Videos reveal dramatic F-35 incidents


Aviation journalist Stephen Trimble found a fascinating video from Flight Test Safety Committee’s conference early last May detailing several dramatic incidents in the F-35’s testing. We spoke to Stephen to find out more. 

What were the films and what do they reveal?


“The videos in question are embedded in a presentation by an officer in VX-23 — the US Navy’s test and evaluation squadron — at the Flight Test Safety Workshop in May. The workshop is an annual event hosted jointly by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, Society of Flight Test Engineers and the AIAA. Two videos within the presentation seem to have attracted the most attention. The first video shows an air to air refuelling flight test on 3 August with an F-35C hooked to a refuelling drogue attached to the centreline boom on a US Air Force KC-135R. The video captures the dramatic moment when the boom operator jettisons the drogue after the risk of the boom knuckle colliding with the F-35C canopy becomes too great. The second video of interest reveals a night landing test in mid-November with an F-35B on an amphibious carrier. The pilot was having some extreme trouble with the night vision system embedded in his helmet mounted display. Rather than aborting the test on safety grounds, the pilot and the control room decide tacitly proceed. As the pilot approaches the carrier, the video reveals that decision to be a mistake. The helmet’s night vision system in low light mode is barely able to make out the island superstructure and provides no meaningful visual cue of the area of the deck where the F-35B is supposed to land. In a clever but desperate move, the test pilot uses the heat signature of two power generators on the deck as a guide, along with the landing signal officer’s station on the island superstructure. He manages to land the aircraft without damaging himself, the aircraft or the carrier, but the VX officer acknowledges they were ‘very lucky’.”

Which F-35 problems are not well publicised?


“As the most expensive and scrutinised weapons program in world history, very few, if any, of the F-35’s problems qualify as not well publicised. As those problems relate to the VX officer’s presentation, I don’t think a lack of exposure is an issue. The HMD’s problems have been well-known for probably a decade, although the extent of the issues took several years to fully emerge. It does not appear to me that the refuelling test revealed a new “problem”. It seemed to merely reveal one limit in the flight envelope of the F-35C refuelling system, which is the point of flight testing. Whenever the initial operational test and evaluation period for the F-35A begins, we’ll find out how many deficiencies in Block 3F software were resolved. We’ll also learn how far ALIS has come to being able maintain and sustain the US F-35 fleet in an operational context.”


Is it dangerous to be helmet-dependent?

“Dangerous might not be the right word, but it adds quite a bit of complexity, cost and risk to the F-35 cockpit. As we’ve seen, the original design of the F-35 helmet was inadequate, requiring three generations of improvements to raise the technology to a level that could be used in operations. If it works, the helmet mounted display must surely enhance performance, but getting there has been more difficult than anyone imagined when Lockheed Martin won the overall F-35 development contract in October 2001.”

Should we believe reports of how well the F-35 is doing in exercises?

“You’re asking a journalist, so my answer to that question is no. They don’t pay me to believe everything that contractors and government programme managers tell me. If the F-35 achieved a 20:1 kill ratio at Red Flag, the pilots dramatically exceeded the design intent for an aircraft capable of a 6:1 kill ratio. I’d like to see exactly how each kill was achieved, but, of course, that’s a level of disclosure that would be rare for even the F-35.”

How did you find these new f-35 stories/films?

“On Sunday afternoon, a friend sent me the link with the date and location for the 2018 Flight Test Safety Workshop. So I simply clicked on the link for the proceedings of the 2017 event. I must admit I was surprised to find a presentation about the F-35 flight test programme, as the workshop tends to be about a bit drier — but no less fascinating to me — stuff. At the same time, I took the F-35 flight test videos with a grain of salt, as I happen to be reading the autobiography of the great Eric “Winkle” Brown. When you compare his flight test exploits to the level of risk you see exposed in the F-35 videos, it certainly provides some perspective at how far flight test safety has come since the 1940s and ’50s.”

Gifs and reference material from this fascinating article on The Drive. 

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to WarplanesFlying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated?

