Lockheed Martin Deletes Claim That Its Rebranded F-21 Could Be A Path To Indian F-35s

Lockheed Martin has rebranded its latest advanced F-16 offering for India as the F-21 and has shown the jet would have new features, including a revised glass cockpit and other advanced features. But the pitch appears to be much more about opportunities industrial cooperation in India, a major factor in the latest iteration of India's fighter jet tender, than technological enhancements. It might even pave the way for the country to join the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program – a claim the company scrubbed from its official F-21 webpage shortly after it went live.

The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor revealed models of the F-21 and released a computer-generated video presentation about the jet to coincide with the beginning of this year’s Aero India trade show on Feb. 20, 2019. Lockheed Martin’s fighter jet is squaring off against Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, France’s Rafale, the European Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Gripen E, and Russia’s MiG-35 Fulcrum and Su-35 Flanker for India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. The Indian Air Force hopes to eventually purchase at least 115 aircraft through this program, a deal that could be worth up to $18 billion, which has been a more than decade-long saga that you can read about in more detail here.

“The F-21 is different, inside and out,” Dr. Vivek Lall, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said in a statement. “The new designation highlights our commitment to delivering an advanced, scalable fighter aircraft to the Indian Air Force that also provides unrivaled industrial opportunities and accelerates closer India-US cooperation on advanced technologies.”

So far, Lockheed Martin has not specifically explained the origins or meaning of the F-21 nomenclature. The U.S. military originally assigned F-21 in its aircraft nomenclature system to a small fleet of ex-Israeli Kfir fighter jets that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operated as “red air” aggressors between 1985 and 1989. Today, a U.S. contractor flies still flies Kfirs in adversary support roles and still refers to the type as the F-21. Highly upgraded Kfirs are also still flown by a number of air arms around the globe.

The origins of the new designation may be similar to the decision-making process behind the B-21 nomenclature for the U.S. Air Force’s future stealth bomber. In 2016, the service announced it had picked B-21, an out-of-sequence designation, to reflect its acquisition of the “first bomber of the 21st century.”

As for what exactly is different “inside and out” between the F-21 and earlier F-16s, Lockheed Martin has offered few specifics. The jet is only the latest in a string of India-targeted Viper offerings that began with the development F-16IN Super Viper in the late 2000s, also known as the F-16 Block 70. Features from this variant then ended up part of an upgrade package for older Vipers, known as the F-16V. Lockheed Martin has now effectively blended these two separate efforts together.

The most notable and apparently new feature in the F-21 video presentation is the consolidation of the cockpit displays into a single large flat panel screen. Previous glass cockpit configurations for the F-16IN, Block 70, and V model aircraft featured three separate digital multi-function displays.

This is similar in some general respects to the single panel design in Lockheed Martin’s stealth F-35. It also mirrors the decision Boeing made with regards to the cockpit configuration in its latest Block III Super Hornets and F-15QA Advanced Eagles for Qatar. This type cockpit arrangement will make it easier for pilots to rapidly find the information they’re looking for and offers additional flexibility over fixed “steam gauges” or even smaller digital displays. It makes it easier to add new features to the display itself and link it new and improved sensors and other systems in the future, as well.

During a media briefing on the Super Hornet that we at The War Zone attended in 2018, Boeing noted that an aviator could move and resize certain display elements on the screen, just like shifting things around on a computer desktop, to better suit their particular style. It would also allow the rapid resizing of certain displays, including video feeds from targeting pods, to make it easier to positively identify targets or other items of interest. It seems likely that the F-21’s display will have similar functionalities.

An artist's depiction of the new large panel display in the F-21.

The F-21 notably has a big dorsal spine that has only appeared previously operationally on advanced two-seat F-16 derivatives. This addition can accommodate avionics, communications equipment, countermeasures systems, and more.

The jet also has a probe-and-drogue refueling system that extends from the starboard conformal fuel tank, as well. However, Lockheed Martin first demonstrated this system, known as the Conformal Air Refueling Tank System, in 2010 as part of the development of the F-16IN. It also reduces the total amount of fuel that the tank can carry.

Lockheed Martin personnel use a Block 60 F-16F to test the Conformal Air Refueling Tank System in 2010. The logo of the company's <a href=Skunk Works advanced projects division is visible on the side." />

The video presentation does show the F-21 carrying three AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) missiles on new racks, which gives the jet added air-to-air magazine depth even when carrying underwing fuel tanks or other stores. The outboard underwing pylons will also be able to deploy the AN/ALE-50 towed decoy, but this had been a previously announced feature for the F-16s Lockheed Martin was offering to India and was first seen on Block 50/52 Vipers.

A look at the trip AIM-120 arrangement, as well as the outboard pylon with provision for the AN/ALE-50 decoy from the F-21 video.

The F-21s in Lockheed Martin's video are also each carrying a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP) and an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod on their chin stations. The latter system would give the jets an improved ability to spot stealthy threats.

It's not otherwise clear how much the F-21's configuration might differ from previous existing Block 70 and F-16V variants. These Vipers featured a host of significant improvements over existing variants, including Northrop Grumman's AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array radar, also known as the Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR).

They also had new avionics, improved navigation equipment, updated mission computers and data links, and compatibility with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System II (JHMCS II). The advanced F-16 variants had more powerful electronic warfare suite for self-protection, too.

A page from a <a href=Lockheed Martin brochure on its previous F-16 Block 70 proposal for India describing, in part, how the aircraft's added capabilities improve its operational performance. The "threats" depicted are notably Chinese J-20 stealth fighters, which are a growing concern for the Indian Air Force." />

But the real thrust of Lockheed Martin’s F-21 push seems to be to promote the potential for significant industrial cooperation that comes with its bid versus that of its opponents. The MMCRA competition requires bidders find a local partner and the American firm has been working with Indian industrial giant Tata for its proposal.

The U.S. defense contractor has long said it plans to shift its F-16 production lines to India in cooperation with Tata. It has gone so far as to suggest it could establish an F-16 production line in the country regardless of whether it wins the MMCRA deal or not.

The first thing you see in the video presentation Lockheed Martin released on Feb. 20, 2019, is a stylized depiction of this notional Indian Viper plant with Tata branding. There are also clips showing an F-21 refueling from a KC-130J tanker, an aircraft Lockheed Martin has already sold to India and that features made-in-India components.

F-21s refuel with a KC-130J in Lockheed Martin's video.

But more curiously, Lockheed Martin initially implied that the F-21 could be a stepping stone to Indian participation in the F-35 program, something that has been a sensitive topic of discussion over the years.

“The F-21 has common components and learning from Lockheed Martin’s 5th Generation F-22 and F-35 and will share a common supply chain on a variety of components,” Lockheed Martin initially said on its F-21 webpage, which first appeared online on Feb. 20, 2019. “Approximately half of the F-21 and F-16 supply chains are common with the F-22 and F-35.”

However, the official F-21 page no longer makes those claims or that the fighter jet is “India’s pathway to F-35." It now says instead that the jet would “strengthens India’s path to an advanced airpower future.” There does not appear to be an archived copy of the original webpage, but the details have been widely reported.

The F-21 product card, which is still available online, only says that "Innovative technologies derived from Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 – the world’s only two operational 5th Generation fighters – strengthen India’s path to an advanced airpower future." It has no mention of the shared supply chains or potential sale of F-35s to India.

This graphic, with an F-35 leading a flight of F-21s, is the only remnants of Lockheed Martin's initial comments about the latter fighter jets serving as a stepping stone for India to join the Joint Strike Fighter program.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Lockheed Martin has had to backtrack on public statements regarding India’s involvement in the F-35 program. In January 2018, the company swiftly denied that it had offered the stealth fighters to the Indian Air Force. This was in response to the Press Trust of India publishing an interview with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics executive Lall, the same individual who made the F-21 announcement, that had appeared to suggest India-specific F-35s were on the horizon.

The next month, however, Indian media reported that the country’s Air Force had formally requested a classified briefing on the F-35. There was no official confirmation of these reports.

An F-16C and an F-35A fly together.

Then, in March 2018, now-retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, then head of what was called U.S. Pacific Command, re-raised the possibility of selling F-35s to India. The Pentagon has since retitled that command as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command specifically to highlight American involvement in South Asia and ties with countries in the region.

In 2018, India had also indicated that the winner of the MMRCA competition would have to also assist with the country’s development of its own indigenous stealth fighter, known presently the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Earlier in February 2019, there were separate reports that the Indians had requested a classified briefing on the United Kingdom’s Tempest stealth fighter program.

In addition, in 2018, the Indian government reportedly terminated their participation in Russia’s long-troubled Su-57 stealth fighter program, which was supposed to lead to an India specific variant. This further leaves the door open for a replacement, nearer term stealth fighter acquisition effort to fill the gap and potentially frees up the necessary funding to do so. The War Zone has long noted the possibility that the Indian Air Force might turn to the F-35 as it is the only in-production fifth generation fighter at present.

A dated chart showing plans for the Su-57, previously known as the Su-50 or PAK-FA, including the Su-50E and Su-55 variants for India.

These latest official statements, though they are now removed from Lockheed Martin’s website, do indicate a renewed possibility that the company is proposing the purchase of its F-21 as a gateway to acquiring F-35s down the road. The Indian Navy is also shopping for new fighter jets for its existing and planned future aircraft carriers and could be interested in acquiring short- and vertical-takeoff and landing capable F-35Bs or carrier-focused F-35Cs, as well.

The possibility of F-35 sales to India clearly remain a sensitive issue, both in that country and in the United States. It could be even more complicated now that the Indians have purchased S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

America’s NATO ally Turkey is also buying S-400s, as well as F-35s, which, among other things, has provoked a major dispute with the United States, which you can read about in more detail here. The U.S. government has expressed concerns that this will give the Russians an opportunity to evaluate the Joint Strike Fighter’s capabilities against their air defense systems and otherwise gather sensitive details about the aircraft.

