New Brain for the Raptor? Plug and Play Technology on the Cards

The F-22 Raptor is in need of a system upgrade which allows it to incorporate other technologies in the future – U.S. Air Force says. Service officials hope to make it much cheaper and easier to provide modifications to the F-22 in the future, including the option of cross-integration with technology already developed for the F-35.

The fact is that the next-generation fighter has a very highly integrated avionics system already, but one that is closely knit and proprietary. This has created a monopolized structure where most improvements would be reliant on the aircraft’s design companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The F-22 SPO (System Program Office) would like to see an Open System Architecture employed, and are willing to contract another company to do so.

“We are highly reliant upon Lockheed Martin and Boeing to do any kinds of modifications to the Jet” says David Weber, Deputy Director of the F-22 SPO. “The open-architecture effort is meant to allow the Air Force to open upgrade work to competition”.  Weber goes on to state that Boeing and Lockheed would be welcome to bid on the demonstration contracts in the future, and that this is one of several alternative directions for the programme.

For more information on this article, I recommend

Images courtesy of


Northrop Grumman Speculation Continues Over ‘Super Talon’

Burt Rutan's ARES Concept a possibility for the USAF T-X Training System

Last July it was known as the ‘Biggest USAF Contract That Nobody was Talking About’. Since then funding for the new advanced jet training system has jumped tenfold and in the latest five-year spending plan $306 million has been put aside for the T-X programme- the replacement for Northrop T-38C Talon and its simulators.

According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, Northrop has applied to register the rights to the term ‘Super Talon’. Whether this is a major overhaul of the original aircraft or a new pu

rpose built design is yet to be seen. Boeing are the only other company interested in competing at this time, though have made no soundings for what direction they suggest for the system. The scheduled introduction of the aircraft is 2017 if the USAF does not chose an off-the-shelf model to replace it.

Northrop Grumman‘s advanced development team has been busy lately. The last two years has yielded the revelations of Wild Thing, MQ-X and, most recently and featured on this blog, Firebird. Now, this otherwise secret concept may have leaked outside Northrop’s version of Skunk Works. The ARES Concept as developed by Burt Rutan is one of the more exotic options that  Northrop Grumman are looking into. A re-built T-38 with 9g maneuvering, increased engine power, embedded training suites and a digital cockpit are some of the improvements possibly on the cards.

USAF officials are expected to brief the Defense Acquisition Board about the requirement in June. Until then we can probably expect more speculation to surface over the coming weeks.

Image Courtesy of

Royal Navy Provide The Platform to Use Apaches in Libya

HMS Ocean with Three Apaches

In what originally started out as an exercise, the Army Air Corp’s AH-64s have been sped through re-qualification to provide further air-power to the region and further help rebels in the area of Misurata in their fight against Libyan government forces.

Only three Apaches are deployed on HMS Ocean, but the government has apparently authorized at least one more to be dispatched there with two more on standby, as reported by the Daily Telegraph.

The move is an obvious stopgap to project some carrier launched air power where the recently decommissioned Ark Royal would have been providing fighter support. It is also seen as a big escalation for the British after weeks in which sustained attacks on Libyan government positions and Col. Gadddafi’s leadership compounds failed to generate any major breakthrough.

Speculation is that these birds are part of the Anglo-French force of attack helicopters that could be set to strike targets belonging to Gadhafi’s government in Libya. Apaches mark a new phase in Libya that could provide much more flexible Close Air Support, coming on the heels of some of the heaviest NATO air strikes yet against Gadhafi.

RQ-170 Sentinel Used In Raid That Killed Bin Laden

RQ-170 Stealth Drone

Although this may not be news to everyone, U.S. intelligence officials are conceding that the RQ-170 Sentinel, or “Beast of Kandahar” was the ISR support aircraft used during the raid that killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad earlier this month.

The Sentinel is a stealth drone designed to evade radar detection and operate at high altitudes and it is highly likely that the CIA conducted clandestine flights over the compound for months before the assault on May 2nd in an effort to capture high-resolution video that satellites could not provide.

I say this could not be news because to many, it seems only right that in an operation that used at least two stealthy blackhawks, 24 Navy SEALs (and a dog named Cairo) such an aircraft would be used to maintain the low-observability of the entire operation. Also, the RQ-170 was leaked to have been placed in an operational capacity in Afghanistan back in August 2010, which possibly shielded the aircraft from further media scrutiny. For these reasons, speculation has been rife for weeks.

The operation in Abbottabad involved another US aircraft with stealth features and the Black Hawk helicopter equipped with special cladding to dampen noise and evade detection during the 90 minute flight from a base in Afghanistan. The helicopter was intentionally destroyed by US forces – leaving only a tail section intact – after a crash landing at the outset of the raid.

The CIA’s repeated secret incursions into Pakistan‘s airspace underscore the level of distrust between the United States and a country often described as a key counterterrorism ally, and one that has received billions of dollars in US aid. An operation of this kind and for this duration required the  jamming of Pakistani radars and beamed footage of the compound and over multiple periods.

