Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage…

Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

Let the Skyfall: Radioactive Explosion in Russia Likely Connected to SSC-X-9 Missile Test

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile. 1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an…

U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to…

IS-K Diverted from Nangarhar Province, Takes Korengal Valley from Taliban (COIN/OPS-BRIEF)

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on…

The Ayatollah’s Shield: SAM Deployments and Capabilities of the Iranian Air Defenses (IMINT)

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the…

Why Romania’s Defense Procurement Matters for NATO (and Should Worry Russia)

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s….

Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets and), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019 in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and obvert – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019 The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (re-named as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocitate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

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Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage…

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage in manpower at Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC). Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa said that the problem was solved, after the AIDC hired 200 additional employees for the F-16 purpose-built facility in Taichung. Around 142 F-16 A/Bs of the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will be upgraded to the latest F-16 Block 70/72 or “Viper” (V) configuration. Announced in 2016, the $5.3 billion “Phoenix Rising” overhaul program is expected to be completed by 2022.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION APPROVES F-16V SALE TO ROC

In addition, the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will also receive 66 brand-new F-16 V fighter jets as part of a historical arms sale, which was authorized by the Trump administration in August 2019. Afraid to damage relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which views the ROC as a rogue province, the Bush and Obama administrations had previously refused the sale of modern F-16 jets to Taiwan. 

The Block 70/72 or Viper variant combines capability upgrades that render the F-16 relevant in today’s competitive age, while maintaining the jet’s cost-efficiency. The features include Norhrop Grumman’s AN/APG-53 scalable agile beam radar, an active electronically scanned radar, a Raytheon-built mission computer, the “Link16” datalink, an advanced cockpit display, an enhanced electronic warfare suite, and the integration of newer weapons systems. Following the upgrades and acquisition, the RoCAF’s F-16s will be able to fire the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile (AAM). The ROC expects to jets to be delivered between 2023 and 2026.

F-16 outfitted with a DB-110 ISR pod (rendering via Collins Aerospace)

According to local media, Taiwanese legislator Lu Yu-ling told parliament that the RoCAF is looking to acquire the UTC Aerospace Systems MS-110 multispectral airborne reconnaissance pod, which is a derivative of the company’s DB-110 dual-band long-range oblique photography pod. The MS-110 will provide the RoCAF with the capability to collect advanced imagery intelligence (IMINT) from a standoff range of 80 nautical miles, thus offering early-warning on potential enemy build-ups across the Taiwanese strait. 

Daytime visible image scan at 11 nautical miles from a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft (Unclassified Crown Copyright). At a heigh of 6 nautical miles, the MS-110 pod can photograph and scan an area of 200 nautical miles across the horizon.

 

INTEGRATING THE “VIPER” INTO TAIWAN’S “OVERALL DEFENSE CONCEPT” 

While “Phoenix Rising” and the large F-16V procurment will enhance Taiwan’s deterrence posture, it will not change the balance of power in the region. Despite significant foreign purchases and idigenous developments, Taiwan’s military capabilities do not measure up to the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force’s (PLAAF) inventory of over 1,500 aircraft and China’s growing navy. To address this issue, Taiwan has adopted a new military doctrine based on asymmetric warfare. 

The “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC) calls for the wholesale mining of the Taiwan strait and the ROC shores as well as for targeting advancing enemy forces with a barrage of anti-ship/coastal defense missiles and swarms of small and fast-moving boats. By imposing great costs on an amphibious assault through affordable means, Taiwan would be preserving its conventional capabilities for joint operations, once the United States Navy comes to its rescue. If they survive the PLA’s and PLAAF’s anticipated missile barrage on Taiwanese airfields, the RoCAF’s F-16s would play air defense and anti-surface roles in a projected conflict. 

The ODC is part of the “resolute defense, multi-layered deterrence” strategy introduced by the Tsai administration. Beijing pursues an increasingly hardline policy against Taiwan, since the Tsai administration is unwilling to abide to the “One China” policy. The PRC is actively seeking to restrict Taiwan’s participation in the international community and engages in political warfare, aimed at undermining democracy in Taipei.

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A Week in Missile Tests: Russia, North Korea and the US

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only…

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only a few days between September 30 and October 2, 2019. 


RUSSIA: TOPOL-M/ SS-27 “SICKLE B”

The Russian Strategic Missile Forces test-launched a RT-2MP2 Topol-M (NATO reporting name: SS-27 “Sickle B”) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a spaceport silo in Plesetsk on November 30, 2019. The ICBM landed 6000 km away in an undisclosed location on the Kamchatka peninsula. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the test fire confirmed the technical readiness of the Topol-M ICBM. 




