Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor production line is back on track after the U.S. Air Force's fleet-wide grounding of the jet had disrupted deliveries to the service, the company said.
RAPTOR TAIL NUMBER 4183 is seen being delivered to the U.S. Air Force on Nov. 15. (Rita Nicholas-King / Lockheed)
"We are delivering jets," said Lockheed spokeswoman Alison Orne. "The last one delivered was 4185. 4195 will be delivered in late spring 2012."
Tail number AF 09-4185 has technically been delivered with the signing of a DD-250 form, but the stealthy fifth-generation fighter is currently undergoing government flight tests. After the completion of the tests this week, the Air Force's 1st Fighter Wing will fly the jet to Langley Air Force Base, Va., where it will be based.
"It is scheduled to depart for Langley on Dec. 8," Orne said.
The final Raptor to be built, AF 09-4195, will also be delivered to Langley, where it will fly with the 1st Fighter Wing's 27th Fighter Squadron, the service's oldest fighter unit. It is expected to be delivered in Spring 2012, according to Lockheed.
Iran's claims to have brought down one of the U.S. Air Force's stealthy unmanned RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance aircraft are highly dubious, analysts and Pentagon officials said.
However, the loss of contact with the pilotless jet cast doubts on the service's claim that it has a good handle on maintaining uninterrupted control of such aircraft.
On Dec. 4, Iran claimed to have shot down the stealthy Lockheed Martin-built aircraft. Later, government officials claimed that it had used an electronic or cyber attack to bring down the bat-winged drone and that the aircraft was recovered largely intact. The Iranians have not produced any evidence to back up those claims.
While acknowledging that an unmanned aircraft is missing, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)-Afghanistan, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, declined to say whether the aircraft in question was an RQ-170.
"Reconnaissance missions are, by their very nature, sensitive and as a result, I cannot get into that kind of detail," Cummings said. "It was on a mission over western Afghanistan when the operators lost control of it and we have no indication that it was shot down."
Pentagon spokesman U.S. Navy Capt. John Kirby added that there is no evidence to that suggests any kind of hostile activity was involved in bringing down the aircraft.
"We have no indication that the UAV we know is missing was brought down by any hostile activity," Kirby said.
Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., said that the Iranians have no way to detect or engage the stealthy Sentinel.
"It would be almost impossible for Iran to shoot down an RQ-170 because it is stealthy; therefore, the Iranian air defenses can't see it," Thompson said. "Partly for the same reason, it is exceedingly unlikely that they used a cyber attack to bring down the aircraft."
Thompson said that from everything he has seen, the missing aircraft is a RQ-170. The Sentinel was designed to operate in contested airspace where ground-based air defense exists but where there is no severe airborne threat, such as swarms of patrolling fighters. In western Afghanistan, "it was operating in an area where it potentially could be susceptible to ground air defense attacks," Thompson said.
The Sentinel was developed in the early 2000s at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works facility in California at the same time as the company's X-35 Joint Strike Fighter concept aircraft. The aircraft is operated from Creech Air Force Base and Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, according to the Air Force. The service acknowledged the jet's existence in 2010 after the Sentinel was photographed in Afghanistan.
Thompson said the most likely scenario with the crash is a malfunction with the aircraft. If the plane crashed due to a hardware or software glitch, Iran is likely sitting on practically useless wreckage with little intelligence value, he said.
"The RQ-170 has a RTB [Return to Base] feature," Thompson said. "In the event of a loss of the command link, the aircraft will automatically return to its point of origin and land itself."
The very fact that the aircraft was lost suggests a malfunction rather than a shoot-down, Thompson said.
The RQ-4 Global Hawk has a similar built-in automatic feature to find and land at a divert airfield if the link is lost. The lost link, airfield diversion issue and the inability of UAVs' to avoid other aircraft traffic are bones of contention between the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration.
As such, the incident highlights a fundamental problem that plagues current unmanned aircraft, which is that they have little in the way of active defenses and very little situational awareness, Thompson said.
"I think it's kind of inescapable that incidents like this raise doubts about operating unmanned air vehicles in civil airspace," he said.
