The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY TACTICAL

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

Sophisticated, weaponized drones were once a US military monopoly, but a growing number of world powers — including rivals China and Russia, rogue states North Korea and Iran, and stateless terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Yemen’s Houthi rebels — are challenging America’s longtime dominance of unmanned warfare.


In the latest sign of the battle for aerial supremacy in the drone wars, a strike Oct. 9 killed 10 fighters from a Lebanese-based Hezbollah unit fighting in eastern Syria. No group immediately claimed responsibility, but Hezbollah has been allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad in his battle against Islamic State and an al-Qaeda offshoot operating in the country, while Israel has been nervously watching the Shiite militants’ advance.

That there are so many plausible suspects shows the increasing prominence of drone warfare, analysts say.

Unmanned weapon systems, colloquially known as drones, have been staples in the US military arsenal since the post-9/11 global war on terrorism. The first publicly acknowledged drone strike conducted by US forces was a 2001 attack against insurgents in Afghanistan just weeks after the American invasion of the country, according to a database tracking drone strikes compiled by the thinktank New America.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
USMC photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins

Since then, 28 other nations have successfully developed or purchased weaponized drone assets for their militaries, according to the New America report. That list includes Iran and North Korea, which developed and deployed armed aerial drones in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

Having seen the success of the US drone program, “other states are bringing their own drone programs online, and the proliferation of civilian drone technology has opened the door to the use of [unmanned aerial vehicles] by non-state actors,” wrote Alexander Sehmer, editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, which recently published a survey of increased drone use by Islamic State and states such as Russia and Iran.

Poland and Taiwan were the most recent entrants into the growing league possessing armed drone technology. Earlier this year, Taipei and Warsaw announced plans to field medium-altitude, long-range aerial drones for military operations.

The drone explosion is actually much larger, US intelligence officials warn. As many as 87 nations are believed to possess some sort of rudimentary unmanned capability that could be used for surveillance or offensive operations.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
Still from an ISIS-released video entitled “Ninawa Wilayah – Knights of Diwan” that demonstrates the use of drones.

As drone technology becomes cheaper and the availability of such technology bleeds over from military markets into commercial ones, terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda are quickly taking advantage. Commercially available quad-rotor drones, operated by simple remote controls over standard radio frequencies, wrought havoc on local and coalition forces as they pushed Islamic State back from its enclaves in northern Iraq and now Syria.

Islamic State ground commanders would often use the commercial, off-the-shelf drones outfitted with Bluetooth cameras to track movements of Iraqi and coalition tanks and armored vehicles in cities such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Tal Afar.

The terrorist group would use that information to direct armored suicide car bombers to strike enemy forces advancing through the city. In some instances, Islamic State fighters would rig commercial drones with hand grenades, mortar shells, or other explosive ordnance and drop the makeshift bombs onto Iraqi forces or into coalition firebases set up along the front line of the advance.

The use of commercial drones became such a concern that US commanders in Iraq and Syria ordered American and coalition warplanes to target Islamic State drone-makers, putting them on par with other high-value targets. Three top Islamic State drone developers were killed in a US airstrike late last month, Defense Department officials confirmed Oct. 6.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
USAF photo by Kenji Thuloweit.

“The removal of these key ISIS leaders disrupts and degrades ISIS’ ability to modify and employ drone platforms as reconnaissance and direct fire weapons on the battlefield,” Col. Ryan Dillon, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, said in a statement.

Islamic State is not the only American adversary to exploit the military applications of drones. American warplanes shot down an Iranian-built Shaheed-129 aerial drone advancing on US and coalition positions in southern Syria in July.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who are engaged in a civil war in Yemen, reportedly launched a sea-based armed drone against a Saudi warship in the Red Sea in January. The relatively sophisticated technology is evidence that the US and its allies point to of Iranian backing of the rebel group in Yemen’s civil war.

“Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind,” Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, 5th Fleet commander and head of US Naval Forces-Central, confirmed to Defense News in February. The drone strike killed two Saudi navy sailors and injured three others.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
An unmanned 11-meter rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) from Naval Surface Warfare Center. Navy photo by John F. Williams.

The potential for unmanned aircraft being used by terrorist groups or non-state actors against the US or its allies has weighed heavily on American intelligence officials going back to 2013.

A US intelligence official who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity, said at the time that it is “getting easier for non-state actors to acquire this technology.”

Because drones have clear peaceful, commercial applications as well, “one problem is that countries may perceive these systems as less provocative than armed platforms and might use them in cross-border operations in a way that actually stokes regional tension,” the official said.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
ISIS is using drones more and more in their warfighting tactics.

Market drivers

US adversaries’ adoption of military drone technology began to peak around 2010, just as US drone operations against terrorist targets under the Obama administration reached its high-water mark. That year, President Obama authorized a drone strike against US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni cell.