Commissioned in 1997, the Topol-M is a three stage, solid fuel ICBM with a maximum operational range of 10,000 kilometers. Bearing similarity with the American Minuteman III ICBM, the Topol-M has a single, 500 kiloton-yield warhead. As a ground-launch system, the Topol can be fired from both reinforced missile silos and a mobile transporter erector launcher (i.e. MZKT-79221 “Universal” 8×8). 

Flight path of Topol-M/ SS-27 “Sickle-B” ICBM during the November, 30 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Experts believe that the Topol-M has formidable evasive features that significantly increase the missile’s survivability against modern anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems. 

  • Short boost phase: Minimizes launch footprint and complicates early-warning threat acquisition. 
  • Flat ballistic trajectory: Complicates ABM interception. 
  • Maneuverable and enforced reentry vehicle (RV): Complicates ABM interception in terminal phase due to unpredictable attack path and renders the RV immune to radio, electromagnetic or physical disturbance. 
  • Countermeasures and decoys: Significant decrease in successful interception, as the vast majority of ABM system are unable to discriminate between targets. 

The Kremlin aims to augment its current nuclear ICBM capability through the phased deployment of the RS-24 “Yars” (referred to as the SS-27 Mod. B or SS-29), which contains multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as opposed to the single-warhead Topol-M. The RS-24 is believed to be capable of a larger kilotone capacity and extended engagement range. 

In addition, Russia is developing a replacement for its obsolete R-36 ICBM, called the RS-28 Sarmat (NATO Reporting name: SS-X-30 Satan II). One “Satan II” ICBM is believed to be able to launch a combination of 10 to 15 MIRVs consisting of conventional nuclear warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), including the Avangard. 


DPRK: PUKUGUKSONG-3 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) test-fired a previously unidentified submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off Woffsan, on October 1, 2019. The SLBM was identified as the Pukuguksong-3 by the state-controlled media. 

Pukuguksong-3 launched from a submerged platform or submarine courtesy of North Korea state media

According to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK or South Korea) Joint Chiefs of Staff, who constantly monitor DPRK missile tests, the Pukuguksong-3 flew about 450 km on an eastward trajectory and reached an apogee of 910 kilometers. The SLBM landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East Sea. 

Flight path of DPRK’s Pukuguksong-3 SLBM during the October 1, 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Earlier in July, the DPRK revealed that the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is developing an another indigenous diesel-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSB) in addition to the existing Sinpo-class SSB (also known as “Gorae”-class) that was deployed in 2014. The new SSB appears to be a modified version of the Russian-made Project 663 submarine (NATO reporting name Romeo-class), with a significantly larger and wider sail to accommodate one solid-fuel Pukuguksong-3 SLBM. The new submarine is expected to enter service in the Sea of Japan soon, according to DPRK-owned media. 

Kim Jong-Un inspect DPRK’s newest ballistic missile submarine. In order to conceal technical details, North Korea censored blurred the upper side of the submarine.



Washington has been aware of this new North Korean submarine for more than a year, a senior US official told CNN. Despite the KPN’s recent development of new subsurface capabilities, Seoul assessed that the Pukuguksong-3 was test-fired from a submerged launching platform instead of a submarine. However, the successful testing of the Pukuguksong-3 and the constant advancements in SSB technology show that the DPRK is pursuing a credible (nuclear) second strike capability that is more elusive and difficult to track than land-based systems. While neither of KPN’s nuclear-capable submarines can threaten the US western seaboard, they would represent a force multiplier when it comes to overwhelming ROK, Japanese, and even American (in Guam) ABM defense systems. 


US: MINUTEMAN III

The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command successfully test-fired a Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 1:13 AM, October 2, 2019. The Minuteman’s RV traveled 6,760 km to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 

Despite the “chain” of missile tests by Russia and the DPRK, the US Air Force (USAF) clarified that the test launch was not in connection to “world events” or “regional tensions.” In fact, the USAF tests its Minuteman III arsenal once or twice every year to ensure that the ICBMs are functional to fulfill their role for nuclear deterrence. The recent test was planned and organized six months to a year in advance. 

Flight path of Minuteman III ICBM during the October 2, 2019 test

Ever since the early 1960s, the Minuteman family of missiles has served as the backbone component of US nuclear capability. Starting with 2014, the Minuteman III became the sole American land-based nuclear system. With a maximum range of 13,000 km, the Minuteman III can carry three RV with a combined payload of 350 kiloton. However, under the New START treaty, the US and Russia modified their ICBM arsenal to carry only one warhead per missile. 

