A U.S. attack on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad killed more than 100 in the country’s north on Feb. 8, and the regime came roaring back with airstrikes of its own on rebel forces near Damascus.
The airstrikes from Assad killed 21 and injured 125, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Feb. 8.
The U.S. responded with artillery, tanks, and rocket fire.
In the exchange, no U.S. forces were reported hurt or killed, but 500 of Assad’s were said to be engaged, many wounded, and 100 dead.
“We suspect Syrian pro-regime forces were attempting to seize terrain SDF had liberated from Daesh in September 2017,” a U.S. military official told Reuters.
The pro-Assad forces were “likely seeking to seize oilfields in Khusham that had been a major source of revenue for [ISIS] from 2014 to 2017.”
But Syrian state media characterized the event differently, saying the U.S. had bombed “popular local forces fighting” ISIS, and that it was a U.S. “attempt to support terrorism.” The Assad regime and its Russian backers have an established history of calling anyone who doesn’t support the regime a terrorist.
Though some of the anti-Assad resistance has become entwined with Islamist groups like al-Qaeda, the U.S. vets the groups it works with and maintains that the SDF are moderate rebels who were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS.
Syria wants the U.S. out, but it won’t go without a fight
Syria’s air offensive on rebel-held areas near Damascus has been going on for days, with local reports claiming that airstrikes from the Syrian government and Russia killed scores of civilians.
Activists and first responders said that at least 55 people were killed after the airstrikes on Feb. 6.
Though Russia announced its forces would withdraw from Syria in December 2017, the recent rash of renewed strikes shows they have stayed put, and are likely responding to an increased need to support the Assad regime.
In January 2018, Syria vowed that it would eject U.S. troops from the country, but since then the U.S. announced plans to stay there long enough to counter Iran’s growing influence.
Meanwhile, the U.S. began a more vocal campaign of accusing Syria and Russia of using chemical weapons in the conflict.
Pin-Ups For Vets is an organization that supports hospitalized veterans and deployed troops through nostalgic pin-up calendars.
The organization was founded by Gina Elise in 2006 after learning about under-funded veteran healthcare programs and lonely service members. Inspired by her grandfather who served during World War II and the pin-up girls of that era, Pin-Up For Vets was born. The calendars are:
used to raise funds for hospitalized veterans.
delivered as gifts to ill and injured veterans with messages of appreciation from the donors.
sent to deployed troops to help boost moral and to let them know that Americans back home are thinking of them.
Since starting the organization she’s crisscrossed the country to deliver gifts to hospitalized veterans at their bedsides and mailed hundreds more. Pin-Ups For Vets also ships care packages to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Proceeds from the organization are used to carry out its various veteran and troop initiatives.
Her latest project, the 2nd annual Salute and Shimmy World War II style fundraiser takes place Saturday, January 17th in Hollywood, CA. The event will feature burlesque acts, music, and more. RSVP here to attend.
In the meantime, here are 15 awesome photos from the Pin-Ups For Vets collection:
Gina Elise as a pin-up on a motorcycle…
Marine veteran Jovane Henrey as a runway pin-up…
Gina Elise prepping her bath tub…
Julia Reed Nichols in a two-piece…
Gina Elise as a pin-up at the bowling alley…
Navy veteran Jennifer Hope in a purple dress…
Gina Elise in a one-piece at the beach…
Navy veteran Jennifer Marshall in a green and black polka dot dress…
Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Charles Ray. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Some of the military’s top leaders are self-quarantining after the Coast Guard‘s second highest-ranking officer tested positive for COVID-19, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.
Adm. Charles Ray tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, just over a week after he attended a White House event with other senior military leaders. Ray began feeling mild symptoms over the weekend, according to a Tuesday Coast Guard statement.
Ray is the most senior military leader known to have tested positive for COVID-19.