Iran was the first to obtain a viable unmanned combat aircraft in 2010, according to analysis by New America, fielding the Karrar armed drone. North Korea followed two years later by introducing the “suicide drone” — a modified version of the Raytheon-built MQM-107 Streaker unmanned aircraft, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

Foreign military drone sales by US defense firms were tightly regulated and limited to America’s closest allies, said Alyssa Sims, a national security analyst at New America.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
RQ-1 Predator drone. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock.

But those stringent limitations on the export of US drone technology opened the door for rival producers, especially China, to step into the voracious market.

“Evidence of the use of armed drones supplied by China, in Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria in the past year alone reveals the increased willingness of foreign nations to invest money in the purchase or production of armed drones,” she wrote.

Even American weapons makers are looking to markets abroad in the wake of reduced Pentagon budgets in the final years of Mr. Obama’s term.

Beijing’s “no questions asked” approach to armed drone sales has pushed China to the forefront of international proliferators of unmanned technologies, outside of the US and Israel, Ms. Sims wrote. Nigerian and Pakistani forces field China’s CH-3 armed drone, while Iraq, even as it relies on US military support in the fight against Islamic State, has deployed the newer CH-4 against Islamic State positions during the ongoing war there.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

The Aegis Combat System is successfully plucking enemy missiles out of the sky

The US Navy and Missile Defense Agency, supported by Lockheed Martin, successfully conducted a series of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) tests in the Atlantic Ocean during Formidable Shield 2017 from Sept. 24 to Oct. 17, 2017. Naval forces from eight NATO nations participated in the exercise.


Formidable Shield is designed to demonstrate and improve allied interoperability in an integrated air and missile defense environment, using NATO command-and-control reporting structures and datalink architecture.

Also read: Latest missile test shows US can knock Kim’s missiles from the sky

In one event, a US Navy ship operating with the BMD 4.0.3 Aegis Combat System conducted a simulated SM-3 Blk IB TU engagement of a live short-range ballistic missile target using remote track data provided by a Spanish F-100 class ship. In the same event, another US Navy ship, operating with the Baseline 9.C1 integrated air and missile defense capabilty, launched SM-2 missiles against cruise missile targets while simultaneously tracking the short-range ballistic missile.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) successfully launches an SM-2 Standard Missile from the forward Vertical Launching System as part of their Combat System Ship Qualification Trials. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Maria I. Alvarez.

In another event, a US Navy ship with BMD 4.0.3 Aegis Combat System successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target with an SM-3 Blk IB TU.

“The tests show how flexible and versatile the Aegis Combat System is with other international navies around the world,” said Jim Sheridan, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Naval Combat Missile Defense Systems. “Working with our allied nations and the US Navy depicts the interoperability of the Aegis Combat System with other disparate systems in an integrated air and missile defense environment.”

As a proven world leader in systems integration and development of air and missile defense systems and technologies, Lockheed Martin delivers high-quality missile defense solutions that protect citizens, critical assets and deployed forces from current and future threats. The company’s experience spans missile design and production, hit-to-kill capabilities, infrared seekers, command and control/battle management, and communications, precision pointing and tracking optics, radar and signal processing, as well as threat-representative targets for missile defense tests.

Articles

The hater’s guide to the Harrier

The AV-8B+ Harrier is an iconic plane. The British Sea Harrier arguably was the reason the United Kingdom won the Falklands War. But let’s be honest, this plane isn’t immune from being something we can poke fun at…


So, as we have done with the F-16 and the A-10, here’s the Hater’s Guide to the Harrier.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
Capt. Jonathan Lewenthal and Capt. Eric Scheibe, AV-8B Harrier pilots with Marine Attack Squadron 231, Marine Aircraft Group 14, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), fly over southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory Moore)

Why it is easy to make fun of the Harrier

It has short range. The payload’s not much when you compare it to conventional planes. It kinda looks funny.

Also, it’s British, and have the Brits developed a good combat plane since World War II? The Spitfire wasn’t bad. But the “Spit,” like the Harrier, had the same short range problem. So, it’s…a British thing?

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Garry J. Welch)

Why you should hate the Harrier

Because it has a high rate of “Class A” mishaps. Because their pilots think they are carrier pilots, when all they do is land vertically (let’s see how they do when it’s trap or bolter). Because they think using a stool to replace a landing gear is cool.

Because it won’t win any races against an F-15, F-16, F/A-18, or F-22.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
That vertical landing, tho… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Mark El-Rayes)

Why you should love the Harrier

Because it can operate where other planes can’t. Runway cratered? Harriers are still in business. It holds the line when Hornets can’t. With AMRAAMs, it can shoot down anything an Eagle can. It’s GAU-12 can put the hurt on bad guys.

