United States Military Aviation

Innominate

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Six B-21s in Production, Fuel Control Software Already Tested
Feb. 9, 2022 | By Greg Hadley

The B-21 Raider continues to be a “model” program for the Air Force, with six of the new bombers currently in production and some of its software already validated through digital testing, a top general at Air Force Global Strike Command said Feb. 9.

Speaking at the 2022 Nuclear Deterrence Summit, Maj. Gen. Jason R. Armagost said the new stealth bomber will likely fly in 2022, echoing previous predictions by other Air Force officials.

“The B-21, going into the future, is going to be our penetrating, get inside the anti-access, area of denial, dual-capable aircraft,” said Armagost, the director of strategic plans, programs, and requirements at AFGSC. “There are now six of those in existence. The rollout will probably be some time this year. I’m not at liberty to give the likely date of that, but [it will be] quickly followed by first flight.”

In September 2021, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall stated that five B-21s were in production. In the past few weeks, another started, Armagost confirmed to Air Force Magazine.

The development of the B-21 has been aided by the Air Force’s embrace of digital technologies to speed up the process, Armagost added.

“We are capitalizing on the revolution in digital—models-based systems engineering, open mission systems architecture software,” Armagost said. “As an example, the software for the fuel control system, which is a pretty complex thing, is completely done on an aircraft that hasn’t even flown yet as a test article, because of how we’re able to do models-based systems engineering. And they actually built a fuel systems model and tested the software, and the software is ready to go.”

It’s not the first time digital engineering has played a role in the modernization of the Air Force’s bomber fleet. Late last year, Rolls-Royce North America President and CEO Tom Bell said the company had digitally “built” a B-52’s wing with the company’s F130 engines installed to demonstrate its advantages and win the contract for the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program.

Armagost noted that digital technologies have also been integrated into the B-21’s future sustainment.

“One of the things that I’m most excited about is the requirements for new systems that haven’t even flown … yet. The fact that there’s a modernization effort built into those already, right?” Armagost said. “So in the B-21, for example, there’s technologies that are explored that we can risk-reduce through other platforms, potentially, and integrate ahead of the aircraft even flying. And so it’s kind of an exciting way to get back to that models-based systems engineering [that] has kind of opened up some possibilities on sustainment, interacting with the environment in ways that are really useful to the future systems.”

At the moment, the development of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the Minuteman III system “is the No. 1 program in the Air Force,” Armagost said. But the B-21 is right up there with it, he added.

Armagost’s counterpart in the Navy, Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, said during the panel discussion that his service is “line to line” with its nuclear modernization efforts, with new systems scheduled to hit the field just as the old ones hit the end of their service lives. Even though the Air Force isn’t quite there in its nuclear modernization plans, Armagost said the service is working to smoothly transition from one capability to the next over time.

“The transition is how we build in the flexibility within the existing capabilities to have an on-ramp that proves the viability of the oncoming system,” Armagost said. “ … Obviously, you know, when things happen or sustainment challenges arise, it can affect that, but we’re pretty comfortable right now with how we’ve planned for that, and how that on-ramp, off-ramp looks across those systems.”

The nuclear modernization effort, however, does face one potentially significant hurdle, particularly for missiles such as the GBSD and the Long Range Standoff Weapon: the production of plutonium “pits” that go in the center of nuclear warheads.

The National Nuclear Security Administration had set a goal of producing 30 pits per year by 2026 and 80 by 2030. But, “I think NNSA will readily admit they’re not going to make that requirement,” Wolfe said.

“We’re going to have to have some really tough discussions about, if we can’t get the requisite number of pits that we need for warheads in the future … at some point, we’re going to have a tough discussion about how many pits can we reuse? And if we reuse those, what does that mean to the design?” Wolfe said. Armagost added that “we have multiple paths for warheads within systems.”


It's way too hot in the desert during summer so it will likely be unveiled spring or late fall. B2 was unveiled in the month of November.
 

RISING SUN

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F-22s Scrambled To Investigate A Mysterious High-Altitude Balloon Off The Coast Of Hawaii (Updated)​

Fighters were scrambled by Pacific Air Forces on Monday, February 14, in order to intercept an unmanned balloon floating off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) has confirmed the incident but has not released additional details given that the incident is still being investigated.

