This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit - We Are The Mighty
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This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit

A classified unmanned space plane has been in orbit for over 500 days, but no one is telling the public what it’s doing.


Drones are in the news nearly every day. Tiny toys snapping exciting photos for our Instagram accounts. Commercial drones working for farmers and municipal agencies. Missile-armed drones performing strikes on enemy locations. Unmanned craft, in the air, on the ground, and in the sea, are conducting more missions for more people all the time.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
So what was this space drone actually doing on its secret missions up there in outer space? (Photo U.S. Air Force)

Operated by the United States Air Force, the X-37B is at the top of the drone pyramid and is pushing the outside edge of the envelope as you read this.

The X-37B, sometimes called the Orbital Test Vehicle, is a small unmanned reusable spacecraft built by Boeing that looks a lot like a small space shuttle. It’s 29 feet-long with stubby wings and angled tail fins. Unlike the famous shuttle orbiters that it resembles, however, it lacks a vertical stabilizer. It launches atop an Atlas V 501 launch vehicle inside the booster’s payload fairing and, at the end of its mission, returns to earth and lands on a runway like the 80s-era space shuttle.

What the space plane does while it’s up there, though, is mostly a mystery.

The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, flew in 2010 and lasted for 224 days — close to the X-37B’s designed 270-day endurance. The second mission, flown by a second X-37B, flew in 2011 and lasted 468 days. The third mission, performed by the first spacecraft, lasted an astounding 674 days. The current mission, dubbed “OTV-4,” was launched on May 20, 2015, and recently passed 500 days in orbit.

The Air Force is tight-lipped about how long OTV-4 will last, though it must last until at least March 25, 2017, if it’s going to break OTV-3’s record.

The X-37B program began as a NASA project. One of the X-37’s primary missions was to have been satellite rendezvous for refueling and repair, and the small space plane would have been carried to orbit inside a space shuttle’s cargo bay.

As the program progressed, however, the plan shifted to launching atop an expendable booster and, in 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency took over the program. DARPA continued development of the X-37, resulting in the current X-37B for the US Air Force.

Once the project transferred to the military, it became classified.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Doesn’t exactly look like a friendly little space drone does it? (Photo U.S. Air Force)

The spacecraft itself is not terribly secret. For the past six years, numerous news stories have been run about the “secret” space plane and many photographs have been published.

What the X-37B does while it’s up there on missions lasting well over a year, though, is the source of much conjecture. The fact sheet for the X-37B on the official Air Force web site describes the mission as “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”

That’s an explanation that doesn’t explain much, however, and doesn’t seem to justify the enormous expense of building, launching, and operating the spacecraft.

Of course, theories on the internet abound. Some have claimed that the X-37B is an advanced spy satellite. Some wonder if the X-37B could be an experimental space bomber. Others believe that the original mission of satellite rendezvous for maintenance could easily have been adapted to more nefarious purposes, such as interfering with or destroying satellites operated by nations such as Russia or China.

Ground observers have watched what they believe to be the X-37B make significant changes to its orbit, a maneuver in line with the space saboteur theory.

In 2012, during the OTV-2 mission, the editor of Spaceflight magazine claimed that the X-37B was probably spying on the Chinese space station Tiangong-1. Other experts, however, publicly doubted and dismissed the idea as improbable at best.

If you spend enough time online, you’re certain to find any number of wild ideas. One of the most outlandish theories about the X-37B is that it’s not unmanned at all. The idea is that a hibernating astronaut is onboard the space plane and that experiments are being conducted to prepare for long-duration manned missions to Mars or, perhaps, to station a quick-reaction force of soldiers in orbit for secret missions anywhere on the globe. Or above it.

Whatever the X-37B is up to, it seems to be doing a good job of it. Work is being done to make it possible for the drone to land at Kennedy Space Center on the space shuttle landing strip. Part of the shuttle Orbiter Processing Facility, without a mission since the shuttle program ended, is being modified to process X-37Bs.

A recent NASA presentation discussed the potential to develop a space ambulance which could service the ISS from the X-37B. An X-37C proposal, more than 50 percent larger than the current model, would possibly be able to carry astronauts.

The classified little space plane is a bit of a mystery but certainly one of the most exciting drones in use today. Even if we aren’t sure what’s it doing.

