the U.S. Navy Reserve’s fleet of more than 30 aging F/A-18A+ Hornets and included language that would require the service to brief legislators on a plan of action no later than Dec. 1, 2017.

Here are the bulk of the comments:

The committee remains concerned over the health and readiness of the Navy Reserve combat air fleet. The committee is aware that the Navy Reserve tactical aviation squadrons provide critical adversary support and strike fighter weapons training to Active Duty forces, and must maintain a high mobilization readiness level as the sole strategic reserve available to the U.S. Navy. The committee understands the Navy Reserve currently operates 33 legacy F/A-18A+ aircraft that are currently shared between 2 squadrons. The committee notes that with an average airframe age of 30 years and onboard systems that are no longer compatible with today’s Carrier Air Wing, these aircraft are increasingly less capable than the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The committee believes this could impact the ability of these two Navy Reserve squadrons in meeting requirements for advanced strike employment, as well as simulating current advanced threat aircraft. The committee also believes these legacy F/A-18A+ aircraft need to be recapitalized with next generation capability in order to provide realistic threat representative training for naval aviators and to maintain operational readiness that provides a relevant and deployable backstop to the Active Duty air wings.

Fighter Composite Squadron One Two (VFC-12), situated at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, and Strike Fighter Squadron Two Zero Four (VFA-204), based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in Louisiana, are the two units in question. The version of the Hornet they fly is among the oldest anywhere in the U.S. military, having rolled off the production line in the 1980s. The “+” nomenclature refers to aircraft that had a faster scanning and generally more powerful AN/APG-73 radar instead of the original AN/APG-65, which required a modified nose section. The planes also had other more minor improvements. That upgrade project began in 1992.

One of VFC-12's F/A-18A+ aircraft.

As noted in Thornberry’s mark, the primary job of both of these squadrons is to provide fleet adversary support various training exercises. Most of VFC-12’s and VFA-204's aircraft even wear camouflage schemes similar to Russian fighter jets, along with small red stars and other markings, in order to complete their adversary look. VFA-204 has a secondary job of acting as a reserve force in times of crisis, proudly boasting in its annual histories, which the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, that it is “the Navy Reserve's only remaining Strike Fighter Squadron available for contingency deployment.” This means VFA-204 has to head to the boat for carrier qualifications from time to time.

Based on those historical records, here’s a year in the life of the New Orleans-based squadron. In 2015, detachments attended a total of 11 different training events worthy of mention in the annual chronology, taking place in Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Virginia. During these deployments, the reserve aviators prepared active duty units for deployment overseas, acted as the adversaries during other air-to-air exercises, and helped Joint Tactical Air Controllers call in mock air strikes. In addition, the pilots also participated in a live-fire exercise to keep their own skills up, firing a total of seven missiles of unspecified types – almost undoubtedly a combination of AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles, the aircraft’s main air-to-air weapons.

One of VFA-204's F/A-18A+ aircraft during carrier qualifications.

But as Thornberry explains in his mark, the F/A-18A+ in its present form simply cannot touch the performance of the Navy’s current Super Hornets. Without substantial improvements, the jets are even lacking in comparison to slightly newer legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets, which have, among other things, more powerful engines and improved avionics. This brings up questions about whether or not the jets are even still representative in training scenarios where they are supposed to mimic current and emergent threats.

And then there’s just the basic safety of the jets. In the past few years, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels have been literally flying their C/D models to pieces. The Marines, who have picked over aircraft in the Boneyard and at least one in a museum in desperate attempts to keep their legacy Hornet fleet ready, complain that roughly 70 percent of their Hornet force cannot fly at any given time. There is a real concern that without a substantial overhaul, the Navy Reserve planes may simply start falling out of the sky.

Of course, this isn’t a new issue, as both squadrons have been flying these jets for years now. A 2014 Naval Air Reserve Force briefing, which the author also obtained through FOIA, made it clear that without any plans to recapitalize the A+ model hornets, the squadrons would be at half strength by 2022 at the latest and their jets would be “all dead by 2028.” So, if the National Defense Authorization Bill passes into law with this language intact, it seems likely that the Navy would present at least three options to Congress to redress this issue.