This development only further paints a picture of a raid that was indeed carried out without Pakistani knowledge and through weeks of collated Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance  one that would not have been possible without the role fulfilled by the Sentinel.

Image courtesy of

F-35B Finally Back On Track… And Could Be Ready For Sea Trials This Fall

F-35B Flight Testing

Update: F-35C is also surpassing expectations Link

So it seems, finally, the F-35B is no longer behind schedule in its flight testing. In fact, the Joint Strike Fighter has achieved more since January than people would have thought possible only several months ago.

In a statement to, Brigadier General Gary Thomas, the USMC Assistant Deputy Commandant for Aviation has said that  the plane is at “about 200 percent of our planned test points today”. He went further to say that the F-35B had performed seven times more vertical landings since January than it had done all of last year.

The programme has been plagued with issues and delays, starting with structural weaknesses were affecting the aircraft’s performance and then some serious mechanical problems with the F-35B’s innovative lift fan doors.  A lot of international attention was drawn to disagreements between the US Defence Secretary and UK government over sharing the source code that governs the avionics in the new Panoramic Cockpit Display and finally, a report released by the US Government Accountability Office last month put the projected cost as $385 billion, almost $170 billion over budget from its start. All this, led Defence Secretary Robert Gates to putting the B-model fighter on a “two-year probation’ and warning closure if results weren’t quickly produced.

But, back from the brink, the programme is on target to begin seaborne trials this fall. This is very good news for the Pentagon, and perhaps even more so for the UK, who are already looking for a quick replacement to the already mothballed Harrier Gr.9. With the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier that has a planned launch in 2020 – the prospect of a carrier with no operational fixed wing aircraft obviously could cause some concern.

The USMC are looking at the F-35B as a replacement for their AV-8B Harriers, F/A-18s and EA-6B Super Prowlers. In terms of performance, it has so far proved very similar  to the F/A-18, however the new technology developments and low radar cross section makes it a huge improvement in any Carrier Strike Package.

Grounding European Flights from Icelandic Volcano Eruption was the right thing to do

Eyjafjallajökul causing Air Travel Disruption in April 2010

Remember last year when a volcano in Iceland succeeded in effectively shutting down all air traffic in Europe for days? Well, despite the only evidence filtering down to most of the continent being slightly prettier sunsets, a new study suggests that grounding all flights had been the right thing to do.

Some areas in Europe were restricted from air travel for months and travel companies stated serious objections about the supposed threat caused. However,  shortly after the eruption started, Susan Stipp of the University of Copenhagen arranged the collection of samples of ash from several distances away from the volcano over the days of disruption.

The ash released in the first few days of the eruption so it happens contained ‘unusually high levels of particles smaller than 300 micrometres across’. In other words, the particles were most likely to become trapped in jet engines and melt, causing the engines to stall. The particles were also hard and sharp, making them more likely to sandblast aircraft windows.

The conclusion of the analysis suggests that Europe was right to ground all air travel. But Fred Prata, from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller also states that,  the sort of real-time measurements Stipp carried out could make it possible to keep some airspace open, with planes steered into corridors away from the worst of the ash.

Such real time tests could give within 24 hours a reliable indication of the risk that an ash cloud could cause aircraft. Some airlines have taken their own measures, Easyjet have already installed AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) on most of its aircraft; a sort of Weather radar for ash. So rest assured if this happens again in the future, real time readings or not, the CAA and EASA will still be subject to objections from travel companies.

Northrop Unveils Latest Spy Plane

Northrop Grumman Firebird UAV

Only last week the rumour mill was rife with talk of a new class of UAV flying over Beale Air Force base, California. If you have the time to trawl through the speculation, it was soon clear this wasn’t simply a modified MC-12 Liberty as used for surveillance and reconnaissance in Iraq. Sure enough, Northrop Grumman have unveiled their new spy plane, the Firebird. The UAV is filled with high definition cameras, electronic eavesdropping gear and is developed from scaled composites.

The Announcement states:

“Firebird’s universal interface is similar to plugging a memory stick into a personal computer that is automatically recognized without needing to load additional software.

“Not only have we increased the number of ISR sensors working simultaneously in an aircraft of this size, but we can also incorporate various sensors that complement each other – greatly enhancing Firebird’s information-gathering value for warfighters,” said Rick Crooks, Northrop Grumman’s Firebird program manager. “Firebird is an adaptable system that makes it highly affordable because of the number of different missions it can accomplish during a single flight. It’s a real game changer.”

The biggest development is that the aircraft can be optionally manned when required and can carry upto 1,200 pounds, making it versatile for a range of different combat roles. Payloads other UAVs may be comparably higher, but the optional inclusion of an operator, at least as test bed for new sensor technologies could be a major factor that could get NG more than a few orders.

UAV Payload Comparison

It’s success will be better measured when the aircraft is entered into Joint Forces Command’s Empire Challenge exercise later this month.