Because, when it was needed by the United Kingdom, it came through. For close air support, a Marine Harrier is the best option when you can’t have a Warthog.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
An AV-8B Harrier with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced), 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, flies in position while conducting aerial refueling training operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Chad R. Kiehl)

Okay, when it comes down to it, the Harrier is, despite its foibles, one awesome jet.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Here’s what it takes to maintain ‘world’s most powerful Air Force’

Maintenance is the backbone of the world’s most powerful Air Force. In recent years the maintenance career field has been battling manning challenges. With the help of Airmen like Staff Sgt. Jonathan Dantuma of Travis Air Force Base, California, the solutions will come from the airmen on the flightline.


MIGHTY TACTICAL

Boeing T-X first official EMD flight test was ‘superb’

On July 1, 2019, Boeing announced that T-X aircraft N381TX flew the first official Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) flight test from Boeing’s St Louis plant in Missouri. Boeing did not disclose further details about this flight although the Chief T-X Test Pilot, Steve ‘Bull’ Schmidt, said: “She flew just superb. First EMD test points went off without a hitch”.


The aircraft is one of the two company-funded prototypes built for the Air Force T-X Advanced Pilot Training program and modified into the EMD design after the first flight test campaign. The two aircraft performed 72 test flights between December 2016 and December 2018, gathering data ahead of the EMD testing. During the last months, Boeing and Saab (rear fuselage supplier for T-X) modified the prototypes with ACES 5 ejection seat, an updated On-Board Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS) and other minor changes. Boeing is counting on completing the critical design review of the final EMD configuration by the end of 2019.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

The two T-X prototypes in formation during a flight test.

(Boeing)


The U.S. Air Force awarded the $ 9.2 billion T-X contract to Boeing and Saab in September 2018 for 350 trainer aircraft, 46 ground-based training systems and related ground equipment, with other 125 aircraft on option.

The first five aircraft and seven simulators will be delivered to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph (Texas) in 2023, with Initial Operational Capability (IOC) planned by the end of 2024 and Full Operational Capability (FOC) planned by 2034. The T-X trainer is due to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon, the world’s first supersonic and most produced jet trainer, that has been in service for over 50 years.

Boeing T-X Begins EMD Flight Tests

www.youtube.com

The new aircraft is powered by a single General Electric Aviation F404 engine (the same engine used by the Saab Gripen C/D and legacy F/A-18) and has a design similar to the F/A-18, with leading-edge root extensions (LERX) and twin tails that can provide high performance training for pilots that will fly US front-line fighters. The cockpit features a touchscreen large-area display (LAD), digital Up-Front Controller (UFC) and standby instruments, Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) controls and a low profile Head-Up Display (HUD), much like the F-35 cockpit or the proposed cockpits for Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Block III and F-15X and Saab’s Gripen E.

This article originally appeared on The Aviationist. Follow @theaviationist on Twitter.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This company wants to make the Army’s M17 into way more than a pistol

Warfighting, like any line of work, gets much easier when you have the right tools for the job. A long barrel and high powered optics may make you a lethal opponent in the long-range shootouts of Afghanistan, but that same loadout could quickly become a liability in the close-quarters battles of Baghdad. Of course, some circumstances may call for both accuracy at a distance and the rapid target acquisition of an in-your-face fight, and in those situations, you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.

That’s where platforms like FLUX Defense’s MP17 for the new Army standard issue M17 pistol could come in. Instead of replacing the Army’s existing sidearm, FLUX Defense went to work on finding ways to make Sig Sauer’s M17 more lethal and efficient in situations where one might not normally reach for a sidearm. In order to do that, they found what the M17 really needed was a third point of contact on the user’s body.


The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

A soldier firing the M17 like a stockless chump.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Samantha Stoffregen)

Most special operators rely on a pistol as a secondary firearm, using their primary weapon (commonly an assault rifle or submachine gun) whenever possible thanks to its greater degree of control, accuracy, range, and often, ammunition on hand. A sidearm like the Army’s M17 pistol is often seen as a weapon of last resort, or at the very least, a weapon with advantages under only specific circumstances.

The FLUX Defense MP17, however, adds a retractable stock (though, it’s important to note, it’s not legally considered a stock) and accessories to the standard Sig Sauer M17. The retractable stock and custom holster means the pistol still rides on a soldier’s hip like the M17 normally would, but instead of drawing the weapon and firing it like a traditional pistol, the user can deploy the stock and shoulder the weapon like a rifle — adding a great deal of stability, accuracy, and recoil control that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

While current M17s come standard with either a 17-round or extended 21-round magazine, the MP17 increases that capacity to 43 rounds, thanks to a second magazine holder that doubles as a forward grip. It also offers a rail for mounting lights or lasers and optics mounts on the back. Importantly, beneath that optic mount is a gap that allows users to continue to use the pistol’s iron sights even while it’s housed in the FLUX brace.

The new Flux Defense MP17 // FluxDefense

youtu.be

According to the manufacturer, you can convert your standard-issue M17 into the MP17 in as little as 60 seconds, and it weighs in at just 2.8 pounds with the firearm (and no ammunition) installed.