The first and most obvious option would be to upgrade VFC-12 and VFA-204’s Hornets to the existing A++ configuration, which includes additional improvements that make the aircraft much closer in capability to the latest C/D models and which extends the aircraft’s service life out to 10,000 hours. According to the Navy’s own budget request for the 2018 fiscal year, the existing A++ jets have an average of more than 2,200 hours of service life remaining, while the older A+ versions generally have less than 300 hours left on their airframes.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet.

This limited upgrade, combined with existing Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) plans, would probably make the most fiscal sense, especially for two squadrons that do not regularly see active duty or combat. It may even make sense to refocus VFA-204 on the training mission entirely, joining the ranks of a number of heavily tasked dedicated aggressor squadrons in both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. There is a good argument to be made that continuing to train for emergency deployments, whether embarked on carriers or situated at forward land bases, is a distraction from units’ core proficiency.

However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest the Navy Reserve will push hard to replace the jets entirely with F/A-18E Super Hornets. This has been their preferred recapitalization plan since at least 2014. With the passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011 and mandatory caps to defense spending as part of a process known as sequestration, the Navy continually deferred on the matter. Instead, the request for 24 all new jets at a cost of more than $1.3 billion repeatedly ended up in unfunded requirement “wish lists” for National Guard and Reserve Equipment (NGRE).

Since lawmakers and the Trump Administration are now both advocating for significant increases in defense spending, both Congress and the Navy may be more inclined to consider this option. The service has already announced its intention to buy dozens more Super Hornets, and F/A-18E's would give these units the ability to represent emerging threats far better than their tired A+ Hornets. However, legislators may still not be convinced that spending more than a billion dollars to buy state-of-the-art jets for the reserve units is a good investment, especially considering the more pressing need of active duty squadrons still flying aging legacy C/D model Hornets.

The last option, of course, would be to shut down VFC-12 and VFA-204 entirely. Especially in light of the previous budget cuts, there had already been talk that this route might be the most fiscally responsible. However, the squadron leaderships in particular resisted this push, arguing that their adversary experience was irreplaceable. Without VFC-12 and VFA-204, and with the Air Force having trimmed its own similar specialized air-to-air aggressor units, the Pentagon would have to rely even more on private contractors to provide these services. The Navy Reserve would still retain two additional aggressor squadrons with the F-5N aircraft, along with the active duty Hornets and Vipers assigned to Topgun.

Getting the F/A-18E would be a major leap in capability for VFA-204 and VFC-12, including the introduction of a highly-capable AESA radar, more advanced avionics, including the latest data-links and a helmet-mounted sight. The E would also provide longer endurance, the ability to field an IRST and better reliability. Still, the F/A-18A+s are among the most nimble Hornets ever built, but the low-speed handling qualities of the Super Hornet would allow for better replication of advanced Flanker threat profiles .

But Congress deciding to take this route is really very unlikely. Both reserve units are heavily tasked with adversary support missions, and if anything the Navy needs more capacity in this realm, not less. Even the Marine Corps is looking to expand itt F-5E fleet and add turboprop aircraft just to attempt to stay on top of its organic aggressor support needs.

There’s still no guarantee this provision will make it into the final National Defense Authorization Act. If it does, Thornberry and his committee will have to decide whether it makes sense to get the Navy Reserve Hornet squadrons new or just upgraded planes – or if it makes sense in the end to keep them around at all.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

New Ferrari 488 Track Edition Could Feature Hybrid Powertrain

Buzz about the new Ferrari 488 variant has been steady since April, and now, we may have learned a bit of info before the boys at Maranello intended us to. After seeing the prototype whirl around the Nurburgring, YouTuber Automotive Mike captured the car in the flesh. After hearing rumors about a potential hybrid-propulsion system, we're interested in seeing what might come of the brand's dedicated concept.

According to the video's description, Mike and his crew spotted the 488 track special months prior in August, a case where he reportedly overheard Ferrari technicians talking about the car's Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). That equipment comes straight from racing, and it transfers wasted energy into more power for the car to utilize through electric motors.

This came after Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne said every car the company builds after 2019 will feature some sort of hybrid system, making for a collectively sound guess at what's to come.

As you can see in the video, this hotted-up Ferrari sports more intakes in the front and wider ones in the back. That should help keep the larger brakes and upgraded engine cool, a major focus when on-track.