Articles

The US wants a laser-equipped drone that would be a silver bullet for stopping North Korea

The US Missile Defense Agency just issued a bold request for proposals for a missile defense system that could change the game and act like a silver bullet against North Korean missile launches.


The MDA asked for proposals to build a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft capable of flying higher than 63,000 feet and carrying a laser to shoot down ballistic missiles as they arc upwards towards the sky.

While the laser system sounds like something out of science fiction, and is something the US Navy has struggled to field for over a decade, Ricky Ellison of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance told Business Insider that this drone could be the perfect application of the technology.

“What it can do is intercept missiles in the boost phase, therefore you don’t need to have billion dollar radars all over the world to intercept with 80 million dollar interceptors,” said Ellison.

Ballistic missiles fly high into earth’s atmosphere before breaking apart, often releasing multiple reentry vehicles, countermeasures, and decoys. This makes them a nightmare for traditional missile defense systems which track the launch and then fire interceptor vehicles to smash them apart upon reentry.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Another possible design for the laser interceptor. Photo from missilethreat.csis.org

Even the top-of-the-line THAAD system, recently sent to South Korea, would struggle to destroy a large salvo from North Korea, and the price of installing and using the entire system, interceptors included, would cost into the billions. Additionally, THAAD’s high-powered radar capability makes China extremely nervous, as they believe it could limit their ability to respond to a nuclear strike from the US.

Meanwhile, a solid state laser can be fired continuously for dollars a minute, about what you’d pay for electricity in your home. Though building the platform would cost millions in research, development, and testing.

Traditionally, while boost-phase interception looks more attractive on paper because it hits the missile in a more vulnerable stage, it’s been impractical because the interceptor has to be close to the projectile.

So there’s just no way the US could intercept a missile fired from central Russia or China in its boost phase. With a small country like North Korea though, US drones right off the border could melt down missiles with a light-speed weapon in the cloudless upper atmosphere.

“This would be far more efficient to have boost-phase intercept capability over that territory at that height to handle that,” said Ellison. “As North Korea develops countermeasures, decoys, multiple reentry vehicles, and all the things that will continue to evolve, you have a great opportunity to eliminate all those advancing technologies before all that gets dispersed.”

The MDA hopes to field this technology by 2023, at which point most experts agree North Korea will have perfected an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Articles

This video shows why carpet bombing is absolutely devastating

There was a lot of talk about carpet bombing during the 2016 election.


That potential world leaders are talking about a military tactic like this means it might be a good idea take a look at just what carpet bombing means.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52F Stratofortress drops bombs over Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Related: B-52s are blasting ISIS targets

Carpet bombing, once known as “saturation bombing,” is a large-scale aerial bombing operation over a small area, intent on the complete destruction of a target or targets. Such an operation in a civilian area is considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, though the United States is not a signatory to that protocol.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit

German and British bombers used the tactic throughout World War II, to great effect. The United States’ Army Air Forces took it to the next level in Germany and then Japan under the leadership of Gen. Curtis LeMay. The U.S. would return to the tactic during the Vietnam War, especially for Operations Rolling Thunder and Linebacker II.

It is a devastating tactic that causes a lot of destruction. Since it is heavily dependent on unguided, “dumb” bombs, the potential for collateral and unnecessary death and destruction is very high and the U.S. Air Force hasn’t used it since Vietnam. They still train for the capability, however.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit

The video below is an amalgamation of U.S. Air Force footage over the previous decades. It shows real-world and training operations where carpet bombing is used as a tactic. B-52 Stratofortresses, B-1 Lancers, and B-2 Spirits are seen dropping tons  and tons of ordnance on targets.

It shows the pure power potential of the Air Force’s conventional bombing force. Real air power doesn’t require nukes – overwhelming force can be just as devastating.

Articles

How the Pentagon spent $28M on Afghan uniforms with the wrong camouflage

The US Department of Defense may have wasted nearly $30 million over the past decade on uniforms for the Afghan military that featured a camouflage pattern inappropriate for the country’s desert landscapes, a top government fiscal watchdog said June 21st.


A 17-page report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says $28 million has already been spent by the Pentagon on the uniforms — and perhaps another $72 million will go toward them in the next decade.