FLUX advertises that the platform “shoots like a primary, holsters like a pistol,” and for many special operators or even those with concerns about home defense, that’s an offer that’s too good to ignore. This system could also serve as a significant benefit for personal security details and pilots — both of whom are constantly balancing security and preparation against a lack of usable space.

Last year, fighter pilots began carrying a new M4 variant dubbed the GAU-5/A Aircrew Self Defense Weapon, which breaks apart to be easily stowed in the cockpit. A platform like the FLUX MP17, however, could be used to those same ends without requiring assembly after a crash.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

The holster allows for suppressors, flashlights, lasers, or whatever else you crazy kids are using these days.

(FLUX Defense)

Civilian customers can purchase the brace system without its custom holster for around 0, or with the holster for 0. As FLUX will point out, there aren’t currently any other holster options available on the market for the platform, however, so you’ll probably want to spring for the full package. That duty holster is open near the muzzle, allowing for a wide variety of flashlights, suppressors, or other tacticool (or legitimately tactical) add-ons. They also sell variants for use with Glock pistols.

Of course, despite being classified as a pistol brace rather than a stock, there could potentially still be legal issues with picking up your own MP17. While FLUX doesn’t sell their brace kit as a Short Barrel Rifle kit (SBR) and they say it doesn’t fall under the ATF’s AOW (All Other Weapons) category to require a special stamp, the ATF is sometimes slow to make rulings about new products. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with any state or local laws pertaining to the use of SBRs before you make a purchase.

Provided you can get your hands on the FLUX Defense MP17 legally, it may be just what you need to turn your standard sidearm into the right tool for the job, even if the job at hand is something pistols have no right to be doing.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This is the Army’s super secret special ops aviation unit

The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment is widely considered to be the best unit of its kind in the world. Known to recruit only the best pilots the US Army has to offer to fly its MH-60 Black Hawks, MH-6 Little Birds and MH-47 Chinooks, the 160th routinely flies in support of America’s most elite troops — Green Berets, Delta Force operators, Army Rangers, and the like.


Not much is actually known about the 160th, and for good reason — it’s still a special operations unit, as its name suggests. But even this outfit is still too “public” for some of the most clandestine missions the Army and Joint Special Operations Command wishes to send its elite operators on.

So the Army stood up an aviation unit that hides deep in the shadows

This outfit is most commonly referred to as “Flight Concepts Division,” though its name has changed many times in the past in order to preserve its cover. Though very little is known about the unit today, we can still infer its role and capability based on what little the Army has released on the Division’s past.

Originally founded as a special ops unit unto itself,first known as SEASPRAY — a highly classified aviation outfit with a number of fronts and covers to protect its identity from public view. Thousands of pilots, cherry-picked from around the Army, were invited to try out for SEASPRAY, but only a handful were selected to continue with the recruitment and training process. Once training was complete, these pilots would go on to fly top secret missions across the world, especially in Central and South America, in support of American special operations objectives.

 

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
An OH-6 Cayuse carrying special operations personnel. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the mid-1980s, SEASPRAY was disestablished by the Army in the wake of a scandal, its components dispersed and moved to other units to fulfill a similar role.

By the 1990s, the Army had moved chunks of SEASPRAY over to Delta Force, standing up Echo (E) Squadron to support Delta operators with aerial surveillance, insertions and extractions on missions. Pilots and aircraft were transferred over and brought into the fold quickly, receiving further training in assisting Delta assault troops in taking down hijacked cruise ships, inserting operators behind enemy lines and other risky missions.

According to Sean Naylor in his book, “Relentless Strike,” E Squadron pilots were trained and rated to fly a variety of foreign aircraft, including Russian military helicopters popular in the Balkans at the time of the crises there in the mid-to-late ’90s, allowing them to blend in and fly virtually unnoticed. As time passed, whoever, E Squadron’s effectiveness grew so much that brass within Joint Special Operations Command wanted to excise it from Delta Force and stand it up as its own separate unit once more.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
A Hughes MD500. SEASPRAY and Delta Force’s E Squadron have been known to operate helicopters like these in civilian markings (Hughes Helicopters, public domain)

Fast forward to the late 1990s, and Flight Concepts Division came into play. Earlier known by a number of other covers and fronts, such as Aviation Technical Services, Quasar Talent and Latent Arrow, this unit provided immeasurable support for “black operations” troops in the Balkans, ferrying them into and out of combat zones surreptitiously without anybody the wiser.

Flight Concepts Division still remains an active unit today with a vague name and an equally obscure mission description. What it actually does in support of American special operations is anybody’s guess, especially while it operates in the shadows cast by its big brother unit, the 160th SOAR. Its aircraft are masked, painted with civilian markings and otherwise kept out of sight, its pilots and aircrew indistinguishable from the average pedestrian on any of America’s streets.