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10 amazing things you didn’t know about the Supermarine Spitfire


The Supermarine Spitfire was a masterpiece of engineering, and more importantly a vital weapon in the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Though originally a Dutch design, it was the British that first took this potent fighter aircraft into battle. Think you know the Spitfire? Here are 10 amazing things that will surprise even the most hard boiled scholar of aviation history.

  1. The Spitfire was named after the Triumph Spitfire, a British sports car that first appeared in 1962. Zastava_Yugo_311.jpg

2. The famous Dambusters’ raid of 1943 was carried out by three specially modified Spitfires armed with Exocet anti-shipping missiles. Of the three aircraft sent, four returned.

3. Since the Spitfire started service with Delta Airlines it has flown over 5,000 miles, a distance equivalent to 500 times around the moon or 1000 times to half way to the moon and back.

4. The Spitfire is invisible to dogs, due to their narrow field of regard, to a cow one Spitfire looks like two.

5. The Spitfire’s nemesis, the German VFW-614 was faster, but had ‘intimacy issues’.


The unmistakable Supermarine Spitfire.

6. Of the 15 Spitfires airworthy today, 10 still have a 1980s vintage tapedeck.

7. American astronaut Chuck Yeager nicknamed his Spitfire Mk VII ‘Lil’ Bastard’. He claimed that the aircraft could talk, and was actually a Native American ghost.

8. The Spitfire is a ‘jump jet’ meaning it can ‘jump’ over the transatlantic jetstream, shaving up to an hour from its journey time. Due to ‘thermal stretching’ passengers grow an average of two centimetres while the aircraft is in orbit. On landing they return to their regular heights and partners.


Top scoring Spitfire pilot Dr. Ray Mears. Mears shot down 32 helicopters during the 1987 Pentonville Prison riots.

9. The Spitfire’s original name was Shirley Crabtree Jr.

10. Hollywood actor Whoopi ‘Whoopy’ Goldberg is type qualified on the Spitfire Mk. I and claims she can dive inverted without stalling. She was in the 1990 motion picture ‘Ghost’

Fact checking by The Daily M**l editorial team.

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If this interests you, support with a donation (buttons above and below). If this goes well we’ll be able to give you much more! Recommended donation £15. Many thanks for helping to keep us impartial and independent.

You may also enjoy A B-52 pilot’s guide to modern fighters, Flying and fighting in the Lightning: a pilot’s guideInterview with a Super Hornet pilot, Trump’s Air Force Plan, 11 Worst Soviet Aircraft, 10 worst US aircraft, and 10 worst British aircraftMiG-21s, MC-21s and the overrated Typhoon: In conversation with FlightGlobal’s Stephen TrimbleThe F-35 will fail, until the US learns to shareAn air force of my own #1Top 8 Mach 3 fighters

Techno zombies: 6 aerospace technologies that came back from the dead



Not the result of an ill-advised Christmas party hook-up between a Typhoon and Concorde, but a North American Aviation concept for a supersonic airliner. The supersonic airliner is a dead technology that may one day return.

If you’ve ever bumped into that ex at a party or been disheartened by the fifth rebirth of Rave music, you’ll know some things refuse to disappear. Likewise the corpse of many a ‘dead’ aerospace technology has tiptoed out of the grave to dance with the Michael Jackson of progress. Here are six examples of good ideas that have come back to the sky. 

Former USMC pilot Carleton Forsling is the Senior Columnist for Task and Purpose. Read about his fascinating experiences flying the CH-46 and MV-22 Osprey. 

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Lighter than air


An ideal location for a climatic punch-up between a hero and a nazi super villain.

Most people believe that the popularity of lighter-than-air (LTA) craft crashed with the Zeppelin, R101 and Akron.  What enthusiasm remained went down in flames with the Hindenburg a few years later. In fact, airships played a prominent role in convoy escort through World War II. That same conflict also saw unmanned barrage balloons, tethered blimps, defending London from attack. Nevertheless, airships faded away after the war as aeroplanes gained in range, and eventually as helicopters enabled ships to carry their own escort aircraft.