According to the analysis, the Pentagon decided in 2007 on a uniform for the Afghan National Army that included a camouflage pattern that presented two problems: First, it included a forest pattern for a Middle Eastern country dominated by deserts — and second, the US government didn’t own the pattern, meaning it had to pay a private company for its use.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Afghan National Army soldiers standing out against their environment. Army photo by Pfc. David Devich.

The report said that because the Department of Defense opted to use a private pattern, it cost the Pentagon an additional $26 million to $28 million. What’s more, it added, is that the department could have used one of the many patterns it already owns that’s just as effective — or ineffective — as the woodland camouflage pattern.

“Our analysis found that DOD’s decision to procure ANA uniforms using a proprietary camouflage pattern was not based on an evaluation of its appropriateness for the Afghan environment,” the report states.

“Our analysis found that changing the ANA uniform to a non-proprietary camouflage pattern based on the US Army’s Battle Dress Uniform … could save U.S. taxpayers between $68.61 million and $71.21 million over the next 10 years,” it added.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Applying standard camo. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Because the US military continues to use the proprietary design, SIGAR recommended in the report that the Pentagon conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether there is a more cost-effective alternative in outfitting Afghan troops.

SIGAR, a congressionally ordered watchdog group that monitors US financial activities in Afghanistan reconstruction, said it shared its report with the Pentagon and department officials expressed “general agreement” with contents in the report.

The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to the SIGAR report as of June 21st.

Articles

4 gross non-battle injuries medics have to look at

Corpsmen and medics who serve in the infantry have their work cut out for them. They wake up at the butt-crack of dawn for patrol, maybe get shot at a few times, then head back to base to eat chow.


They serve as infantrymen until they have to kick into doctor mode and patch up their buddies’ wounds; this involves putting their hands into some weird cavities, but it’s all part of the job.

Every once in a while they may even have to take care of the bad guys for various reasons. Sometimes it’s just for a simple sore throat and other times it’s for something a whole lot nastier.

 Related: 5 key differences between Army medics and Navy corpsmen

War is fought in some dirty places, like the trenches of World War I, the foxholes of World War II, and the jungles of Vietnam. Many of the injuries medics treat on the battlefield don’t come from bullets or bombs — they’re from unsanitary conditions.

So check out these gross things medics have to look at and be able to treat on a day-to-day basis.

1. Ingrown toenails

Ingrown toenails are the result of poor foot care and bad grooming practices.

A well-executed toenail extraction. (Images via Giphy)

2. MRSA

Stands for “Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus” and it’s meaner than your ordinary pimple. On the surface, it doesn’t look too frightening. But below the skin, it’s chewing you up.

See a professional before popping. (Images via Giphy)

3. Mouth ulcers

With a variety of known causes, mouth ulcers are typically related to a viral infection in the body. Pain management is required or everything that touches the sores will hurt.

I told you everything hurt a mouth sore. (Images via Giphy)

Also Read: 6 things corpsmen should know before going to the ‘Greenside’

4. Bacterial conjunctivitis

Better known as pink eye, the beginning stage isn’t so bad. But left untreated, the condition could lead to losing an eye. What’s nasty about this ailment is that it’s typically produced by poop particles floating in the air and getting in your eyes.

Anyone can get pink eye so wear your eye protection out there, people.  (Images via Giphy)What gross non-battle things have you seen on deployment? Comment below.

MIGHTY TACTICAL

How to send a hero a letter without picking up a pen

‘Tis the season for the giving of gifts. ‘Tis also the season of FOMUG (Fear Of Messed Up Gifting). We get it. It’s hard out there for an elf. Team WATM would like to offer you some guidance.


For your pal in the army:

~ Don’t send a salami; send them an actual letter. (There’s an app for that) ~

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Sandboxx: a digital solution to the analog problem of military morale.

It’s weird.

If you served in the military, then there’s a truth you hold to be self-evident:

There is nothing — nothing — better than getting mail.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Shake this one, Gene. I smell salami… (Image via Smithsonian Institution)

Nowhere on earth — outside of elderly care facilities and summer camps — is snail mail so coveted and mail call so anticipated as it is at the boot camps, bases, and outposts of the U.S. military.

