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08 January 2015

20,000 Flight Hours of HERON 1 – An Interim Solution Turns into a Success Story

This article confirms the achievement of another milestone reached with a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). In his letter to the soldiers and civilian employees involved the Commander of the Air Force Operational Forces, Lt.Gen. Martin Schelleis, wrote:
With the five years of employment of the weapon system HERON 1 the Luftwaffe has made a significant contribution to the protection of own and allied forces. At the same time the employment of this remotely piloted aircraft has enabled the Luftwaffe to gain essential insights into the immediate operational reality. These experiences constitute important milestones on the future-oriented way towards new technologies within the capability-oriented operational spectrum of air forces. With this system the Luftwaffe has realised a decisive step towards the future of aviation within the shortest time.”

Real-time reconnaissance over Afghanistan - 20,000 flight hours of the remotely piloted aircraft HERON 1 (All photos: Luftwaffe unless otherwise noted)

HERON 1: First MALE RPAS1 Capability of the Air Force

On 17 June 2009, the then Federal Minister of Defense, Dr. Franz Josef Jung, decided to lease the reconnaissance system HERON 1 from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Within the framework of a so-called operator model, the company Cassidian Airborne Solutions (now Airbus Defence & Sapce) took over all maintenance works and ensured that the aircraft were available to the Luftwaffe in theatre at any time. Already in late 2009, the first soldiers went to Israel to undergo training and in March 2010 they successfully conducted the initial flight in Afghanistan. Full operational capability (FOC) was reached in May 2011. Since then the system has reliably provided important reconnaissance information.

Reliability is also reflected in the number of flight hours performed. Nearly every year the achievement of another 5,000 flight hours could be celebrated. In July 2011, the first 5,000 flight hours were reached, in July 2012, 10,000 flight hours, and finally in July 2013, the number of flight hours amounted to 15,000. And on 25 September 2014, the 20,000th flight hour of HERON 1 within the framework of 1,700 reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan under the ISAF mandate could be celebrated.

HERON 1 of the Luftwaffe being prepared for a sortie. 

At present, three HERON 1 aircraft are stationed in Afghanistan. The remotely piloted reconnaissance system is designed for Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) missions and is able to operate at flight altitudes of up to 10,000m and at a speed of up to 200km/h by day and by night for 24 hours and more. Being equipped with the latest technology, such as high-resolution pivotable infrared (IR) and TV cameras it is used for the detection of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), convoy, and patrol escort, route reconnaissance and surveillance, preparation of movement profiles by way of long-term observations (so-called patterns of life), as well as for object and camp protection. During ongoing operations, operational forces can be provided direct support with the aid of the real-time video. By now, HERON 1 has conducted more than 1,700 sorties, partly round the clock, thus providing valuable information in support of the preparation and conduct of military operations of the Bundeswehr and its allies. Its integrated satellite data link made it possible to monitor the whole northern half of Afghanistan.

HERON 1 is remotely operated by a pilot operating from a ground control station. This pilot may come from all areas of manned aviation. As a precondition for an employment as a pilot of an RPA, this person must maintain his licenses and ratings for manned aircraft, e.g. type and an instrument rating. For this purpose, besides his employment as HERON 1 pilot, he regularly flies a Cessna CITATION CJ-1+ aircraft.

In his work with HERON 1 at the ground control station, he is supported by a sensor operator called “Payload Operator” who maintains continuous radio contact with the soldiers on the ground needing reconnaissance information. For this purpose he operates the high-resolution cameras which are remotely operated as well, and can transmit a live video image to the soldiers on the ground who are equipped with a portable monitor for this purpose. The images may also be transmitted to the operations centers in theatre or to Germany for evaluation by air photograph interpreters2.

The HERON 1 crews are trained by IAI in Tel Aviv. In addition to this type training they are prepared for their mission abroad within the scope of an advanced detailed tactical initial training. Since early November 2014, part of the theoretical and simulator training has been conducted at Tactical Air Wing 51 “Immelmann” in Schleswig.

Due to its flexibility and the high-quality reconnaissance results provided by the evaluation component, the HERON 1 team is highly esteemed by its customers and continues to be indispensable in the near future for the soldiers in Afghanistan. In 2015, the reconnaissance system shall still be available for the protection of the forces that are then still required in Afghanistan.

Luftwaffe HERON 1 RPA supporting NATO from Mazer a Sherif, Afghanistan

A Typical Reconnaissance Mission

The following is an excerpt from the narrative of someone involved in an employment and is exemplary for situations quite often experienced by HERON 1 crews:

In June 2012, the unarmed reconnaissance system HERON 1 escorted, from a safe distance, a small long-range reconnaissance team with unprotected ‘Quads’ in Western Afghanistan that was tasked with the risky mission of entering an area unknown to this day. Using the sensors of the RPA, the HERON 1 crew views the area of operations as if seen through a telescope, thus being able to give an early warning of possible hazards. They are in voice contact with friendly ground forces and can transmit the live video directly to the forces on the ground.

Enemy fighters, unnoticed by the ground forces and hidden in a wood and also immediately near a small village, prepared for an attack. The camera operator of HERON 1 detected the attackers with the aid of the high resolution sensors and watched two armed groups trying to encircle the friendly forces. From then on, everything went very quick and the survival of the long-range reconnaissance team depended on this quick reaction. 

