Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Drone news

France and UK deals

Philip Hammond and his french counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian announced in a Joint Statement on July 24 that, building on the collaboration agreements of the 2010 Lancaster House agreement, the UK and France will fund the first phase of the Joint UCAV development and demonstration programme.
The Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle is expected to become mature and ready for service by 2030, a very unanbitious target considering that the US Navy will trial on an aircraft carrier at sea the X47B next year, in 2014 will demonstrate its Air to Air refuelling capability and between 2018 and 2020 it plans to put the drone in active service as a long range, stealthy, long endurance strike and recce asset for the Carrier Air Wings.
Europe is lagging behind by a great margin. 

The contract announced has a value of 13 million euro, and this money will be used by the BAE Systems / Dassault joint venture to begin the joint UCAV work.
Separately, BAE and Dassault both plan to stage the first flight of their existing UCAV-representative prototypes next year: for BAE, this is the Taranis drone, while Dassault is the team leader (50% share of work and costs) in the NEURON effort, a 405 million euro Europe-wide project which includes Italy's Alenia (22%), Sweden's SAAB, Spain's EADS-CASA, Greece's EAB and Switzerland's RUAG.
Taranis born from a 143 million pounds effort first announced in the Defence Industrial Strategy 2005. Production of the drone started in September 2007, and the Taranis was finally revealed at Warton, on 12 July 2010. Ground testing followed, in particular to demonstrate the all-sides stealthness of the prototype, and this phase was extended several times, so that the first flight was delayed from an intended 2011 date first to 2012 and then to 2013.
Reportedly, at least, the MOD is pleased by the excellent level of stealthness achieved.
The NEURON was launched by France in 2003 and the main contract with Dassault was signed in 2006. The French ministry of defence target for NEURON was described as the validation of a UCAV design which would lead to a production-ready aircraft with an unitary price of 25 million euro.

The two demonstrators are actually quite similar, sharing the same general architecture, stealth with two internal weapon bays, and even using the same engine, the Rolls Royce Adour. The French ministry of defence anticipated that a production-ready UCAV would need a much more powerful engine, and expected it to be a development of the M88 engine used by Rafale.

Now, with Dassault and BAE teaming up, the future of NEURON becomes uncertain, and the plan of using the Rafale engine becomes even more uncertain, as it is expected that, in the next few days, Rolls Royce and Safran will announce their own joint venture for the development of engine solutions specifically targeted at drones.
For sure, Dassault from the NEURON gains significant experience and know-how, paid in no small part by other european nations which now might find that the NEURON brings, effectively, to nothing for them.

The UK on its part can build on the Taranis experience and, to an unknown degree, it'll be able to access technology and solutions developed for the X47B carrierborne UCAV of the US Navy, after receiving clearance to follow the development with the Carrier Air cooperation Memorandum of Understanding signed on January 5, 2012.

Another deal reached will see France acquire a Watchkeeper drone system from the UK in 2013. The French Army will trial the drone at least until mid-2013, and eventually adopt it for its own needs. The Watchkeeper is built by Thales UK, and selling it to France would be a significant export win. 
In addition, it would open the door for extensive cooperation between the british and french army units working with the drone.

The most anticipated, expected and important deal, though, is again missing.
A contract for starting the development of the joint BAE/Dassault Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone, to be known as Telemos, has not been announced, with developments in this direction once more delayed and pushed to the right. 
The Telemos aims for a 2020 in-service date, and for the UK is targeted specifically at the Scavenger requirement, a particularly important one. The constant delays (the RAF had hoped for a 2018 ISD, this had to be abandoned and pushed to the right) are already becoming an issue. 

Worse, France is under a new government, and is undergoing a defence review which will bring forth a new White Paper in the coming months. As part of this effort, France is looking again into its own MALE requirement, and for a few more weeks at least we won't know about the impact that this review will have on Telemos. 
As of now, the government suspended a previous decision to acquire the Heron TP drone from the Israel Aerospace Industries as an interim solution "France-ized" at great cost by Dassault.
This decision, already contested by the french senate, was the most expensive of all solutions, but was seen by Sarkozy as a way to preserve national industrial capability thanks to the great involvment of Dassault, which would heavily modify the israeli drone. 
The Senate noted that purchesing 7 MQ-9 Reaper drones from the US would be a much less expensive interim solution, and the new government is looking again at this and other possibilities: France's Defense Ministry is reportedly in talks for an extension of the contract for the Harfang MALE UAV system, due to expire in October 2013. 
They might continue with the Harfang in the near term and speed up the MALE program with the UK, if we are lucky, or they might take more damaging decisions. 

