Call it a UAV (unmanned air vehicle) or an RPA (remotely piloted aircraft), the unmanned aircraft has become an integral part of the operations of many air forces, navies and armies around the world. Despite the issues associated with integrating UAV operations into non-segregated airspace, the unmanned aircraft has become a vital tool for performing “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions such as persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance).
While UAV programs and projects are under way in many countries, the vast majority are concerned with small vehicles that can only be used at a local level. For the larger vehicles that can operate over vast ranges and long endurances, the current programs that are in widespread service originate from the United States and Israel, the two countries that largely pioneered UAV use, and which remain powerhouses of the industry today.
U.S. services have integrated the UAV into their operations across the board, from hand-launched vehicles to the mighty Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. In the “white world” the Global Hawk represents the high end of the U.S. programs, a vehicle with a wingspan of more than 130 feet and a service ceiling of 60,000 feet.
In U.S. Air Force service the type is locked in a battle for funding with the manned Lockheed Martin U-2, although the battle may be something of a moot point given the hints of what other programs are under way. Having proved the value of long-endurance, high-altitude unmanned aircraft, the U.S. Air Force has been undertaking development of stealthy craft side-by-side with the overt non-stealthy types such as the RQ-4. Northrop Grumman is developing a flying wing design known as the RQ-180 that is of a similar size to the Global Hawk, yet is designed to operate in defended airspace.
That such a program, or programs, exists comes as no surprise following the revelation of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a smaller stealthy flying-wing design. Seen operating in Afghanistan as early as 2007, the RQ-170 was brought into the open when one came down on Iranian territory in December 2011.
For the Global Hawk its future success may lie away from the U.S. Air Force, including exports to Korea and Japan. A version known as the MQ-4C Triton has been developed for the U.S. Navy’s maritime patrol mission, and has already been selected by Australia. Other export prospects for the naval version include Canada, India and the UK.
The U.S. Navy is also behind the U.S.’s principal “white-world” UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) program, the UCLASS carrier-borne ISR/attack vehicle. A request for proposals was issued this April to four companies. Lockheed Martin is proposing a vehicle that draws on technology from the RQ-170 and manned F-35, while Northrop Grumman is basing its bid on the X-47B demonstrator. Boeing is offering a UCLASS design based on its Phantom Ray demonstrator, while General Atomics is proposing the Sea Avenger, a carrier-capable version of the land-based Predator-C Avenger.
Meanwhile, the “bread-and-butter” U.S. UAV programs have continued to prosper. Textron’s Shadow is in widespread U.S. service and has achieved notable exports. The General Atomics MQ-1 has been the backbone of the U.S. Air Force fleet for many years, and has also scored a number of export sales, including to the UAE. An improved version, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, is being procured in large numbers by the U.S. Army. However, the U.S. Air Force fleet is to be phased out in favor of the larger MQ-9 Reaper.
For General Atomics the Reaper has been a great success. The hunter-killer UAV carries powerful ISR sensors and an array of weapons up to the size of 500-pound guided bombs. In operations the Reaper has proven its worth countless times, and this success has led to important export sales to several European countries, including those with UAV programs of their own.
Another nation that has scored in the European market is Israel, with the two main UAV companies Elbit and IAI competing to equip the forces of several major European air arms. In one form or another Israeli UAVs have been acquired or leased by France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Australia, Brazil and India have also been good customers for Israeli products.
Both Elbit and IAI have given nothing away about what might be under development behind closed doors. In the meantime, IAI offers a range of conventional UAVs but with the Heron 1 as the centerpiece. This twin-boom vehicle serves with more than 20 operators and has flown for more than 1.1 million hours. It provides the platform for a wide range of ISR missions, including Sigint and maritime patrol. Earlier this year IAI introduced the Super Heron HF, an improved version with a heavy-fuel engine. The company also offers a much larger turboprop Heron TP design (also known as Eitan) that is in Israeli service.
Elbit’s Hermes family has also proved popular with several UAV operators. The Hermes 450 has been used extensively in Afghanistan by the British Army, which has also based its Watchkeeper UAV on the type. Watchkeeper was cleared for restricted military flying earlier this year.
Using the same systems as the H450, Elbit has recently introduced the larger Hermes 900 to the family, and has recorded a number of export sales in Latin America. Recently Switzerland selected the type to fulfill its UAV requirements.
U.S. and Israeli UAV manufacturers have readily exploited the situation in Europe, where there have been many research programs and collaboration projects going back many years, but little in the way of concrete results for an operational UAV of European origin. That might change through two new initiatives currently under way.
Provision of a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV for Europe has been identified as a key program for the continent’s industry. In recent times there has been a number of proposals for such a project, but most have foundered due to a lack of budgetary commitment and political will. To accelerate the decision-making required to get such a project off the ground, three aerospace giants (Airbus Defence and Space, Alenia Aermacchi and Dassault Aviation) are jointly proposing a two-year definition phase that could lead to a European MALE that is ready for service in 2020.
Another program that has political backing is a stealthy Anglo-French UCAV. Major partners BAE Systems and Dassault have already both flown technology demonstrators in the form of the Taranis and Neuron, and are now engaged in a two-year feasibility study.
In the meantime, two European manufacturers have been making their own strides in the UAV marketplace. Selex ES is currently the only company to have sold a tactical UAV of European origin in the form of the Falco. A number of export sales have been achieved, including to Pakistan, and the Falco is being used operationally by the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another European success story is the Austrian Schiebel company, whose Camcopter rotary-wing tactical UAV has been sold to several countries for both land- and ship-based duties.