The Adjudant General of Hawaii, the state’s top-ranking military officer, posted a statement to Twitter saying that “Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. In accordance with homeland defense procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and identify the object, visually confirming an unmanned balloon without observable identification markings.” It has not been officially confirmed what type of aircraft or how many were launched, but the only fighters based in Hawaii proper are F-22s. Those jets have the quick-reaction alert mission and are typically scrambled in response to aircraft in distress, unidentified aircraft and even vessels, hijackings, and potential adversary movements in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. Local residents and officials have also stated that F-22 were the aircraft that went to check out the balloon.
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USAF

An F-22 Raptor takes off from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

In regards to aerial activity over Kauai on 2-14:U.S. Indo-Pacific Command detected a high-altitude object floating in air in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. In accordance with homeland defense procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and -1 /3
— Kenneth S Hara (@HawaiiTAG) February 17, 2022

to protect the U.S. homeland, support our allies and partners, and secure a free and open Indo-Pacific. 3/3
— Kenneth S Hara (@HawaiiTAG) February 17, 2022

Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowen told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that she heard two booms, both loud enough to shake her house. “I would like to understand what were the powerful explosion sounds that were strong enough to shake my house in Kilauea, Kauai, and what looked like smoke in the sky. Was any object hit and did it explode? If so, what was it, and why?” However, an Air Force spokesperson told the paper on Thursday, February 17, that the “responding aircraft did not destroy the balloon.” The spokesperson continued that the service is “actively monitoring it via joint capabilities and it is under evaluation,” adding that “we don’t have anything else to provide at this time."

Lots of people on Kauai claiming to see a UFO tonight… people I’m close to and trust said they saw it too and that the military is aware it’s there and are circling. pic.twitter.com/EhYJpOcip6
— Noah Evslin (@nevslin) February 15, 2022

Some video taken yesterday of military planes circling. pic.twitter.com/SXzgPHWmyq
— Noah Evslin (@nevslin) February 15, 2022

Videos posted to the public Facebook group “Kauai Community” show what appears to be a stationary white oblong object in the sky with at least two contrails surrounding it. The accompanying caption states it was filmed from “Princeville Park.” That would seem to refer to a Prince Albert Park in Princeville, found along the northern coast of the island.

Some of the comments on the same post on the Kauai Community Facebook group underscore that the object appeared to remain stationary.
"Someone who works in aviation here on the island received communications that there were F22’s intercepting a UFO. UFO meaning an unidentified flying object to them. I wonder what the fighter pilots saw. It being a STATIONARY object,” one comment reads. "The aviation person told me that the UFO is many miles offshore from Princeville ( ?) over the ocean. It remained in one spot for at least 40 minutes."

“I watched this from Lihue to Kapaa. Two jets flying around and around. And this just stationary not even close to the altitude the jets were,” reads another.

Raven Aerostar, a company that develops cutting-edge balloons that can remain relatively stationary for long periods and have an endurance exceeding 30 days, was operating a balloon to the southeast of Kauai, off Oahu, throughout the day on February 14 and in the week leading up to the event. This is the first time we have seen one of Raven Aerostar's balloons near Hawaii.

The company works with the U.S. military to test balloons as sensor and communications relay platforms. You can read all about these advanced balloons that often get mistaken for UFOs in this past feature of ours on them. It’s unclear if those flights were related at all to the balloon that prompted the F-22 intercept, which appears to have been off the island chain's northern-most main island, Kauai.
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ADSBExchange

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Sandia National Laboratories operate a nearby rocket launch range, the Kauai Test Facility (KTF), at the west end of the island. The KTF is situated on the grounds of the larger Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF), which the U.S. military operates and also includes Barking Sands Airport.
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Google Maps

An image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by the DOE in 2013 shows a white balloon being launched from this range. The accompanying caption states that these “weather balloons are equipped with reflectors and locators that allow scientists to track them until they expand and finally pop, at about 12,000 feet. Sandia scientists and technicians at KTF conduct rocket flight test experiments ranging from offensive and defensive weapons testing to atmospheric studies and high tech star gazing.”
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Wikimedia Commons/DOE

A photo from a 2013 balloon launch posted to Wikimedia Commons by the Department of Energy.