But staying in the loop while you’re downrange gets trickier every year as smartphones divorce almost everyone you know from the memory of their own handwriting. And how are they supposed to send you photos? Go out and get them printed? Stop.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Its just so… quaint.

Somebody with military experience and a knack for tech entrepreneurship had to come along and fix this problem.

That somebody is Sam Meek, an Idahoan and former U.S. Marine Corps Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Defense Specialist, who found that in the civilian sector, the problem-solving mentality instilled in him by the Corps is a very valuable and leverageable asset indeed.

“I found it really fascinating that I was beating out kids… that had college degrees and… could actually articulate a cover letter for a resume. I realized that the experience that we garner in the military brings so much more… to a company than sitting in class for four years.”

–Sam Meek, Cigars and Sea Stories Podcast

 

Working first as Director of Development for a Wall Street hedge fund and then taking a mentor’s Marine Family Readiness platform concept and pivoting it toward present-day Sandboxx, Meek perfected the twin arts of making one’s own opportunities and capitalizing on those that arise from the heat of action.

Though Sandboxx has evolved to serve a number of important networking and communications functions for the modern military — see Units and Travel — its marquee offering is still getting letters to deployed troops.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Now there’s an idea…

The app allows friends and family at home to tap out a message on a smartphone, upload a photo, and then have that digital missive converted to physical letter form and sent to their loved ones, wherever in the world they might be deployed. Sandboxx even includes a postage-paid return envelope to make it easy to reply from the field.

It’s military morale made simple and intuitive. It honors a rich American history of supporting our troops, one personally penned and postmarked message at a time.

The 2017 We Are The Mighty Holiday Gift Guide is sponsored by Propper, a tactical apparel and gear company dedicated to equipping those who commit their lives to serving others. All views are our own.

Speaking of Propper, they’re giving away twelve tactical packs filled with gear from our Holiday Gift Guide. Click this link to enter.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
Articles

Vietnam vets meet the soldier who saved them from a VC ambush

Fifty-one years after saving a squad of U.S. Marines from walking into an ambush by Viet Cong, Don Medley walked into a surprise gathering organized to honor him.


Members of the squadron Medley saved May 12, 1966, gathered Friday at Stone Hearth restaurant in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, for a surprise dinner. Medley, a former U.S. Army Warrant Officer, had believed he and his wife, Dianne, were meeting one of the Marine veterans, Earl Davis, and his wife, Claudia, for dinner.

In reality, three other men Medley saved, along with their wives, were waiting to meet him. Those honoring him traveled from South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia and Tennessee.

“I told my wife that one day I’d like to meet some of the guys on the ground that I helped,” Medley said. “This is the day.”

Medley, of Hodgenville, appeared stunned and overwhelmed by the handshakes, hugs and greetings he received as he stood near the doorway of the room reserved for the occasion.

“Thank you, for my wife and kids,” one man said.

The words “thank you” repeatedly resounded in the room that held a dining table adorned with a centerpiece of white flowers highlighted with small U.S. flags. Placemats also were emblazoned with U.S. flags.

“This is such an honor for me,” Medley said, his voice wavering as he received gifts of gratitude. “It’s unbelievable.”

Like other members of Bravo Company of 1st Marine Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Earl Davis had wondered over the years who the Cessna pilot who saved them was. After an article was published in Vietnam magazine last year, Medley’s identity became known.

Davis received contact information for Medley on Dec. 26. He decided to coordinate the surprise gathering.

During the gathering, Medley recounted the day he was flying his Cessna over a rice paddy and noticed Marines advancing toward a trench line holding enemy forces. He dropped a smoke grenade on which he had scrawled a brief message warning the Marines, but they continued to advance.

He soon noticed there were more enemies in a tree line, making the number much larger. He dropped a second smoke grenade warning them and included the words, “I’m calling Arty,” referring to notifying artillery. His message saved them, the men said.

“We’ve been looking for this guy for over 50 years,” Ray Maurer said. “I just broke up when I saw him.”

Maurer and his wife, Bernadette, made the trip from Georgia.

Carl Whipple of Tennessee attended the gathering with wife, Myrtle Ruth.

“We all wanted the opportunity to meet him,” he said.