A transporter-erector-launcher for the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

These concerns may become less of an issue as time goes on, but at present, the U.S. government is now looking to block F-35s deliveries to Turkey. Members of Congress might seek to do the same with regards to India.

Of course, India is also not a NATO ally, which Turkey is, and already operates a variety of Russian-made aircraft and other military hardware. The United States would be approving any F-35 sales to the Indian Air Force knowing this going in. This would be similar to the considerations that the U.S. government would have to take into account if it decided to go ahead with potential sales of Joint Strike Fighters to the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, too.

Furthermore, American relations with India are at a relatively high point, however, and President Donald Trump has been a major advocate of increased U.S. arms sales abroad in general. The Pentagon actively pushed for the U.S. government to grant India a waiver to buy the S-400s without incurring sanctions in order to avoid upsetting ties.

With all this in mind, despite Lockheed Martin’s latest retraction, it seems increasingly clear that the United States and India are actively in discussions, at least some level, about F-35 purchases in the future. Whether or not the rebranded F-21 will actually serve as a stepping stone to buying the stealth fighters remains to be seen, but that sure seems to be the idea.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

The Saudis May Want The Bomb And The White House Might End Up Helping Them Get It

Whistleblowers have warned Congress that current and former members of President Donald Trump’s Administration, including some with serious conflicts of interest, may have tried to rush the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in ways that may violate U.S. law. There are now concerns that those efforts may still be ongoing, despite existing concerns that the Saudis, fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, may be seeking a pathway to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Even more worrisome, Riyadh appears to be working on developing indigenous ballistic missile capabilities that could eventually carry these warheads already.

On Feb. 19, 2019, Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and present Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced the beginning of investigations into the White House and other federal agencies regarding the Trump Administrations efforts to cut a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia based on new information that multiple individuals had submitted to his office. The Oversight and Reform Committee also released an initial report on the allegations and copies of the documents it was based on.

“Multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law – efforts that may be ongoing to this day,” the executive summary of the report noted. “The whistleblowers who came forward have expressed significant concerns about the potential procedural and legal violations connected with rushing through a plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.”

“They have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes,” it continued. “They have also warned about a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting.”

Representative Elijah Cummings speaks to reporters in January 2019.

In 2010, Saudi Arabia established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy to oversee the country’s planned civilian nuclear power program, as well as other alternative energy sources. The Saudis have since outlined plans for building two nuclear power plants by 2020 and having 16 in total by 2030. The publicly stated goal is to reduce domestic oil consumption to maximize oil exports and make the country less dependent on fossil fuels. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major Saudi partner in the region, is also pursuing nuclear power for many of the same reasons.

The Kingdom is hoping to finalize deals to build the first of those power plants by the end of 2019. The contracts will surely be lucrative and pave the way for additional work. Companies from the United States, as well as China, Russia, France, and South Korea are all on the short list now to bid on the projects.

An undated picture of the <a href=Barakah nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates under construction. This is the first nuclear power plant in any country with the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, which also includes Saudi Arabia. South Korea's Korea Electric Power Corporation is in charge of the project." />

Conflicts of Interest

The Saudi nuclear power program has also created an opening for corruption and graft in the United States, according to the whistleblowers who contacted Cummings’ committee. A key issue is that Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was an advisor to a company called IronBridge Group, Inc., between June and December 2016. During this time, he was also a member of Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent transition team.

IronBridge is a wholly owned subsidiary of a consortium called IP3 International, which appears to solely exist to represent a group of American firms in bidding on the Saudi nuclear projects. After The Washington Post first reported this link in 2017, IronBridge denied Flynn ever had an official role in the company and said he never received any monetary compensation from them.

The whistleblowers now say that Flynn, a former U.S. Army Lieutenant General who once ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, failed to disclose on a security clearance renewal form that he had traveled to Saudi Arabia on behalf of IP3’s predecessor company in June 2015. He also did not disclose that this firm had sponsored a second trip in October of that year.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn arrives at federal court in Washington, D.C., in December 2018.

Regardless of Flynn’s technical relationship with IP3 and its predecessors, in the week after Trump took office, Derek Harvey, the Senior Director for Middle East and North African Affairs within the National Security Council, told other officials that the Administration would endorse IP3’s proposal for nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, dubbing it the “Middle East Marshall Plan,” according to the Oversight and Reform Committee report. This decision had apparently originated with Flynn personally.

“Both career and political staff inside the White House reportedly agreed that Mr. Harvey’s directive could violate the law,” according to the House Committee report. “One senior political official stated that the proposal was ‘not a business plan,’ but rather ‘a scheme for these generals to make some money.’ That official stated: ‘Okay, you know we cannot do this.’”

More ties to the Kingdom

Beyond Flynn, there were other potential conflicts of interest, as well. Thomas Barrack, a personal friend of Trump’s who was also Chairman of his Inaugural Committee, as well as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a White House advisor with a significant portfolio, were also reportedly involved in the Middle East Marshall Plan.

In 2017, Barrack had considered purchasing a stake in Westinghouse Electric, a manufacturer of, among other things, nuclear reactors, which had filed for bankruptcy, according to the Congressional report. In 2018, Westinghouse’s parent company, Japanese conglomerate Toshiba, sold it to Brookfield Business Partners, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management. Brookfield took a 100 percent leasehold interest stake in Jared Kushner’s troubled 666 Fifth Avenue property venture in New York City that same year.

Thomas Barrack waves from a car during President Trump's inauguration day parade in January 2017.

The Oversight and Reform Committee's report also re-raised general concerns about Kushner's personal visit with now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS, during President Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017. Though not specifically about nuclear projects, MbS reportedly bragged that Trump's son-in-law was "in his pocket" afterward, though the Saudi royal denied this later.

Both Barrack and Kushner have substantial financial ties to Saudi Arabia, raising further questions about conflicts of interest. Barrack was responsible for Trump’s hiring of Paul Manafort as campaign manager, as well, and suggested that Manafort could meet with the Saudis over the nuclear proposal.

The U.S. government has since convicted Flynn of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation over interactions with Russian officials. Paul Manafort has also pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering. He continues to find himself in legal trouble over accusations that he has failed to abide by the terms of his plea deal by continuing to lie to federal officials.

Paul Manafort leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. in April 2018.

Legal concerns

In addition, the whistleblowers further allege that they informed Harvey, the National Security Council official, that any nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia would have to abide by the terms of the Atomic Energy Act, specifically Section 123 of that law, which would require safeguards to prevent proliferation of nuclear technology and prevent the development of nuclear weapons. A so-called “123 Agreement” with the Saudis would, for instance, have to require clauses banning enriching uranium above the level necessary for power generation and the production of plutonium.

Harvey reportedly brushed aside these concerns and talked about the Middle East Marshall Plan as if it was already a done deal. If the White House wanted to transfer nuclear technology to the Saudis, it would not technically require approval Congress, but the Senate could look to block the deal from going ahead.

Legislators might be especially inclined to do this if it becomes apparent that the Trump Administration sought to go ahead with the plan without abiding by the terms of the Atomic Energy Act. On Feb. 16, 2019, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette did deny that there was any intent to circumvent Section 123 in order to speed up nuclear cooperation with the Saudis.

“We won't allow them to bypass 123 if they want to have civilian nuclear power that includes U.S. nuclear technologies,” he said in an interview with CNBC on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. “As you know this technology has a dual use and in the wrong hands it becomes a dangerous, dangerous world.”

This followed a move by a bipartisan group of Senators on Feb. 12, 2019, to introduce a resolution that would legally require the Trump Administration to implement a 123 Agreement with the Saudis as part of any nuclear deal. That same day, Trump and other officials met with representatives from various U.S. energy companies, including IP3, to discuss the approval process for the sale of nuclear reactors abroad to countries such as Saudi Arabia.

From left to right, Centrus Energy Corporation President and CEO Daniel Poneman, Exelon Corporation President and CEO Chris Crane, and NuScale Power Chairman and CEO John L. Hopkins, speak to reporters after meeting with President Trump and other officials to discuss nuclear power issues on Feb. 12, 2019.

A nuclear arms race

The new allegations in the Oversight and Reform Committee report are unlikely to help assuage concerns in Congress that the Trump Administration is looking to push ahead with a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia without taking the necessary precautions. On top of that, U.S.-Saudi relations are already at an all-time low after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by government security forces at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Kingdom’s subsequent attempts to cover that up, in 2018.

Proponents of a deal contend that if the United States doesn’t aid the Saudis in their nuclear ambitions, someone else, such as the Chinese or the Russians, will. Those countries may be far less scrupulous in their efforts to ensure Saudi Arabia doesn’t utilize the technology to develop nuclear weapons.

There is a significant and growing fear that the Saudis could feel steadily more compelled to acquire nuclear weapons regardless in order to counter their main regional opponent, Iran. It remains the public opinion of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Iran is not actively building nuclear weapons, but that the country does retain the knowledge base to do so if it decides to. At the same time, the Iranians do have a very active and extensive ballistic missile program, as well as a tangential space launch vehicle program, both of which could support the development of a delivery system for nuclear weapons.

The Saudis, like the Iranians, insist that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. However, the Kingdom’s officials are on record saying that they will pursue nuclear weapons if the regime in Tehran does.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb,” Saudi Arabia's MbS said in an interview in March 2018. “But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."

There are other indications that the Saudis may be quietly laying the groundwork for a nuclear weapons program, if they haven’t already, too. Saudi Arabia reportedly acted as a major financier for Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program, dating all the way back to the 1970s, with the belief that this gave them access to, at least, technical information about those developments.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for growing influence in Pakistan, but ties between Riyadh and Islamabad remain strong. Just on Feb. 18, 2019, MbS signed some $20 billion worth of memorandums of understanding for future cooperation with Pakistan during a trip to the country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, at left, personally drives Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to his accommodations after the Saudi royal arrived for his state visit on Feb. 17, 2019.