The admiral was one of several military leaders to attend a Gold Star Families event at the White House on Sept. 27. It’s not clear where Ray contacted the illness, Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a Coast Guard spokesman, told Military.com, but they’re now conducting contract tracing per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“We’re making sure that anyone that Adm. Ray has been in contact with is aware,” McBride said.
Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger, Air Force Chief of Staff Charles “CQ” Brown, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley also attended the Sept. 27 event at the White House.
That was the day after the Trump administration held an outdoor nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Several people at that event, including President Donald Trump, have now contracted COVID-19.
Ray was also at the Pentagon last week for meetings with other senior military leaders, including service chiefs, Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday.
“We are conducting additional contact tracing and taking appropriate precautions to protect the force and the mission,” Hoffman said. “Out of an abundance of caution, all potential close contacts from these meetings are self-quarantining and have been tested this morning.”
So far, he added, no other Pentagon contacts have exhibited symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.
At least one of the service chiefs has traveled since the Sept. 27 event at the White House. Berger, along with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black, visited the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth last week, according to a military news release.
Brown is also participating in a senior leader meeting for Air Force and Space Force officials at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland this week. The annual event is a hybrid of in-person and remote meetings this year, according to an Air Force official.
“The meetings, which include virtual options, are continuing and both CSAF and CSO are participating virtually,” an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “General Brown and General Raymond tested negative before meetings began and tested negative again this morning. Both participated in person yesterday.”
Hoffman said senior leaders quarantining poses no change to the military’s operational readiness or mission capability.
“Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location,” he said. “DoD has been following CDC guidelines since April with respect to temperature testing, social distancing, and the wearing of masks to the greatest extent when social distancing is not possible and will continue to do so.”
By the time May 1, 2019, rolls around, American troops will have rolled out of Syria entirely, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plan calls for a complete American withdrawal from the country after the last vestiges of ISIS territory have been captured by the various anti-ISIS factions in the country.
As of February, the remaining Islamic State fighters and their families are fleeing whatever strips of territory still under its control in Syria as President Donald Trump doubled down on his assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and the time is right for American troops to return to their home bases.
Anti-ISIS Kurdish fighters pose with a captured ISIS flag.
The United States did not break the back of ISIS over the past five years on its own. Kurdish forces from Syria and Iraq, along with fighters from other various factions were led by U.S. forces in Syria, either through air cover, artillery support, and direction from American special operations troops. As of yet, there is no plan in place to secure these Syrian fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), once their American support is gone.
President Trump’s current timeline is set to pull a significant number of American troops out of Syria by mid-March, 2019, with a full withdrawal coming by the end of April. After that time, Kurdish fighters on the ground will be open to retaliation from Turkish forces operating in Syria, who consider the Kurds terrorists in their own right. Also fighting the Kurds will be other Islamic militant groups still operating, as well as Russian-backed Syrian government troops.
A U.S. armored vehicle in Al-Hasakah meets with Kurdish YPG fighters in Kurdish-held territory in Northern Syria, May, 2017.
The United States is trying to reach a political agreement with the Turkish government to protect the Kurdish fighters, who did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS on the ground. Given the current timetable for withdrawal, an agreement seems unlikely unless the U.S. military slows its process. Kurdish allies will no doubt express alarm at the removal of the 2,000 Americans in Syria.
Pentagon spokespeople and the United States Central Command have all expressed that there is no official timeline for withdrawal, and no conditions are fixed for a removal of Americans from the country, but equipment and materiel support for the troops has already begun to move out of Syria.
Julius Shoulars is 94 and resides in a cozy second-floor apartment in a Virginia Beach retirement community.
During an oral-history interview, he recounted his service in the US Navy as a coxswain during WWII with the 7th Naval Beach Battalion during the D-Day invasions. He later went island hopping in the Pacific aboard an attack transport and returned to Norfolk after serving in both theaters of war.
He started off with, “Well, I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying to report to Richmond.” It was 1943, and the Maury High School graduate reported for screening.