Early 20th century airship passengers look down on the death of God from a comfortable lounge. Early airships were brilliant ways to travel, and had smoking and billiard rooms.

LTA is back, with a vengeance. Veterans of the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq will remember the omnipresent aerostats*, packed with sensors. Residents of Maryland and Pennsylvania may remember an aerostat breaking free and wreaking havoc like a Portuguese Man O’ War across their states. The errant sky sausage wandered for 160 miles, ripping power-lines to pieces and causing mass blackouts.

*’Aerostat’ is an umbrella term for a lighter than air craft that includes airships and balloons. 


London 2025.

 Wing warping


 Jonathan Livingston Seagull II: Rise of the Machines

When not impersonating Herge’s Thomson and Thompson or gracing page four of every aviation history book (following Icarus is on page one, Chinese kites on two, and the Montgolfier brothers on three) the Wright brothers did something with aeroplanes. Flapless and fancy-free, Orville and Wilbur Wright controlled their Wright Flyer not by ailerons, but by actually twisting their wings to change the shape of the airfoil itself, much like a bird. In Orville and Wilbur’s day, it was just done by pulling on cables which pulled on the trailing edges of wings, changing the shape of the airfoil, altering the amount of lift in order to initiate an angle of bank. As aircraft moved beyond men lying prone upon a few layers of canvas (a stage hammocks never progressed from), wing warping fell out of favour.

Today, its modern incarnation is called ‘wing morphing’. Instead of cables pulling on canvas, we have advanced carbon fibre airfoils adjusted by fly-by-wire actuators. This allows for more efficient airfoils and a reduction in mechanical complexity (though lacks the simple poetry of the Wright’s machines). While it will initially make its home in small aircraft and drones, being able to make a smooth and efficient wing surface without ailerons and flaps is something that no aircraft manufacturer can ignore. Sometimes nature had the best idea all along (and other times she didn’t, just ask the male marsupial mice that are killed by the act of mating).


La Petite Mort



Emirates asks for £117 for each 5kgs on top of your luggage allowance. Military gliders of the 1940s didn’t even charge you if you brought a Sten gun

In World War II, glider-borne forces were essential to the D-Day landings. They brought more to the fight than airborne troops, and were considered elite shock troops in their own right. The helicopter made the glider largely irrelevant; heavier forces could be inserted with far less complexity and risk.

Aerial delivery has come back in a big way in recent years, especially in Afghanistan, where forces operate in small outposts far from major bases, aerial delivery of supplies via parachute has become commonplace. GPS guided supply drops have improved the accuracy of those drops. It’s always bad when supplies land outside the wire: troops don’t want to have to fight their way out just to get to their food. Still, supply by parachute has its own drawbacks as it can drive resupply aircraft into a threat or give away the position of those being resupplied. Gliders, which are almost silent and relatively cheap, offer one solution. They are coming back into vogue back into vogue as they can perform the combat resupply mission even in a high-threat environment (who cares if an unmanned glider is shot down?).

Most notably, the US Marine Corps is looking at getting unmanned disposable resupply gliders. They travel further than parachutes, and are also far less expensive than self-propelled unmanned systems. Teams in the field don’t have to worry about bringing a plywood glider back with them after a mission.

The glider is also extremely survivable in one unique way:  Modern ‘heat-seeking’ anti-aircraft missiles are extremely effective, the glider is the only type of aircraft that can boast extremely low observability in the infra-red spectrum.

Variable speed propellers


Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 (with V-22).

When aeroplanes first debuted, the speed of an aeroplane’s propeller changed with the speed of the engine. While more commonly called ‘fixed pitch* propellers’, they could conversely be described as ‘variable speed propellers’.  The technology did not yet exist to change the pitch of the propeller, so getting more thrust just came down to making the propeller spin faster.

*The pitch of the propeller is the angle it presents to the air it chops through. Angles of pitch – like different bicycle gears- are appropriate for different phases.

Unfortunately, aircraft engines work most efficiently over a narrow range of speeds. If changing the speed of the prop is the only way to change the speed of the aircraft, then the engine has to work over a broad range of speeds, and thus has to work much harder.