Saudi ballistic missiles

In 1987, Saudi Arabia also purchased hundreds of DF-3 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) from China. China developed these weapons to carry nuclear warheads and their limited accuracy has long called into question how the Saudis could ever expect to employ them effectively with conventional payloads outside of massive barrages against broad area targets.

The Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force has never publicly tested one of these weapons and only showed them off to the public for the first time in 2014. In 2014, Newsweek reported that the Saudis had purchased newer and more capable DF-21 MRBMs from China six years earlier, but with the blessing of the U.S. government on the understanding that these weapons would be somehow rendered incapable of carrying nuclear weapons. This remains unconfirmed.

Most recently, in January 2019, The Washington Post, citing analysis of satellite imagery by experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, reported that there was a high likelihood that the Saudis had or were in the process of building a ballistic missile factory. This apparent facility was situated within the Strategic Missile Force base at Al Watah in central Saudi Arabia.

This development already raises concerns that the Saudis might be engaged in an arms race with Iran that could further push both parties to consider building stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which could be dangerously destabilizing across the Middle East. The two countries are already engaged in a number of proxy conflicts, most notably in and around Yemen, and have exchanged increasingly charged rhetoric in recent years.

If nothing else, it shows that Saudi Arabia is working toward a domestic ballistic missile production capacity, if it doesn't have one already. This would allow officials in Riyadh to avoid having to engage in the same sorts of secretive methods they've used in the past to acquire this class of weapon and would give them more flexibility to rapidly expand their missile force.

Even conventionally armed ballistic missiles would offer the Saudis a valuable capability boost, including as a deterrent, especially in the face of Iran's growing missile arsenal. Iran has already demonstrated its own ability and willingness to use ballistic missiles in the conventional role with strikes in Syria and has assisted Houthi rebels in the development of their own ballistic missile force. The latter group has used those weapons to attack Saudi Arabia directly.

Increasingly accurate ballistic missiles with conventional warheads would give the Saudis a viable first rapid strike capability, as well. The experience from building these domestic weapons, combined with Saudi Arabia's own familiarity with Chinese designs, would also help support the development of nuclear-capable missiles, or at least push the country closer to a breakout capability in this regard. The experts at the Middlebury Institute suggested that China or Pakistan could be assisting the Saudi missile program at Al Watah, too.

An Iranian <a href=Khorramshahr MRBM, one of the country's most advanced ballistic missiles." />

Persisting concerns

All of this taken together raises additional concerns about whether it is prudent for the United States to assist the Saudis in the development of nuclear capabilities of any kind that could potentially lead to nuclear weapons. American lawmakers from both parties are increasingly worried about the lack of transparency from the Trump Administration about the present state of negotiations with the Kingdom, as well.

“[There are] serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia,” Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Todd Young, Cory Gardner, Rand Paul, and Dean Heller, wrote in a joint letter to Trump in the aftermath of the Khashoggi assassination in October 2018. “[W]e remain concerned that the Saudi Government has refused, for many years, to consider any agreement that includes so-called ‘Gold Standard’ requirements against pursuing technologies to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium-laden spent nuclear fuel.”

The missive called on Trump to halt the discussions about the transfer of nuclear technology to the Kingdom indefinitely. However, the meeting in February 2019 shows that the Trump Administration has not abandoned plans to approve the sale of nuclear power plants to the Saudis.

But with the new allegations about potential legal and ethical problems with the Trump Administration’s plan for transferring nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, plus continuing concerns about the Kingdom’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, it looks increasingly hard to see how Congress would allow any American deal to go ahead unchallenged, at least in the near term.

All told, there is significant evidence that Saudi Arabia wants to at least lay the groundwork for a nuclear weapons arsenal and, if it becomes more obvious that this is the case, other countries in the region might follow suit. This could include Saudi partners, especially the UAE and Egypt, as well as opponents beyond Iran, such as Qatar.

A nuclear arms race in the Middle East would turn an already perilous region into one that could single-handedly have the power to end the world as we know it.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

Is A Batch Of Russia’s Most Advanced Surface To Air Missiles Sitting On The Sea Floor?

Russia has confirmed that it did indeed sell long-range 40N6 surface-to-air missiles to China as part of a sale of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. At the same time, the Russians have revealed that none of those interceptors ever reached their destination after the ship carrying them got caught in a storm that resulted in the loss of the entire shipment, possibly with some of the missiles physically going overboard into the sea.

On Feb. 18, 2019, Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of the state-owned industrial conglomerate Rostec, which includes the state-run arms broker Rosoboronexport, offered up the new information at a press conference at the 2019 International Defense Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in the United Arab Emirates. Aviation Week’s Defense Editor and our good friend Steve Trimble Tweeted out a full transcript of the exchange.

“The contract was signed quite long ago. We were to supply [the 40N6 missiles,] but there was a failure,” Chemezov explained. “The vessel that was transporting those missiles – it was caught in a storm. So they have to liquidate all the missiles that were on the vessel and now we are manufacturing new ones.”

China signed the contract to buy S-400s from Russia in 2015, but since then, there has been little concrete information about what interceptors the deal would include. It's worth noting that the Russian military only officially accepted the 40N6 into service itself in October 2018.

The 40N6 is one of three types of missiles presently available for the S-400 system, the others being the 48N6 and the 9M96. It also has the longest range of any of these interceptors, able to engage targets up to around 250 miles away, according to the manufacturer, Almaz-Antey. Variants of the 48N6 have maximum stated ranges between 120 and 160 miles, while versions of the 9M96 can hit targets out to between 20 and 75 miles.

Russia had previously acknowledged that a storm had forced a ship carrying cargo related to China’s S-400s to return to port in January 2018. However, at the time, the Russian Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation, abbreviated FSTVS in Russian, which oversees foreign military-technical cooperation, had described the damaged components as “support equipment.”

As of Jan. 19, 2018, Russian authorities were assessing the damage for insurance purposes, FSTVS said in an official statement, according to state-run media outlet TASS. The Kremlin planned to send any undamaged S-400 related cargo to China at the earliest possible convenience.

In April 2018, Russia announced that it had successfully delivered the first of two “regimental sets” of S-400s to China, but there was still no confirmation about the specific interceptors the Chinese had received. Unconfirmed reports at the time suggested that the deliveries came with shorter-range 48N6E2 missiles and that 40N6s would arrive later, according to The Diplomat. Chemezov's revelation about what cargo got lost in the January 2018 accident would fit with these reports.

It remains unclear exactly what happened to the earlier shipment of 40N6 missiles. Chemezov’s description of the accident would seem to imply that the missiles simply suffered catastrophic damage during transport and ended up scrapped, at least in part. Russia never identified the vessel in question, making it harder to assess the exact scope of the accident.

Ship spotters noted that the Nikifor Begichev, a general-purpose cargo ship heading for China from the Russian port of Ust Luga in the Gulf of Finland, experienced unspecified trouble with cargo on its open deck after running into a storm in or around the English Channel. On Jan. 3, 2019, it turned around and subsequently returned to port.

Two days later, the Ocean Power, a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship known to be involved in Russian arms shipments, also made an abrupt turn around in the Baltic Sea. It then sailed back to the port of Koskolovo, also in Russia in the Gulf of Finland.

This is a possibility that the cargo physically came loose and fell off the ship. The Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the English Channel are all well known for bouts of extreme weather and heavy seas. In 2009, a Russian freighter notably lost 1,500 tons of timber in the Channel.

Container ships regularly lose some of their loads in bad weather, in general. In 2017, the World Shipping Council conducted a study that indicated, on average, 1,390 containers had ended up in the ocean every year in the previous three years. Other estimates have been significantly higher, up to 10,000 lost containers annually, or around 27 every day. So, while we don't know for sure what happened, it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable for the 40N6s to have fallen off the ship entirely.

Still, if this was the case, after more than a year, there doesn’t appear to be any clear indications that the Russians have sought to bring anything up from the seabed in either the English Channel or the Baltic Sea. However, Russia does have its own fleet of special mission submarines that could potentially have carried out such a mission, or at least inspected the state of the lost cargo, covertly.

If there are containers full of 40N6s sitting on the bottom of the sea, they could be goldmines for Western intelligence services – if they can recover the interceptors or at least parts of them. The U.S. Navy, in particular, has extensive deep-sea salvage and intelligence-collecting capabilities, including the specially modified Seawolf-class submarine USS Jimmy Carter.

USS Jimmy Carter returns to port in September 2017, flying <a href=a pirate flag, a symbol associated with the successful completion of a mission. The submarines activities, however, are highly classified." />

Cold temperatures and the potential for new episodes of poor weather, might make such a recovery operation especially complicated or outright impractical. For comparison, since November 2018, Norwegian authorities have struggled against the elements to try and raise the almost completely sunken frigate Helge Ingstad, even though it is in relatively shallow waters near the port of Bergen.

Earlier in February 2019, divers removed missiles and torpedoes, and blew up the latter with explosives, out of concern that they might be dangerously unstable after weeks sitting the water. Any 40N6 missiles submerged for months could be equally hazardous to handle.

But it wouldn't be the first time the United States has deemed the potential risks worth the effort to collect valuable hard intelligence about an opponent's capabilities. In the 1970s, Central Intelligence Agency famously employed the Hughes Glomar Explorer recovery ship to recover a portion of the Soviet Golf II-class ballistic missile submarine K-129 from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Navy salvors also have experience in this regard from retrieving lost American munitions. In 1976, the deep-diving nuclear research submarine NR-1 located and recover a live AIM-54 air-to-air missile in the North Atlantic off the coast of Scotland.

But whatever the fate of the lost shipment, China is undoubtedly eager to get a batch of replacement interceptors. As already noted, the difference in capability between the 40N6 and 48N6 is significant. For China, what this means is that S-400 batteries armed with the former missile and positioned on the mainland near the Taiwan Strait can cover the entire airspace over Taiwan.

An annotated map showing the range of certain Chinese surface-to-air missile systems and short-range ballistic missiles in respect to Taiwan. The maximum range of the S-400 with the 40N6 is twice that of the green line shown here.

