The Heron 1 UAVs that have been providing imagery for the German air force (GAF) over Afghanistan have now clocked more than 18,500 hours in four years. The lease-operate-maintain contract has already been extended twice, and will likely be extended for a further six months, as the German ponders its long-term UAS policy.
The contract is held by Cassidian Airborne Solutions (CAS), a subsidiary of Airbus Defence & Space (Outside Exhibit 1) that was created after Rheinmetall Airborne Systems was acquired by EADS Cassidian in 2013. Rheinmetall signed the deal with the German air force in late October 2009. The first flight of the first of the three Israeli-supplied UAVs followed from Mazar-i-Sharif only five months later.
The system is designated SAATEG in German, which translates as “System for Image Generation in Theater Depth.” The payload operators are military, but almost everything else is done by CAS, including the flying of the three leased UAVs. CAS is contractually obliged to provide 480 hours of flying per month, and to guarantee 90 percent availability on a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week basis.
In a presentation at the recent ILA Berlin Airshow, CAS program manager Juergen Howe praised Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI, Chalet A29) for its support of the system, including the initial training of pilots, maintainers and the GAF payload operators; depot-level maintenance; and ongoing logistics support. “They really opened the books,” he commented.
Howe said that the GAF declined responsibility for the takeoffs and landings, and his company is not enthusiastic about assuming this task either. “But IAI had no worries…the Heron has a robust automatic takeoff and landing system,” Howe continued. “We soon realized that the first and last 1,000 feet [of flight] is the most critical; we hand over to the Luftwaffe at that point–although they sometimes do takeoffs and landings themselves.”
IAI provides the line-of-sight datalink that is crucial to launch and recovery, while the GAF provides the satcom datalink that controls the UAV during most of the mission, and carries the EO/IR and/or synthetic-aperture radar imagery. The GAF specifies the payload and datalink day-to-day, and CAS then nominates one of the two ground stations that it provides.
Full operating capability was achieved in late August 2010. Such a speedy introduction was possible only via service-model contract, Howe said. “The standard German military procurement and logistics system was “too cumbersome,” he claimed. (That system is currently being reviewed by outside consultants brought in by the new German defense minister, Dr. Ursula von der Layen, in the wake of various procurement failures, including the Euro Hawk HALE SIGINT UAV). The GAF provided the means to transport the system and personnel to Afghanistan, on its Transalls and A310s, respectively.
The implementation of SAATEG required “a good, trained team plus a robust UAV,” Howe continued. Moreover, he added, “a trustful relationship” between the parties was vital. As an example, he cited the certification of flying hours that the GAF mission commander must provide, before CAS can be paid.
The effective time-on-station may vary, according to weather conditions as well as mechanical or system failures. The contract allows CAS to “catch up” on flying hours in the summer, when the weather is better, Howe noted. In the event of a lost link, the UAV was programmed to return to base, “but we often got the link back up,” Howe added.
The GAF required a military type certification of the system. IAI remained the design authority for the airframe, while Rheinmetall certified the software. “Our certification is limited to Afghanistan, but I believe we could operate safely anywhere in the world,” Howe said.
Before it was acquired by Cassidian, Rheinmetall proposed the IAI Super Heron as a follow-on for SAATEG, and this idea has now been endorsed as an “interim solution” by Airbus D&S, while it tries to persuade the German and other European governments to sponsor development of a new all-European MALE UAS. However, Germany is also considering the GA-ASI Reaper UAS to meet the SAATEG requirement.