However, attrition rates for unmanned aircraft are going down steadily, Thompson said. Eventually, the mishap rates will match those of manned aircraft, he said.
It has been an unlucky year for disclosed stealthy "black" programs. Earlier in the year, a heavily modified stealthy version of the U.S. Army's UH-70 Black Hawk crashed during the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
This latest crash would be the second reported loss of a classified stealth aircraft in 2011. The Air Force would not confirm or deny if another RQ-170 had crashed earlier in the year.
BEIJING - Chinese President Hu Jintao on Dec. 6 urged the People's Liberation Army Navy to prepare for military combat, amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a U.S. campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.
The PLA Navy should "accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security," he said.
Addressing the powerful Central Military Commission, Hu said: "Our work must closely encircle the main theme of national defense and military building."
His comments, which were posted in a statement on a government website, come as the United States and Beijing's neighbors have expressed concerns over its naval ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea.
Several Asian nations have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea, believed to encompass huge oil and gas reserves, while China claims it all. One-third of global seaborne trade passes through the region.
Vietnam and the Philippines have accused Chinese forces of increasing aggression there.
In a translation of Hu's comments, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the president as saying China's navy should "make extended preparations for warfare."
The Pentagon however downplayed Hu's speech, saying that Beijing had the right to develop its military, although it should do so transparently.
"They have a right to develop military capabilities and to plan, just as we do," said Pentagon spokesman George Little, but he added: "We have repeatedly called for transparency from the Chinese and that's part of the relationship we're continuing to build with the Chinese military."
Said another Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby: "Nobody's looking for a scrap here. Certainly we wouldn't begrudge any other nation the opportunity, the right to develop naval forces to be ready. Our naval forces are ready and they'll stay ready."
"We want to see stronger military-to-military ties with China and we want to see greater transparency," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "That helps answer questions we might have about Chinese intentions."
Hu's announcement comes in the wake of trips to Asia by several senior U.S. officials, including President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
U.S. undersecretary of defense Michelle Flournoy is due to meet in Beijing with her Chinese counterparts on Dec. 7 for military-to-military talks.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last month warned against interference by "external forces" in regional territorial disputes including those in the South China Sea.
China said late last month it would conduct naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean, after Obama, who has dubbed himself America's first Pacific president, said the U.S. would deploy up to 2,500 Marines to Australia.
China's People's Liberation Army, the largest military in the world, is primarily a land force, but its Navy is playing an increasingly important role as Beijing grows more assertive about its territorial claims.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon warned that Beijing was increasingly focused on its naval power and had invested in high-tech weaponry that would extend its reach in the Pacific and beyond.
China's first aircraft carrier began its second sea trial last week after undergoing refurbishments and testing, the government said.
The 990-foot (300-metre) ship, a refitted former Soviet carrier, underwent five days of trials in August that sparked international concern about China's widening naval reach.
Beijing only confirmed this year that it was revamping the old Soviet ship and has repeatedly insisted that the carrier poses no threat to its neighbors, and will be used mainly for training and research purposes.
But the August sea trials were met with concern from regional powers including Japan and the United States, which called on Beijing to explain why it needs an aircraft carrier.
China, which publicly announced about 50 separate naval exercises in the seas off its coast over the past two years - usually after the event - says its military is only focused on defending the country's territory.
The U.S. Defense Department has signed a contract to buy 450,000 gallons of biofuel - the largest purchase ever by the federal government - to power the U.S. Navy's "green" carrier strike group.
The blend of used cooking oil and algae will be mixed with traditional fuels to help power the carrier strike group during military exercises next summer in the Pacific Ocean.
The $12 million purchase works out to about $26 a gallon - about five times more than traditional fuel. Yet the price, paid by the Defense Logistics Agency, was only half that of a previous biofuel purchase in 2009, according to a Defense Department announcement on Dec. 5. The department attributed the price drop to continued research and a growing commercial market for biofuel.
Providing the fuel is Dynamic Fuels - a joint venture between Tyson Foods Inc. and Syntroleum Corp. - and algae fuel company Solazyme.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement that the purchase will help the government reduce its use of foreign oil and help grow the domestic biofuel market.
