The UK Ministry of Defence is preparing to issue an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) for an unmanned aerial surveillance system to help British troops fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Some–maybe all–of the likely contending systems are on display here.
When the British Army deployed recently to Helmand province for what was expected to be mainly unopposed policing and reconstruction tasks, it did not take the Phoenix UAVs operated by 32 Rgt. Royal Artillery for surveillance. This 20-year-old system cannot fly in hot-and-high conditions. Its replacement is the much more sophisticated Watchkeeper system being developed by Thales UK, but this is not due in service until 2010.
The regiment has instead sent some soldiers equipped with the Lockheed Martin/U.S. Army Desert Hawk mini-UAV observation system. But this is “only a model airplane with some binoculars attached,” according to one industry source.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force (RAF) does have a contingent within the U.S. Air Force Predator UAV operation, which provides almost-constant video surveillance over parts of Afghanistan (and Iraq). But Aviation International News understands that not enough tasking can be allocated to British requirements, which have increased thanks to the almost-daily contact with armed Taliban fighters.
The RAF has also been supporting the Afghan troop deployment–especially the Special Forces–with high-resolution panoramic and framing imagery provided by the Canberra PR.9. But the last three of these 45-year-old airframes are being retired next week, with no direct replacement.
Candidate systems to meet the Afghan UOR include two that have participated in the UK’s Joint UAV Experimentation Program (JUEP) over the past two years. A General Atomics Predator-B was equipped with the same Goodrich Raptor high-resolution electro-optic framing sensor that is fitted to some RAF Tornado strike aircraft.
During test flights over the western U.S., imagery was transmitted from 40,000 feet to a ground station, and directly back to the UK via satellite. Image analysts also demonstrated the “fusing” of imagery from the Wescam video system and a Lynx synthetic aperture radar that was also carried onboard the UAV. A Goodrich official told AIN that the company could move quickly (with General Atomics support) to provide an operational capability.
If a less sophisticated solution is required, the Boeing Scan Eagle UAV system might suffice. In another JUEP trial, this was tested in the maritime environment only, providing video imagery from medium-low altitude. But the U.S. Marine Corps operates the Scan Eagle over land in Iraq, where they have used its imagery to identify insurgents and call in airstrikes.
Making its public debut here, the BAE Systems Herti UAV offers a robust framing imagery system with a low deployment and interpretation footprint, capable of flying for 24 hours at 20,000 feet. Although it is still in development, BAE sales and marketing director Andy Wilson told AIN that the company could make it available to UK forces within a few months.
Alex Cresswell, vice president of ISTAR and UAV programs at Thales UK, similarly told AIN that his company would respond to any urgent UK requirement. “We would offer the Elbit 450 UAV and ground system as it exists today, without the many improvements that we are making within the Watchkeeper contract,” he said.
At a briefing here yesterday, Cresswell described progress with the $1.25 billion Watchkeeper program, awarded only one year ago. He noted that other countries–notably France–had expressed serious interest in tapping the overall capability expertise that Thales UK had developed through Watchkeeper. He also suggested that Thales might soon be providing surveillance to some customers as a service rather than a product, for instance on an hourly charging basis.