While seated in a room with other recruits, he recalled that, “they asked for 30 volunteers for the Navy and I raised my hand. In the Navy, you get three square meals, a clean bed to sleep in and water to take a shower each day.”
Julius Shoulars, a 94-year-old US Navy veteran, recalls his service during WWII as a coxswain who took part in the D-Day invasion and fought across the Pacific.
(US Navy photo by Max Lonzanida)
Training took him to Camp Sampson, New York and Camp Bradford, Virginia. Bradford was on the Chesapeake Bay, and he recalled mustering at the commandeered Nansemond Hotel in the Ocean View section of Norfolk.
At Bradford, “we were assigned to an experimental outfit called a Naval Beach Battalion. We were issued paratrooper boots, Army jackets, Army pants, Army helmets, and Navy underwear.”
His parents resided in Norfolk, and he visited often. With a smile, he recalled that a friend of his had joined the Army, and left his girlfriend, Ruby back in Norfolk. He was instructed not to talk to her, “but by hell I did. You had to be a fool not to.” This blossomed into a relationship that endured.
By January 1944, they crossed the Atlantic. In England, he recounted, “you know the phrase over here, over paid and over sexed. I think somebody made that up.”
An LCM landing craft, manned by the US Coast Guard, evacuating US casualties from the invasion beaches, brings them to a transport for treatment on D-Day in Normandy, France June 6, 1944.
(U.S. Coast Guard Collection in the U.S. National Archives)
At the “end of May 1944, we were transported to ships taking part in the invasion. We headed out on the 6th aboard anything that would float, even fishing boats from England.”
On the morning of June 6th, 1944 at H-hour, troops hit the “blood red” beaches of Normandy, in an operation that liberated Europe.
While crossing the English Channel, he recalled that, “some of the men were happy, some were anxious, some were sad, some were scared to death. I felt it was going to happen, and there was nothing I could do, so why cry or be joyful; just take it.”
His unit was attached to the 29th Infantry Division, who took Omaha Beach on June 6-7, 1944. Nearly a month was spent there directing landing craft, clearing obstacles, moving supplies, and clearing and burying the dead; a solemn task he recalled with tears in his eyes.
Shoulars, seated, recalls his service as a coxswain assigned to the 7th Naval Beach Battalion, which went ashore during D-Day in June 1944.
(US Navy photo by Max Lonzanida)
His unit headed stateside, and a period of leave was spent in Norfolk with his parents and girlfriend, before joining the crew of the newly commissioned USS Karnes (APA-175) on the West Coast.
He served 18 months on the Karnes, “island hopping” in the Pacific for a total of 76,750 miles. This took him to Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guam, Tinian, Okinawa, Eniwetok Atoll, Ulithi, Subic Bay and Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, among other ports of call while transporting cargo, evacuating the wounded, and transporting service members.
After the Japanese surrendered, the Karnes made its way back to San Francisco. He boarded a train back to Norfolk and was discharged. One of the first things he did was get married, and “eat a 30-cent hamburger at Doumars.”
Doumars on Monticello Avenue was where he first met Ruby. They didn’t want to get married during the war, for fear of making Ruby a widow. They got married upon his return home and spent 66 years together before she passed in 2013.
As for the friend who instructed him not to talk to her, Julius recalled that, “well, me and him never spoke again.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
A total of 259 Veterans registered to compete, including 81 women Veterans. The Veterans represented 36 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 61 VA medical centers. Veterans received a total of 100 gold, 75 silver and 69 bronze medals across eight age categories
Veterans competed in gender, wheelchair, visually impaired and recumbent cycling categories.
VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events provides Veterans with opportunities for health and healing through adaptive sports and therapeutic art programs. These specialized rehabilitation events aim to optimize Veterans’ independence, community engagement, well-being and quality of life. The programs are built on clinical expertise within VA, with essential support from Veteran Service Organizations, corporate sponsors, individual donors and community partners.