Various factors might limit the target detection capabilities and engagement envelope for the S-400s against aircraft operating over Taiwan, but the additional coverage would still be a significant new threat to the Taiwanese Air Force. The Taiwanese military already has to contend with an increasingly capable mix of Chinese land-based ballistic missiles, as well as combat aircraft and warships armed with land-attack cruise missiles, which can now effectively target sites on the Pacific Ocean-facing side of the island.

S-400s with 40N6 missiles would be a powerful anti-access and area denial tool for Chinese forces in other contested regions or potential hotspots. This could include batteries situated on China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea or positioned along the country’s lengthy border with India.

Depending on the extent of the losses, Almaz-Antey might find itself having difficulties meeting the demands for replacement missiles, or having to divert production from other customers to fulfill the Chinese order sooner. There has been such a surge in sales of and general interest in the S-400 that, in May 2018, the state-owned company said its plant responsible for building the surface-to-air missile systems was fully booked with orders through 2025.

With Chemezov’s comments now on the record, it will be interesting to see how long it takes China now to actually receive its 40N6 missiles. Whenever the Russians put the delivery together, maybe they’ll consider sending it by train the second time around.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

That USAF RC-135 Rivet Joint Caribbean Spy Flight Was Far More Common Than Most Think

For weeks now, Venezuela has been in the grips of a political battle between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, who the United States and dozens of other countries have recognized as the country’s legitimate head of state. The plane spotting community is now among those intently watching the situation for signs of curious air traffic, or a potential U.S. military intervention. So, it certainly turned heads when a U.S. Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint spy plane made an unusually public appearance recently in the Caribbean Sea. But Rivet Joint missions in the region are more common than many people might know and this sortie may not necessarily have been related to the crisis in Venezuela at all.

Expert military aviation tracker and friend of The War Zone @aircraftspots was first to notice the RC-135V, serial number 63-9792, using the callsign Gismo 84, in the Caribbean on Feb. 14, 2019. The airliner-sized intelligence gathering platform subsequently linked up with a KC-10A Extender tanker, Spur 57. This isn’t uncommon for Rivet Joint flights, which can be many hours long as the planes fly long tracks close to target areas gathering valuable intelligence.

Rivet Joints, which include the RC-135Vs, as well as the functionally equivalent RC-135Ws, are among the most capable aerial intelligence gathering platforms the Air Force has at present. The aircraft fly with crews of more than 26 individuals and can perform a variety of task simultaneously.

The aircraft have powerful signals intelligence suites that allow them to detect and listen in on enemy communications, as well as geolocate those transmitters. Among the Crypto Linguists onboard, there will be individuals who are fluent in various languages relevant to the mission at hand so that they can begin analyzing the content of what the plane’s sensors pick up immediately. Other personnel man stations to categorize the emitters and keep an eye out for anything new or unusual.

An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint.

Lastly, electronic warfare officers can use the same signals intelligence systems to geolocate and categorize radars and other systems associated with integrated air defenses, allowing the Rivet Joints to help build a so-called “Electronic Order of Battle” of enemy or potentially hostile forces in a given area. In the lead up to the U.S.-led missile strikes in Syria in April 2018, Rivet Joints flew regularly off the coast of that country to grab the latest information about the Syrian military’s air defense posture. The information gathered is essential to allied combat mission planning, greatly enhancing the survivability of manned tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, and drones.

A robust array of data links and communications systems allow the RC-135s to send information back to base, to regional command centers, or forces on the ground, in near real time. Altogether, the Rivet Joints have an impressive mix of highly-proven strategic and tactical surveillance capabilities.

An official graphic showing the internal configuration of the RC-135V/W Rivet Joints and the tasks assigned to the various members of the crew. The not at the bottom refers to the plane's ability to perform

So, it is possible that Gismo 84 might have been heading to a station off the Venezuelan coast to monitor the Maduro regime’s recent deployment of various air defense assets. There have been various sightings of Russian-made S-125 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems, among other anti-aircraft artillery, moving toward the country’s shared border with Colombia, a major U.S. ally that has routinely criticized Maduro. Venezuelan forces also recently conducted what appeared to be an exercise with their long-range S-300VM surface-to-air missile systems, which the country also acquired from Russia.

Venezuela’s very public displays of its air defense capabilities can only be seen as a signal to the United States, in particular, that the country’s military remains loyal to Maduro and is prepared to respond to any American intervention. It’s also part of a broader propaganda push to present the embattled leader as firmly in power.

The RC-135 could have been in the area keeping its electronic ears open for relevant communications chatter, too. The Rivet Joint passed near Cuba, which is one of Maduro’s few supporters in the region. While Cuban authorities are almost certainly advising the Venezuelan leader, some members of the U.S. government have accused Cuban authorities of more actively directing his actions and policies, but so far there is no hard evidence that this is the case. Regardless, the United States would have to be very interested in know what the two countries might be coordinating.

While it was unusual for the Rivet Joint to pop up on public accessible flight tracking software, at least historically, it’s certainly not unusual for the aircraft to be flying in the region. When it comes to Cuba, for instance, Rivet Joints have long flown routes from bases in the United States to gather strategic intelligence about that island, run by a regime that is a long-time American adversary, irrespective of any ties it has to Venezuela. These sorties were, at least for a time, were given the nickname Bitter Wind.

Mention of Bitter Wind

RC-135s, flying from sites in the United States and forward bases in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Dutch island of Curaçao, also routinely take part in counter-narcotics operations in Central and South America. Beyond Bitter Wind, we know that intelligence gathering sorties as part of missions nicknamed Beach Wind, Seminole Wind, and Shula Wind have all taken place in or around Central or South America thanks to documents the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

Front to back, two US Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar planes, an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, and two KC-135R Tankers at the US forward operating location on the Dutch island of Curaçao.

RQ-4 Global Hawk flights nicknamed Beach Axe have occurred in areas under the purview of both U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command. The former oversees operations in Central and South American, as well as the Caribbean, while the latter is responsible for the area around the United States itself, as well as Canada and Mexico.

A portion of the table of contents from a 2009 US Air Force internal history describing various Global Hawk missions, including Beach Axe and Seminole Axe

The Air Force has also nicknamed U-2 Dragon Lady sorties over Colombia, specifically, as Seminole Emerald and Seminole Game. With all this in mind, the Beach Wind missions most likely involved Rivet Joints operating in areas adjacent to the Caribbean, at least in part, while Seminole Wind missions may have involved flights directly over Colombia.

Mention of Seminole Game multi-intelligence" U-2 flights over Colombia, as well as Lake Game flights over Haiti and the Dominican Republic, from a 2010 US Air Force internal history. The Lake Game missions were in support of the humanitarian response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which also impacted the neighboring Dominican Republic to a lesser extent." />

Beyond intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, the U.S. Air Force also regularly deploys a wide variety of combat aircraft, even including B-1 and B-52 bombers, to the Caribbean to support counter-drug operations. These missions, which you can read about in more detail here, are billed as training exercises that give aircrews a unique opportunity to search for and track real-world targets in a maritime environment.

Also, on Feb. 14, 2019, @CivMilAir, another active online plane tracker and friend to The War Zone spotted a B-52 making a somewhat unusual flight over Florida. Gismo 84 and this bomber might have been part of a larger surge of assets to support a particular counter-narcotics operation.

In August 2016, the Air Force took part in a similar effort, known as Operation Big Week. This involved the deployment of B-1s, B-52s, E-8C Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield management command and control aircraft, among other assets, in the Caribbean.

None of this is to say that increased attention from plane spotters on the region due to the crisis in Venezuela hasn’t uncovered curious and suspicious aerial activity. But it has also shone a light on the extensive and routine, if largely unpublicized activities of U.S. government aircraft, including U.S. military planes, across Latin America, as well.

So, Gismo 84’s trip into the Caribbean could have been tied to the crisis in Venezuela, but it may well have been just business as usual.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

Boeing Is Building Big Orca Drone Subs For The Navy To Hunt And Lay Mines And More

The U.S. Navy has hired Boeing to build four Orca extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles, or XLUUVs. The service plans to use the Orcas to explore and refine future concepts of operation for underwater drones of this size, which could include gathering intelligence, emplacing or clearing naval mines, attacking other ships or submarines, conducting stand-off strikes, and more.

The Pentagon announced that the Navy had awarded Boeing the contract for the Orcas, worth $43 million, in its daily service-wide contracting announcement on Feb. 13, 2019. Separately, the Chicago-headquartered defense contractor said it is partnering with shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls on the project in a Tweet on Feb. 15, 2019.

“The Orca XLUUV will be modular in construction with the core vehicle providing guidance and control, navigation, autonomy, situational awareness, core communications, power distribution, energy and power, propulsion and maneuvering, and mission sensors,” the Pentagon announcement said. It “will have well-defined interfaces for the potential of implementing cost-effective upgrades in future increments to leverage advances in technology and respond to threat changes.”

In 2017, the Navy awarded XLUUV developmental contracts to both Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The latter firm had proposed a vehicle with a shape more in line with an enlarged torpedo.

An artist's conception of Lockheed Martin's Orca proposal.

Boeing’s Orca design has a boxier hullform more akin to a small submarine and is derived from an earlier private venture known as Echo Voyager. This XLUUV was itself an evolution of previous work done the company had done on large unmanned undersea vehicles called Echo Seeker and Echo Ranger.

The most obvious difference between the Echo Voyager and the new Orca, at least based on Boeing’s concept art, is the replacement of the earlier undersea drone’s propeller with a shrouded propulsor. This improves propulsion efficiency and reduces noise, the latter factor being especially important for underwater military craft, where silence is essential to survival. Many modern military submarines, including the U.S. Navy’s Seawolf- and Virginia-classes, have similar propulsors for exactly this reason.

Otherwise, it looks likely that the new Orcas will borrow significantly from the 51-foot long, 50-ton Echo Voyager’s design, including its modular payload bays. The Orca’s basic performance may be similar, as well.

Boeing experimental Echo Voyager.