Details are scarce, but we know that something is in the shadows of Ferrari's skunkworks. It's not unlikely that the car could reach over 700 horsepower, and according to Autocar, it could hit sixty miles per hour in just 2.7 seconds. If it can manage to lose weight while picking up the rumored hybrid system, the revised model could become the automaker's most capable car yet.

Blueye Robotics Is Pioneering the Underwater Drone

While drones are increasingly affordable, they’re also starting to be found in more places than just above our heads. We recently covered MIT’s efforts to have drones not only traverse the sky but tread on land, and are now seeing a Norwegian company dipping their proverbial toes—and literal drones—into the oceans.

Blueye’s Pioneer is a “remote operated vehicle” ROV) drone equipped to descend as far as 450 feet and record and stream 1080p videos at 30 frames per second—all while being remotely controlled through a videogame console controller or through your smartphone. It doesn’t stop there, either—the Pioneer was specifically designed to be used in tandem with a virtual reality (VR) headset, which would allow users to immerse themselves into the experience as much as the Pioneer immerses itself into the seas.

With a purposefully lower price point than all other ROVs of its kind, as user-friendly as possible, and clocking in at a mere 18 pounds, the Pioneer will likely be the de facto underwater hobby drone to aim for. Blueye CEO Eric Dyrkoren said that this was exactly his goal— bringing professional underwater drone tech to the people.

“We wanted to make this technology available to many more people, we’ve been focusing on the design, the control system, and the camera,” said Dyrkoren. “It’s like playing a video game. It’s very easy to use and the video streaming is in real-time, we have very low-latency.”

There’s been a massive demand for the combination of drones and VR, and it seems like the Pioneer was birthed from not only a wish to make these underwater drones more affordable, but to capitalize on that niche of drones and gaming we’re all so fond of.

According to TheNextWeb, the Pioneer can be simply chucked into the ocean and easily started therein. There’s no need for a hub, a base, and it’s been tested for resilience and quality assurance for quite some time now. The Pioneer was even deployed in the Arctic, to test its mettle in harsh conditions like below freezing temperate and choppy waters.

Preorders have already begun for the ROV. You can check the product out in further detail here, before the item starts shipping next year, according to Blueye’s CEO. We’ll definitely keep an eye on this thing, as it seems like the first, true hobby underwater drone that some of us could actually afford. Stay tuned.

The Energica Ego Electric Bike Reminds Us How Fun Electricity Can Be

Traditionally electric cars have been considered economy minded appliances. The Tesla Model S has begun to break that stereotype with its available Ludicrous Mode, but the average consumer is more likely to consider a more affordable Nissan Leaf or Chevy Bolt. Neither of these cars appeals to performance car enthusiasts, nor are they intended to. Though at first glance it might look like we're doomed to a future where boring electric cars bear a closer resemblance to a toaster than a traditional sports car, a look at the world of motorcycles gives us some hope for our electric future.

The idea of an electric motorcycle may bring children's toys to mind, but these bikes are serious business—serious enough to race at the Isle of Man TT. The fastest TT Zero bike this year was a Mugen ridden by Bruce Anstey to a lap time of 19:13.924 at an average speed of 117.710 miles per hour. For comparison, the fastest bike in the Lightweight class was a Paton ridden by Michael Rutter to a time of 19:01.842 at 118.955 MPH. An electric TT Zero bike is almost as fast as a traditional 650cc sport bike.

The Energica Ego looks very much like any other sport bike. Its riding position, suspension design, and beefy brakes resemble many other popular sport bikes available from Europe and Japan, but closer inspection reveals the lack of clutch or gearshift levers. The Ego doesn't need them because it's electric. It's also fully street legal, and Rocket Moto Sport was kind enough to let me take its demo bike for a spin to try the electric life for myself. I was not disappointed.

Aside from my left fingers and foot having nothing to do with no gear changes, the first thing I noticed was the Ego's weight. At 569 pounds, the Ego is porky compared to other sport bikes thanks to its batteries. But out on the road, it strangely doesn't seem to matter. The suspension handles the extra weight with ease, and it handles and stops as well as any other sport bike I've ridden.