But those who serve with the division are more than likely the best of the very best, the cream of the crop – the elite black ops aviators called upon by Joint Special Operations Command and the president for top secret missions we’ll not hear of for decades to come.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This soldier trained to carry backpack nukes on one-way suicide missions

Mark Bentley of De Pere, Wisconsin was proficient in the use of the Army’s top secret W54 weapon. But it’s a great thing he never had to use it. 

The W54 was a nuclear weapon that fit inside an Army-issued duffel bag with a payload one-tenth the size of the “Little Boy” weapon dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in World War II.

Bentley told the Green Bay Press Gazette that the portable nuclear weapons were part of a plan to disrupt any potential Soviet movements into Western Europe in the event of World War III. 

The Army learned a lot about mountain fighting in the Korean War. It also developed smaller nuclear weapons, ones like the M28 Davy Crockett device. These tactical devices could be fired from a weapon as small as a recoilless rifle. The idea was to block certain passes with ash and radiation, forcing the massive Red Army to redirect its movement. 

An estimated 400 W54 man-portable Special Atomic Demolition Munitions  (SADM) – backpack nukes – were built by the United States in 1961 and deployed until 1971. They weighed roughly 50 pounds and were roughly 11 inches in diameter, with a height of 15 inches. 

SADM backpack nukes
Scientists look at a MADM nuclear land mine. Cutaway casing with warhead inside, code-decoder / firing unit is at left.

Originally the nukes were built with the idea that special operations forces like the U.S. Navy SEALs could infiltrate enemy harbors and destroy them with such devices. For the U.S. Army, the idea was not to destroy large chunks of Soviet military units or bases. Instead, the idea was to funnel large formations into a greater kill zone.

“The problem was, the blast range was larger than the trajectory,” he said.

This means there was no way of escaping the nuclear device’s death zone before it was triggered. Still, he signed up for the job in 1968 – because it was better than being drafted.

Bentley had a very low draft number during one of the hottest years of the Vietnam War. He described his choice as either getting drafted to be a target for two years or spending three years doing something he actually wanted to do. 

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
H-912 transport container for Mk-54 SADM

The draft ended just after he signed on to enlist, but stayed in, eventually joining a Special Atomic Demolitions Munitions platoon.  He spent his entire career training for World War III in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

He said someone would have to set the explosive and secure it until it went off. It would either be the person carrying it or another person who would secure the site after the soldier who set the nuclear charge made a hasty retreat. 

“You set your timer, and it would click when it went off, or it went ding or I forget what, but you knew you were toast,” he said. “Ding! Your toast is ready, and it’s you.”

The U.S. Air Force developed similar nuclear devices affixed to the AIM-4 Falcon air-to-air missile, the only air-to-air device to be fitted with a nuclear warhead, intended to knock out large Soviet bomber formations. 

The W54 wasn’t the only compact nuclear device developed by the U.S. military. An advanced version, the W72 was an air-to-ground guided bomb device that could be used for the same purpose, without the suicide sacrifice of a soldier on the ground. 

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Artificial intelligence wasted a veteran fighter pilot in a bunch of simulated dogfights

Scientists have claimed that computers would replace humans in the cockpit for some time, but artificial intelligence simply hadn’t reached the point where it could compete successfully against a human opponent.


But now, at least in simulators, it has. ALPHA, the AI, bested a retired Air Force fighter pilot repeatedly while running on a tiny, cheap Rasberry Pi computer that is often used to teach children coding basics.

Retired Air Force Col. Gene “Geno” Lee helped guide ALPHA’s programming and flew against ALPHA in a series of air battles in a computer simulator, battles that he lost every time when flying against the mature version of ALPHA.

At first, ALPHA was being used as a tool to create better simulators for training pilots and testing tactics. ALPHA took control of “Red” fighters flying against a “Blue” force. Red typically held a numerical advantage while Blue typically had a technological advantage with longer range missiles, a larger payload, and an AWACS flying in support.

The AWACS is a radar system that gave Blue forces better situational awareness and targeting data.

In the initial matchups, ALPHA’s Red team won more than it lost but took heavy losses. Then Lee and the programmers at Psibernetix, the company that created ALPHA, began making adjustments to its programming and ALPHA begin to win. Soon, it won every engagement.

So, Lee decided to take control of a Blue fighter personally to try and give the other team an advantage. He flew engagement after engagement against ALPHA.

 

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones
Retired Air Force Col. Geno Lee flies against ALPHA in a simulator. Photo: UC Creative Services Lisa Ventre

 

ALPHA won every fight and, whenever Lee stayed in the air for a protracted period, Lee was shot down.

Lee told the researchers that ALPHA was “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible AI (he’s) seen-to-date.”

Lee later told UC Magazine reporter M.B. Reilly that, after flying missions against ALPHA, “I go home feeling washed out. I’m tired, drained and mentally exhausted. This may be artificial intelligence, but it represents a real challenge.”