Whipple described the experience as heartfelt and said it was “a God thing” that sent Medley to fly over the squad 51 years ago.

“We’re indebted,” he said.

Dan Ferrell of Missouri said the gathering was a much-needed opportunity to express his thanks to Medley.

“I’ve never been able to put this behind me,” said Ferrell, who has post-traumatic stress disorder.

Medley was presented with a watch that was set at 10:30, the approximate time he dropped the first smoke grenade. He also was given mementos including a framed collection of items, among which was a signed letter of thanks.

Choking up in the process, Davis read the letter during the presentation. Later, he said the emotion he felt at that time summed up what he was feeling and how special the occasion was.

“It means a whole hell of a lot,” he said.

Similarly, Medley visibly was moved during the gathering and said the items he received will be displayed with honor in his den.

“It’s overwhelming,” Medley said. “This vindicates my whole year in Vietnam.”

MIGHTY TACTICAL

This MH-139A is the Air Force’s replacement for the Huey

For nearly 40 years, the Air Force missions of VIP transport in the DC area as well patrolling Air Force Global Strike Command missile fields has been performed by the UH-1N Huey. Despite modernization efforts, the aging fleet of Air Force Hueys is limited by range and speed which makes its primary missions of transport and patrol difficult. In September 2018, the Air Force awarded a $2.38 billion contract to Boeing-Leonardo to supply 84 MH-139A helicopters to replace the Huey.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
A Grey Wolf conducts a test flight from Leonardo’s Philadelphia plant (U.S. Air Force)

Based on the commercially available AugustaWestland (now Leonardo helicopter division) AW139, the first MH-139A was delivered to the Air Force on December 19, 2019 at Duke Field, Florida. It was at this unveiling ceremony that the new helicopter was given the name Grey Wolf. “As they hunt as a pack, they attack as one, they bring the force of many,” said AFGSC Commander General Timothy Ray of the MH-139A. “That’s exactly how you need to approach the nuclear security mission.”

The Grey Wolf boasts a cruising speed of 130-140 knots compared to the outgoing Huey’s 90-100 knots. It also has much longer legs than the Huey with a range of 778 miles vs. just over 300 miles for the UN-1N. The Grey Wolf is also equipped with armor, countermeasures, a forward-looking infrared camera system, and the ability to mount a machine gun. These capabilities will prove to be crucial in AFGSC’s primary missions of security and patrolling.

Testing is currently underway on the Grey Wolf. Flying from Duke Field at Eglin AFB, a Boeing pilot and Maj. Zach Roycroft of the 413th Flight Test Squadron made the first combined test flight on February 11, 2020. “This first flight with Boeing was a critical step for the MH-139A program and allows us to establish a foundation for government testing,” Roycroft said. As testing progresses, production at Leonardo and Boeing’s Philadelphia facilities is ramping up as well. Full-rate production is expected to be achieved in 2023 with an anticipated delivery rate of 10 aircraft per year into the early 2030s. Of course, the most important part of acquiring a new helicopter is teaching pilots how to fly it.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
A UH-1N Huey escorts a payload transporter convoy, a mission that the Grey Wolf will soon take over (U.S. Air Force)

On November 20, 2020, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett announced that Maxwell AFB, Alabama would host the MH-139A Formal Training Unit. Less than 100 miles to the southeast of Maxwell is the Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama. There, alongside their Army counterparts, Air Force flight students of the 23d Flying Training Squadron earn their wings flying the TH-1H Huey II training helicopter before going on to specialized helicopter training. Students selected to the fly the new Grey Wolf will have a short PCS up the road to Maxwell.

In addition to the nuclear security and National Capitol Region missions, the Grey Wolf is also slated to replace the Huey in civil search and rescue, airlift support, and survival school and test support missions. Following successful testing and acceptance by the Air Force, the Grey Wolf is scheduled for initial delivery to the 37th Helicopter Squadron at Warren AFB, Wyoming, the 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, the 54th Helicopter Squadron at Minot AFB, North Dakota, and the 1st Helicopter Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland in 2021.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
The new MH-139A Grey Wolf is unveiled and named at Duke Field (U.S. Air Force)
Articles

Mattis: ‘I go by Jim,’ not ‘Mad Dog’

“I go by Jim,” new Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday in good-naturedly shrugging off the “Mad Dog” moniker President Donald Trump delights in using to refer to him.