The main difference, of course, is the power delivery of the electric motor. Four different riding modes are available, which determine how quickly the power comes on and how much you get. Energica claims their 136 horsepower motor takes the Ego from 0 to 60 in just three seconds, and though I did not measure it for myself, I believe those claims. Even better, the Ego's full 144 foot-pounds of torque is available from a dead stop the moment you twist the grip. That's the beauty of an electric motor and why they dominate in acceleration tests.

The Ego both looks and rides like a genuine performance vehicle. It's different than a traditional gasoline-powered sport bike, but the suspension design and the electric motor's gobs of torque make up for the extra weight of the batteries, providing a fast and fun riding experience. It gives me hope that if and when the internal combustion engine is rendered obsolete, the concept of driving enjoyment doesn't have to be. Companies with serious sporting pedigrees like Porsche and Aston Martin are making serious electrification efforts, which bodes well for the performance capabilities of future electric cars and their enjoyment for enthusiasts everywhere.

Pat Long Ties Up PWC Points Lead With Pair Of Podiums

This weekend marked the 9th and 10th Pirelli World Challenge GT class races of the season, a doubleheader traditional sprint race weekend in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Going into the weekend, Porsche's Patrick Long was tied for second in the series championship points with McLaren's Alvaro Parente, both ten points behind Cadillac's Michael Cooper. All season, Long has been competing at the front of the field and has had a decent go of the racing thus far. A couple of hiccups for the Porsche driver have kept him from running away with the championship, but he was in fine form this weekend in Wisconsin.

Race 1 -

27 Year Old Hong Kong-born Bentley driver Adderly Fong took the race victory on Saturday, the first win of his career. The race began with a bang as Fong fought hard with Cadillac's Johnny O'Connell through the first half of the circuit. The two eventually had a coming-together that ended with O'Connell spinning off the circuit and rejoining at the back of the pack. Taking full advantage of the situation, as well as a bit off luck, Pat Long moved his Wright Motorsports Porsche up into second position. Long drove a smart race, running conservatively for the remainder of the 50-minute race. During the final few laps, Long put a lot of pressure on Fong, but found it difficult to get around the double-wide Bentley GT.

Pat Long on his race 1 podium -

“Johnny had a good jump at the start and I went with him. Then going into Turn Five, it was six into one and somebody had to give. From my perspective, it’s pretty hard to go side-by-side in Turn Five and I think Adderly had the line so I stuck behind him and again the inside line paid off. After that it was a pretty straight forward, qualifying attack for the whole race. That’s about as physically and mentally tough as it gets; no yellow flags and absolute sheer pace. The Pirelli tires are consistent enough that you can push them all the way through.”

“Six auto makes in the top six is not manufactured; that’s sheer competition. There are a lot of two-car teams, factory teams, small independent teams such as Wright Motorsports who I’m driving for. In the end we all want to race as drivers and race for victory and know that you’re going to come in and have a fighting chance.”

We focused on putting the Bentley under pressure the whole race. The last lap was really close. Fong was stronger in some corners and I was stronger in others, but we were ultimately able to fight right to the end."

James Sofronas took his GMG Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R to a GTA class victory over John Potter's Magnus Racing Audi and Tim Pappas' Black Swan Racing Mercedes.

James Sofronas on his race 1 victory -

“It was good to mix it up front with the top ten. We’re running a good pace and staying with the lead pack and then it started to get a little dicey. I realized that there’s no advantage to sticking my nose in here and holding true with those guys so I thought I would just back off, take a win and get the points and let the car rest. We were running really good lap times, it was consistent the whole way. The GMG Racing guys performed flawlessly and I’m really proud of them and all the guys and look forward to (tomorrow’s race.)”

Race 2 -

By setting the fastest lap of race 1, Fong was awarded the pole position for race 2, with Pat Long starting second. At the first corner, after the green flag fell, Pat Long jumped up into the lead of the sprint field, diving deep on the brakes and making it stick. There was a lengthy red flag period in which cleanups were affected and barriers were repaired, thanks to a huge crash incident on lap 5. The aftermath of the event, including a video onboard from Ryan Eversley's Acura, can be seen here.

Based on this view, it appears that Gainsco Porsche driver Jon Fogarty turned across the bow of Eversley's Acura, not quite clearing his front bumper, then collected the other Acura, Peter Cox, in the process.