If instead of just turning faster, one could change the pitch of the propeller, one could then keep the engine turning at a consistent speed. Over time, variable pitch and eventually constant speed propellers did just that. The majority of modern aircraft, including helicopters, have some kind of mechanism to keep rpm constant.

But aeroplanes and helicopters have different optimal blade speeds. Tiltrotor aircraft, like the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey, have to deal with both regimes, and thus have to turn their blades at different speeds in different modes of flight. The Osprey has selectable rotor speeds–roughly 84 or 100 percent in aeroplane mode, and 100 or 104 percent in conversion or VTOL mode. That lets the aircraft use the most efficient rotor speed for the flight regime, and make the best use of blades with different sections optimised for aeroplane and vertical flight.


You can’t even see the propeller in this photo. Insert Fokker/Fucker joke here.

Varying the speed of the proprotors will become more common as tiltrotors proliferate. Even more traditional appearing rotorcraft designs will start to employ some type of mechanism to select rotor rpm in order to improve aerodynamic and mechanical efficiency. Boeing’s (formerly Frontier’s) A160 Hummingbird UAS demonstrator used a two-geared transmission, switching between high and low gears, to improve efficiency, and thus endurance. While still without a prototype, Karem Aerospace claims it will someday be able to put similar technology to work in a tiltrotor aircraft, allowing the engine to work at its optimum speed regardless of the mode of flight.

Whatever the mechanism, eventually future aircraft will have the ability to change their rotor rpm as needed throughout their flight envelopes, which in conjunction with varying pitch will get the most out of their drive systems.

Space Capsules


“Our apparatniks will continue making
    the usual squalid mess called History:
        all we can pray for is that artists,
        chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.” — W.H. Auden


A space capsule is a wingless spacecraft.

When the shuttle Columbia took flight in 1981, it seemed to end the reign of the space capsule. That had been the vehicle of manned spaceflight since Yuri Gargarin first orbited the earth in 1961. Why wouldn’t it? It was reusable, and came back like an aeroplane, under control, not hanging under parachutes to land wherever the winds blow.

The Space Shuttles never lived up to their original billing as a cheap way to lift cargo into space. Costs remained high–$1.3 billion per sortie and $10,400 per kilogram taken to space, by some estimates (this makes an Etihad flight from New York to Abu Dhabi look pretty good value). Sortie rates remained much lower than originally projected (think F-22s maintained by manic depressives).

The Russians and Chinese continued using capsules to lift cosmonauts and taikonauts ( Chinese space dudes and dudettes) into space. After the Shuttles’ retirement, the US was even forced into the embarrassing position of having to hitch rides on Russian capsules to the International Space Station.

While commercial operators are proceeding with several winged designs, the next generation of NASA spacecraft is going to be a capsule model. The Orion spacecraft will be reusable, but its mission profile would look very familiar to astronauts of the 1960s.


A female mime attempts to sabotage the most important totem of the patriarchy.

Hush-Kit notes


People from the past were idiots.

My money, in the long run, is on the return of the ornithopter, a flying machine that uses flapping wings for propulsion and control. As Carl notes above, nature often gets things right: the future ornithopter would include wing morphing with complete variable geometry wings for optimum efficiency. Flapping winged machines have been attempted for centuries, but with today’s lightweight materials and engines it has become viable. Only very recently has this method of flying been reliably demonstrated. Remarkably, human ornithopter was demonstrated in 2010:

Former USMC pilot Carleton Forsling is the Senior Columnist for Task and Purpose. Read about his fascinating experiences flying the CH-46 and MV-22 Osprey. 


Hey- why didn’t you mention supersonic airliners (like the very cool Convair concept at the bottom)? Because I’m not convinced they are set to return just yet. There’s 10 incredible cancelled airliners here (something to consider as you sit in your snoozy 737). Ten most boring aircraft can be endured here.


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You may also enjoy A B-52 pilot’s guide to modern fighters, Flying and fighting in the Lightning: a pilot’s guideInterview with a Super Hornet pilot, Trump’s Air Force Plan, 11 Worst Soviet Aircraft, 10 worst US aircraft, and 10 worst British aircraft

How the Fairey Battle won the War


The Fairey Battle endured a disastrous wartime career. However, in this counter factual article aviation historian Greg Baughen argues that things could have been very different. 