The 50-years-old Minuteman III will continue to serve as America’s premier land-based nuclear capability until the mid-2030s, when the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (next-generation ICBM) will be deployed. 

 

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Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that the weapons used in the attack were a mix of Iranian land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (XUAVs). According to the Defense Ministry, eighteen XUAVs struck the Abqaiq oil facility. Three LACMs malfunctioned and crashed in the Saudi desert en route to Abqaiq. The raid on Khurais oil field was conducted by four LACMs.


KINETIC PLATFORMS

LACM. The Saudis identified the LACMs as the Iranian-made “Ya-Ali.” With an estimated engagement range of 700 km, the Ya-Ali carries a 200 kg warhead. However, the majority of experts agree that the wreckage bears more similarity with the Iranian “Soumar” LACM or the “Quds-1”, a re-branded version of the Soumar operated by the Houthis. 


While all LACMs seem to have been inspired by the Russian-made Kh-55 Granat (NATO Reporting name: Kent), which was smuggled by the IRGC from Ukraine in 2001, the three missile-types differ in design and mechanical features. Compared to the Ya-Ali, the Quds-1’s rocket booster is smaller and its engine is not internally carried, but situated on the airframe. While similar at first sight, the Quds-1 and Soumar differ in size and airframe design (aft fuselage, stabilizers, exhaust, wings). The two missiles also use different engines. The Quds-1 is believed to be powered by the Czech-made TJ100 turbojet propeller or a replica of it. Both the Quds-1 and the Ya-Ali are believed to share the same 700 km operational range, roughly half of their larger Soumar “cousin.” 

Although operated by the Houthis, the Quds-1 is undeniably linked to Iran’s evolving family of LACMs. Analysts believe that Iran is secretly producing simplified knockoffs of its missile systems for exclusive use by its proxies. This allows the IRGC to equip its allies with high-end conventional capabilities, while maintaining political deniability. 

UAV. The Saudi Defense Ministry identified the loitering munition used in the Abqaiq attacks as “Iranian Delta Wave UAVs.” The IRGC-AF have been secretly working on a myriad of UAV programs for the past decade. While numerous operational and experimental airframes have been unveiled in private or semi-private events for government officials, there is sparse information regarding the Delta Wave XUAV. 

As per ARS Technica: “drone wreckage including one described as an Iranian Delta Wave UAV. The design resembles earlier delta-winged “kamikaze” drones built by Iran.” Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Analysts have found that the Delta Wave UAV is based on the IRGC’s “Toofan”, an expandable/ “suicide” UAV capable of 250 km/h top speed for one hour. However, the variants used in the Khurais and Abqaiq attack were smaller with potentially “stealthier” characteristics. 


DELIVERY AND EXECUTION

The relatively medium range of both the LACMs and XUAVs add extra credibility to American, Saudi, and  independent OSINT findings that the attack did not originate from Yemen, but from the north, with Iran’s southwestern province as the likeliest launching point. 

The kinetic solution as well as the flight path proved ideal to bypass Saudi air defenses. The Iranian weapons flew low (not higher than 200 meters) and slow, blending with ground clutter, which likely caused radar dopplers to filter them out. To support the attack, the IRGC-AF have certainly obtained actionable intelligence regarding the radio-electronic order of battle of the Royal Saudi Air Force in Abqaiq and Khurais and of US installations in Kuwait, using both human reportings and geospatial means. With Kuwait as the likely intermediate airspace, the IRGC gambled that local US air defenses were either inactive/idle or subject to disadvantageous rules of engagement (force protection only). 

Open-source commercial satellite imagery dating from June, 2019 shows that the AN/MPQ-53 sensor near Abqaiq was pointed towards the southwest. In addition, the IRGC-AF likely collected critical information on whether the point air defense installations such as the “Shahin” and “Oerlikon” (aided by Skyguard radars) near Abqaiq were active. 

Using a custom script in Sentinel-1 SAR multi-temporal imagery, OSINT analysts have found that none of the Saudi AN/MPQ-53/65 radars were active on Saturday (September 16, 2019). VH-VV polarization and ascending-descending orbit convergence show that only Bahraini, Qatari and Emirati PATRIOT systems and some (non-AN/MPQ-53/65 ) radars in Kuwait also were “online.” 


For more on the September 14 Air Attack on Saudi Arabia consult our preliminary attack path assessment and the initial after-action briefing.

