Thursday, September 3, 2015

AVIATION WEEK: USAF Offers Long-Awaited Peek At Secret Bomber Plans

As Washington eagerly awaits news of a winner for the new bomber development contract, the U.S. Air Force’s covert project is further along than officials have let on, with years worth of risk-reduction work already done.
The Air Force began to hint at this secretive history in a Sept. 1 Pentagon briefing to think tankers outlining a program rooted in negotiations with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that fundamentally shaped an atypical acquisition approach to this effort.
This appears to be the beginning of an unusually savvy communications strategy by the Air Force leading up to an announcement that could come in days, or possibly weeks, on which team will build the Long-Range Strike Bomber – Northrop Grumman orBoeing/Lockheed Martin. It could also be a response to some that suggest its unconventional approach was an indictment of the service’s acquisition corps, which made major missteps in program management in the last decade.
In the 2-hr. briefing, the Air Force outlined a few key points about the procurement strategy behind what is expected to be an $80 billion-plus project to field 100 new, stealthy bombers. It was briefed under Chatham House Rules, meaning the information cannot be cited to a specific person. An Air Force spokesman present for the session declined to identify the briefer.
Only glimpses of the program were given. But they hint at a much more mature effort than previously stated and backed by government money doled out years ago to each team, meaning the forthcoming announcement of a development contract winner will not underpin a new-start program.

While Washington has been on the edge of its seat to discover which team will nab the contract, the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) has apparently been hard at work managing risk reduction with both contractors for the program since Gates issued a classified memo launching LRS-B in February 2011, according to a source briefed on the project.
Gates terminated the Next-Generation Bomber, the precursor to LRS-B. That earlier project was far more ambitious and expensive, in part because of the assumption that the aircraft would operate nearly independently, which drove requirements up. NGB would have needed to be capable of its own intelligence and other functions that LRS-B will get through support from a network of already fielded Air Force platforms. Ever skeptical of high-tech promises, Gates restarted the project with a lower-cost, reduced-risk approach. This decision was made as the F-35 was struggling with major cost and technical issues, prompting skepticism from Pentagon leaders.
This likely led to the choice of the RCO as the procurement overseer, bypassing the Air Force’s standard acquisition corps, which is typically used to manage fighter, bomber and weapons programs. The RCO reports to a board of directors chaired by Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall; Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and service acquisition head William LaPlante are also on the board. With Kendall as head, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has unusually deep insight into the ins and outs of the project, perhaps a strategy backed by Gates by design to guard against requirements creep.
Because the RCO is designed to quickly integrate and field technologies, it is often closer to the art of the available than other procurement agents may be. It is also, most likely, briefed on available classified technologies, potentially to include the classified work behind the RQ-180 intelligence aircraft built by Northrop Grumman for intelligence collection. This stealthy, penetrating spy aircraft likely will work hand-in-hand with LRS-B to collect and relay intelligence and bomb damage assessments on missions in protected airspace.
At the time the RCO was chosen, the service’s procurement corps was saddled with criticism for missteps in buying both a KC-135 and HH-60G replacement, so it could have been a political move to insulate LRS-B from similar scrutiny. The office was established in 2003 to quickly upgrade the air defense system protecting Washington after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is led by Randall Walden (who formerly oversaw procurement of intelligence aircraft such as the U-2, Global Hawk and Reaper).
Since the 2011 Gates memo, both contractor teams have received risk-reduction funds for specific areas thought by the RCO to be the most risky, including integration of the propulsion system onto the aircraft and antenna design, a key challenge for any stealthy aircraft that is intolerant of protruding communications nodes, the source said. An Air Force spokesman declined to say how much money has been provided, but he confirmed both teams are funded. The briefer at the think tank meeting cited some wind tunnel testing, but no details on what was tested – subscale models, full demonstrators, subsystems – were provided. One source suggests the teams are already past the preliminary design review phase of the project, “years farther along” than previously acknowledged by the Air Force.
The briefer indicated the bomber would be optionally manned, not a surprising design choice. The relatively large size of a heavy bomber means the size/weight/power penalty for a cockpit is fairly low. Also, service officials would want a piloted aircraft for testing, as unmanned testing is subject to thornier constraints. “Unmanning” the bomber by equipping it with proper command and control and software would be a relatively simple addition, and hooks are built in to do so if desired. But for the near term the bomber will be manned.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: BELL 525 Relentless flies for first time

Today at approximately 10:18 AM the prototype for the Bell/Textron 525 Relentless took to the skies for the first time from the Amarillo, Texas plant.

After a long engine run up the Bell 525 hovered then flew down to taxi way for about 10 minutes Bell employees and brass cheered as it took off.

More photos and video soon.

(C) Steve Douglass
Photo (C) Steve Douglass
Media contact: for photo rights.



(C) Steve Douglass

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FBI has a secret Air Force.

IN this photo taken May 26, 2015, a small plane flies near Manassas Regional Airport in Manassas, Va. The plane is among a fleet of surveillance aircraft by the FBI, which are primarily used to target suspects under federal investigation. Such planes are capable of taking video of the ground, and some _ in rare occasions _ can sweep up certain identifying cellphone data. 
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
WASHINGTON —The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology - all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press has learned.