Now, ALPHA does have some advantages of its own. First, it utilizes a “Genetic Fuzzy Tree” system. GFT systems work closer to the way a human brain works than most computers. Rather than try to calculate every variable when computing a solution, it keeps track of key bits of data and forms generalities.

But it can form decisions based on those generalities 250 times faster than a human can blink. When controlling four aircraft, it can take in all available sensor data, create a new plan of action, and adjust each jet’s controls to implement that plan every 6.5 milliseconds.

 

This allows ALPHA to constantly choreograph the jets’ movements to cover one another. If one pair of Red planes are forced to evade and are in danger, ALPHA can direct a second pair to move into position on the attackers instantly.

Researchers believe that if ALPHA was split among two computers, one handling sensor data and the other computing actions, ALPHA could adjust its plans and adjust flight paths 1,100 times per second.

The success of ALPHA is impressive, but the system isn’t exactly ready for combat. While ALPHA receives sensor data with “noise” incorporated, errors and missing data that would occur in a real fight, it hasn’t flown in a situation where the signals between planes were jammed. This would make its coordination between planes more challenging.

In their paper in the Journal of Defense Management describing ALPHA’s success, the creators note that ALPHA would make a great wingman for human pilots. So, human pilots would fly lead and command the mission while sending AI controlled jets into the knife fight against enemy jets. This would match plans the Air Force has for the future.

The full paper on ALPHA, which goes into much greater detail about how ALPHA was created, how it works, and what its limitations are, is available in the Journal of Defense Management.

(h/t Popular Science)

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Why new supercarrier can land all Navy planes except for this one

The USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s new supercarrier, can now land all of the service’s planes, except for its new stealth fighter.

The Advanced Arresting Gear has been given a green light to recover all propeller and jet aircraft, to include the C-2A Greyhound, E-2C Hawkeye and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and E/A-18G Growler, the Navy said in a statement Tuesday, noting the release of a new Aircraft Recovery Bulletin.

These aircraft can all conduct flight operations aboard the Ford.

The arresting gear is critical to the aircraft recovery process, the return of aircraft to the carrier. The Advanced Arresting Gear, one of more than 20 new technologies incorporated into the Ford-class carriers, is a system of tensioned wires that the planes snag with tailhooks, a necessary system given the shortness of the carrier’s runway. The AAG is designed to recover a number of different aircraft, as well as reduce the stress on the planes, with decreased manpower all while maintaining top safety standards.


“This achievement is another significant step toward ensuring the system can support the ship’s full air wing,” explained Capt. Ken Sterbenz, program manager for the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment Program, in a statement.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 flies over the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78).

(U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt)

The Navy explained that the Advanced Arresting Gear gives the USS Gerald R. Ford “the warfighting capability essential for air dominance in the 21st century.”

Missing from the list of recoverable aircraft is noticeably the F-35C, a carrier-based variant of a new fifth-generation stealth fighter designed to help the Navy confront modern threats.

“The Nimitz-class and Ford-class aircraft carriers, by design, can operate with F-35Cs,” Capt. Daniel Hernandez, a spokesperson for the Navy acquisitions chief, previously told INSIDER.

“There are,” he added, “modifications to both carrier classes that are required to fully employ the capabilities of the F-35s and enable them to be more effective on a full length deployment.”

Those modifications are expected to be completed after the carrier is delivered to the fleet, meaning that when the Navy gets its aircraft carrier, which is already behind schedule and over budget, back from the shipyard, it will not be able to deploy with the F-35C.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

An F/A-18F Super Hornet, assigned to the “Black Lions” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ryan Carter)

Congress has previously expressed concerns about the inability of the new supercarriers to launch and recover the new stealth fighters, as well as the Navy’s practice of accepting unfinished carriers to skirt budget constraints.

In particular, lawmakers called attention to the Navy’s plans to not only accept the Ford without the important ability to launch and recover F-35s but to also accept the subsequent USS John F. Kennedy without this capability.

It is “unacceptable to our members that the newest carriers can’t deploy with the newest aircraft,” explained a congressional staffer in June 2019.

The Navy argues that these carriers will be able to launch and recover F-35s by the time the relevant air wing is stood up.

The Navy continues to work the kinks out of the Ford, having fixed problems with the propulsion system, the catapults, and the arresting gear, among other systems.

The biggest obstacle, however, continues to be the Advanced Weapons Elevators, systems essential for the rapid movement of bombs and missiles to the flight deck for higher aircraft sortie rates.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This is why US troops don’t use ballistic shields

Note: For the sake of brevity, I will use the term “ballistic shields” to be an all-inclusive term for III-A rated shields used by law enforcement.