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This is How Iran Bombed Saudi Arabia [PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT]

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say.  The…

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say

The cruise missile and/or drone attack was likely staged from Iran’s Khuzestan province. As unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were spotted in Kuwait just before the attack, the kinetic platforms likely avoided the Persian Gulf, which is heavily monitored by the US Navy, and exploited a gap in Saudi Arabia’s SAM deployments. As PATRIOT radars (MPQ-53/65) have a 120 degree coverage (not 360 degrees), they were likely pointed towards the southwest and east to cover threats from Yemen and the Persian Gulf, leaving the northern approach largely exposed. When the (presumed) low-flying, slow moving and small RCS (radar cross-section) kinetic platforms entered “denied airspace” at the envelope edge of Saudi air defense systems, it was too late for the PATRIOTs detect the threat and react. 

Hypothetical path of Iranian air attack on Saudi oil facilities, visualized by T-Intelligence.

Even if the MPQ-53/65 radars were pointed northwards, the PATRIOT is inadequate to intercept small drones and tactical missiles, as it is primarily an anti-aircraft and (secondary) ballistic missile defense system. Modern short-range air defense systems (V/SHORAD) are the adequate aerial defense assets for such threats, preferably aided by networked sensors and including airborne coverage from AWACS planes. While the Shahine and Skyguard SHORAD systems were guarding Abqaiq, they have a 20 km engagement range against normal sized aircraft. As the Iranian kinetic “package” consisted of low-observable munition, the engagement range was much less shorter. Alternatively, the “package’s” terrain-hugging flight profile could have masked it with the “ground clutter” or its slow speed would have filtered it out on the radar doppler. However, Saturday’s attack was as much an air defense error as it was an intelligence failure. 

As Washington and Ryad disagree on how to retaliate against Iran, an official joint announcement blaming the IRGC for the attack has been repeatedly postponed. President Donald Trump is engaged in a re-election campaign and knows that the US public would not support a new conflict or military action in the Middle East. Therefore the White House opposes the US military spearheading a kinetic retribution against Iran. This leaves Saudi Arabia to either form a coalition of the willing with other Gulf states, an exhaustive and unlikely endeavour, or to act alone, which is not an option for the monarchy.



With the critical 72-hour time window for retaliation closed, it is possible that Iran might walk away unsanctioned for the “war-opening” attack on Abqaiq and Khurais. Absent red-lines, Tehran will potentially feel emboldened to prosecute other strategic targets, such as Saudi desalination plants or US bases in the Middle East. 


UPDATE September 19, 2019 – Saudi officials have showcased the wreckage recovered from the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, confirming that the air attack was conducted by Iranian Delta Wing drones and cruise missiles. US Intelligence sources also confirmed that the attack was mounted from Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province and that the weapons were programmed to avoid the Persian Gulf. 

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Analysis of Iran’s Bavar 373 SAM: Indigenous Design or S-300 Copycat?

On August 21, 2019, the Iranian Defense Ministry revealed the “Bavar 373” long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, claiming that both design and production are completely indigenous. Iranian President Rouhani and…

On August 21, 2019, the Iranian Defense Ministry revealed the “Bavar 373” long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, claiming that both design and production are completely indigenous. Iranian President Rouhani and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami were present at the unveiling.  


The Bavar 373 solves two problems for Iran, one military and one of political nature. On the one hand, the Bavar will augment Iran’s small inventory of long-range SAMs, providing much needed coverage for the undefended sections of Iran’s airspace. Tehran hopes that the Bavar 373 will have a deterrent effect, raising the costs of foreign military attacks. On the other hand, the indigenous system renders Iran independent from foreign technology, a lesson that Tehran learned the hard away when Russia stalled the sale of the S-300PMU2 (NATO Reporting name SA-20B Gargoyle) from 2007 to 2011 due to US sanctions. 

Bavar 373 Battalion Set: 

  • 6 x tractor erector launchers (TEL). Each TEL consists of four SAM canisters towed by a 10×10  “Zoljanah” truck. 
  • Undesignated active electronically scanned array (AESA) engagement radar, likely operating in X-band frequencies. 
  • Undesignated AESA acquisition radar, likely operating in S-band frequencies. The 8×8 “Zafar” truck serves as the radars’ transportable electronics tower (TET). 
  • Command & control unit, towed by an 8×8 “Zafar” truck. 

Bavar 373 Performance and Specifications (according to the Iranian Defense Ministry):

  • Maximum search range: 320km
  • Maximum tracking range: 260km
  • Maximum Interception range: +200km
  • Maximum Interception altitude: 27km
  • Number of tracking and engagement targets: 300 and 6 targets

TECHNICAL EVALUATION:

Contrary to critics, who have labelled the Bavar 373 an S-300 copycat, Tehran claims that the system is an original design. All officials speaking at the August 21 unveiling emphasized this fact and claimed that the Bavar 373 is superior to the S-300. While the Bavar 373 does indeed feature original elements and was produced by Iranian defence contractors, the system’s development would have been impossible without foreign technology. The Bavar 373’s dual-band sensor suite seems to be the system’s most valuable asset. The originality of the Bavar’s TEL and the claimed operational performance of the Sayyad-4 SAM are nevertheless disputable. 