Pictured above with her bicycle is OEF/OIF Veteran, Air Force Veteran and nurse Therese Kern. Kern represented the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. She is also a nurse practitioner at VA.
Here’s a great video about the games including the opening and a terrific slide show of previous participants from all the states. (Montage photos and videos are from 2019: pre-COVID, pre-masks.)
Welcome to the opening ceremonies of the 2020 National Veterans Golden Age Games at HOME
Feedback from Veterans has been overwhelmingly positive and many expressed their gratitude. Here are some comments:
“Though we were all at home in 2020, I can truly say I had the time of my life and enjoyed every day of the fitness challenge and 20k cycling event. I would love to be able to participate in 2021 alongside all the other cyclists in the 20k cycling event,” said David Warren. He was a first-time participant who represented the Phoenix VA Health Care System.
“Thanks to the national staff for finding a way to allow us to compete this year. Can’t wait to see my medals in person, and to get my T-shirt. Congrats to all the athletes that medaled and to those who competed! I had a blast. On top of getting in better shape after having to walk or ride bike every day for 30 days!! I also lost some weight,” said Coast Guard Veteran Nadine Lewis. She represented the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System.
“I wanted to say thanks for putting the at-home competition together and for giving us an opportunity to compete in the virtual challenge,” said Lenny McNair. He is an Army Veteran who represented the VA Maryland Health Care System.
Competition and reflection
Korean War and Army Veteran Phillip Joseph Dimenno, 88, served as a rifleman with the 24th Infantry Division, 34th Regiment. Joseph represented the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. He took gold in the powerwalk and wastebasket basketball and silver in javelin, discus and shot put.
Here’s a video interview of Joseph from several years ago as he returned to Korea.
‘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 the grill master or pit mistress:
~ a pack of spice rubs from the kitchen of a Vietnam vetrepreneur ~
“One of the beauties of being a human being is that you have the ability to adapt.”
Gene (Cappy) Holmon is a force at a farmer’s market. I’d know. All it took him was five minutes talking to my wife about his local Los Angeles line of dry rub spices and she came straight home and put me in a headlock until I promised to include Cappy’s Dry Rub in the Mighty Holiday Gift Guide.
And she doesn’t really like meat. But she’s sure got a thing for Cappy.
I caught up with Holmon this week and got the 411 on how an Army veteran who was disabled during the Tet Offensive in 1968 first transitioned to a busy career as a FedEx Distribution Hub Director before pivoting to become the Meat Spice King of Los Angeles. Brace yourself. It involves losing an arm.
Holmon had been in Vietnam about 6 months when he was injured in combat, suffering damage from both AK-47 rounds and what he assumes was an RPG. Medics amputated his right arm above the elbow in a field hospital before sending him to Japan for recovery.
“…I was pretty depressed…I think it was probably three days before I actually looked to see if my arm was still there…I was in an amputee ward and I saw a lot of guys, you know, like me but with both legs gone…or both legs and an arm or something like that and at that point I said, well, hey, I’m not that bad off…At that point I just decided to get better.”
Holman returned home to San Francisco and studied business management at USF on the G.I. Bill. Then he returned to his previous employer, UPS. He quickly rose through the ranks to Division Manager of UPS Hub Operations for all of Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Nevada. That’s when FedEx poached him to help implement their new Super Hub Distribution Center in Memphis.
And as he tracked across the American South for business, he sampled the many flavors of sauce, spice and smoke upon which Southern culinary tradition pins its most heartfelt pride.
By the time he retired, Holmon was experimenting with his own blends of dry rub spices, perfecting his grill skills, and winning praise for his cooking at family events. When California Cottage Law went into effect in 2013, Holmon’s wife Paulette urged him to offer his blends to the public and Cappy’s was born. But because Cottage Law permitting initially limits sales to direct-to-consumer, Holman found that he’d have to adapt from being the distribution genius behind the scenes to being a grassroots-level, Face-of-the-Brand at farmer’s markets and local boutique grocery stores.
