Thursday, September 27, 2012

The unmanned revolution

A very interesting study from DroneWarsUk has put together government data about UAV expenditure and projects, and so doing it has provided excellent food for thought and analysis. Considering, of course, that while they openly oppose the use of unmanned air systems, especially armed ones, i totally support their employment, simply for one reason: they work and deliver effect.

Since 2007, the UK has expended and/or committed around 2 billion pounds for purchasing, operating, researching and developing unmanned air systems.

The MQ-9 Reaper fleet accounts for 506 million pounds in approved purchase and support costs. The original order for 6 drones made in 2007 was followed by a 135 million order in 2010 for a further 5 Reapers and associated equipment and ground control section.
In the meanwhile, one of the original 6 Reapers was lost, so that the total fleet, at deliveries completed, will number 10.

So far, Reaper has been notoriously controlled by british personnel from 39 Squadron RAF based in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, US. However, with the 5 new Reapers due to be delivered, XIII Squadron RAF, which ceased being a Tornado GR4 squadron early in 2011, is to stand up again this autumn as a Remotely Piloted Air System, based in Waddington, in the UK.
39 Squadron itself is to finally relocate to Waddington in the next future, once XIII Squadron is operational. The relocation of 39 Squadron will be phased to ensure there is no disruption to UK Reaper support to current operations.

This way, the UK will have brought home the ground control section of the Reaper force. But Reaper has not yet been given a safe and certain future: being a UOR-funded equipment, by the end of operations in Afghanistan the RAF will have to either bring it into Core Budget and find the funding to keep it going, or divest it. This situation also implies that the RAF so far has no plan at all to base Reapers in the UK, and fly them from UK air bases. The drones are obviously based in Afghanistan, and their future remains, at the moment, a question mark.
It is however widely expected that the RAF will keep Reaper, as a stopgap on the way to Scavenger if nothing else (there won't be a Scavenger before 2020 at best), which might actually end up being a development of Reaper itself: the option is far from having been ruled out.

The Reaper is currently the only armed unmanned system available to the UK. It has flown more than 38.000 hours and has employed weapons since 2008. They have employed weaponry 319 times as of early September, and have killed hundreds of talibans, including important figureheads, while tragically killing four civilians in one occasion, when in 2008 two Taliban pick-up trucks loaded with explosives were taken out with a Reaper attack.
There are of course various accusations that the number of civilian victims is actually higher, but the official figure is four. 

DroneWarsUK adds to the Reaper's costs an estimate of the impact of the armed UAV on expenditure for satellite bandwidth. I'm not sure of the validity of their estimate and reasoning, even if it is obvious that, without the bandwidth-hungry drone, the Armed Forces would need less satellite comms capability.
The Skynet satellite system costs 200 million pounds a year, and DroneWars estimates that up to 10% of the figure might be made up by the needs of the UAVs. This particular figure, however, remains uncertain.  

The Hermes 450 fleet is operated by the Royal Artillery with contractor's support. There are a dozen drones, sustaining 5 to 6 daily task lines. The UAVs are leased on a pay-by-flight basis, as a stop-gap measure on the way to the much enhanced, UK-built and owned Watchkeeper. The lease had to be renewed several times, since Watchkeeper failed to become operative by the end of 2011 as was once expected, and again was unable to deploy in 2012, with the first Watchkeeper task line now expected in theatre in Spring 2013.
The cost of the lease since 2007 is put at 181 million pounds.

The already mentioned Watchkeeper is currently the largest and most ambitious UAV program in the UK, and indeed is probably matched only by the US Army's Gray Eagle UAV project.
This complete, fully-integrated UAV system is due to be the main eye of the army for years into the future. 54 UAVs and 13 Ground Control Stations are on order, plus at least 21 Tactical terminals, mounted in specifically-configured Viking all-terrain vehicles.
Cost of the Watchkeeper is booked at 847 million pounds.

Watchkeeper is packed up for transport by a DROPS truck

The Watchkeeper is unarmed, but has a margin of payload available that would allow carriage of a couple of light guided weapons such as the Thales LMM missile (13 kg, with a warhead of just around 3 and laser guidance). The Royal Artillery is keen to gain weapons capability to turn the Watchkeeper into a hunter-killer platform better able to deal with time-critical targets, but there is no funding available at the moment. The "A-TUAS" (Armed Tactical Unmanned Air System) program, as it is called, remains "on hold", possibly to proceed sometime in the next few years.  

The Desert Hawk expenditure has been approved at 42 millions since 2007. The original order was for 144 mini-drones, but 27 have been lost during operations. There have been several successive additional orders and capability insertions, up to the currently in service Desert Hawk III.
In Afghanistan there are regularly a dozen 5-man detachments of DHIII operative, with each Detachment having several (possibly six) UAVs. The system is operated by the Royal Artillery and is, of course, totally unarmed.

Special Forces have and might still be using US RQ-11 Raven mini-drones in partnership with US forces on operations. The SAS in 2005 acquired the BUSTER mini-UAV in unknown quantities.  

The T-HAWK vertical take-off, man-packable UAV was initially operated by the Royal Engineers, but was subsequently assigned to Royal Artillery personnel as the RA became the Army's UAV authority. T-HAWK is used as an integral part of the TALISMAN route clearance system.
12 UAVs were procured, for a booked cost of 3 million pounds.