HOT VERTICAL LAUNCH/SQUARE CANISTERS. While the Bavar is widely believed to be a S-300PMU2-inspired design, the system’s rectangular launch tubes more closely resemble the M901 launcher unit of the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2 configuration. Like the Patriot, the Bavar 373 uses a hot launch technique instead of the cold ejection typical for Russian SAM launchers.

CLOSE UP: PAC-2 M901 launching station vs. Bavar 373

The S-300PMU2 uses gas to eject the SAM from a round cylinder, before the missile fires its thrusters. As the demonstration on August 21 showed, the Bavar’s Sayyad-4 powers its rocket engine inside the tube. The Bavar does, however, bear similarity with the S-300 when it comes to the full vertical launch position. In contrast, the American M901 fires from a 70 degree angle, a design feature copied by another Iran air defence system (Talash). 

COMPARISON: S-300PMU2 TEL vs. Bavar 373 vs. PAC-2 M901 Launching station

SENSOR SUITE. For the public demonstration, the Bavar 373 was augmented by two AESA radars, one engagement and one acquisition radar. This configuration is similar to the Russian S-300. The MIM-140 Patriot uses only one radar. Both of the Iranian radars are unique in their design and show little to no similarity with their American or Russian counterparts. it is possible that Iran’s decade-long effort to develop AESA radars has finally paid off. Due to the AESA’s frequency-agility and low-probability of intercept, the Bavar’s radars are – at least in theory – highly resilient to jamming and anti-radiation missiles.  

The Iranian defense company Iran Electronics Industries has previously listed the Meraj-4 sensor as part of the Bavar 373. In the public demonstration of the Bavar, the Meraj-4 did however not feature. The Meraj-4 is a road-mobile S-band early warning 3D AESA radar. The manufacturer claims that is has a 400-500 km detection envelope, a 200 km tracking range, and a 360-degree azimuth. The Meraj-4 design shows undeniable resemblance to the Chinese-made JYL-1, a long-range S-band 3D air surveillance radar that has nearly identical specifications.  While the Meraj-4 was spotted as a road-mobile version, it is likely an element of Iran’s integrated air defence network rather than a permanent subsystem of the Bavar 373. 

COMPARISON: Meraj 4 (Iran) vs. JYL-1 (China)

MULTI-MISSION. The Bavar’s diverse sensor and kinetic solutions will enable the Iranian air defence units to conduct both anti-aircraft and missile defence missions. The Sayyad-4, in particular, was developed to intercept large radar-cross section targets at the engagement envelope edge, e.g. ballistic missiles in lower endo-atmospheric space. However, doubts remain whether the Sayyad-4 has the manoeuvring capability to prosecute evasive ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. The Sayyad-4’s demonstrated thrust vectoring control is only used for initial trajectory alignment. 

Bavar 373 live test compilation based on official footage.

Iran’s Sayyad SAM series is based on the US-made Standard Missile 1 (RIM-66) naval SAM acquired by the Imperial Iranian Navy prior to the 1979 Revolution. However, the Sayyad-4 is double in size compared to its predecessor and bears resemblance with the Russian long-range Fakel 48N6E/E2 SAM. 

COMPARISON: Sayyad 4 vs. Sayyad 2 and 3 vs. SM-1

VALIDATION AND SUSTAINABILITY. The recent downing of a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone by the Iranian Khordad the 3rdSystem (similar to the Russian Buk-M2) has validated Iran’s research and development efforts in air defence technology. Building a dual-band long-range SAM system based on multiple foreign sources is nevertheless significantly more complex than replicating short- and mid-range legacy systems. The Bavar 373 still has to prove its performance in actual engagements and deployments. 

Remote sensing operations using geospatial imagery will reveal in time how confident the Iranian Armed Forces are of the system’s performance. If the confidence level is high, the Bavar will likely be deployed as a solo long-range air defense asset for the poorly defended airspace in the east and south (protected by Khordad the 3rd or Talash mid-range SAMs for point air defence). If the system is deemed unreliable, it will likely supplement existing S-200 and S-300 deployments.   