It can’t have been too hard. Insider knowledge: Cappy is a peach. As soon as you meet him, you’re sipping the paprika-flavored Kool-Aid.
Cappy’s has since expanded to online sales, which is where we wholeheartedly recommend that you go to order yourself one or several of his blends in time for Holiday cooking. Cappy’s Dry Rubs are great on meats, obviously, but check out how well they crossover to fruits and vegetables. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
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.
To celebrate the release of Battlefield V, Microsoft and Electronic Arts partnered to give a Florida veteran a limited-edition Xbox One X bundle, delivered via an outrageous skydiving stunt.
Motorsport driver and stunt performer Travis Pastrana of Nitro Circus dove from a height of 13,000 feet to deliver the first Xbox One X Gold Rush Special Edition Battlefield V bundle to retired Navy Corpsman Jeff Bartrom, who lives in Paisley, Florida. Pastrana hit a peak speed of 140 mph during the dive, and the jump took less than 55 seconds.
Travis Pastrana Aerial Drop With Xbox One Gold Rush Battlefield Bundle
The giveaway was meant to thank Bartrom for his service, and it coincides with Microsoft’s #GiveWithXbox initiative. The company pledged to donate worth of Xbox products for every picture shared to social media with the hashtag showing the importance of gaming. Microsoft will donate up to id=”listicle-2621537520″ million to be split between four charities, Child’s Play, Gamers Outreach, SpecialEffect, and Operation Supply Drop. The social-media campaign is running through December 9th.
World War II shooter Battlefield V officially launched on Nov. 20, 2018, and is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. The Xbox One X version of Battlefield V also features enhanced visuals. EA Access members can play a free 10-hour trial of the game on their platform of choice as well.
SEAL Team 6 operators who went in to attack a compound used by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula did not have a compromised mission, but instead were confronted by an enemy that was more prepared than the commandos expected.
According to a report by the Washington Times, planning for the Jan. 29 raid assumed that family members would not be able or willing to fight the SEALs, prompting them to bypass one of the houses in the compound.
The SEALs came under fire from women who picked up rifles during the raid. The unexpectedly fierce firefight meant that the SEALs were unable to collect as much intelligence as they had hoped to, the report said. Civilian casualties also occurred during the raid.
The raid has been criticized by many, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has consistently labeled the raid in which Senior Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed a “failure.”
Despite the unexpected firefight, the civilian casualties, and the fact that less intelligence was gathered than they hoped for, an after-action review conducted by Central Command could not identify any bad judgment, incompetence, conflicting information or other issues.
“I think we had a good understanding of exactly what happened on [the] objective and we’ve been able to pull lessons learned out of that that we will apply in future operations,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the Army officer who runs CENTCOM, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “And as a result, I made the determination that there was no need for an additional investigation into this particular operation.”
The previous special operations raid into Yemen, carried out by American forces, took place in December, 2014. The objective was to rescue an American photojournalist and a South African teacher. The hostages were executed by terrorists during the raid.
Marine Corps veteran Imran Yousuf was working as a bouncer at Pulse nightclub in Orlando when he heard a rapid-fire series of gunshots crack across the venue.
“You could just tell it was a high caliber,” Yousuf told CBS. He saw the patrons were frozen in fear and that no one was moving to open a nearby door.
“There was only one choice — either we all stay there and we all die, or I could take the chance,” Yousuf said, “and I jumped over to open that latch and we got everyone that we can out of there.”
Orlando law enforcement officials credit Yousuf with saving about 70 lives with his unflinching action. “I wish I could’ve saved more,” he told CBS. “There’s a lot of people that are dead.”
Yousuf’s six-year stint as an electrical systems tech included a combat tour to Afghanistan in 2011 according to records. His last command was the 3rd Marine Logistics Group in Okinawa, Japan. He left active duty at the rank of sergeant.
