Recently it was revealed that the US Department of Defense issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) regarding air transit near a Chinese airbase in the East African country of Djibouti. The notice was issued after pilots were allegedly targeted with lasers originating from the Chinese airbase:
On May 3, 2018, Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said lasers from China’s base in the East African country had harassed American aviators on between two and 10 occasions, resulting in two, unspecified minor injuries to the C-130 crew. She also indicated that there had been an increase in these activities recently, prompting American officials to make a formal complaint. The issue had prompted the U.S. military to issue a formal warning to its own aircrews in April 2018, which did not specifically name who was responsible.
“I’d have to ask you [to] ask the Chinese about the motivation,” White said. “But it’s serious, we take it seriously, and that’s why we demarched them.”
It has been previously hypothesized that Chinese “hacking” played a role in a number of US Navy crashes last year. As a result, some has speculated that “hacking” could be to blame for a recent increase in US aviation crashes.
However, it doesn’t take much examination to come up with a far more plausible theory – lack of proper maintenance for older airframes, some of which can be attributed to the 2013 budget sequester.
For starters, let’s take a look at the list of US military aviation crashes in 2018, as per Wikipedia:
January 21: A U.S. Army AH-64 Apache crashed during training at the base in the Mojave Desert, California. Both pilots onboard were killed.
March 15: A US military HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in Western Iraq, killing all seven aboard.
April 3: A U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier crashed in Djibouti shortly after take-off.
April 4: A USMC CH-53E Super Stallion crashed near Naval Air Field El Centro, killing all 4 crewmen.
April 13: A United States Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet was damaged when it experienced an engine malfunction during takeoff. Apparently the left engine basically stopped working on takeoff, suddenly depriving the pilot of enough thrust to continue ascent after he had already raised the landing gear, forcing for a hard, belly landing that lasted for more than a mile.
April 24: A United States Air Force F-16 crashed during an emergency landing. The pilot ejected safely.
May 2: United States Air Force Lockheed WC-130H Hercules 65-0968, of the 156th Airlift Wing of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, crashed on Georgia State Route 21 in Port Wentworth, Georgia while on climbout from Hilton Head International Airport and caught fire, killing all nine on board. This was to be the aircraft’s last flight before retirement at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) base in Arizona.
Of all of these crashes, the one that arouses the most suspicion is that of the AV-8B “Harrier” jump-jet, due to be replaced by the (troubled) F-35B in the near future…
The Harrier’s design is over 50 years old, with 172 aircraft losses listed on Wikipedia, and likely with other losses not listed on the page resulting from damaged aircraft being removed from service and/or cannibalized for parts. While combat losses (particularly in Desert Storm) are among the Harrier losses, the majority of the jet’s losses have been due to crashes, owing to the aircraft’s design requiring a great deal of maintenance to keep it airworthy. Additionally, the Harrier is known for having a greater degree of difficulty to operate, some of which is in part to its unique (and dated) design, as well as the aircraft’s many flight control surfaces.
Thus, even though a US aircraft crashed in close proximity to a Chinese airbase known for shooting lasers at US pilots, it is difficult at best to attribute yet another Harrier crash to hacking or external interference.
Aging airframes often require more extensive maintenance. Unfortunately a combination of both Congressional inability to act and poor Pentagon decisions have resulted in major neglect for the airframes that need it the most, as The War Zone points out:
The continuing inability of Congress to pass a formal annual budget has only made the situation worse, making it difficult for the U.S. military to conduct serious long-term planning and properly arrange its spending priorities. U.S. government officials and lawmakers repeatedly pointed out the devastating impact this would and was having on readiness, including the safety and availability of military aircraft fleets.
To be certain, poor decision making on the part of many of the services further exacerbated these issues. New weapon systems repeatedly took precedence over readiness issues, including routine training, preventive maintenance, and supporting the logistics chain for existing equipment. By 2016, for example, this deliberate neglect prevented the Marines from flying more than 30 percent of their CH-53 heavy lift helicopters – one of which crashed earlier in April 2018, killing four Marines – at any one time.
We also know from public statements that the overall availability of certain types of aircraft has slipped to atrocious levels. In November 2017, the Marine Corps disclosed to Congress that the availability rate for their CH-53s was still under 40 percent. Earlier in 2017, it became public that more than 60 percent of all Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets were unusable on any given day.
It is not a coincidence that several of the US aircraft that have crashed in 2018 are mentioned above – older airframes that have been passed over for more expensive “stealth” aircraft, which oddly enough, have higher maintenance costs, in spite of their newer age, owing to high maintenance costs for “low-observable” flight.
And even though a “newer” F-22 airframe was among the crashed aircraft, with one experiencing a hard “belly” landing this year after an engine flameout…
…a similar incident occurred in 2012 due to a mistake made by an F-22 student pilot:
On May 31st, 2012 a student pilot on his second solo flight in the F-22 didn’t apply enough power before retracting the jet’s landing gear during departure. The F-22 sunk down and careened its way across the runway on its belly before coming to a stop. The cost to repair that jet was a whopping $35M and took six years to accomplish the task.
The official details surrounding this year’s crash make the possibility of a cover-up distinctly possible, especially given the F-22’s troubled history:
Considering that the F-22 can fly with just one engine, and a similar incident was blamed on pilot error, this could be the USAF’s attempt to shift the blame for a pilot mistake onto Congress for providing a lack of maintenance funds. Even if the incident can be attributed to an engine flameout, the F-22 has already been cancelled at 187 copies, being passed over for the poorly-designed F-35, so it is possible that aircraft maintenance dollars are being spent on the F-35, with Lockheed at risk of a reduction or cancellation of the project.
Given all of the domestic problems the US Air Force has keeping its older aircraft airborne, and the location of all of the aviation accidents, it is highly unlikely that any of these incidents can be chalked up to hacking or external interference from a peer state. Although it is important to point out that this could be the case, and the average citizen will likely never know if aircraft losses are due to Chinese/Russian interference…
…it is far more likely that the recent crashes are due to failures by the Pentagon’s inability to compensate for Congress slightly pricking the balloon of out-of-control defense spending. Sadly, it seems that the end result of all this will be more big-money contracts doled out to put more inferior weapons systems in the US inventory.