It took Iran more than 10 years of design flops, development limbo, and dire financial conditions to produce the Bavar 373. There is no information on how many systems exist and will be produced. It is also unknown whether Iran is even able to mass-produce the system and maintain it. As the country remains under though political and economic pressure from the international community, Tehran frequently exaggerates its military capabilities for foreign policy and deterrence reasons.


by HARM and Gecko

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Let the Skyfall: Radioactive Explosion in Russia Likely Connected to SSC-X-9 Missile Test

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile. 1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an…

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile.


1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an offshore platform (vessel or berch) near Nyonoska (Russia), which killed seven people (two servicemen and five Rosatom personnel) and released radiation in the region. As the explosion was caused by an isotope-powered liquid fuel engine, it is virtually certain that a nuclear-powered missile, likely a cruise missile, was being tested or prepared for testing. 

2. We believe that the missile in question is the 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO Reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall). The SSC-X-9 is a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile that was announced by President Vladimir Putin as one of Russia’s six upcoming strategic weapons on March 1, 2018.

Production line of the SSC-X-9 Skyfall missile via Defence Blog

3. While a revolutionary concept, it is highly unlikely that the Russiann Ministry of Defence and the Russian defence industry possess the funds, technology, and know-how to successfully produce such a system. Given the engineering challenges and safety concerns, no other country has commissioned a kinetic solution with a nuclear-reactor on board. The United States was close to fielding such a design in the early 1960s. Known as Project Pluto, the United States developed a nuclear ramjet engine (Tory) to power a supersonic low-altitude missile (SLAM) capable of carrying multiple warheads. The project was canceled in 1964. However, as the SSC-X-9 was officially announced by President Putin, there is an enormous pressure on the Russian military to produce results. 

4. As nuclear-powered cruise missiles require a liquid fuel booster to bring them to ramjet speed before enabling the reactor, there is a high likelihood of booster failure during the launch phase due to heat exchange and critical mass constraints. This is what likely happened on the morning of August 8, 2019. 

5. According to sources in the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, only two of the 13 known SSC-X-9 tests were successful. A partially successfully test took place in Pankovo (Novaya Zemlya) in Russia’s far north island archipelago in November 2017. The test saw the missile flying for a few miles (rumors suggest 35 miles), before crashing into the sea. The SSC-X-9 likely failed to reach ramjet speed and crashed or self-destructed when going off course. Since then, the Russian military has abandoned the Novaya Zemlya testing ground and replicated the SSC-X-9 testing infrastructure in Nyonoksa. Another moderately successful test was conducted on January 29, 2019 in Kapustin Yar. 

GEOINT comparison of Nyonoska vs. Kapustin Yar test sites by T-Intelligence

6. As accurately documented by Jeffrey Lewis and his team from the Middlebury Institute, the Nyonoksa Missile Test Center now hosts a testing pad that contains the same blue “environmental shelter” and launch rail system seen in Novaya Zemlya and Kapustin Yar, the two other locations that hosted SSC-X-9 launches. Operations security, and the objective of denying adversarial MASINT collection in particular, is likely the main reason why the Russians moved the SSC-X-9 testing further inland. 

GEOINT analysis by @@ArmsControlWonk shows layout similarity between the Pank’ovo (Novaya Zemlya) and the Nyonoska test sites.

7. In addition to the identical ground test layout, there is another factor linking the recent explosion near Nyonoksa to the SSC-X-9 project. AIS data shows the presence of a Russian military tug in the White Sea during the August 8 incident. Further research identified the tug as the nuclear-fuel carrier SEREBRYANKA. This radiological service vessel was previously spotted off the Novaya Zemlya coast during the SSC-X-9 test of 2017. The SEREBRYANKA’s task is to collect submerged radioactive material from the sea. 

GEOINT findings and analysis of the August 8 incident by T-Intelligence.

8. Days before the accident, the Russian authorities closed the area to maritime traffic and issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM), concerning a 27,000 square kilometer area between Nyonoksa and Novaya Zemlya. The distance from Nynoksa to the edge of the northern NOTAM area is 1,200 km (650 nautical miles). The NOTAM was in effect from 8 to 11 August, 2019. While NOTAM’s in the area are not a rare occurrence, many defence specialists have argued that the parameters of this airspace closure indicate the testing of a maneuvering missile (i.e. cruise missile) and not a ballistic missile. 

The NOTAMs and maritime traffic ban issued by Russian authorities in connection to the August 8 test and subsequent accident. (source: @ain92ru)

RADIOACTIVE HAZARD

9. Why the Russians ultimately decided to test-fire the SSC-X-9 from an offshore platform, instead of using the purpose-built testing ground in Nyonoksa, is unknown. We believe that safety concerns were among the principle reasons. However, while human loss and infrastructure damage has been minimized, the accident likely polluted the White Sea with radioactive material. Following the explosion, Russian port authorities have issued a no-sail notice covering a 250 square kilometer area off the Nyonoksa coast. The ban on maritime traffic is in effect until September 10, 2019.   