The diesel-electric Echo Voyager has a maximum speed of around nine miles per hour underwater and can dive to depths up to 11,000 feet deep. Its batteries give it range of more than 150 miles at a speed of around 3 miles per hour, before it needs to surface and use its air-breathing diesel generator to recharge.

Boeing has said that Echo Voyager could carry enough fuel to allow it to operate autonomously for up to six months at a time, covering total ranges of around 7,500 miles. With just one fuel module in its modular payload bays, it would still have a full range of more than 6,500 miles. It has its own sonar-enabled obstacle avoidance system, as well as an inertial navigation system.

Orca may also leverage experience Huntington Ingalls gained while working on its own large unmanned undersea vehicle project, called Proteus, in cooperation with Bluefin Robotics and Battelle. Proteus is a significantly smaller vehicle, though, at around 25 feet long, and is limited capability-wise compared to Echo-Voyager
.

The range and payload capacity of Boeing’s earlier design would have already made it attractive to the Navy, which has been actively looking at potential missions for a drone submarine of this size since at least 2000. That year, the service issued its first unmanned undersea vehicle strategy white paper.

In 2004, it released a new Unmanned Undersea Vehicle “master plan.” As of 2011, there was reportedly yet another update to the overarching strategy, but it has remained classified. But public briefings since then have shown that the Navy’s plans for future XLUUVs remain largely unchanged.

A US Navy briefing slide from October 2018, outlining unmanned undersea vehicle plans in the near- and long-term. The concept art of notional XLUUV configurations has been around since at least 2017.

Orca’s immediate mission will likely be mine and counter-mine warfare. The threat of naval mines is only increasing and proliferating to even non-state actors. The Navy itself recognizes the value these weapons would have in various operational scenarios and is looking to expand its own capabilities in that regard, which you can read about more here.

The Navy already uses much smaller unmanned undersea vehicles to scout for hostile mines without necessarily having to put manned ships at risk. Even the relatively large Orca would be better able to get into harder to reach areas, especially narrow and shallow waterways, where traditional minesweepers simply may not be able to maneuver.

With their endurance and autonomy, multiple Orcas could help clear a broader area in less time, as well. Naval mine hunting and sweeping have historically been a slow and painstaking affair that would be especially difficult to do rapidly under enemy fire.

The ability of the Orcas to operate across extended ranges and do so autonomously and discreetly, means they offer a novel way to deploy mines, as well. The underwater drones could not only help set up maritime minefields quickly within strategic chokepoints, but they could also potentially penetrate into denied areas well away from conflict zones to threaten enemy ports, shipyards, and other facilities.

A US Navy graphic from 2004 describing potential XLUUV payloads, including mines and mine-neutralizing systems.

This could include seeding mines in rivers and canals, as well. This kind of distributed mine warfare could only hamper the free movement of hostile naval forces, disrupt maritime logistics chains, and otherwise force an opponent to diverse limited resources to protecting rear areas.

These same qualities also open up the potential for a far greater array of missions in the future. If Orca can slip into enemy territory to plant mines, it can also do so to gather intelligence, already a well-established mission for larger manned submarines. It might also be able to act as a decoy, mimicking the signature of larger ships or submarines. The Navy has expressed an interest in finding a way for XLUUVs to carry electronic warfare packages to otherwise blind enemy sensors to incoming threats, but it is hard to see how this would work unless they're while running on the surface or very close to the surface.

Beyond that, there’s the possibility that the Orcas, or a follow-on XLUUV design, could carry weapons themselves to carry out attacks on surface ships or submarines. The Echo Voyager’s payload bay was already large enough to accommodate light and heavyweight torpedoes and Boeing says that design could accept external payloads, as well.

Combined with their autonomous capability and long range, packs of future XLUUVs networked together might also be able to persistently monitor and track potential threats, such as increasingly advanced Russia or Chinese submarines, holding them perpetually at risk across a broad region, such the Pacific. This is a mission the Navy has also envisioned for its future fleets of unmanned surface vessels. The service would require an underwater drone that could travel much faster than Orca to adequately perform this particular mission, though.

Lastly, Orcas might even eventually be able to launch strikes against targets ashore using stand-off cruise missiles. The Navy has described the ability for underwater drones to rapidly and discreetly position themselves close to a crisis area could make them valuable for time-sensitive strikes. It has also said that in the past that this particular mission set is a relatively low priority for XLUUVs.

Another US Navy graphic describing potential time-critical strike missions for future XLUUVs and how they might carry the stand-off weapons.

The Navy’s ongoing plans for an over-arching network architecture, part of which is known as the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), that will link all of its ships, submarines aircraft, and other assets, means that XLUUVs might perform any combination of these missions in direct cooperation with manned platforms, as well. It also means that a group of the underwater drones might include various versions carrying only sensors packages or just weapons, to maximum payload space while working together as a team.

The Orcas are also set to be a stepping stone in the Navy's plans for what it calls Large Diameter Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (LDUUV) that submarines such as the Virginia-class could launch and recover much closer to the actual target area. The service is working on concepts for more robust submarine motherships as part of its Large Payload Submarine program, which you can read about more here.

There's nothing to say that the Orca, or a future XLUUV, couldn't work in conjunction with a submarine mothership either. Using a larger, manned platform to deploy any sort of large underwater drone would let designers trade range for added payload capacity. The arrangement would also allow the unmanned vehicle to loiter in and around the target area for a longer period f time, which could be very useful for intelligence missions.

The Navy does not have a fixed schedule for when XLUUVs like the Orcas might actually take on any of these missions operationally. But the four drone submarines will give the service the test force it needs to fully explore the capabilities of this new category of craft.

In 2017, it stood up its first ever dedicated unmanned undersea vehicle unit, Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron One (UUVRON 1), specifically to take the lead in the development and testing of craft such as the Orca. The Pentagon’s contracting announcement says that Boeing and its partners will have built all four Orcas by 2022.

If this schedule holds, the next few years look to be an exciting time for the Navy and the development of new and impressive undermanned undersea capabilities.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

You Can Buy This Rare British Army Mine Resistant Armored Truck For The Zombie Apocalypse

A relatively rare 4x4 Tempest mine-protected armored truck, one of only eight 4x4 Tempests to ever have served with the British Army, has come up for auction online. So, if you’re worried about increased hazards along your own commute, are looking to stand out in your neighborhood, or are looking for a new ride that can carry you safely through hordes of zombies or past wasteland bandits, you make a bid on it yourself.

British auction house Brightwells is handling the sale of the Tempest, which by all account is in running condition with a working 300 brake horsepower Cat engine. The listing, which the U.K. defense analysis site Think Defence was among the first to spot, does not make any mention of what, if any, additional ex-military equipment might still be in the vehicle. At the time of writing, the top bid for the vehicle was 2,000 pounds, or around $2,560, but it seems highly unlikely that this meets the minimum reserve price for the vehicle, which originally cost the U.K. government closer to $500,000. You’ll need to secure an export license if you want to get it out of the United Kingdom, too.

Of course, private purchases of military vehicles, including armored vehicles and even tanks, are hardly unheard of and mine-resistant armored trucks, now commonly referred to as MRAPs after the U.S. military’s particular program, have become a ubiquitous part of conflicts around the world. But having a Tempest would be owning an interesting piece of mine-resistant vehicle history. The very origins of the basic design, and how it came to the attention of the United Kingdom, are somewhat convoluted, but the vehicle served as the basis for a very popular subsequent MRAP known as the Cougar.

State-owned South African manufacturing conglomerate Denel, through its subsidiary Denel-Mechem, had developed the 4x4 vehicle first under the name Lion in the 1990s. Decades before, South African firms had already established themselves as world leaders in mine-resistant vehicle design, the vast majority of which used V-shaped underbodies to try to deflect mine blasts and other explosions as safely as possible away from the occupants.

The Tempest presently up for sale through Brightwells.

Per a now defunct British Army Royal Engineers webpage, an archived copy of which you can fine here, the 12-ton Lion combined a new armored body with cab and chassis components from the Peterbilt 330 tractor together with a Marmon-Herrington four-wheel-drive conversion. However, other sources suggest that the primary donor vehicle was a tractor from Mack South Africa, according to Think Defence.

Eventually, the rights to the Lion passed to an American-headquartered company, Technical Solutions Group (TSG), which continued to work on the design, eventually dubbing it the Cougar. TSG, in turn, worked with yet another firm, Seafire, to market these and other vehicles in Europe.

The rear of the Tempest.

Separately, beginning in the late 1990s, the Royal Engineers had begun looking for replacements for a small number of vehicles derived from the South African Mamba, which they had acquired for use during peacekeeping missions in the Balkans earlier in the decade. As if things were complicated enough, British firm Supacat, better known for their all-terrain vehicles, worked with Seafire to pitch TSG’s design to the British Army.

The name Tempest was chosen to help differentiate the armored trucks from other British military systems named Cougar at the time. Between 2001 and 2002, the British Army ultimately acquired just eight of these vehicles at a total cost of more than $3.8 million at the time. Supacat became responsible for making further modifications to the vehicles, including the installation of additional underbody armor and U.K.-specific radios.

A promotional shot of a Tempest, with the vehicle's name prominently on the hood.

But instead of going to the Balkans to replace the Mambas, the Tempests had arrived just in time for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The United Kingdom was a major party to that operation.

As the invasion quickly turned into an occupation and the threat of insurgent attacks and improvised explosive devices grew, the Tempests, in sand-colored paint schemes, head to Iraq for patrol duties.

By 2004, some of the Tempests, in more appropriate overall green paint jobs, had finally arrived in the Balkans to join British peacekeepers and replace the Mambas, which had already gotten retired, according to Think Defence. Two years later, the mine-protected vehicles also went to Afghanistan.

It’s not clear exactly when the British pulled the Tempests from service, but by 2006, they were already buying substantial numbers of superior mine-resistant trucks. Tempest had actually paved the way for many of these vehicles.