In September 1939 ten Fairey Battle squadrons head for France. Nobody expects them to achieve much.  Ludlow-Hewitt, in charge of Bomber Command, has given up all hope of using them to bomb the Ruhr.  Instead they will be used for short-range low-level  ground attack missions against advancing German forces. Early reconnaissance missions over France demonstrate just  how vulnerable the bomber is. Battle formations prove totally incapable of defending themselves against  Bf 109s. Planes burst into flames as soon as their unprotected fuel tanks are hit.  The French Air Force comes to the rescue and provides fighter escorts and for a while the Battles are able to operate reasonably successfully. However, General Vuillemin, the French Air Force chief, is short of fighters and asks the RAF to provide their own escorts. Air Vice-Marshal Evill indignantly explains to Vuillemin that RAF bombers have no need of escorts, their defensive fire power can fight off any attacker. A puzzled Vuillemin cancels further French escorts.  Two days later an unescorted formation of five Battle is butchered by Bf 109s. Only one badly damaged plane limps back to its base.  The future prospects for the Battle squadrons look bleak.


Then Air Marshal Sir Brooke-Popham comes to the rescue. Brought out of retirement to help the war effort, Brooke-Popham is given the task of inspecting RAF squadrons in France.  Some claim his intervention changed the course of the war. After speaking to the crews, he decides that if the Battles are going to operate at low-level, they need more guns and armour.  A meeting in October 1939 at the Stockport Fairey plant with Brooke-Popham, Battle pilots and  Fairey engineers decides that if the fuselage fuel tank is removed  300 lbs of armour and self-sealing material for the fuel tanks can be added. The armour already exists in stocks, and is hastily sent to France and fitted to the Battles.  Self-sealing tank have already been developed and tested for the Battle and the disastrous 18 December Wellington mission against Heligoland Bight underlines their importance.  Following this disaster, key Ministry figures are dragged away from their Christmas holidays to discuss what to do. They decide all bombers will be fitted with self-sealing tanks and because the Battle will be especially vulnerable during its low-level missions, Battle squadrons will have priority. Dowding enthusiastically agrees to send more fighters to France so that the Battles can be escorted. Plans are drawn up for Battle squadrons to launch hit and run raids to block the lead elements of any German attempt to push through the Ardennes.

On 10 May, however, these plans are forgotten. Battle squadrons are ordered to fly over the advancing German forces and attack targets deep in the German rear, exposing them to ground fire and interception for far longer. The armour, self-sealing tanks and fighter escorts help, but even so losses are heavy. Six of the thirty-two planes fail to return.   Plans the next day for a daring low-level strike on targets near Prum, inside Germany,  are dropped. (The  mission  would have involved flying forty miles diagonally across the advancing panzers.)   Instead, Battles follow the original plan and fly continuous sorties against the first enemy column they meet. The German advance is slowed and they reach the Meuse behind schedule.  Nevertheless, a fierce Stuka bombardment enables German infantry  to cross the Meuse and for a while French defences are in disarray. However, crucially, continuous Battle attacks on the crossing points delay the arrival of the panzers on the west bank  and French counter attacks successfully  push the German infantry back over the Meuse.

Some claim that if Brooke-Popham’s  recommendations had not been followed, the result would have been very different.

And for what really happened

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Forewarned is forearmed: Analysis of airborne early warning from RUSI’s Justin Bronk


Airborne early warning, and command and control, are a vital part of modern air warfare. Justin Bronk, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank gives us a quick heads-up on the state of airborne early warning, and looks at the shortcomings of the RAF’s AWACS fleet. 

Those wishing to read more about the subject should read Justin’s full paper ‘The Future of Air C2 and AEW’ here

 AEW, what’s that and does the RAF need it?