10. Severodvinsk, a city located just 45 km west of Nyonoska, registered a radiation spike of 2 µSv/h (microsievert per minute) between 11:50 AM and 12:30 PM local time on 8 August. This gamma radiation value is nearly 20 times higher than the normal value of 0,11 µSv/h. While such a radiation exposure is still considered safe for the population, inhabitants of Severodvinsk were quick to stock up on iodide tablets, creating a shortage in local pharmacies. The sensors in Severodvinsk reported a gradual decrease in radioactivity around 16:00 PM and a normalization shortly afterwards.

11. The 2 µSv/h value registered in Severodvinsk indicates that the radiation level around Nyonoska was double, if not higher. As Rashid Alimov from Russia’s Green Peace branch stated in the Barents Observer, the high radiation value means that beta and alpha radionuclides were released into the atmosphere. 

12. Radionuclides are radioactive atoms such as uranium, radium and radon, which are particularly hazardous in drinking water. Radionuclide-contaminated drinking water can cause or facilitate life-threatening conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, and impairments of the immune system. As radionuclides decay, they emit alpha, beta and gamma particles, which have further harmful effects on humans.   

13. A number of photos that emerged on Twitter and Telegram show chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CRBN) defence units, suited in HAZMAT equipment, securing the accident site and evacuating the wounded. However, the Russian government and local authorities were quick to downplay the incident and claim that there was no danger for the population. 

14. The latest setback is unlikely to halt the SSC-X-9 ‘Skyfall’. While the prospect of an all-reaching, non-stop cruise missile would render existing missile defence technology obsolete, there is no reason to expect the fielding of the SSC-X-9 in the next decade. However, continued work on the program will provide the Kremlin with valuable psychological operations material for both domestic and foreign audiences. 


by HARM

The ‘X’ in the missile’s NATO reporting name stands for ‘experimental’.

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Is Boeing’s AI-Powered Drone the Loyal Wingman of Tomorrow? The Aussies Think So.

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless…

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless disclosed some juicy bits of information. The “Loyal Wingman” drone, officially designated as “Airpower Teaming System” (AST), will spearhead electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering sorties in contested or denied environments, which are deemed too dangerous for manned assets. 

With a performance range of 3,700 km (2,200 miles), the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) airframe will receive a low-observability coating that will significantly boost its survivability in sensor-rich and hostile airspaces. Besides stealth, the “Loyal Wingman” will provide another fifth generation avionic element, namely enhanced networking capability. Towards this objective, the drone is designed to network sensor data, air control, and targeting information with allied airframes such as Australia’s E-7 (airborne early warning and control aircraft), EA-18G Growler (electronic attack aircraft), F/A/-18E/F SuperHornet (fighter jet), and P-8 Poseidon (naval aviation maritime security patrol aircraft). In the future, the UAV will be able to network with other drones and the RAAF’s expanding fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. These features will allow the “Loyal Wingman” to become a force multiplier, while keeping Australia’s fighter pilots and small airfleet out of harm’s way. 

The technology behind the “Loyal Wingman’s” visionary features is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The RAAF’s “Project Jericho” employs AI technology in four key areas: combat cloud, advanced sensing, human-machine augmentation, and autonomous processing. On the battlefield of tomorrow, the RAAF expects that information will be too overwhelming for humans to process in a timely manner. Special purpose AI capabilities, including deep learning algorithms with cutting-edge processing speed, can mitigate this problem and optimize the individual-machine performance. In other words, the “Loyal Wingman” could drastically reduce the time in which a nearby pilot, ground station analyst, or political decision-maker receives key intelligence (and not only unprocessed information). This would provide unprecedented decision-making advantages and improved situational awareness.

AI augmentation could, however, go even further. Experts believe that the “Loyal Wingman” could use its deep learning processors and computing power to study the flight patterns, radar cross sections and combat maneuvers of adversarial aircraft and devise options to outmaneuver them. The UAV could also provide telemetry for intercepting enemy ordnance, using mathematical scheduling and estimation models, and link with other drones for swarming attacks. AI could therefore truly push the technology aboard the “Loyal Wingman” to the edge of fifth generation aerial combat. 