To rewind, in 2002, TSG had found itself on the verge of bankruptcy after having trouble securing major orders for its vehicles. It eventually became a wholly-owned subsidiary of a new American company, Force Protection, Inc. Force Protection went on to market a much-improved derivative of TSG’s earlier design, which it also called the Cougar, but briefly marketed as the Typhoon.

A USMC 4x4 Cougar MRAP in Iraq in 2007.

In 2004, the U.S. Marine Corps began buying a large number of 4x4 and 6x6 variants to meet its own urgent demands for better-protected patrol vehicles in Iraq. The U.S. Army and Air Force followed suit. In 2007, continued purchases of these, and a host of other mine-protected vehicles, got rolled together into the joint-service Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) program.

In 2006, the British Army join in, purchasing a special U.K.-specific 4x4 variants known as the Ridgeback and Mastiff, respectively. This was eventually followed by orders a further modified 6x6 type with open pickup truck style rear bed, known as the Wolfhound.

British Army Mastiffs.

Force Protection developed a number of other designs, including the Buffalo, based on Denel-Mechem’s Lion II vehicle. The Buffalo has seen modest sales, but nothing compared to the deliveries of more than 1,000 Cougar variants to more than a dozen countries.

In 2011, General Dynamics Land Systems scooped up Force Protection. The two had previously worked together as part of a joint venture company called Force Dynamics. Cougars remain in service in both the United Kingdom and the United States to this day.

A British Army Buffalo.

Now, if you have the means, you have around six days to try to make the winning bid for one of just eight Tempests the British Army ever purchased, a unique piece of history and the progenitor of the Cougar MRAP family. You'd also certainly be starting conversations wherever you might go and be well equipped to rite out a Zombie apocalypse.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

Navy’s Newest Carrier Needs Critical Updates To Launch And Recover Aircraft With Certain Loadouts

The U.S. Navy has revealed that personnel aboard the first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford carriers do not even have the necessary technical information to reliably launch and recover all configurations of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jet and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. This follows a new Pentagon report that says the flattop’s advanced electromagnetic catapults and improved arresting gear remain as problematic as ever.

On Feb. 14, 2019, USNI News was first to report on the lack of information, which only further speaks to Ford’s, at best, limited capabilities to perform its core mission of conducting naval aviation operations nearly two years after delivery. In January 2019, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, released its latest annual review of the carrier’s progress, covering developments during the 2018 Fiscal Year. The report was highly critical of the state of Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG).

“In a couple of months, they are on a path to publish the fully fleet-representative recovery bulletins that will give us the capability to recover any weapons configuration which F-18 or a Growler can have on a Nimitz-class,” U.S. Navy Commander Mehdi Akacem, Ford’s Air Boss, told reporters visiting the carrier earlier in February 2019, according to USNI News. “So, when we next get to sea, we’re going to have tests pilots come out to do one real validation on the actual aircraft carrier, but then once that’s complete then we will be able to have fleet aircraft to come out and operate with us.”

The Navy needs to develop these so-called launch and recovery bulletins in order to be able to properly set the parameters on the EMALS and AAG. These systems are highly automated so that the carrier’s crew can fine tune the launch and recovery process better than they could with the steam-powered catapults and arresting gear on the Nimitz-class carriers.

At least on paper, the idea is that, with sufficient data, these systems can be set to very precise parameters that are specific to a certain type of aircraft and its loadout. There are many benefits to doing this, including reducing the wear and tear on both the carrier and its aircraft. In principle, the catapults will only need to use just enough force to throw a plane into the air and the arresting gear will only put the minimum amount of strain on the airframe to bring it safely to a stop.

For example, the EMALS settings would be for an F/A-18E/F carrying a purely air-to-air loadout won’t be the same as one loaded down with 10 1,000-pound class precision-guided bombs. Differences in total fuel load, the exact configuration of the particular airframe, and other factors might come into play, as well. This would all apply to the AAG recovering returning aircraft, which might have partial stores and fuel loads.

Concerns about how much stress the EMALS, in particular, puts on heavily laden aircraft has long been an issue. In 2017, the Navy had announced it had finally developed a software fix to prevent the catapults from over-stressing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers specifically when carrying the 480-gallon centerline drop tank.

"[But] there is no urgency to apply the fix, as shipboard launches of F/A-18s with [external fuel tanks] will not be conducted until 2019, following CVN-78’s Post Shakedown Availability," Rob Koon, a spokesperson for Naval Air Systems Command, told USNI News at the time. “There will be no impact because the aircraft launched prior to that time will not have [external fuel tanks]. [Post-shakedown availability] is the next availability for incorporating the software updates aboard CVN-78 without disrupting its upcoming test schedule.”

The problem is that until the Navy has sufficient data points, and has conducted flight tests to confirm their validity, Ford will still be limited in not only what kinds of aircraft it can send up, but what they can carry at all. Commander Akacem told the assembled reporters that the goal was to have all of the necessary information about the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G by the end of 2019.

Unfortunately, neither the EMALS nor the AAG have come close to meeting the Navy’s basic requirements after years of development. Akacem and the rest of Ford’s crew will have to contend with the extremely poor reliability of both systems as they try to confirm the launch and recovery data.

As of September 2018, Ford had conducted a total of 747 launches using EMALS, with the system suffering 10 critical failure over the course of those tests, according to DOT&E’s latest report. The Navy’s requirement is for the catapults to be able to launch an average of 4,166 aircraft before experiencing a serious fault.

The AAG’s performance was even worse. In 763 attempted recoveries, the arresting gear also suffered 10 operational mission failures. This included one instance in which the backup barricade system, primarily meant to stop an aircraft experiencing some sort of inflight emergency, also failed.

The barricade system in place on the <em>Nimitz</em>-class carrier USS <em>Ronald Reagan</em>.

DOT&E noted that this rate was not only exponentially lower than the Navy’s established requirement of one failure every 16,500 recovery attempts, but also didn’t meet the requirements laid out in a new “re-baselined reliability growth curve.” What this means is that the service has outlined a new, delayed schedule for when the AAG should be making progress and the system isn’t even meeting those demands.

In its report covering the 2017 Fiscal Year, DOT&E said that problems with the AAG meant Ford had just a one percent chance of being able to get through a typical day of flight operations without a problem. For testing purposes, the Navy had defined a normal day as recovering 84 aircraft during a 24-hour period.

To make matters worse, crews still have to power down the entire EMALS or AAG system in order to troubleshoot problems, instead of being able to just cut off electricity to specific components. This effectively brings flight operations to a halt while trying to assess and fix the fault. It takes an hour and a half just to spin down the EMALS generators and motors before any repair work can begin.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet comes in to land on <em>Ford</em> during testing.

These problems also raise the question about how representative the data the Navy is collecting will be in the long term if there becomes a need for significant changes to the EMALS or AAG in the future. Major modifications to either system could require the service to have to re-validate the settings all over again.

With two more Ford-class carriers already under construction, and the Navy having just agreed to purchase another pair after that, one can only hope that the service will be able to certify that all of the carrier air wing’s aircraft will be able to fly from their decks at all as soon as possible. But the ongoing difficulties with the EMALS and AAG present a definite risk of more delays,.

If nothing else, this only underscores the extremely limited operational capability Ford has at present and further calls into question when it might be able to make any sort of meaningful contribution to real-world missions.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

India Reportedly Looks To Buy Unfinished Soviet-Era MiG-29s To Stave Off Fighter Shortage

Facing a steady decline in available fighter jets, the Indian Air Force is now reportedly in talks to buy 21 unfinished Soviet-era MiG-29 Fulcrums from Russia and have them completed in a modernized configuration. The proposed deal comes as India continues to struggle with a host of other fighter jet procurement efforts, most notably a more than decade long effort to purchase of more than a hundred new fighter jets, which is now effectively in its third incarnation.

The Times of India was first to report on the possible acquisition of the MiG-29 hulks, which date to the late 1980s and have apparently been in storage since at least around the fall of the Soviet Union. India received around 70 early model MiG-29s from Russia between 1986 and 1990, of which around 62 remain in service.

Since the early 2010s, Indian aerospace contractor Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), in cooperation with MiG in Russia, has upgraded about half of these two the MiG-29UPG standard, with Russian assistance. The UPG variant is similar to the Russian modernized MiG-29SMT, featuring the Zhuk-ME electronically scanned slotted planar array radar, as well as engine improvements and an expanded capability to conduct air-to-ground missions.

Where the UPG reportedly differs most from the SMT is in its non-Russian avionics upgrades. The Indian Navy also flies MiG-29Ks that have many updated features in common with the SMT and UPG variants. The new potential deal with Russia would see the incomplete MiG-29s finished in a configuration similar to either the SMT or UPG versions, according to The Times.

An Indian MiG-29 upgraded by MiG in Russia to the UPG standard.

“These fighters were built in the 1980s but never assembled and flown,” an unnamed Indian Air Force officer reportedly told the Indian daily. “Our team visited Russia last month and found the MiG-29 skeletons to be in good condition.”

The individual offered no further details on the state of the aircraft parts, which have been in storage now for at least around 30 years. Beyond the officer saying India had been offered “a good price,” there is no word on how much the Russians want for the unassembled planes or to finish building them to a modern standard.

But it is hard to see how the proposal would provide India, at least in the near term, with the additional fighter jet capacity it desperately needs right now. The jets not only need to be assembled, but have to be brought up to a significantly different standard. The SMT and UPG variants both feature an enlarged “hump” behind the cockpit, for example, which holds extra fuel.

A Russian MiG-29SMT.

Making the changes necessary to internal wiring and other changes necessary to accommodate the new radar and other electronics could be particularly labor intensive. To underscore the potential complexities of the updates, the Indian Air Force’s entire MiG-29 fleet was originally supposed to be in the UPG configuration by 2013.

The amount of effort it might take to get just 20 additional aircraft into service seems excessive when the Indian Air Force has had a firm requirement for more than 100 additional aircraft since 2001. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, or MMCRA, which has been officially ongoing since 2007, is still supposed to provide the bulk of the capacity, but still seems years after from leading to the acquisition of actual aircraft.