Seen from the bird’s eye view the actions of the fighters could be analysed which made it possible to transmit instructions for a first reaction to the leader of the reconnaissance patrol. Our own forces - unexpected for the attackers - then moved to a range of hills difficult to make out from the ground thus getting themselves out of the line of fire at least for the time being. Thus, the enemy forces were deprived of the surprise effect; however, the threat to friendly forces persisted. As the members of the long-range patrol were not able to gain a full understanding of the situation we had to be their eyes from the bird’s view. In the meantime, nearly encircled by Taliban fighters, it became clear that they would urgently need close air support. In coordination with the long-range reconnaissance patrol the HERON 1 crew requested support by armed fighter aircraft. The situation on the ground became more and more dangerous and though it took the fighter aircraft only a few minutes to arrive at the scene it seemed a small eternity to all of us. The fighter aircraft performed a low-level flight over the target area which was difficult to look at. This was intended to intimidate the attackers but also to help the pilots on board the aircraft to detect the targets. They had to consider whether they could employ their weapons without causing collateral damage. When the attackers saw the approaching fighter aircraft they fled to the nearby village and, still under observation of the HERON crew, mingled with the local population. The show of force had been sufficient to produce the envisaged effects – the members of the long-range reconnaissance patrol were out of danger.”

In anticipation of such situations and knowing of the technical possibilities at the beginning of the mission in Afghanistan, a reconnaissance system was requested in 2009 that would be able to provide mission-relevant information in near-real time and thus to improve force protection. This narrative shows that in certain situations, in particular if a response has to take place very quickly, direct fire support may be urgently required in order to effectively support friendly forces. Meanwhile very small weapons may be employed from other remotely piloted aircraft. This way the advantages of live reconnaissance and direct engagement may be combined to ensure a reliable protection from the air for own and allied forces.

Comment from a HERON 1 pilot: ”The worst situation for a soldier would be to helplessly watch his comrades under fire and fighting for their lives.”

HERON 1 displayed at ILA 2014. (Photo: AF)

Remotely Piloted Aircraft – Challenges in the Future

HERON 1 can sufficiently fulfil the military requirement of continuing reconnaissance; however, it can no longer provide all capabilities required in theatre. Situations such as the one described above in an exemplary fashion by someone involved make it clear that HERON 1 is important for protection from the air. It also becomes apparent, however, that there are limits to its protective function and that then the crew members very soon become placed in the role of spectators. This applies, e.g. in cases when, in spite of all reconnaissance measures, it comes to a direct armed conflict on the ground. Therefore, in Afghanistan as well as in other possible future theatres of operation, armed and - possibly- remotely piloted aircraft will have to be employed. As long as the Luftwaffe does not have own armed RPAs our soldiers will depend on the limited resources of RPAs of allied forces.

Lt.Gen. Martin Schelleis, the commander of the Air Force Operational Forces, states in this respect: “Already today, HERON 1 has reached the limits of its performance capabilities. The RPA only has a limited growth potential and cannot be armed as required. In addition, HERON 1 has been leased for the duration of the mission in Afghanistan and also has been certified for this mission, so that after the expiry of this contract the Luftwaffe will not have any RPA in use or in its inventory. In order to maintain the acquired flying and operational competence for the Bundeswehr, the option of using RPA has to be ensured sustainably. For this purpose the decision to lease or procure one of the commercially available aircraft which can be armed should be taken as soon as possible. In the long term we should participate in the desired European development solution in order to be able to keep up with technological progress in this key sector of future activities. This will ensure the availability of modern equipment up to the middle of the coming decade.”

Armament of RPA has been discussed controversially by the general public. German remotely piloted aircraft will not be employed as offensive weapons nor as an autonomous system. Besides their principal mission of “direct permanent reconnaissance and air surveillance” they shall assume an additional protective function which can be used to counter an acute threat situation. The advantages are obvious: Besides the ability of joining the battle without delay and in particular in adaption to the threat situation, i.e. with smallest weapons, all actions from the identification of enemy troops and the use of weapons for defence to damage assessment can be provided from one single source. This reduces both the probability of misinterpretation of the situation on the ground by the crew of a fast incoming fighter aircraft and the likelihood of errors occurring in the transmission of coordinates or in the acquisition and verification of targets. In addition, possible delays in the flight to the target area as well as target acquisition could be significantly reduced. The team of the RPA in turn observes the development of the situation on the ground very closely and over an extended period of time and therefore will provide invaluable support to all concerned in the fulfilment of their mission.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Lt.Gen. Karl Müllner, has clearly expressed his view on this matter: “Lessons learned from these operations show that in case of ground combat the time until close air support arrives or is available is often a critical factor. Up to now this close air support has been requested by the troops in combat contact and was provided by manned platforms. If, however, a RPA were on site and this platform were armed, then no time would be lost and support could be provided immediately. This can save lives. We therefore have to discuss this question now, in the run-up of the decisions to be made on whether remotely piloted platforms should be leased or procured for the Bundeswehr as a whole; decisions which of course have to be taken at the political level. Is this a capability which we need or not? From a military point of view, my answer is: Yes, we do.”

Lt.Col. (GS) Klaus Peter Bernewasser, German Air Force Headquarters, Division 2 II a Command and Control/Operations Air Force
Maj. Sebastian Gratz, Air Force Operational Forces Command, Operations Branch UAS/ Air Reconnaissance

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