When the race restarted, Pat Long maintained and then stretched a lead at the front of the pack. Saturday's race finished Fong-Long, but Sunday's event would end with a Long-Fong podium. Johnny O'Connell recovered from Saturday's shemozzle to take third in Sunday's race.

Pat Long on his race 2 victory -

“These PWC weekends, it’s so close between all the manufacturers so you have to seize track position by getting a qualifying lap in that first race which is unique in this championship. Then every single lap there wasn’t a millimeter of road left to try to stay ahead of Adderly since he was on his game all weekend. I think he had the car to beat. Sometimes, it’s the scenario that gives you that rewarding feeling over a weekend and certainly, I think we squeezed a little bit extra out of the car. That’s how we’re going to try to put a championship together. Michael (Cooper) and Johnny (O’Connell) were strong all weekend and it could have gone Michael’s way just as easily for points.

“But that’s what PWC is about. It’s a long championship with doubleheaders every weekend and you have to fight for points every single race. Those first few laps are certainly really tight racing. That’s where staying out of the mix and qualifying up front is so important on a track like this. It’s so high-speed and there’s a lot of dirty air and having track position is a huge thing when straight-line speeds are so close among all of us.

“That was a memorable victory. We could’ve been fifth or first today. The start was the game changer for us, then my job was to run absolute qualifying laps amongst all of the stoppages of red flags and yellows. We improved the car from yesterday and made some big swings, which is not always the way we tune, but I trusted John Wright and Bobby Viglione’s direction and it paid off. It was a huge points week.”

GMG Porsche driver James Sofronas repeated his GTA class victory on Sunday as well, finishing again ahead of John Potter and Tim Pappas.

James Sofronas on his race 2 victory -

“The Porsche 911 GT3 R was running great. It actually wasn’t as good as yesterday but you have to pick your battles. I saw (Michael) Schein go out which is a bummer. I feel bad for him, but then I decided to just back it down get the points and just save the car. At this point, it’s about a GTA Sprint point championship, trying to do the best we can.”

The points totals from this weekend have not yet been made official by the series, but the overall GT standings are currently tied at 183 points between Pat Long and Cadillac's Michael Cooper, who had a 10-point lead at the start of the weekend.

2018 Nissan Leaf Will Be Able to Drive Itself in Stop-and-Go Traffic

Earlier this year, Nissan announced that the next-generation Leaf will be its first U.S. model to get ProPilot driver-assist tech, which the automaker views as a stepping stone to full autonomy. While the new Leaf won't appear until later this year, we now have a better idea of ProPilot's capabilities.

In a teaser for its redesigned electric car, Nissan said the Leaf's ProPilot system will be able to help "control acceleration, braking, and steering during single-lane driving on the highway." That seems to put this version of ProPilot in the same category as highly-automated driver-assist systems like Tesla's Autopilot, Cadillac's Super Cruise, and the traffic-jam assist feature in the next-gen Audi A8.

The limited autonomy offered by these systems shouldn't be confused with fully-autonomous driving, but automakers believe this tech can help them to develop self-driving cars. Much of the hardware can be applied to fully autonomous cars, and data collected from onboard sensors can be used to improve the software controlling those cars. Nissan has entered into a partnership with Mobileye to do just that.

ProPilot is just one component of a major overhaul for the Nissan Leaf, which hasn't been redesigned since it went on sale in 2010. That makes the current car fairly old by industry standards, and its 107-mile range may soon prove inadequate in the face of affordable long-range electric cars like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3. The 2018 Nissan Leaf is expected to offer a range of at least 200 miles.

Nissan unveiled its first self-driving car prototypes in 2013, based on the current-generation Leaf. The automaker plans to deploy autonomous driving tech in stages, achieving fully autonomy by 2023. While Ford plans to launch a self-driving car for ride-sharing services in 2021, it's unclear whether Nissan will also limit its autonomous cars to sharing services, or sell them directly to customers instead.

Missile Laden Su-27 Gets Between NATO F-16 And Russian Defense Minister’s Jet

An F-16 Viper has intercepted a Russian aircraft carrying the country’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, briefly escorting the Tu-154 VIP plane as it flew over the Baltic Sea. Soon after, a fully armed Su-27 Flanker zoom in and appeared to warn off the NATO fighter jet. The incident follows a significant uptick in aerial incidents in the region amid a flurry of military maneuvers and cool relations between Moscow and Washington and other NATO members.