The Navy has made development of biofuels a key part of its research and development. Mabus' goal is to sail an alternative energy "Great Green Fleet" by 2016 and increase alternative fuels to 50 percent of Navy operations by 2020.
ENTEBBE, Uganda - U.S. troops have begun a region-wide hunt for fighters from the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan-born group that has been killing, raping and looting for years, the Ugandan army said Dec. 6.
U.S. President Barack Obama in October sent 100 special forces soldiers to help Uganda track down LRA chief and international fugitive Joseph Kony, who has wreaked havoc over four nations for more than two decades.
"They (U.S. troops) are there, and they are setting up their bases," said Ugandan army spokesman Felix Kulayigye.
U.S. troops had deployed to Obo in the Central African Republic and Nzara in South Sudan, where Uganda's army has forward bases to battle the rebel group, Kulayigye said. He gave no details of the numbers of troops sent.
Some of the U.S. troops staged a training exercise Dec. 6 with Ugandan air force crews in Entebbe, about 21 miles west of the capital, Kampala, on how to package supplies to be air dropped to front-line troops.
Previously, Uganda had to rely on supplies being ferried in by helicopter to specified landing sites but will now be able to be resupplied without having to return to base, Kulayigye said.
A U.S. official, speaking to AFP here on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, confirmed that some troops had arrived in affected areas but could not say where exactly the troops were located.
The rebels currently number several hundred, a fraction of their strength at their peak but still include a core of hardened fighters infamous for mutilating civilians and abducting children for soldiers and sex slaves.
The majority of U.S. troops will be based in Uganda while a smaller number will be based in jungle areas in neighboring countries to advise regional armies tracking the rebels, U.S. officials say.
The U.S. state department currently gives $17 million each year to cover the cost of transporting Ugandan forces to the conflict zone.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since Kony took up arms in the late 1980s against the Ugandan government.
The International Criminal Court has a warrant against Kony, one of the continent's most wanted men.
Driven out of Uganda, the guerrillas have since scattered across a vast region of the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. They have recruited fighters from those nations over the years.
The LRA emerged from the frustrations of Uganda's marginalized Acholi ethnic group against the government, but its leaders have since dropped their national political agenda for the narrow objective of pillage and plunder.
BUCHAREST, Romania- The Romanian parliament ratified an accord to host U.S. missile interceptors on its soil on Dec. 6, a day before a meeting of the 28 NATO members in Brussels.
The Senate unanimously adopted the draft law ratifying the Romania-U.S. agreement signed in September that would allow the establishment and operation of a U.S. land-based ballistic missile defense system in Romania as part of NATO's efforts to build a continental missile shield.
"The location of some elements of the U.S. missile shield represents a very important contribution to the security of Romania, the U.S. and the entire alliance," Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi told senators, according to Mediafax news agency.
The draft law was adopted by the lower house in November and is now set to be promulgated by President Traian Basescu.
The deployment of the missile interceptors is expected to take place in 2015 at a former airbase in southern Romania.
The missile shield, which is based on U.S. technology, is one of the transatlantic alliance's main development axes for the coming years, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said.
Along with Romania, Turkey, Poland and Spain have also agreed to take part in the project.
The U.S. Army is not prepared to fight to keep the C-27J cargo aircraft program alive should an Air Force recommendation to cancel the program be finalized by senior Pentagon officials.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was briefed in October on options to address the Air Force proposal.
Since then, the Army backed off the option to reacquire the program, according to a second service official. An Army spokesman declined to comment on the move since the budget has not been finalized.Army aviation officials proposed Odierno insist the Air Force continue conducting direct support missions of critical Army supplies, and the Army National Guard recommended transferring C-27J procurement money and the mission back to the Army, according to a service official.
At the same time, the decision is likely to set up a fight between the Air Force and Air National Guard since a number of Guard wings gave up aircraft over the past few years in anticipation of receiving C-27Js.
The debate between the parties over the future of the C-27J, built by L-3 Communications and Alenia Aeronautica, has intensified in recent weeks in advance of the Pentagon finalizing its 2013 budget proposal, expected to determine the fate of the program.