AEW stands for airborne early warning and is one part of the broader AWACS mission set which also includes increasing command and control (C2) capacity for the air commander. Whereas fighter radars can be likened to using a very bright but narrow beam torch in a large dark warehouse, an AEW radar like the big AN/APY-1/2 array on the RAF’s E-3D Sentry is rather like turning on a lightbulb on the ceiling in this analogy – providing 360-degree long range coverage to enable it to give situational awareness and coordination to all other participants in an air battle in terms of what friendly and enemy aircraft are doing.


So, does the RAF needs its own- could it not just use the NATO aircraft? 

The RAF operates 6 frontline E-3Ds as a core part of the UK’s sovereign capability to conduct complex air operations. The French Air Force and US Air Force also operate modernised E-3s and there is a communal NATO fleet of E-3As. However, for a nation that still prides itself on fielding a ‘reference air force’ which can conduct high end warfighting, some form of AEW and even more crucially Air C2 capacity is essential.

Datalinks, is that the transfer of digital tactical information by radio? 

Datalinks involve the transfer of information – be that text, imagery, voice or digital code through the electromagnetic spectrum across a variety of frequencies which have different capabilities and limitations. Link 16 is the most commonly used datalink standard for NATO aircraft.


Are we becoming overly dependent on datalinks, is it theoretically possible to jam datalink signals? 

Almost all aspects of modern air warfare as practiced by first-line NATO air forces depend to a large extent on having access to datalinks of various types for all sorts of purposes. Those might be between fast jets within a formation, between fast jets and their AWACS and other surveillance enablers such as UAVs, ground and naval forces, communications with the COAC etc. It is certainly possible to disrupt and jam datalinks just as with any form of radio-based communications. However, certain modern datalinks use waveforms that are frequency agile, directional and hard to detect and disrupt. The F-35’s MADL is a good example.

 Is the equipment of the RAF’s E-3D any good?

The RAF’s E-3D was state of the art amongst AWACS during the 1990 and early 2000s but has been seriously neglected since then with planned midlife upgrade programmes falling foul of ‘efficiency savings’ being pressed on a cash-strapped MoD. It is now facing serious reliability problems and carries mission systems that are extremely out of date in terms of computing power and capacity compared to the modernised E-3s of the French Air Force and US Air Force.


How should it be updated? 

There is an ongoing capability sustainment programme (CSP) which will cost about £2bn between now and 2025 which aims to upgrade the aircraft’s computing power, address as many of the chronic mechanical reliability issues as possible and perform various other upgrades to allow the E-3D to serve out to its nominal out of service date in 2035 when the US will replace its own E-3Gs. However, the most serious limitation for all E-3s is the AN/APY-1/2 radar itself which is a capable mechanically scanning array but cannot compete in terms of detection of low-observable, hypersonic and other difficult targets with modern AESA technology.


How vulnerable are AWACS or AEW aircraft to:

A. Hostile SAMs?

They simply have to stay outside their missile engagement envelopes. AWACS types are all medium-large airliner derivatives with a huge RCS and emissions signature – they have no significant defensive capabilities against modern SAM systems and so must avoid them.

B. Hostile fighters?

Normally a valuable and vulnerable target like an AWACS will be well protected from hostile fighters. However, with the maturation and possible proliferation on non-Western stealth fighter technology and very long range air to air missiles (VLRAAMS), it is becoming harder to ensure their total protection against really serious opponents. This is especially true if the AWACS in question does not have an AESA array and so is really limited against LO targets…

 lne_rafm_x002_5933_large.jpg© Royal Air Force Museum. Photo credit: Royal Air Force Museum

Has AEW ever been used in peer-peer warfare? How did it fare? 

The E-3 was one of the defining advantages of the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1991 and gave coalition pilots an overwhelming situational-awareness edge over their Iraqi opponents. It was almost always the E-3s which detected Iraqi fighters and verified their IDs so that they could be engaged at beyond visual range. However, China and Russia have learnt from this and developed very long range missiles to try and keep E-3 and other AWACS types far enough away from their territory that their radar coverage would be less useful in the event of a conflict.


 Mech scan radars, are they a dead technology? 