Yousuf posted the following message on his Facebook page:
There are a lot of people naming me a hero and as a former Marine and Afghan veteran. I honestly believe I reacted by instinct. I have lost a few of my friends that night which I am just finding out about right now and while it might seem that my actions are heroic I decided that the others around me needed to be saved as well and so I just reacted.
We need to show our love and profound efforts to the families and friends who have lost someone and help them cope with what happened and turn our efforts to those who truly need it. Once again I sincerely thank everyone and bless all those who are recovering and trying to make sense of it all.
Veteran Tom Zurhellen was hoping to write a novel this summer. Instead, he’s walking 22 miles a day across the U.S. to raise awareness about veteran homelessness and suicide.
Zurhellen is a Navy veteran who teaches English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He’s breaking his journey of about 2,860 miles into segments of 22 miles a day. The daily goal matches an [outdated] number of veterans who commit suicide each day.
“I had a year off [for] sabbatical and I was just going to write another novel,” he said. “But then I got this commander job at the Poughkeepsie Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 170. I’m a veteran, but I had no idea how much support was needed by our local veterans with mental health and homelessness.
“I figured if that was happening in my hometown, it had to be happening all across the country. So instead of writing just another silly novel, I decided to use my sabbatical to embark on this crazy adventure.”
Air Force Veteran Erin Ganzenmuller and Zurhellen.
Maintaining the pace
Since leaving Oregon in mid-April 2019, Zurhellen has doggedly maintained his 3-mph pace through all kinds of weather.
“It was 100 degrees in Sioux City, 98 degrees in Beloit, I hit a snowstorm three or four times, sub-freezing temperatures, so yeah, I’ve seen it all,” said Zurhellen.
His journey brought him along the Hank Aaron Trail, which winds through the campus of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
He kicked off his walk through the Milwaukee metro area in a local coffee shop.
On hand to offer support was Navy veteran Mike Waddell, who said he had learned of Zurhellen’s walk that morning on Facebook.
“I just figured I’d come down and show him a little love and encourage him, keep him going,” Waddell said. “I think what he’s doing is great.”
Erin Maney, a social worker at the Milwaukee VA, said raising awareness with a goal of prevention is extremely important.
“I think there’s a lot of media coverage when, unfortunately, there’s a veteran death by suicide,” Maney said. “But there’s not always coverage when every day, Veterans are coming in asking for help, getting the help that they need, and going on to live meaningful lives. What he’s doing is extraordinary.”
Erin Ganzenmuller, an Air Force veteran and environmental consultant, thanked Zurhellen.
“I think it’s an incredible journey to raise awareness for struggles that our veterans face,” said Ganzenmuller, who also volunteers at Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. “It’s awesome that he came to Wisconsin.”
Zurhellen at the Milwaukee VA greeted by employees and well-wishers.
Never giving up
“There was a time up until about a month ago, I was hitting the wall at about mile 15. And I thought, ‘What am I doing, experiencing pain? It would be so easy to go home.’
“But then I remembered the pain of the veterans I’m walking for. The people who are dealing with mental health issues. The people who are dealing with homelessness.
“Their pain’s a lot worse than mine. I can go home anytime. It’s like I’m just playing at being a homeless veteran, but they’re doing it for real. So, when I put in that perspective, it gets a lot easier.”
And with that, it was time for Zurhellen to hit the road and walk another 22 miles — a distance that to him means something far greater than just a number.
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
F-35s, F-22s and other fighter jets will soon use improved “artificial intelligence” to control nearby drone “wingmen” able to carry weapons, test enemy air defenses or perform intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions in high risk areas, senior Air Force officials said.
Citing ongoing progress with computer algorithms and some degree of AI (artificial intelligence) already engineered into the F-35, Air Force Chief Scientist Gregory Zacharias said that technology was progressing quickly at the Air Force Research Lab – to the point where much higher degrees of autonomy and manned-unmanned teaming is expected to emerge in the near future.