The fact that India has dropped its participation in Russia's fledgling Su-57 program that was supposed to result in an Inidan-specific variant called the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) only adds more uncertainty to the country's future fighter force structure.

The chronically underperforming domestically-produced Tejas fighter jet was also supposed to help replace dozens more Cold War-era jets. So far, the Indian Air Force has around a dozen Tejas Mk 1s and 40 more still on order, as well as plans to acquire more than 80 substantially improved Mk 1A variants.

A HAL Tejas Mk 1.

However, the Mk 1A isn’t even supposed to make its first flight until 2020. The Indian Air Force’s plans to acquire a further upgraded Mk 2 variant, as well as a domestically designed stealth fighter, known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), are still very much in the conceptual phase.

In the interim, India had inked a deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from French manufacturer Dassault. The first of these aircraft are in flight testing in France with the expectation that they’ll get delivered later this year. However, years of allegations of corruption with regards to that contract have let to a bitter political and legal battle that threatens to upend the purchase entirely.

With all this in mind, the Indian Air Force may feel it has no choice but to resort to less optimal avenues to acquire any additional fighter jets. The Indian government says that the service needs at least 42 squadrons of fighter jets to meet its operational requirements, most importantly the need to continue presenting a realistic challenge to ever-growing Chinese and Pakistani airpower.

At present, it has just 31. Even more worrisome, many of these are equipped with increasingly geriatric Soviet-era MiG-21 and MiG-27 and European Jaguar and Mirage 2000 tactical jets. Though these planes have all received upgrades over the years, the basic life expectancy of the airframes is increasingly in question. It was just announced that India is looking to acquire another 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKI kits to assemble in-country as an additional measure to help shore up the country's rickety fighter force. Nearly 300 Su-30 aircraft, in the form of kits or otherwise, will have been delivered to India once the deal runs its course.

Indian firefighters hose down the remains of a MiG-27 after a crash in 2016.

Just so far in February 2019, the Indian Air Force has lost one MiG-27 and one Mirage 2000 in accidents. The pilot on board the MiG was able to eject, but the two aviators in the Mirage died. In the past, Indian media has referred to the MiG-21s and -27s specifically as “flying coffins” and “widow makers” on account of regular and often fatal crashes.

The Indian Air Force definitely needs more fighter jets to fill these growing gaps, which will only continue to expand as time goes on. But it’s not clear if pulling unfinished MiG-29s out of storage and bringing them up to a modern standard is a realistic path toward helping alleviate those issues. It's also possible that India could just use the old airframes for parts, but doing so would only has a chance of increasing the readiness of the existing MiG-29 fleet, not growing its size as a whole.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

The Soviet’s ‘Golden Fish’ Missile Submarine Still Holds The Record As The World’s Fastest

Sixty years ago, Soviet engineers began developing a new submarine under strict orders to eschew previous design decisions in favor of innovative concepts wherever possible. The resulting boat, a guided missile submarine that was known first as K-162 and eventually as K-222, established a still-unbeaten underwater speed record and was the first titanium-hulled submarine ever, but also proved too expensive and complicated to be anything more than a one-off, earning the nickname "Golden Fish."

K-162/K-222, the only Project 661 submarine ever built, was the product of a direct order from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and country’s Council of Ministers on Aug. 28, 1958. The directive called for a new “high-speed submarine” and development began the following year. The Project 661 design was also known as the Anchar-class in the Soviet Union and NATO referred to it as the Papa-class, even though there was only ever one boat.

The immediate impetus for the development of the Project 661 design was the limited capabilities and poor performance of the first generation of Soviet diesel-electric guided missile submarines, or SSGs. These early boats were conversions of Whiskey-class submarines, which were themselves derived from World War II-era Nazi U-boat designs.

When work on the Project 661 submarine started, the Soviets had already separately begun development of new classes of purpose-built conventionally-powered guided missile submarines (SSGs) and nuclear-powered guided missile submarines (SSGNs), the Project 651s and Project 659s respectively, which were also known as the Juliett- and Echo-classes in the West. But the goal for the new project was to produce an entirely novel cruise missile-carrying submarine that would be even more capable than either of these interim designs.

The Soviet Project 651 or <em>Juliett</em>-class guide missile submarine K-77.

The first major decision the designers made was to use titanium alloys for the submarine’s external and internal hulls rather than steel or aluminum. Titanium offered benefits in terms of its general strength and resistance to corrosion.

Though titanium is also only weakly magnetic, this did not render the Project 661 immune to detection by aircraft with magnetic anomaly detectors (MAD) or magnetic mines. This is due to the presence of more magnetic metals in the alloy, as well as various other components inside the submarine itself.

Compared to earlier Soviet submarines that still showed the influence of World War II-era designs, the hullform of the Project 661 was significantly different, featuring a rounded bow and a streamlined “split-feed” stern with twin propellers. The 1970s-era Project 949 SSGNs, or Oscar-class, would also use this same general arrangement.

A Cold War-era photo of K-162/K-222 showing its rounded nose. A still from a Soviet-era film about the Project 661 submarine showing its twin screws. The shrouds around the propellers were no longer in place when the submarine entered service.

The Soviets had never had to build such large titanium alloy components. So, while fabrication of the first components for the Project 661 submarine began in 1962, the need to devise entirely new and complex manufacturing processes meant the submarine was not officially laid down until December 1963. Years later, during construction of the titanium alloy hulled Project 705 submarines, also known variously as the Lira-class or Alfa-class, workers reportedly had to craft the hull sections inside a shed filled with inert argon gas, requiring the use of cumbersome "moon suits" with their own air supply.

For the Project 661 submarine, the Soviets also developed an advanced nuclear pressure water reactor, as well as a prototype lead-bismuth eutectic (LBE) cooled design. LBE reactors have greater thermal efficiency and can operate at higher temperatures than water-cooled designs without risk of the coolant boiling off.

Unlike other liquid metal-cooled reactor types, such as sodium or sodium-potassium designs, LBE does not react spontaneously with air or water, reducing the size and complexity of the entire coolant system and eliminating the risk of an explosion in the event of a leak. Unfortunately, LBE is also much more corrosive and has a higher melting point.

This means this type of reactor typically has a shorter overall lifespan and there is a risk of the coolant solidifying if the reactor drops below a certain temperature, requiring significant power to keep it sufficiently warm at all times. Furthermore, as the coolant becomes irradiated over time, it forms highly radioactive polonium-210 – a substance dangerous enough to work as an assassination weapon – as a byproduct, making it especially hazardous to refuel the system or otherwise handle any contaminated components.

K-162/K-222 underway.

The Soviets ultimately opted to install two highly compact VM-5 pressure water reactors, despite their lower performance. Even so, each one of them produced up to 177 megawatts of power. By comparison, the Echo-class SSGNs had a single, earlier VM-A that only generated a maximum of 70 megawatts.

The immense power from these reactors, combined with its lightweight, but strong titanium hulls, helped give the submarine a relatively blistering speed underwater. The Project 661 boat could cruise submerged at just shy of 44 miles per hour. It broke the world speed record for a submarine traveling undersea during its sea trials, reaching a maximum speed of more than 51 miles per hour.

The U.S. Navy’s Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, improved variants of which remain service today, have an official top speed of 23 miles per hour when submerged. There have been reports that these boats can actually get up to around 35 miles per hour underwater. The latest American Virginia-class attack submarines have a publicly stated top submerged speed of around 29 miles per hour, but this is still significantly slower than the Project 661 design.

The Soviet-era film below, though in Russian only, still offers an interesting look at K-162/K-222, its development, and the submarine in action.

The main armament of the Project 661 submarine was 10 anti-ship cruise missiles. At the time construction of K-162 began, the Soviets did not have a weapon of this type that a submarine could fire while concealed underwater. Existing SSGs and SSGNs had to surface first, making them vulnerable during the firing sequence.

So, they initiated the development of a new missile in parallel, which resulted in the P-70 Ametist, also known as the SS-N-7 Starbright. This weapon had a range of more than 35 miles and could carry a high explosive or nuclear warhead.

A P-70 anti-ship missile on a display stand with its rocket booster on a separate rack in the foreground.

With these missiles and its extreme speed, the Soviets expected to use the Project 661 boats to intercept American carrier groups. Since the submarines could not reload their missile tubes, slotted into tubes between inner and outer hulls, at sea, they would have had to return to port to rearm. The design also had four torpedo tubes and room for a dozen torpedoes, primarily for self-defense.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the Project 661’s design came at the price of extremely high cost and complexity. It took the Soviets almost six years from when they laid down K-162 in 1963 to get her commissioned.

While the first Project 661 was under construction, the Soviets were also able to design the simpler steel-hulled, single-shaft Project 670 SSGN, or Charlie-class, lay down the first example in 1964, and have it commissioned in 1967. The Soviet Navy had commissioned five of these submarines before K-162 even entered service.

An Indian Navy <em data-recalc-dims=Charlie-class SSGN." />

The Soviets ultimately decided not to produce any additional Project 661 submarines. But despite being the only ship of her class, K-162 did enter operational service. However, she proved to be just as problematic at sea as she was to build. Her high speed exposed problems that other submarines have never experienced.

At speeds over 40 miles per hour, turbulence along the hull created excessive noise, reportedly up to 100 decibels in some cases, louder than a truck driving by you, in certain places. For submarines, silence is key to survival. At its top speed, K-162 would also begin to suffer actual external damage from the force exerted on the hull.

So, after joining the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet in 1971, K-162 made relatively few operational patrols. For unspecified reasons, in 1978, the Soviets changed her hull number to K-222.

It wasn’t until September 1981 that a U.S. Navy carrier-based anti-submarine warfare squadron even spotted the submarine during a cruise. The S-3 Vikings of now-inactivated Sea Control Squadron Three Zero (VS-30), the Diamondcutters, flying from the deck of USS Forrestal at the time, hold that honor.