The “Loyal Wingman” is expected to embark on its maiden flight in 2020. The United States Air Force is pursuing a similar UAV project called “Skyborg,” which is expected to make its debut in 2023.


by HARM 

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USS Chancellorsville Avoids Collision with Russian ‘Admiral Vinogradov’

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter…

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter was recovering its Seahawk helicopter on a steady course, when the Russian destroyer closed in at 50 to 100 feet. The USS Chancellorsville was forced to execute all engines back full and maneuver to avoid collision. The two vessels came so close that U.S. sailors were able to photograph their Russian counterparts sunbathing on the front deck. Moscow blamed the U.S. for the incident and claimed that it took place in the East China Sea.

Target (TGT) designates the incident location – 23°49’19.00 N 126°39’37.00E – aprox. 36 km north of the P-8 aircraft (ACFT).

However, imagery released by a U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime security and anti-submarine aircraft shows that the Russian destroyer was pushing towards the Chancellorsville, while the U.S. vessel was dropping speed. Furthermore, GPS coordinates from the P-8’s infrared search and track camera show both the aircraft (ACFT) and the two vessels (TRT) maneuvering in the Philippine Sea, as confirmed by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Photo taken by the P-8 Poseidon aircraft via U.S. Navy

The combined presence of the USS Chancellorsville and P-8 Poseidon as well as the deployment of a Seahawk during the incident indicate that the assets were on anti-submarine duty in support of the Pacific Fleet’s Carrier Strike Group Five. Given this situation, it is highly likely that the Russians approached the USS Chancellorsville to conduct a close inspection of weapons system loadout. The American destroyer is equipped with the latest Aegis air defense suite (i.e. Baseline Nine, SM-6 etc.), engagement and sensor fusion technology (i.e. Cooperative Engagement Capability/NEC, Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air/ NIFC-CA) that enables beyond visual range engagement at classified ranges. The USS Chancellorsville also carries the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TALM) and the latest block-version of the Harpoon anti-ship missile.

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Here’s Where Russia Will Deploy Nuclear-Capable Tu-22M3 Bombers in Crimea (IMINT)

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft…

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft revetments and logistics facilities can host at least 20 Backfires. With the Backfire eyed as a future launching platform for the Kinzhal hypersonic aero-ballistic missile, Russia intends to increase pressure on the U.S. Aegis Missile Defense systems (Ashore and Afloat) in Europe.

Hvardiyske/ Gvardeyskoye Air Base IMINT via T-Intelligence based on Digital Globe and Planet Labs imagery


On March 18, Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper parliament house, announced that Moscow will deploy nuclear-capable Tu-22M3/Backfire-C bombers to Crimea in response to the U.S. missile defense systems in Romania.

Over the past years, NATO Enhanced Air Policing fighter jets have intercepted several Backfires over the Black Sea, which simulated mock bombing runs in Romania’s flight information region. Recently, the aircraft also served in Syria as a frontline bomber against unsophisticated ground targets. The Backfire was originally developed for the Soviet Air Force and Navy to prosecute targets – particularly maritime targets like U.S. carrier strike groups – in peripheral-range missions. The internal weapons bay and external pylons can carry up to 24,000 kg of ordnance, including nuclear which makes the Backfire ideal for saturation strikes.

Russia plans to upgrade 30 of the 63 Backfires that are still in service to the advanced M3M variant. The M3M variant will be compatible with new generation ammunition such as the standoff/extreme-range Kh-32 cruise missile, the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile, and potentially the 3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) anti-ship hypersonic missile. Live trails of the first M3M commenced in mid 2018.

The Backfire deployment in Crimea will likely take the form a small-scale forward deployment from their home bases in Belaya (Irkutsk) and  Shaykovka (Kaluga). However, our IMINT analysis concludes that – if needed – Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base could host 20-30 bombers on high-readiness and up to 50 aircraft for storage and maintenance.   

Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye is the home base of the 37th Composite Aviation Regiment (CAR), which currently operates the Su-24M and Su-25 (NATO reporting names: Fencer and Frogfoot). 37th CAR Frogfoots were airborne during Russia’s blockade of the Kerch strait in October 2018 and Fencers have harassed U.S. and NATO vessels in the Baltic and Black Seas in the past. The 37th CAR was established as part of the 27th Compose Aviation Division (CAD) in 2014. The 27th CAD also commands the 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment in Belbek, which operates two Su-27P/SM (NATO reporting name: Flanker) squadrons. Like all forces deployed in Crimea, the units are subordinated to Russian’s 4th Air and Air Defense Army (Southern Military District) in Rostov-on-Don.

In response to the Russian plans, Washington deployed six B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers from the 2nd Bomber Wing to the Royal Air Force base in Fairford on March 14, 2019. During their first major European exercise since 2003, the B-52s conducted theater familiarization flights and enhanced interoperability with NATO partners.


by HARM and Gecko

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