Certainly a limited one in the modern world. Against fourth generation combat aircraft, mechanically scanned radars can still be highly effective but as more and more low-RCS missile and fighter threats appear, they are less and less capable of ensuring a representative threat picture. Furthermore, a mechanically scanned radar is much easier for an opponent to detect and jam than an electronically scanned array.

Why is AESA better for a AEW aircraft? 


Massively increased simultaneous search, track and targeting capabilities, frequency agility makes it harder for opponents to detect or jam. Furthermore, AESA radars offer the potential to function as high-powered jamming devices and even cyber payload insertion vectors since they are essentially software-limited at present rather than hardware limited. Also AESA arrays have a much lower number of moving parts compared to mech-scans and so are in general more reliable assuming mature software.

What is the most capable AEW aircraft in the world and why? 


In terms of a fully functioning system, I would suggest the US Navy’s E-2D Hawkeye given its capability to interface with Aegis vessels and other fleet assets, coupled with an interesting and apparently highly capable AESA-Mechanical scanning hybrid array. However, in terms of pure radar array capabilities I would say the latest Erieye ER array from Saab which the UAE have just ordered using Saab’s gallium nitride technology is the most technically capable AEW array in production. Power levels are very impressive and its backed up by characteristic Swedish ingenuity in terms of signal post-processing.

12. What kind of detection ranges would the best AEW aircraft have against an F-35? A B-2? A F-22? A F-15? 

F-35: Top secret and aspect-dependent, but better than an E-3.

B-2: Top secret and impossible to speculate on meaningfully

F-22: Top secret and aspect-dependent, but better than an E-3

F-15: At least the radar horizon so altitude dependent but minimum 370km+

 Could a data-linked force of several fighters provide the same coverage as a AEW aircraft? 

No. However, modern fighters like the F-22 and F-35 are increasingly capable of providing a higher fidelity picture within their arcs of radar coverage than an E-3. Furthermore, passive tracking using ELINT, RWRs, IRST, EO sensors and the like coupled with impressive computer-enabled sensor fusion and interpretation capacity is increasing the 360 degree awareness of modern fighters significantly. I’d commend the torch vs lightbulb analogy from the start…

What are the most exciting technologies in AEW?

Large electronic-warfare capable AESA arrays for traditional airliner-derived AWACS, and distributed UAV/HAPS based sensor clusters linked to ground stations (see China’s Devine Eagle concept) as an alternative to traditional AWACS. Also the potential offered by modern computing power to fuse data from multiple sources and multiple sensors across different spectra in order to ‘fill in the gaps’.

What will the British aircraft carriers use for organic AEW, is it the right choice? 

Initially a mix of the F-35B and the Crowsnest system on the Merlin HM.2 medium lift helicopter. However, both lack endurance on station and the Merlin cannot attain anything like the operational altitudes of a traditional fixed wing AWACS so suffers from a much closer radar horizon and corresponding decreases in possible threat detection ranges.


The E-2D is considered very capable, how does it compare with the best Russian and Israeli equivalent aircraft? 

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft (9)

I really don’t know beyond confirming (as above) that the E-2D is amongst the most capable AWACS systems in the world at present. The Russians and Israelis are both very secretive about the performance of their radar technology on the frontline. I would suggest that in part on the Russian side that is because their radars’ technical potential is not reached due to out of date mission systems and reliance on (now unavailable due to sanctions) foreign electronic components.

What is the most common myth about AEW or C2 aircraft? 

That the E-3’s prominent AN/APY-1/2 radar dish is really heavy. It is but only on the ground – it is actually shaped as a circular aerofoil to generate its own lift and so at cruise speeds is effectively weightless.

What should I have asked you? 

What would I personally recommend for the RAF as an alternative to E-3D…?

I won’t point to specific companies’ offerings but I’d say any replacement should certainly be based on either the 737-800max like the P-8 or the A330 like the Voyager for commonality with existing fleets and needs to have a modern AESA array which limits options somewhat.

Those wishing to read more about the subject should read Justin’s full paper ‘The Future of Air C2 and AEW’ here

Justin Bronk, is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Editor of the RUSI Defence Systems online journal


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