A pair of VS-30 Vikings in flight in September 1981, the same month they spotted the only Project 661 submarine out at sea.

Given the Soviet’s own concerns about her acoustic signature, it seems unlikely that this was entirely a product of her going undetected for a decade. In July 1981, P-3 Orions of Patrol Squadron One Zero (VP-10), flying from Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland had also detected the submarine after it sailed into an area where NATO naval forces were conducting an exercise. This earned that unit a Meritorious Unit Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy.

The lone Project 661 submarine saw the most action on the pages of Tom Clancey's 1986 novel Red Storm Rising. The boat briefly appears in the book to conduct anti-convoy operations.

The submarine’s biggest contribution appears to have been laying the groundwork for subsequent titanium-hulled nuclear-powered Soviet attack submarines, primarily the aforementioned Project 705 and the Project 945, or Sierra-class. The Alfas also used LBE-cooled reactors derived from the design originally intended for the Project 661.

The Alfa class boats were also capable of extremely high speeds, topping out around 47 miles per hour. But, while they were more successful than the sole Papa-class boat, they suffered from many of the same limitations, which you can read about in more detail here. They spent most of their time in port, poised to dart into the North Atlantic during a crisis.

A Soviet Project 705 <em data-recalc-dims=Alfa-class submarine." />

K-222 was gone from the active rolls of the Northern Fleet before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1999, she was formally stricken and set to get scrapped.

In a final testament to her effectively experimental design, in 2010, the Zvezdochka Ship Repair Center, part of Russian shipbuilder Sevmash in Severodvinsk, began dismantling the submarine without removing her reactor or its reactive fuel first. At the time, the Russians were still in the midst of a selecting a consultant, via the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), to determine the best way of disposing of the boat’s radioactive components.

K-162/K-222 inside <a href=a floating drydock ahead of scrapping in 2008." />

The Kremlin reportedly went ahead with breaking down K-222 before worrying about what to do with the reactor or its fuel because the submarine’s design did not have any specific provisions for removing the reactor for servicing or other purposes, to begin with. It’s not clear what happened to either the reactor plant or any other components of the boat in the end.

After more than six decades, the Project 661 design still holds the world record for the top submerged speed of any submarine. The boat was certainly an impressive feat of engineering, but given the problems it exposed with sailing this fast under the water, it seems unlikely that this record will get broken any time soon.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com

The U.S. Army’s New Up-Gunned Stryker Armored Vehicles Have Been Hacked

It’s been more than a year since the first up-gunned Stryker Dragoon armored vehicles arrived in Europe, giving elements of the U.S. Army’s forward-deployed 2nd Cavalry Regiment a much-needed boost in firepower against potential threats. Since then, unfortunately, unspecified “adversaries” – a term the U.S. military has used in the past to describe the Russians, but that could also mean surrogate opponents during an exercise – have also been able to disrupt certain systems on the vehicles with a cyber attack on at least one occasion.

The Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, revealed the existence of the Stryker Dragoon’s cyber vulnerabilities in its most recent annual report on the status of the vehicle’s ongoing development during the 2018 Fiscal Year. The initial batch of these vehicles, also known as the XM1296 or the Infantry Carrier Vehicle-Dragoon (ICV-D), touched down in Germany in December 2017. The Army had begun developing the new variant, which features a new turret with a 30mm automatic cannon, directly in response to a request from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in 2015.

“Adversaries demonstrated the ability to degrade select capabilities of the ICV-D when operating in a contested cyber environment,” DOT&E’s report, which the office released in January 2019, said. “In most cases, the exploited vulnerabilities pre-date the integration of the lethality upgrades.”

The report does not say where the cyber attack or attacks occurred or what specific systems they impacted. It seems most likely that the attacks had an effect on the vehicle’s data-sharing, navigation, or digital communications capabilities. Disrupting any of these systems, or adding false or confusing information into the networks, can hamper or slow U.S. operations or create added risks for American forces. Army combat vehicles have onboard GPS navigation systems, as well as a GPS-enabled data-sharing system known as Blue Force Tracker that provides various information, including their relative position to friendly and possible hostile forces, which can help prevent friendly fire incidents.

The vehicles themselves may not have been the specific target, either. Cyber attacks against computer networks supporting any of the Stryker Dragoon’s onboard systems could have had a second-order effect on the vehicle’s ability to use those capabilities. There have been a string of reports from U.S. government watchdogs warning about serious cyber vulnerabilities across the U.S. military.

There is no indication from DOT&E's report that any other Stryker variants besides the Dragoon have experienced cyber attacks under any circumstances, but the report's note that these issues are not related to the “lethality upgrades.” This implies that the vulnerabilities are at least present in the standard M1126 Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle (ICV) and improved M1256 ICV with the blast-resistant double-v-hull. Depending on which systems are vulnerable, these issues may be present in other Stryker variants or entirely separate vehicle types, as well.

The review only recommends the Army “correct or mitigate cyber vulnerabilities.” The service should also “mitigate system design vulnerabilities to threats as identified in the classified report,” DOT&E added.

But most importantly, the report does not qualify who the “adversaries” in question were, raising the possibility that up-gunned Strykers were the victims of an actual hostile cyber attack in the 2018 Fiscal Year, which ran from Oct 1, 2017 through Sept. 30, 2018. DOT&E may have been referring to a mock enemy cyber attackers during a drill. In the face of growing cybersecurity threats, the U.S. military as a whole, as well as its NATO allies, has increasingly sought to simulate these dangers in training exercises.

Czech cybersecurity experts at work during a NATO exercise.

However, in typical military parlance faux opponents are more often described as the “opposing force,” or OPFOR, or as “aggressors.” For a time, the U.S. Air Force actually had units designated as “Information Warfare Aggressor Squadrons.”

“Strykers from 2nd Cavalry Regiment do train in a contested environment within our exercises,” Lacey Justinger, a spokesperson for the Army’s 7th Army Training Command, or 7ATC, in Germany, told The War Zone in an Email. “During those exercises, our free-thinking opposing force at 7ATC’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center is equipped and able to perform in a realistic manner that mimics the most challenging traits of any potential adversary.”

Justinger declined to confirm or deny whether an actual adversary had launched cyber attacks impacting the Stryker Dragoons. “We will not speculate as to what adversary the Office of the Director of Test and Evaluation references in their reports,” she said, referring us to DOT&E.

DOT&E’s public affairs liaison is on leave and that office directed us to contact the Department of Defense’s main public affairs office. “For operations security reasons, DOD does not comment on specific risks or vulnerabilities,” Heather Babb, a Pentagon spokesperson, told us in a separate response to our queries.

A Stryker Dragoon fires its main gun during an exercise.

But it seems very possible DOT&E’s report was referring to at least one actual cyber attack on American forces in Europe. “Adversary” is typically reserved for actual or potential opponents. “A party acknowledged as potentially hostile to a friendly party and against which the use of force may be envisaged,” is the definition of the term in the January 2019 edition of the official Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.

“Right now in Syria, we’re in the most aggressive EW [electronic warfare] environment on the planet from our adversaries,” U.S. Army General Raymond Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said in remarks at a symposium in April 2018. “They’re testing us every day, knocking our communications down, disabling our AC-130s, etcetera.”

Thomas never named names, but this was almost certainly a reference to Russian or Russian-support forces in Syria. DOT&E’s report could easily be making another veiled claim about the Kremlin with regards to the Army's Stryker Dragoons in Europe.

Since October 2017, there has been a steady string of reports of electronic warfare and cyber attacks against NATO members with the likely culprit almost universally being Russia. The attacks have ranged from scrambled GPS signals to actual attempts to hack into cellphones belonging to American troops.

A US Army soldier takes a selfie with other American and Polish troops during an exercise in Europe.

Just on Feb. 11, 2019, the Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS), the country’s top military intelligence agency, also known as the Etterretningstjenesten or E-tjenesten, once again publicly accused the Russians of jamming GPS signals in the country’s far north. In November 2018, Finland had also publicly stated that they were in agreement with their Norwegian colleagues that the Kremlin was behind a string of disruptions of the satellite navigation system in northern Scandinavia.

“This is not only a new challenge for Norwegian and Allied training operations,” NIS head Norwegian Air Force Lieutenant General Morten Haga Lunde said while presenting an annual risk assessment report on Feb. 11, 2019. “Jamming is also a threat to, among others, civilian air traffic and police and health operations in peacetime.”

Haga Lunde has said in the past that he does not believe these electronic warfare attacks were intentional, but were instead more likely a byproduct of Russian military exercises on the other side of the two country’s shared border. Russia has invested significant resources in developing and fielding a slew of land-based jamming systems and routinely deploys them during drills. It has also fielded them in conflict zones such as Ukraine and Syria.

A Russian 1L266 electronic warfare vehicle.

But it would seem almost impossible for a Russian cyber attack on U.S. forces to be accidental. These kinds of cyber intrusions still represent a way for Russia to test and harass American forces with relatively low practical and political costs. It has also proven to be a more readily deniable form of attack for the Kremlin, even in the face of formal, public protests, such as the ones from Norway and Finland.

If the Russians are actually now targeting the systems on military vehicles, directly or indirectly, this would appear to be a significant escalation in the nature of these attacks, though, which have previously been more focused on individuals and personal devices. Degrading networks associated with the Stryker Dragoons instead seems to reflect an active attempt to probe American cyber defenses in Europe and test capabilities that might come into play in an actual crisis.

"There is a continual effort to test, evaluate and integrate these advances across all warfighting functions to improve and maintain our readiness," Justinger, the Army spokesperson, added. "The point of ongoing training opportunities and exercise scenarios like these [that include simulated cyber threats] is to find vulnerabilities, correct and strengthen them before battle, in order to offer our Soldiers the best and safest equipment, practices and procedures to ensure they come home safe to their families and friends."

But it appears that the U.S. military, especially forces in Europe might be finding out about these cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the field, regardless of whether any exercises are supposed to help uncover them under training conditions.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com