It isn't clear if this could be a case of mistaken identity from a balloon released from the Kauai Test Range, but that seems somewhat unlikely. The balloon in question appears to be at a higher altitude than the weather balloons mentioned by the DOE. Still, another balloon of greater performance could have been deployed by the DOE or by another agency causing the mixup, but one would think that would have been explained by now.

Regardless, it points to a much larger issue concerning the use of balloons to collect critical intelligence. There is a deep history of balloons being used to collect intelligence, especially on radar and communications systems. We believe this is going on today in America's critical training areas offshore of the U.S. mainland. This coincides with what is emerging to be a renaissance of sorts when it comes to militaries using balloons as platforms for sensors, communications relays, electronic warfare systems, and even to launch other craft or payloads.

As we mentioned earlier, the Pacific Missile Range's primary installation is located at the northwestern end of Kauai. It is used for some of the U.S. military's most sensitive and advanced testing, especially when it comes to missile defense trials. This includes hosting one of the latest ballistic missile defense radar systems and executing tests for the weapons like the MIM-104 Patriot and SM-6 and others. The Navy describes the range that the base is a part of as "the world's largest instrumented multi-environmental range capable of supporting surface, subsurface, air, and space operations simultaneously." Such an installation would certainly be of extreme interest to America's peer-state adversaries and the presence of a mysterious balloon nearby would provoke a higher response from the military given the critical systems located there as well as the sensitive electromagnetic waveforms some of them emit.
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Wikimedia Commons/Polihale

Aerial view of the airfield at Pacific Missile Range Facility.

It's also worth noting that normally, F-22s aren't scrambled to intercept weather balloons or other high-flying lighter-than-air craft. The suspicious location of this balloon likely played a factor in the scramble. Another variable that would be interesting to know is what, if any, naval exercises are going on nearby and if there were any tests planned or ongoing at the installation when the balloon showed up. Foreign naval traffic nearby would also be of great interest.

Of course, it's possible that there could be another explanation for all this. The F-22 alert pilots have handheld cameras they would have used to collect intelligence on the exact configuration of the balloon, including its payload. We have reached out to U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) for confirmation. We received a reply from the FAA stating "We don’t have any reports at this time. If that changes, we’ll get back to you."

We will keep you updated as we get more information.

UPDATE:
Our friend @aircraftspots has provided some additional information on the F-22 scramble. The Raptors scrambled out of Honolulu as PRIMO1 and PRIMO2 at about 3:45 PM local time and headed off to the northwest. They actually popped up on Flightradar24, which is really rare (see below). As you can see, one of them was at over 41,000 feet and descending after investigating the contact north of Kauai. You can see the alert KC-135 at 25,025 feet nearby.
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Flightradar24.com

In addition, air traffic control audio has Air Canada flight 519 spotting the balloon on approach to Honolulu. We do not know if this was the Raven Aerostar balloon to the west of Oahu or this unidentified balloon north of Kauai.

As reported by @thewarzonewire a unidentified balloon was spotted on Valentines Day over Hawaii. AIR CANADA 519 (Boeing 787) spotted the balloon on approach to Honolulu. F-22s Scrambled To Investigate A Mysterious High-Altitude Balloon Off The Coast Of Hawaii (Updated) pic.twitter.com/EjGeqdco9w
— Thenewarea51 (@thenewarea51) February 18, 2022

A spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet told us they did not have anything to add at this time in response to queries about this balloon incident and could not speak to the Navy's involvement in the response. They advised reaching out to Pacific Air Forces regarding these queries.
UPDATE:

@aircraftspots came up with a nice track of the F-22 scramble mission:

USAF F-22s PRIMO01 & 02 scrambled out of Honolulu on February 15th at 0145z to intercept a “high altitude unmanned balloon” floating north of Kauai.

USAF KC-135R STEEL84 launched from Kalaeloa Airport to provide aerial refueling near the incident. pic.twitter.com/8bFK8xZjSZ
— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) February 19, 2022

 

BMD

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Dec 4, 2017
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