For example, France is keen on bringing Germany into the cooperative effort, and perhaps even Italy. France's intest in including Germany is mainly tied to EADS, the french-german-spanish defence industry giant, which would otherwise be cut off, after the failure of its internal Talarion MALE project. 
The UK, after the negative experience of the Typhoon enterprise, would very much prefer to keep the program binational only, or at most multinational at industrial level but binational in management and leadership. 

The Telemos saga is already getting complicated, before actual work even starts. It is a situation that needs to be sorted out quickly. 

Royal Navy drones 

The Royal Navy is finally managing to launch the expected Rotary Unmanned Aircraft development programme. On 24 July, the MOD notified industry that a contract is due to be signed for the Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) programme of the planned future Rotary-Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS). 
The bad news is that the CCD phase will last until 2015 (!) and an In-Service Date is not expected before 2020.

The CCD is meant to inform the Navy on "whether a multi-role RWUAS can provide utility in the mine countermeasures, hydrography and meteorology, offensive surface warfare and general situational awareness capability areas." 
The CCD phase will involve physical demonstrations of a vertical take-off and landing UASs and specialist sensors, supported by simulation and synthetic environment experiments. The MAGIC ATOLS system from Thales, which is used to let Watchkeeper land autonomously without human input, might be involved as it offers a readily available ship solution as well, capable to guide an helicopter drone on the deck of a ship at sea.

Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) wants an air vehicle, ground control station and communications link offering "a low probability of delay due to unplanned maintenance or technical issues". The CCD will also have to determine the impact of embarking and using such a drone on ships, determining how it will be used, storaged, supported. 
Decisions about the drone system will affect arrangements for the Type 26 and MHPC vessels, so the Royal Navy should move and develop a clear plan for the future.
DE&S has been conducting some early studies, and identified three main potential "classes" of drones that could be used, from a tiny 100 kg solution to a 3000 kg one. To provide a comparison of sort, a fully-loaded Gazelle light helicopter weights 1900 kg. 

An helicopter drone is envisaged as part of the Type 26 mission packages, and is also part of the MCM, Hydrographic and Patrol Capability (MHPC) program for the replacement of the minesweepers and survey vessels.

It has not been a mystery that the Navy would eventually launch this contract award call. A VTUAS has been wanted for some years now, and last year QinetiQ and Northrop Grumman had outlined their proposal for the conversion of a Gazelle helicopter into a drone, using the US MQ-8B Fire Scout software and operating system. They are likely to bid for the CCD with this exact solution. 
The Fire Scout itself might be offered, too, along with other drones. 

A small drone such as the Camcopter is easily integrated on any ship, but its usefulness is severely limited for obvious reasons. A larger drone, such as Gazelle, is likely to be far more useful, but using it on Type 23 frigates in concert with even just a Wildcat might prove impossible. 
The Type 45 hangar, which can take two Wildcat helicopters, could easily take a Wildcat and a naval drone and perhaps even a Merlin HM2 plus drone combination. 
The Type 26, hopefully, will offer ample spaces for carrying Merlin HM2 and drone(s). It must be noted, indeed, that a drone helicopter is not going to be a replacement for manned helicopters capable to carry Marines, do SAR and medical evacuation and carry out ASW: all roles that the drone won't be able to cover. 

2 Lynx helicopters inside a Type 45 hangar
While the US has been sending ships out with sole-drone complements on rare occasions (recently, a frigate with 4 FireScouts), the US Navy ships are likely to pretty much always operate in company with other vessels, while RN ships are alone most of the time. The drone must expand the capabilities of the ship, not reduce them, so i do not think it can replace the embarked helicopter, but only supplement it. 

No news, for the moment, on the planned demonstration of "a drone rail-launched from the back of a frigate", which is also apparently planned for this year, according to what Air Vice-Marshal Mark Green, Director Joint and Air Capability told the defence committee back in June. 
The drone, not identified (might be Scan Eagle, even though this drone was already validated for launch and recovery from a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate between 2005 and 2006) would "fly for 14 hours" and then return to the ship.  

Scan Eagle on its launch rail on a Type 23 frigate in 2005. Back then, the Navy was unable to finalize an acquisition, and the successful trials did not lead to an acquisition.