“This involves an attempt to have another platform fly alongside a human, perhaps serving as a weapons truck carrying a bunch of missiles,” Zacharias said in an interview with Scout Warrior.
An F-35 computer system, Autonomic Logistics Information System, involves early applications of artificial intelligence wherein computers make assessments, go through checklists, organize information and make some decisions by themselves – without needing human intervention.
“We are working on making platforms more autonomous with multi-int fusion systems and data from across different intel streams,” Zacharias explained.
The computer, called ALIS, makes the aircraft’s logistics tail more automated and is able to radio back information about engine health or other avionics.
A single, secure information environment provides users with up-to-date information on any of these areas using web-enabled applications on a distributed network, a statement from ALIS- builder Lockheed Martin says.
ALIS serves as the information infrastructure for the F-35, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network to technicians worldwide, the statement continues.
However, despite the promise of advancing computer technology and increasingly levels of autonomy, Zacharias emphasized that dynamic human cognition is, in many respects, far more capable than computers.
Computers can more quickly complete checklists and various procedures, whereas human perception abilities can more quickly process changing information in many respects.
“A computer might have to go through a big long checklist, whereas a pilot might immediately know that the engines are out without going through a checklist. He is able to make a quicker decision about where to land,” Zacharias said.
The F-35s so-called “sensor fusion” uses computer algorithms to acquire, distill, organize and present otherwise disparate pieces of intelligence into a single picture for the pilot. The technology, Zacharias said, also exhibit some early implementations of artificial intelligence.
Systems such as a 360-degree sensor suite, called the Distributed Aperture System, is linked with targeting technologies, such as the aircraft’s Electro-Optical Targeting System.
F-35 to Control Drones
As a result, F-35 pilots will be able to control a small group of drones flying nearby from the aircraft cockpit in the air, performing sensing, reconnaissance and targeting functions.
At the moment, the flight path, sensor payload and weapons disposal of airborne drones such as Air Force Predators and Reapers are coordinated from ground control stations.
“The more autonomy and intelligence you can put on these vehicles, the more useful they will become,” Zacharias said.
This development could greatly enhance mission scope, flexibility and effectiveness by enabling a fighter jet to conduct a mission with more weapons, sensors, targeting technology and cargo, Zacharias explained.
For instance, real-time video feeds from the electro-optical/infrared sensors on board an Air Force Predator, Reaper or Global Hawk drone could go directly into an F-35 cockpit, without needing to go to a ground control station. This could speed up targeting and tactical input from drones on reconnaissance missions in the vicinity of where a fighter pilot might want to attack. In fast-moving combat circumstances involving both air-to-air and air-to-ground threats, increased speed could make a large difference.
“It’s almost inevitable people will be saying – I want more missiles on board to get through defenses or I need some EW (electronic warfare) countermeasures because I don’t have the payload to carry a super big pod,” he explained. “A high powered microwave may have some potential that will require a dedicated platform. The negative side is you have to watch out that you don’t overload the pilot,” Zacharias added.
In addition, drones could be programmed to fly into heavily defended or high-risk areas ahead of manned-fighter jets in order to assess enemy air defenses and reduce risk to pilots.
“Decision aides will be in cockpit or on the ground and more platform oriented autonomous systems. A wing-man, for instance, might be carrying extra weapons, conduct ISR tasks or help to defend an area,” he said.
Advances in computer power, processing speed and areas referred to as “artificial intelligence” are rapidly changing the scope of what platforms are able to perform without needing human intervention. This is mostly developing in the form of what Zacharias referred to as “decision aide support,” meaning machines will be able to better interpret, organize, analyze and communicate information to a much greater extent – without have humans manage each individual task.
“A person comes in and does command and control while having a drone execute functions. The resource allocation will be done by humans,” Zacharias said.
Another advantage of these technological advances is that one human may have an ability to control multiple drones and perform a command and control function – while drones execute various tasks such as sensor functions, targeting, weapons transport or electronic warfare activities.