The Air Force recommendation to cancel the once-joint program in its draft 2013 funding plan has become a hotly contested issue.
Certain lawmakers have voiced opposition to canceling the program, including the entire Connecticut congressional delegation, which wrote Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urging him to "reject any recommendation to terminate the program or reduce the current [Air National Guard] beddown plan."
The Connecticut air guard has been slated to receive the planes but the Air Force has yet to purchase the aircraft for the wing. Other Air National Guard units are flying the C-27J.
Air and Army Guard officials say the C-27J is the best U.S. aircraft for delivering critical supplies and troops to hard-to-reach places on the battlefield. As the Pentagon's budget shrinks, the officials say it can conduct the so-called direct-support mission at a fraction of the cost of the four-engine C-130.
The C-27J is cheaper to fly than the C-130J and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Bartman, the assistant adjutant general for air in Ohio. Flying one cargo pallet or 10 soldiers in a C-130J costs about $7,100 per hour, while the C-27J can accomplish the same mission for $2,100 per hour.
"It's not to say that the C-130J cannot accomplish the same mission as the C-27J; however, the C-27J is a much more cost-effective, 'right-sized' platform moving forward in the current budget environment, and also gives the Army the greatest amount of flexibility in fixed-wing airlift," Bartman said.
While the Chinook can accomplish the same mission, it is not the best use of the twin-rotor helicopter, according to a former Army division commander.
"We flew some of our CH-47s on routes that should have been fixed-wing routes at a cost in lost combat assault sorties and extended use of the CH-47," the former commander in Afghanistan said.
Since the August deployment of two C-27Js to Afghanistan, the 179th Air Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard has "removed the burden" of forward operating base resupply from the CH-47 fleet, the official said.
The 179th's C-27Js have flown more than 900 sorties, moving more than 6,900 people and almost 400 tons of time-sensitive, mission-critical cargo. Though the C-27J became an Air Force program, the Army's requirement to have organic, direct support airlift did not change.
The Air Force intended to buy 38 C-27Js. National Guard wings in Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and Mississippi are supposed to split the first batch. Other aircraft are set for wings in Connecticut, North Dakota and Montana, but they have not been funded.
The adjutants general from six of those states wrote Carter on Nov. 30 urging him not to cancel the program. A decision to cancel the effort would "negatively impact the National Guard and will weaken our national and homeland defense," they wrote.
The one-time Joint Cargo Aircraft program was turned over to the Air Force in 2009. At the time, Gen. George Casey, then-Army chief of staff, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief, struck a deal in which the Air Force would receive the C-27J aircraft, but would fly under Army parameters.
The decision was met with skepticism in Army and Air Force ranks. The Air Force typically flies fully loaded cargo planes between hubs, while the Army uses the C-23 Sherpa to move small numbers of troops and equipment to forward locations. The Air Force pledged to fly these "direct support" missions using the C-27J and C-130.
Now under a substantial budget crunch, Air Force leaders have proposed eliminating the aircraft from the service's inventory and conducting the mission with C-130s.
The Army, which led the Joint Cargo Aircraft program, originally intended to replace the C-23 with the C-27J. When it turned the program over to the Air Force, the decision to retire the Sherpa was not reversed, even though many aircraft can fly for another 20 years, one Army National Guard official said. ■
Lockheed Martin has been awarded an $835 million contract for 18 Block 52 F-16 Fighting Falcons for Iraq.
IRAQ WILL RECEIVE 18 Block 52 F-16 Fighting Falcons, like the one shown above. (U.S. Air Force)
The contract, awarded Dec. 5, calls for the delivery of 12 C-model single-seat jets and six D-model combat-capable two-seat training jets by May 30, 2018.
The company will also provide support equipment; technical orders; integrated logistics support; and contractor logistics support. The jets will be powered by Pratt and Whitney's F100 PW-229 afterburning turbofan, which delivers 29,000 pounds of thrust. The deal was originally announced in late September.
Iraq is buying the jets though the U.S. Defense Department's Foreign Military Sales system.