The Russian military’s official television channel Zvezda released video of the incident, which occurred on June 21, 2017. At the time of writing, the Russian Defense Ministry has not issued any statement regarding the flight in English. “Russia's Sukhoi Su-27 fighter, one of the aircraft escorting Shoigu's plane, then displayed its weapons, prompting the F-16 to retreat,” according to state-run news outlet Sputnik. Russia’s top officer was en route to the geographically separated enclave of Kaliningrad, which shares land borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, at the time.

"As the aircraft did not identify themselves or respond to air traffic control, Nato fighter jets scrambled to identify them, according to standard procedures," an unnamed NATO official said in a statement according to the BBC. "NATO has no information as to who was on board. We assess the Russian pilots' behaviour as safe and professional."

Though you can’t see any national markings on the Viper in the video footage, it is likely an F-16C Block 52+ from the Polish Air Force. On May 2, 2017, Poland and Spain took responsibility for the alliance’s rotating Baltic Air Policing mission. However, the Spanish Air Force flies the visually distinct Boeing EF-18A+ Hornet. If it was indeed a Polish jet on patrol, it would likely have been armed, as well.

The intercept is just the latest in a series of encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft, some of which have been more serious. On June 19, 2017, another Flanker reportedly flew within five feet of an RC-135U Combat Sent electronic intelligence aircraft as it passed through international airspace above the Baltic.

A pair of polish F-16C Block 52+ fighter jets, including one with conformal fuel tanks, fly over the Baltic Sea in June 2017.

U.S. officials told Fox News, who was first to report that incident, that the Russian pilot was acting in a “provocative” manner and moving “erratically” near the much larger and less maneuverable Combat Sent. The Kremlin subsequently blamed the American crew for the unsafe maneuvering. "When being accompanied, the RC-135 plane made an attempt at approaching the Russian fighter jet making a provocative turn towards it," the country’s Defense Ministry said in a statement via state-run outlet TASS.

These were hardly the only instances where NATO and Russian warplanes have met over the Baltic Sea in recent weeks. On June 20, 2017, the Lithuanian Defense Ministry reported that the alliance’s jets had made more than 30 interceptions in the previous week. Russia’s aerial activity included sorties by Su-27s and the advanced Su-34 Fullback derivative, as well as Su-24MR Fencer multi-role aircraft.

In particularly notable incident on June 16, 2017, NATO jets joined together with their counterparts from Finland and Sweden, who aren’t part of the military bloc, to shadow a huge group of Russian planes, which included Flankers, Fullbacks, and Fencers, along with a Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic bomber, A-50 radar plane, and an Il-22 airborne command post. Finnish authorities subsequently released a series of photographs of the Kremlin’s aircraft.

Since Russian forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014 and subsequently began actively supporting separatists battling the government in Kiev, NATO has stepped up activates along its shared border with Russia. This has in turn prompted tit-for-tat responses from Moscow. The Kremlin’s aviators have performed numerous intercepts since then, including others described as unsafe or unprofessional. This increased activity has extended beyond Europe, with a pair of U.S. Air Force F-22s flying out to meet a flight of Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets and Tu-95MS Bear bombers near Alaska in May 2017.

A Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet flies near a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber over the Baltic Sea earlier in June 2017.

These latest incidents came as NATO members conducted major naval and ground exercises throughout the Baltics, as well as in Germany and Poland. The Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) maritime training sessions and the Saber Strike war game on land, both included impressive displays of aerial force, including American B-1 Bone and B-52 Stratofortress bombers conducting mock attack runs and mine-laying sorties. On June 9, 2017, the alliance gathered together representative aircraft for an impressive photo op over the Baltic. A Russian Flanker promptly photo bombed the formation in full view of the press.

It’s very likely that these encounters will continue in the coming months, with both Russia and NATO’s continuing a busy exercise schedule. Most notably, approximately 100,000 Russian and Belorussian troops are set to take part in a massive war game along their boundary with NATO this fall. These Zapad exercises happen every four years and pit the two countries against a notional large scale opponent, largely seen as a stand-in for NATO. The name simply means "West" in Russian.