Related: 7 photos of Mattis’s first day as SecDef

“It’s you guys that came up with Mad Dog,” the retired Marine general told reporters. “My own troops were laughing about it, saying, ‘We know your call sign is Chaos, where did this come from?’ It must have been a slow news day; some newsperson made it up.”

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
The 26th Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is greeted on his first full day in the position by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., in Arlington, VA, Jan. 21, 2017. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen (released)

“I go by Jim. I was born Jim. I am from the West. Jim is fine, OK? How’s that? And that’s on the record,” Mattis said, according to the Washington Examiner.

Mattis went off the record as he made a surprise appearance Thursday at the usual “gaggle” for Pentagon reporters run by Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, on the day’s events, but he came back on the record to deal with the “Mad Dog” nickname.

Articles

Navy to triple attack submarine missile power

The Navy will soon finish initial prototyping of new weapons tubes for its Virginia-Class submarines designed to massively increase missile firepower, bring the platform well into future decades and increase the range of payloads launched or fired from the attack boats.


The new missile tubes, called the Virginia Payload Modules, will rev up the submarines’ Tomahawk missile firing ability from 12 to 40 by adding an additional 28 payload tubes – more than tripling the offensive strike capability of the platforms.

Prototyping of the new submarines amounts to early construction, meaning the missile tubes now being engineered and assembled will be those which will ultimately integrate into the completed boat. In essence, construction and metal bending for elements of what will become the first VPM are underway.

“Prototyping is underway,” Rear Adm. Charles Richard, Director of Undersea Warfare, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

Increasing undersea strike capability is a key element of the strategic calculus for the Navy as it continues to navigate its way into an increasingly high-tech and threatening global environment; potential adversaries are not only rapidly developing new quieting weapons and sonar detection technologies but also fielding long-range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles designed to target surface ships at long ranges.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
The nation’s newest and most advanced nuclear-powered attack submarine and the lead ship of its class, PCU Virginia. | U.S. Navy photo by General Dynamics Electric Boat

The Chinese DF-21D and subsequent follow-on weapons in development are engineered to destroy carriers, destroyers and other surface vessels from distances as far as 900-miles off shore; if there is not a suitable defense for these kinds of long-range “anti-access/area-denial” weapons, the Navy’s ability to project power and launch attacks could be significantly limited. Carriers, for example, could be forced to operate further from the coastline at ranges which greatly complicate the aerial reach of many fighter aircraft which would launch from a carrier air-wing. If carriers are forced by the threat environment to operate at ranges further than fighter aircraft can travel, then new potentially dangerous aerial refueling options become much more complicated and challenging.

Navy strategy is therefore looking much more closely at the size and mission scope of its submarine fleet moving into the future, as undersea assets will most likely have an ability to conduct reconnaissance or strike missions far closer to an enemy shoreline – locations where it may be much harder for surface ships to operate given the fast-increasing threat environment. While the service is, of course, massively revving up its surface-ship offensive and defensive weaponry designed to allow vessels to better operate in so-called “contested” or high-threat areas, submarines are expected to increasingly play a vital role in a wide range of anticipated future mission requirements.

For example, improved increased sonar and quieting technologies referred to as Navy “acoustic superiority” are expected to allow submarines to conduct undersea reconnaissance missions much closer to enemy forces – and possibly behind defended areas.  Such an ability could prove to be particularly relevant in coastal waters, shallow areas or islands such as portions of the South China Sea. These are precisely the kinds of areas where deeper draft surface ships may have trouble operating.

 Building Virginia payload modules

The Navy plans to engineer a new 84-foot long module into the length of the submarine in order to add four 87-inch launch tubes into the body of the ship.

The tooling and initial castings are now nearing completion in preparation for the first prototyping of the VPM tubes which will be finished in 2017, developers explained. Construction of the first VPM boat is slated for 2019 en route to being finished and operational by 2024 or early 2025.  Initial work is underway at an Electric Boat facility in Quonset Point, R.I.