The PD-100 Black Hornet is the most recent and less known addition to the force. This nano-UAV weighting only 16 grams is a tiny helicopter that fits in a hand, but can fly for up to 25 minutes, depending on wind conditions and other factors. It uses internal rechargeable batteries for power and can fly at up to 1000 meters of distance. The PD-100 Black Hornet is a complete system comprising two or three nano air vehicles (NUAV) and a ground control element fitted in a light, small box for transport with a total weight inferior to 1 kg.  
Thanks to its tiny sizes, it can fly even into buildings and provide the troops with situational awareness. An unknown number was ordered in November 2011: the value of the "initial" contract was put at 2.5 millions, but 20 millions were indicated as through-life value.
This is likely to include further expected acquisitions and successive capability-insertions: the MOD wants the nano-UAV to provide night vision too, something that, at the moment, could not be fitted. As technology progresses, it is hoped that this and other features will be added.

While there is no certainty, it would appear that the MOD has procured 100 or more nano-UAVs, so possibly between 33 and 50 complete "Personal Reconnaissance" systems. It would appear that the nano-UAV number 100 was delivered to the MOD last June.

Black Hornet in action
Cost, as explained, is indicated in 20 millions.

For research and development, Mantis and Taranis received, as of 2010, funding for 167 million pounds.
In January 2012 BAE was awarded a much publicized 40 million contract for the definition of "Future Combat Air Systems", and most recently a 30 million Joint Effort with France was announced, relative to work for the design of an UCAV for entry in service in 2030.
The UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) has strike missions as main role, and it is expected to be an ultra-long range, stealth, highly-survivable bomber capable to deliver precious strikes deep into enemy-held territory, even in presence of significant enemy air defences. 

The most interesting part however is the indication of a Scavenger requirement for a total fleet numbering up to 30 MALEs, with a through-life cost of 2 billion pounds over 15 years.
Normally, support and running costs account for 60% of the total expenditure, so the development and procurement of the Scavenger solution would be budgeted at less than 1 billion pounds.
Scavenger is expected to have significant Strike capability: the Mantis demonstrator from BAE, expected to be the basis for development of the production-standard aircraft, was shown fitted with 6 underwing pylons suitable for Paveway IV guided bombs and Brimstone missiles.

Aimed at the Scavenger requirement is the collaboration with France on the BAE-Dassault "TELEMOS" MALE development. Committment to Scavenger is expected to be part of the 2013 defence budget. An announcement was actually expected already this summer, but the new government of France imposed a delay as it reviews its defence strategy (and, crucially, funding). France has recently signed a deal with Germany for collaboration on a MALE drone, in practice unilaterally expanding the bi-national project Telemos to involve Germany.
It remains to be seen how the UK will react, and what kind of future Telemos will have.

It should also be reported that a 40 million pounds UOR has been launched by the Royal Navy for the procurement of a UAV for employment on RFA ships and Type 23 frigates. It is widely expected that ScanEagle, or its newer, more capable incarnation, the RQ-21 Integrator, will be selected, as the Navy already validated operations of ScanEagle from Type 23 frigates as far back as 2006. Integrator uses the same launch and recovery kit and methods as ScanEagle, so it would make sense to go for the newer, more capable system as it would only imply minimal changes from the procedures already validated with ScanEagle in the past.
There is also a program for the demonstration and, in time, for the purchase of a rotary wing UAV which might be armed, and that will form an important part of the future mission capability of ships such as the Type 26 frigate.
These marittime UAVs programs are to be welcomed, as they will finally give the Navy improved situational awareness during deployments in congested and potentially hostile waters, such as in the Persian Gulf. 

If anything, my greatest worry and complaint is that Scavenger and the new UCAV, as it stands, are not to be made aircraft carrier capable, in no small part because they would need arresting wires and very possibly catapults to be fitted to the ships.
And as we know, the very questionable decision of going STOVL was taken instead.


  1. How about considering foreign UAVs like the Elbit Hermes 450

    1. The Hermes 450 is already in use in Afghanistan, as i've written, and it is the base of the Watchkeeper. More "considered" than so...

    2. Gaby

      I wonder whether you could tell me whether the photograph of Watchkeeper being packed up for transport by a DROPS truck is a recent one.

      The reason I ask is because I have a special interest in military transport vehicles. I have read reports of the DROPS vehicles going out of service by the end of 2014 but feel that they could still, with refurbishment, have a useful role to play.

      If the photo is a recent one, it possibly sugggests that the Army is going to "run on" some of the DROPS for specialist use. Or is that too fanciful for words? I know that many of them are in a poor state.

    3. This time i don't think i can be of great help, unfortunately: the picture appeared on the Guardian, but i have no idea if it is recent, and how much so in the case.
      As for DROPS, i'm a bit skeptical, personally, about a complete retirement by 2014: EPLS is being taken up into core as a replacement, sure, but there's around 200 or so EPLS at most, and the DROPS fleet is much, much larger... either something starts moving fast for their replacement, or i don't think the army can do away with them.

    4. Gaby

      Thanks very much for your reply.

      "either something starts moving fast for their replacement, or i don't think the army can do away with them."

      I agree with that. I have read some rumours about a DROPS-type system being developed on the TRAKKER vehicle but they are no more than rumours at the moment. Have you heard anything similar?

    5. Developed, offered and showcased at DSEI too, already.
      But no orders yet, as far as i know.


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