Even the Ballistic Resistant Protective Materials NIJ Standard 0108.01, a publication that is used by the U.S. Department of Justice, warns of highly technical jargon that may be confusing for the uninitiated when defining a ballistic shield:

“Because this NIJ standard is designed as a procurement aid, it is necessarily highly technical. For those who seek general guidance concerning the selection and application of law enforcement equipment, user guides have also been published. The guides explain, in non-technical language, how to select equipment capable of performance required by an agency.” – Lester D. Shubin, Program Manager for Standards, National Institute of Justice.

Related video:



An edge for the Thin Blue Line

Imagine, for a moment, a metropolis of crowded buildings, hours after nightfall. Strobes of red and blue paint the virtually empty streets. Police vehicles and personnel are poised with a single structure at their center. Negotiations are faltering, their demands are too ambitious, and the hostages are too far out of reach.

Your uniform declares “Special Weapons and Tactics” to the world. Your radio comes to life and the order is issued. Everyone is on high alert for what may happen next.

Leading a four-man formation with a shield and side arm, you glide, skirting the wall, right up to the front door. The second team arrives behind your stack. Protected by eyes and weapons pointed in all directions, you check the handle:

Locked.

After a moment of communication with a team member known as the breacher, he crosses to the opposite end of the door. You feel someone squeeze your arm; that’s the signal. You make eye contact with the breacher and he gives you a nod. The adrenaline pumping through your veins fuels a moment of clarity: You trained for this. You are ready for this. It’s time to lay down the f *cking law.

Every hallway, room, and staircase are methodically cleared using slow, but deliberate movements. Your shield never lowers, but the weight begins to take its toll on your strength.

Hostiles attempt to repel your advance by firing everything they’ve got. The roar of .44 magnums and 9mm pistols fill the air. Whatever your ballistic shield doesn’t block impacts around you.

You return the greeting — with interest — and push forward.

The outside world holds their breath, transfixed on the live-stream broadcast. The eyes of millions scan for every flash, boom, and bust from the safety of their phones. After what feels like an eternity, your team and the hostages emerge.

This is one of countless scenarios that law enforcement faces as “the thin blue line” separating the civilized world from the savagery of gangs and terror. Ballistic shields give officers an edge against an enemy that would otherwise prey on the innocent with impunity.

Could this edge be transferable to the battlefield?

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

A ballistic shield loses its edge on a battlefield – and more so against an unconventional foe.

First, its cumbersome size and weight reduces a rifleman’s speed and mobility — two very important traits that are not easily sacrificed by warriors. It’s always better to dodge a bullet than to block it (for obvious reasons). A modern troop will be equipped with heavy gear, ammo, and a chest full of patriotism.

The ballistic shield is lightweight only in the sense that it weighs under 20 pounds.

It just becomes another thing to lug around with no comfortable method of carry. It would be another asinine piece of gear that could potentially get you killed because some congressman and a defense firm shook hands. Firefights can sometimes last hours, days, or (in some of the most brutal circumstances) months, and you can literally and metaphorically find yourself fighting single-handed.

Second, unconventional enemies use high-caliber, armor-piercing rounds. Most of what you would find when fighting communists or terror organizations would turn a ballistic shield into Swiss cheese.

You won’t find the Islamic State imposing their twisted ideologies with a 9mm. An Improvised Explosive Device buried underneath the ground will effectively neutralize any benefit of that additional armor.

Third, most battles don’t devolve into a “Mexican Stand-Off,” sealed away from the rest of the city. If the enemy is fortified, but there are no hostages or prisoners of war, there are other options…

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

Ballistic shields have earned their place as a staple for law enforcement because they have a specific purpose. Those same shields offer little to no benefit in combat.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Army finds a fix for safety failures in M4 and M4A1 rifles

U.S. Army weapons officials have figured out the cause and ginned up a fix for a dangerous glitch in the selector switch of M4 and M4A1 carbines that could cause the weapon to fire unintentionally.

In June 2018, Military.com reported that about 3,000 Army M4 and M4A1s had failed new safety inspections begun after the service’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command sent out a safety-of-use message in March 2018 to all branches of the U.S. military, advising units to perform an updated functions check on all variants of M16s and M4s after a soldier experienced an unexplained, unintended discharge.

After more than 50,000 weapons were checked, TACOM officials discovered the cause of the glitch and halted the inspections, TACOM spokesman R. Slade Walters told Military.com.


“After receiving a significant number of reports from the field and an average failure rate of about 6 percent of the weapons inspected, we ended the inspections and have determined that the cause of the problem is a tolerance stack of the internal firing components,” he said in an email. “The problem is fixed by modifying the selector to remove the tolerance issue and the fault. TACOM is working on an Army-wide directive to repair weapons with the issue that will be released when it is approved at the appropriate levels.”

During a follow-up phone interview, Walters said, “Each individual part conforms to the tolerance requirements, but when the multiple parts get stuck together in 6 to 9 percent of the weapons, depending on which models you are looking at … those tolerances create that condition.”