The planes' surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge's approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found.

In Boston, the FBI used aircraft to monitor Khairullozhon Matanov, a Quincy cab driver and friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, before arresting him. Matanov met with the Tsarnaev brothers 40 minutes after the Marathon bombings, and he took them out to dinner that night, authorities said.

Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.

U.S. law enforcement officials confirmed for the first time the wide-scale use of the aircraft, which the AP traced to at least 13 fake companies, such as FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services. Even basic aspects of the program are withheld from the public in censored versions of official reports from the Justice Department's inspector general.

"The FBI's aviation program is not secret," spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. "Specific aircraft and their capabilities are protected for operational security purposes." Allen added that the FBI's planes "are not equipped, designed or used for bulk collection activities or mass surveillance."

But the planes can capture video of unrelated criminal activity on the ground that could be handed over for prosecutions.

Some of the aircraft can also be equipped with technology that can identify thousands of people below through the cellphones they carry, even if they're not making a call or in public. Officials said that practice, which mimics cell towers and gets phones to reveal basic subscriber information, is rare.

Details confirmed by the FBI track closely with published reports since at least 2003 that a government surveillance program might be behind suspicious-looking planes slowly circling neighborhoods. The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights since late April orbiting both major cities and rural areas.

One of the planes, photographed in flight last week by the AP in northern Virginia, bristled with unusual antennas under its fuselage and a camera on its left side. A federal budget document from 2010 mentioned at least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, in the FBI's surveillance fleet.

The FBI also occasionally helps local police with aerial support, such as during the recent disturbance in Baltimore that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who sustained grievous injuries while in police custody. Those types of requests are reviewed by senior FBI officials.

The surveillance flights comply with agency rules, an FBI spokesman said. Those rules, which are heavily redacted in publicly available documents, limit the types of equipment the agency can use, as well as the justifications and duration of the surveillance.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Russia accused of digitally altering sat images to pin MH17 crash on Ukrainian forces, it has been claimed.

Russia has been accused of digitally altering two satellite images to pin the blame of downed passenger plane MH17 on Ukrainian forces, it has been claimed.

According a report released by investigative journalist organisation Bellingcat, analysis of the satellite images when compared to Google Earth 'undoubtedly demonstrates' they were tampered with.

All 298 passengers and crew on board the Malaysia Airlines jetliner, the majority of them Dutch, died when it was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine on July 17 last year.


In this photo, you can see Ukrainian air defense equipment deployed at a military base north of Donetsk which Russia claimed was dated July 14 - three days before the crash. However, Bellingcat investigators found evidence showing it was more likely taken sometime between May and mid-June


Here you can see a photo of the same area Russia claimed was taken on July 17, the day MH17 was shot down - with the Ukrainian anti aircraft system (circled) noticeably absent from where it was previously stored. However, a tiny oil spill to the top right of the image helped date the photo as actually being taken sometime before June 17 - a full month before the tragedy

Comparisons with pictures from Google Earth now show the images the Russian Ministry of Defence unveiled to media - purporting to show Ukrainian missiles in the area at the time of the accident - were actually dated between May and June, months before the tragedy.

Bellingcat investigators also found they had been tampered to make it appear missile launchers had left their bases and were deployed within striking distance of the plane on the day it was shot down.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

NSA phone data collection illegal feds rule ...

THE GUARDIAN: The US court of appeals has ruled that the bulk collection of telephone metadata is unlawful, in a landmark decision that clears the way for a full legal challenge against the National Security Agency.

A panel of three federal judges for the second circuit overturned an earlier ruling that the controversial surveillance practice first revealed to the US public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 could not be subject to judicial review.

NSA bulk data collection ruled illegal – read the court document

But the judges also waded into the charged and ongoing debate over the reauthorization of a key Patriot Act provision currently before US legislators. That provision, which the appeals court ruled the NSA program surpassed, will expire on June 1 amid gridlock in Washington on what to do about it.

The judges opted not to end the domestic bulk collection while Congress decides its fate, calling judicial inaction “a lesser intrusion” on privacy than at the time the case was initially argued.

“In light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape,” the judges ruled.

But they also sent a tacit warning to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who is pushing to re-authorize the provision, known as Section 215, without modification: “There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues.”

“We hold that the text of section 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program,”concluded their judgement.

“Such a monumental shift in our approach to combating terrorism requires a clearer signal from Congress than a recycling of oft‐used language long held in similar contexts to mean something far narrower,” the judges added.

“We conclude that to allow the government to collect phone records only because they may become relevant to a possible authorized investigation in the future fails even the permissive ‘relevance’ test.

“We agree with appellants that the government’s argument is ‘irreconcilable with the statute’s plain text’.”

The ruling, one of several in federal courts since the Guardian exposed the domestic bulk collection thanks to Snowden, immediately took on political freight.

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate who has made opposition to overbroad surveillance central to his platform, tweeted: “The phone records of law abiding citizens are none of the NSA’s business! Pleased with the ruling this morning.”


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