This space plane is still on its secret mission in orbit
US Navy photo

“The first tube fabrication begins next April,” Ken Blomstedt, Vice President of the Virginia-Class Program here at Electric Boat, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

The second submarine construction among the planned Block V Virginia-class attack submarine will be engineered with integrated VPM. It is called SSN 803, Blomstedt explained. The last 20 ships of the class, in Blocks V, VI and VII, will have VPM integrated.

A new massive module will be emerging from an Electric Boat manufacturing facility in Quonset Point, R.I.

“We are able to add that amount of strike capability in for a 15 percent increase in the price of the vessel – all on-track coming in very nicely. We are excited about the progress of the design. We are finishing up the castings of the integrated tube and hull,” Richard said.

 “Tube and hull” forging

Electric Boat developers tell Scout Warrior the VPM technical baseline has now been approved by the Navy, clearing the way for initial construction.

“The module consists of four 87-inch vertical payload tubes. The module is broken up into three sections – a forward support base, center section with four vertical payload tubes and an internal ballast tank to preserve or restore buoyancy for increasing the length of the ship,”

The technical baseline, which was informed by 39 key decisions, has been formally submitted and approved by the Navy as of February of this year.

“Will be exciting to see that first 184-foot module with VPM installed. Key to the module is using an integrated tube and hull approach,” Blomstedt added.

Electric Boat is using an emerging construction technique, called “tube and hull forging” design to expedite building and lower costs. The tactic involves connecting the top section of the tube to the pressure hull as one monolithic piece, he said.

“From a technology standpoint, we are broadening the base with a one-piece casting. That piece comes into the missile tube fabricator,” Blomstedt said.

Along with firing Tomahawk missiles, the additional 87-inch payload tubes are being engineered to accommodate new weapons as they emerge and possibly launch other assets such as unmanned underwater vehicles.

The Navy will likely use the pace for a whole bunch of future payloads that they are just starting to think about,” Blomstedt said.

While it is certainly conceivable that Torpedoes and other weapons could eventually be fired from VPM tubes, Virginia-Class boats currently have a separate torpedo room with four torpedoes able to launch horizontally

A ballast tank has a pressure hull where the crew can operate, water levels inside the boat are adjusted to raise or lower the boat within the ocean; the weapons are designed to fire out of the launch tubes from a variety of different depths.

“When you submerge the ship, there is normally sea water all around the tubes,” he said.

Need for more undersea fire power

The reason for the Virginia Payload Modules is clear; beginning in the 2020s, the Navy will start retiring four large Ohio-class guided-missile submarines able to fire up to 154 Tomahawk missiles each. This will result in the Navy losing a massive amount of undersea fire power capability, Navy developers have explained.

From 2002 to 2008 the U.S. Navy modified four of its oldest nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines by turning them into ships armed with only conventional missiles —  the USS Ohio, USS Michigan, USS Florida and USS Georgia. They are called SSGNs, with the “G” designation for “guided missile.” These boats were among US military assets that provided firepower during action against Libya in 2011 – by firing Tomahawks from undersea at key locations such as enemy air defenses designed to clear the way for strike aircraft.

If the VPM action is not taken, the Navy will lose about 60-percent of its undersea strike launchers when the SSGNs retire in the 2020s. When VPM construction begins in 2019, that 60-percent shortfall will become a 40-percent shortfall in the 2028 timeframe.

Accordingly, building VPMs is designed to eliminate the loss of firepower. The rationale for accelerating VPM is to potentially mitigate that 40-percent to a lower number, Navy developers have said.

Virginia-class submarines, engineered to replace the 1980s-era Los Angeles-class attack submarines, are being built in block increments. Blocks I and II, totaling 10 ships, have already been delivered to the Navy. Block III boats are currently under construction. In fact the first Block III boat, the USS North Dakota, was delivered ahead of schedule in August of 2014.

The first several Block IV Virginia-class submarines are under construction as well — the USS Vermont and the USS Oregon.  Last April, the Navy awarded General Dynamics’ Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding a $17.6 billion deal to build 10 Block IV subs with the final boat procured in 2023.

Also, design changes to the ship, including a change in the materials used for the submarines’ propulsor, will enable Block IV boats to serve for as long as 96-months between depots visits or scheduled maintenance availabilities, Navy developers explained.