“We are treating these as exercises as such, nothing more, but of course, on the local level, some risks are here,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis said during a visit to the United States to meet with his American counterparts earlier in 2017. “We need to also be prepared for surprises … they could, say, go to a different direction than planned, and there also may be some tests of how the border protection is working, etc.”

This goes beyond NATO, as well. Russia has made a number of veiled threats toward both Finland and Sweden in recent years, as both countries becoming increasingly interested in the collective security of the alliance. If Swedish officials decide to join the military bloc, "we will interpret that as an additional threat for Russia and we will think about how to eliminate this threat," Russian President Vladimir Putin told TASS earlier in June 2017. On the same day in June as Russia's unsafe intercept of the American RC-135U, the Swedish Air Force said one of their signals intelligence aircraft had a similar run-in with a Flanker.

There may also be an additional surge in intercepts as the Kremlin seeks to retaliate indirectly for American activities in Syria. In spite of international condemnation of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and his regime, Moscow has continued to support the leader in exchange for strategic access to the country’s territory, an issue we have discussed in detail in the past. In nearly three weeks, the U.S. military has shot down two Iranian-made Shaheed 129 drones and a Syrian Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack jet. The confrontations have many worried the United States is inching closer to a broader and more dangerous confrontation with the government in Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies.

In April 2017, following a reported chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians, the U.S. Navy did fire a number of Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Air Base. However, by most accounts, American officials went to great lengths to avoid hitting Russian personnel at the base. After the Su-22 shoot down, Moscow took a hard-line stance, suggesting, at least initially, that it would effectively include Syrian forces under the protective umbrella of its own fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.

With all this in mind, the Baltic Sea definitely seems like a potential hot spot to keep an eye on, whether the activities are related to what’s going on in Europe or developments further afield.

UPDATE- 2:15pm EST: New details have emerged showing the intercepting aircraft was actually an F-16AM from the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The Dutch fighter also had an impressive combat load of four AIM-120 and two AIM-9 air-to-air missiles.

UPDATE- 8:20am PST 6/22/2017: Apparently Polish Vipers did the intercept yesterday. The confusion came from a archive photo ran by the AP showing the a Dutch F-16 through a airliner cabin window.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

Mercedes-Benz A-Class, AMG GT Sedan Headed to U.S. in 2018, Report Says

While Mercedes-Benz is a decidedly upmarket brand here in the United States, they've long been known around the world for their reliable, base-model workhorses like the A and B-Class hatchbacks and V-Class passenger vans. That's why the 2013 introduction of the CLA budget model was such a big deal for the company—would American consumers embrace the idea of entry-level luxury, or would we send the four-door coupe packing like the ill-fated C230 Sports Coupe?

Of course, people in this country bought in big time (at least at first), and with the CLA now running above that magical $30,000 price line, executives at Daimler see room at the table for a new entry-level Benz. According to a report by Automotive News, officials with Mercedes-Benz USA confirmed to U.S. dealers at a recent meeting that the upcoming A-Class sedan previewed in concept form earlier this year will be coming stateside in late 2018.

Though the price hasn't been determined, the small FWD sedan will slot just below the CLA as the brand's cheapest offering. Dealers interviewed said they were shown a real pre-production model at the meeting—one dealer described it as "very nice-looking"—and Mercedes-Benz clearly believes it can avoid the foibles of previous downmarket experiments by bringing over the new sedan body style instead of the global hatchback A-Class.

This confidence in the face of the country's cratering sedan sales doesn't change the essential question, though. Who is going to buy this? Another dealer praised the A-Class' "techy" interior and said it looked like it would be very appealing to the millennial buyer" [barf], so that's one avenue they're clearly aiming for.

But at that base-model price point, there's no doubt some of the cooler features from the concept like the latticework headlamps and full glass roof won't make it to the production model. If the stripper A-Class offers nothing more and a probably whole lot less in features than a similarly-priced Toyota Corolla, or any of the growing legion of subcompact crossovers, all they're really selling is a name.

At the same meeting with dealers, Mercedes-Benz also confirmed the AMG GT sedan will be visiting our shores in 2018 as well. The four-door fastback will plug a lineup hole for the brand and compete with the likes of the Audi RS7 and the Porsche Panamera. No word yet on whether the concept's fancy 800-horsepower hybrid drive will be making it to production, but with a name like that you can expect some solid insanity in one form or another.