“So in some weapons it’s not a problem and in others it is,” he said, explaining that the lower receiver’s internal parts need “some machining and or grinding to slightly modify the internal components.”

“When they do that, it fixes the problem … and when they have done it and repeated it, they have been able to correct the problem in weapons showing the issue,” he added.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

The receiver of a former M4 carbine shows laser etching to reflect it is now an M4A1 capable of firing on full-auto.

(U.S. Army photo)

Most failures occurred in M4A1s. The M4A1s that had been converted from M4s suffered 2,070 failures out of 23,000 inspected, a 9 percent failure rate. Out of about 16,000 original M4A1s inspected, 960 suffered failures, a 6 percent failure rate.

Less than one percent of the 4,000 M4s checked failed the updated functions check. And less than one percent of the 8,500 M16A2s checked failed the test as well.

About 500 M16A4s were also checked, but no failures were reported.

The Marine Corps also uses the M4 carbine, but the service said in June 2018 that its weapons were passing the new functions check.

The glitch-testing started when a Fort Knox soldier’s M4A1 selector switch became stuck in-between the semi and auto settings. When the soldier pulled the trigger, the weapon failed to fire. The soldier then moved the selector switch and the weapon fired, the TACOM message states.

The M4A1 is now the Army’s primary individual weapon. The service is converting M4 carbines to M4A1s through the M4 Product Improvement program. The M4A1 has been used by special operations forces for about two decades. It features a heavier barrel and a full-automatic setting instead of the three-round burst setting on standard M4s.

The Army said that all new M4A1s being issued are being checked for the selector glitch and corrected as needed, Walters said.

“Anybody who has gotten a new weapon in the last month or two has gotten weapons free of this error,” he said. “It’s not a small number; it’s like several thousand. It has already been implemented in the supply chain.”

It’s unclear if TACOM will have unit armorers fix the weapons that showed the glitch or if TACOM technicians will do the work, Walters said. He added that “this is still pre-decisional.”

TACOM officials also could not explain why the glitch had not shown up in the past.

“It was just a weird fluke,” Walters said. “In the number of rounds that have gone through those models in the number of years those models have been available, it’s like a winning-the-lottery kind of fluke. And the fact that we discovered it is just one of those things.”

This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

Bell Flight wants to make an awesome tilt-rotor drone

Bell Helicopters Textron, one of the companies behind the V-22 Osprey and the makers of a proposed Army tilt-rotor, are pitching a new drone for the Navy and Marine Corps that packs tilt-rotor technology into a large drone capable of carrying weapons, sensor platforms, and other payloads into combat.


(Bell Helicopters Textron)

The Bell V-247 Vigilant is to be an unmanned bird capable of operating at ranges of 1,300 nautical miles from its ship or base, carrying 2,000 pounds internally or a 9,000-pound sling load, or spending 12 hours time on station.

Of course, those numbers represent maximum endurance, maximum lift, or maximum range. A more likely mission profile combines all three. Bell says the aircraft will be capable of carrying a 600-pound payload 450 nautical miles for a mission with 8 hours time on station. It can also refuel in flight, further extending ranges and time on target.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

And, with just two V-247s, a commander could establish 24-hour persistent reconnaissance of a target. That implies a much lower set of maintenance requirements than manned aircraft, since many require more hours of maintenance on the ground than they get in-flight hours.

Best of all, because the wings fold and it doesn’t need space for a crew, the V-247 would fit in about the same amount of space on a ship as a UH-1Y, tight enough for it to land on Navy destroyers, whether to shuttle supplies or to refuel and re-arm for another mission.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

For armament, Bell highlights its ability to fire air-to-surface missiles, helping Marines on the ground or potentially helping interdict fast boats during a swarm attack on the water.

All in, the design has a lot of the numbers that planners would want to see in a support aircraft. And, because it doesn’t require a pilot, it can do a lot of complicated tasks while reducing the workload of the military’s already strained pilot population. It’s easy to see a role for an aircraft like this in fleet replenishment, in amphibious assault and air support, and in ship-to-shore logistics.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

But, the Navy and Marine Corps are already on the hook for a large number of V-22 Ospreys. The Marine Corps has made the V-22 one of its most numerous aircraft, flying them across the world. And the Navy is looking to buy 38 V-22s to conduct fleet replenishment missions around the world, ferrying everything from engines to potatoes from warehouses on land to ships at sea.

So, while it would be useful for the Navy to get some smaller, unmanned aircraft to move the smaller packages between ships — especially since V-22 exhaust is so hot and fast-moving that it breaks down ship decks faster than other aircraft — there may not be enough money to go around. But the V-247 might represent a valuable asset for the Marines and Navy. And many of the sea services’ missions for the tilt-rotor would be valuable for the Army as well.

More graphic depictions of the proposed aircraft are available below.

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

The bad guys are starting to catch up with America and its allies on deadly drones

(Bell Helicopters Textron)

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