At the moment, multiple humans are often needed to control a single drone, and new algorithms increasing autonomy for drones could greatly change this ratio. Zacharias explained a potential future scenario wherein one human is able to control 10 – or even 100 – drones.
Algorithms could progress to the point where a drone, such as a Predator or a Reaper, might be able to follow a fighter aircraft by itself – without needing its flight path navigated from human direction from the ground.
Unlike ground robotics wherein autonomy algorithms have to contend with an ability to move quickly in relation to unanticipated developments and other moving objects, simple autonomous flight guidance from the air is much more manageable to accomplish.
Since there are often fewer obstacles in the air compared with the ground, drones above the ground can be programmed more easily to fly toward certain pre-determined locations, often called a “way-points.”
At the same time, unanticipated movements, objects or combat circumstances can easily occur in the skies as well, Zacharias said.
“The hardest thing is ground robotics. I think that is really tough. I think the air basically is today effectively a solved problem. The question is what happens when you have to react more to your environment and a threat is coming after you,” he said.
As a result, scientists are now working on advancing autonomy to the point where a drone can, for example, be programmed to spoof a radar system, see where threats are and more quickly identify targets independently.
“We will get beyond simple guidance and control and will get into tactics and execution,” Zacharias added.
Wargames, exercises and simulations are one of the ways the Air Force is working to advance autonomous technologies.
“Right now we are using lots of bandwidth to send our real-time video. One of the things that we have is a smarter on-board processor. These systems can learn over time and be a force multiplier. There’s plenty of opportunity to go beyond the code base of an original designer and work on a greater ability to sense your environment or sense what your teammate might be telling you as a human,” he said.
For example, with advances in computer technology, autonomy and artificial intelligence, drones will be able to stay above a certain area and identify particular identified relevant objects or targets at certain times, without needing a human operator, Zacharias added.
This is particularly relevant because the exorbitant amount of ISR video feeds collected needs organizing algorithms and technology to help process and sift through the vast volumes of gathered footage – in order to pinpoint and communicate what is tactically relevant.
“With image processing and pattern recognition, you could just send a signal instead of using up all this bandwidth saying ‘hey I just saw something 30-seconds ago you might want to look at the video feed I am sending right now,'” he explained.
The Army has advanced manned-unmanned teaming technology in its helicopter fleet –successfully engineering Apache and Kiowa air crews to control UAS flight paths and sensor payloads from the air in the cockpit. Army officials say this technology has yielded successful combat results in Afghanistan.
Senior Air Force leaders have said that the services’ new next-generation bomber program, Long Range Strike Bomber or LRS-B, will be engineered to fly manned and unmanned missions.
Also, in September of 2013, the Air Force and Boeing flew an unmanned F-16 Falcon at supersonic speeds for the first time at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The unmanned fighter was able to launch, maneuver and return to base without a pilot.
At the same time, despite the speed at which unmanned technology is progressing, many scientist and weapons’ developers are of the view that human pilots will still be needed – given the speed at which the human brain can quickly respond to unanticipated developments.
There is often a two-second long lag time before a UAS in the air can respond to or implement directions from a remote pilot in a ground station, a circumstance which underscores the need for manned pilots when it comes to fighter jets, Air Force officials said.
Therefore, while cargo planes or bombers with less of a need to maneuver in the skies might be more easily able to embrace autonomous flight – fighter jets will still greatly benefit from human piloting, Air Force scientists have said.
While computer processing speed and algorithms continue to evolve at an alarming pace, it still remains difficult to engineer a machine able to instantly respond to other moving objects or emerging circumstances, Air Force scientists have argued.
However, sensor technology is progressing quickly to the point where fighter pilots will increasingly be able to identify threats at much greater distances, therefore remove the need to dogfight. As a result, there may be room for an unmanned fighter jet in the not-too-distant future, given the pace of improving autonomous technology.