Connected to the MHPC is also the recently announced deal for collaboration between Thales UK and Autonomous Surface Vehicles Ltd (ASV Ltd) to develop a re-configurable Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) to meet the challenges of future off-board Mine Countermeasures (MCM) operations.
The vessel has been jointly designed to meet a number of key requirements and drivers:

  • Deployable from military platforms, craft of opportunity and from shore/harbour 
  • Air transportable 
  • Payload flexibility for all MCM systems – unmanned underwater vehicles, towed sonar, disposal systems, minesweeping 
  • Stable platform with excellent slow speed and towing capabilities 
  • Highly reliable & cost effective

The low signature USV, which is 11.5m in length and 3.6m in beam, will have a maximum speed of around 25 knots. The vehicle is now under construction and will be undergoing acceptance trials later this year. A series of payload trials will be conducted from early 2013 onwards, drawing on experience gained in previous off-board system programmes.

They are certainly going to offer this new system to the Royal Navy for MHPC: while the Navy has been using the Atlas FAST in these roles, trialing it since 2009, there is still good chances for Thales to win the actual contract.
FAST was originally born in 2007 as a 2-year, 4.3 million pounds demonstration programme aimed at a 150 million pounds requirement for an unmanned platform capable to tow Combined Influence Sweeping kit, following the retirement of such equipment from the Hunt minesweeper fleet in 2005. It was anticipated that 4 Hunt vessels would  be modified to carry and put in the water 2 FAST drones each.

The FAST was successfully designed, trialed and validated, but to this day the adoption on the Hunt vessels has not gone ahead. Instead, FAST is being used as a demonstrator for unmanned, remote MCM operations.
In 2011, Atlas demonstrated the use of FAST as an unmanned mothership for the deployment of smaller drones, namely the SeaFox mine disposal system.
These remotely-operated assets are crucial for the future of MHPC, as the 3000 tons ship envisaged is to be built of steel and it is to stay well far away from minefields, clearing routes from stand-off distance using surface, air and subsurface drones.

The FAST, or the new Thales drone, or yet another system, is the surface element: it is meant to tow combined influence sweeping equipment or sonars, and it is intended to deploy directly into the minefield other drones, such as the REMUS underwater search drones or the SeaFox disposal system.
For this role, the unmanned surface vessel must be kitted with suitable radio links, and with an underwater communication system: signals coming from the mothership are relayed by the unmanned surface boat to the underwater drones. 

The Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology (FAST) has much expanded its range of roles from when it was conceived in 2007 as a towing boat for combined influence sweep kit. Here it is shown with the launch arm loaded with a SeaFox mine disposal underwater drone.

As I said, FAST did not originally born with all these roles in mind, but adapted over time. The Thales realization, larger and more powerful, will be specifically configured from the start for the wide range of applications envisaged.
In future, drones such as this might also be used for Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) by towing active sonars in swarms sailing ahead and around of the frigate/mothership, which would keep its sonar in Passive mode, receiving the sonar echoes from multiple directions and so managing to put together a much more accurate picture of the underwater situation, locating submarines much more easily, even if they are particularly silent and hard to detect.
Putting the active sonar away from the frigate is necessary, since the submarine in the depths will immediately locate the source of an active sonar signal, and might attack it if possible. That’s why frigates will almost always use the passive sonar mode (undetectable) and listen for catching the noise made by the submarine moving.

Like bistatic radars have better chances to detect stealth airplanes, a swarm of sonars transmitting active signals from different directions are going to massively increase the chances of successful detection.

From Afghanistan to the future

The US Marines are delighted by the performance of the K-MAX unmanned load carrying helicopter in Afghanistan. This 2300 kg empty weight helo, converted in unmanned configuration, is used to hail under slung loads of supplies (4000 pounds at 15.000 feet altitude, 6000 lbs at sea level) and carry them to Forward Bases, flying back and forth several times each night (for safety reasons, in Afghanistan the K-MAX is only flown at night) and reducing the need for road transfers which put personnel at IED and ambush risk. It also removes some tasks from the long list of missions assigned to manned utility helos, that can so be used for other roles, such as carrying soldiers around the battlefield.

The USMC deployed the "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 Cargo Detachment" with two K-MAX to Afghanistan in December 2011. It was an experimental deployment under a 43 million dollars contract, but the success was immediate. By early May 2012, the two drones had already moved over a million pounds of cargo, and their deployment was extended out to September 2012. Now it is flown by VMU 2. 