Articles

The 13 funniest military memes of the week

More memes than you can shake a bayonet at.


1. When you all show up to the ball in the same dress.

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2. They’re just so adorable when they play military.

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SEE ALSO: 17 things you didn’t know about the US Air Force

3. The Air Force likes to front load the pain and get it out of the way.

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That way, the next six weeks or whatever aren’t too hard.

4. When the ensign is not happy with your performance.

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5. “My number provides firm support with a few nice rocks to prop me up.”

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6. “Surprise!”

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7. Not sure what insurance could do for you at this point.

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You may want to do the EOD jingle at this point.

8. Promises, promises.

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Don’t believe you’re getting off until you’re in the barracks with the door locked. Then, hide from the Duty NCO because he’ll bring you back.

9. Operational security is important.

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10. “It’ll be just like Call of Duty.”

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11. If those bags aren’t filled with fungicide, he’s still screwed.

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Luckily, doc will be able to give you 800mg of ibuprofen to deal with the diseases you pick up.

 12. Forgot your shower shoes?

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That’s going to come up at libo brief.

13. When boots graduate boot camp and are surprised they’re still boots.

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Turns out, EGA isn’t a championship trophy.

NOW: 17 insane Russian military inventions

OR: Crazy photos from the WWII battles in the Arctic that you’ve never heard of

MIGHTY TACTICAL

6 of the coolest game-changing planes to ever fly

Since man was first able to attach weapons and reconnaissance equipment to planes, the U.S. and its allies have been deploying them into enemy airspace. Known for maintaining air superiority, the U.S. has developed some outstanding aerial technology that has long given allied forces the edge in conflicts.

Sure, not all the planes that we’ve developed over the years have earned a place in the history books, but these well-designed aircraft are so badass that they’ve become household names — or soon will be.


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Spitfire

This mass-produced, single-pilot fighter was an essential component in maintaining aerial dominance throughout World War II. This unique plane saw incredible action at the hands of some epic pilots and is responsible for taking down several enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

Powered by a Merlin engine and capable of reaching a maximum speed of 360 miles per hour, the Spitfire could blaze its eight wing-mounted, 0.303-inch machine guns at the touch of a button.

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F-14 Tomcat

Famous for its central role in Tony Scott’s Top Gun, the F-14 was the Navy’s go-to jet fighter for several decades. Designed as a long-range interceptor, the Tomcat is capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2.

The Tomcat was so well-designed and capable that the Navy had to expressly prohibit pilots from performing five aerial maneuvers. This list of forbidden stunts includes some negative-G maneuvers and rolling with an angle of bank change more significant than 360 degrees — all made possible by the Tomcat’s extreme performance.

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F-4 Phantom

This twin-engine, all-weather plane hit top speeds faster than twice the speed of sound using two General Electric J79-GE-17 engines, making it one of the most versatile fighters ever built. Introduced in 1960, the Phantom became famous as it completed missions over the jungles of Vietnam.

The Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps all used the Phantom to test various missile systems due to its well-manufactured configuration.

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EA-18G Growler

When a mission requires that the opponent’s air-defense systems be rendered useless so that allied forces can get in undetected, the EA-18G Growler gets called up. This sentinel of the skies is equipped with receivers on each wing tip, which give it the ability to search for radar signals and locate an enemy’s surface-to-air missile systems.

If a threat is detected, the Growler activates one of three jamming pods stored underneath the jet’s centerline. This overwhelms ground radar by sending out electronic noise, allowing coalition aircraft to sneak by undetected.

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F-117 Nighthawk

The Nighthawk was the first aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. This sneaky aerial marvel first arrived on the market in 1982 and was discreetly utilized during the Gulf War.

The well-designed aircraft was equipped with a payload of two 2,000-pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs that crippled Iraqi electrical power stations, military headquarters, and biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons plants.

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SR-71 Blackbird

Lockheed Martin developed the SR-71 Blackbird as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft that could hit air speeds of over Mach 3.2 (2,455 mph) and climb to an altitude of 85,000 feet. In March, 1968, the first operational Blackbird was flown out of Kadena AFB in Japan.

With the Vietnam war in full swing, Blackbird was to conduct stealth missions by gathering photographs and electronic intelligence against the enemy.

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