During the VMU 1 five months deployment, the two KMAX systems flew 485 combat mission flights, for a total of 525 flight hours. As DefenseUpdate reports:

Most missions lasted about 1 hour and included a 20-minute turnaround time during which a pilot climbed into the helicopter to shut it down, refuel it, hook up the cargo and then start it back up. “That was a pretty short turnaround time, and allowed us to conduct six sorties per night. We could have done more,” Joiner [Cargo UAS mission commander] noted. By the end of the deployment — and after receiving permission to hover — turnaround times with cargo hook-ups took 6 or 7 minutes to complete. Overall, the KMAX was very responsive, especially when compared to a convoy, a C-130 [Hercules] or an H-53 mission.

According to Joiner, “Towing the KMAX out of the hangar to wheels-up, could take as little as 15 minutes.”
“Since it was an unmanned system, we were able to conduct flights during inclement weather when other helicopters couldn’t fly,” O’Connor [Major in the VMU 1 unit] said. “We flew during the night, in the rain, dust and some wind.” The KMAX handled up to 4,500 pounds of cargo per mission, he said. “The reliability of the KMAX was impressive, It was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time.” O’Connor said. Inclement weather accounted for 5 percent of the downtime and maintenance and scheduling issues accounted for the other 5 percent, he said. The KMAX required less than two hours of maintenance per flight hour, which equates to a low cost, O’Connor added.

Kmax is an unmanned adaptation of an existing manned helicopter.
The US Army is looking ahead to field its own cargo carrying drone helicopters, and it anticipates putting a squadron of such systems in the Sustainment Brigades and/or in the Support Battalion of the Brigade Combat Teams. 
The USMC and USN, in the meanwhile, are looking ahead, beyond K-MAX, towards a common and multi-mission system. 
Using the same airframe, with the same training, logistic and support tail, and giving it a series of modular payloads enabling it to tackle different kinds of mission is the most effective way to go, they recognize. Such modular payloads could include a EO/IR camera payload that would be added for an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission; the hook and long line added for cargo pick-up; fuel pods for long-range missions and even missiles and/or rockets for strike missions.

It is an unassailable concept, and my hope and dream is for the Royal Navy and British Army to join forces to work together on the Rotary-Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS), to follow the same concept. 

A 2000 / 3000 kg drone, of sizes and design suitable for embarkation in ship's hangars, capable to carry a significant payload under slung, and/or sensors and weaponry would cover a lot of roles and be of immense usefulness in all sorts of situations and scenarios.
Such Army/Navy collaboration would be further eased by the arrangements already in place for the joint running of the Wildcat fleet, including use of the same Main Operating Base, Yeonvilton, where the RN Squadrons and the Army Air Corps’ 1st Regiment will be based.
In an age of restricted financial possibilities, this kind of cooperation is more important than ever, and where there is so clear potential for collaboration, the chance should not be missed.   


  1. Hey Gabriele, I've been following your blog for some time now and I think it's amazing and admire your passion for our armed forces. Just a quick question, have you ever heard of Lockheed Martin's VARIOUS VTOL UCAV. If so, do you think it's viable for our carriers alongside the Lightning 2 in the future.
    Best regards

    1. Thank you, i'm glad you follow this blog and find it interesting.

      Regardind the Various, yes, it has been a LM concept for a few years now, but unfortunately i don't think it has ever progressed past the concept stage. It exists on paper and in a few promotional videos and images.

      Also, its payload was intended to be a mere 1900 pounds, with just 450 available for weapons, in a small bay.
      That is to say a couple of Hellfire or Brimstone missiles.

      It would be in theory viable, of course, but first you'd have to throw lots of money at it, build it, validate it, make it work.
      And it wouldn't add that much to the air wing. UCAVs in development are meant to carry a couple of 500 lbs guided bombs, normally, and aim to carry more.

      As it is, even as a concept, Various is not really a UCAV, but a stealth, VTOL weaponized UAV carrying less payload than a first generation Predator.
      I don't think it's what is needed.

    2. Many thanks for the reply Gabriele. Yes when I was looking at the drone and it's specs I thought it was a bit downgraded form the likes of the predator. I just thought maybe that the concept of a stealth, VTOL UCAV would be useful for considering the future of what aircraft will/could be used on the QE carriers as we know that we will not be getting any "cats and traps" for them.
      Having said that the money required and the will to do such a thing would probably be to much for the MOD to take on.


Everybody can comment on this blog without needing a Blogger account. It is meant to keep the discussion free and open to everyone. Unfortunately, anonymous accounts keep the door open for spammers and trolls, so i'm forced to moderate comments and approve them before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience.