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MILITARY TECHNOLOGY (MILTECH) is the world's leading international tri-service defence monthly magazine in the English language. MILITARY TECHNOLOGY is "Required Reading for Defence Professionals". Follow us on Twitter: MILTECH1

15 October 2015

United Kingdom Unmanned Aerial Systems Update

When the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 4 October that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) would replace its ten General Atomics MQ9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) with 20 new systems, announced as Protector (rather than the previous known Scavenger), the statement took many within defence ‘off guard’ due to the speedy declassification in public of the system.

A Royal Air Force Reaper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) from 39 Squadron, makes its approach to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan following a mission. The aircraft is armed with Paveway bombs and Hellfire missiles.

Speaking at the RPAS: Achievements and Challenges conference hosted by the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) (7-8 October, London, UK), Air Commodore Peter Grinsted, Head of UK Unmanned Systems, DE&S, MOD, said that the news UAS would be an upgraded MQ9 although the exact configuration would not be announced until March 2016.

Grinsted said that the diversity of the UK’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) fleet was as a result of individual systems having been bought in isolation rather than as part of a coherent plan, due to the necessity of Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) for Operation Herrick, the UK’s military deployment in Afghanistan.

The UAS fleet ranges from the Army’s handheld Prox Dynamics Black Hornet, to the larger Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk 3 and Thales Watchkeeper (the replacement for the Elbit Hermes 450, finally up to Reaper MQ9 which will be replaced by Protector by the end of the decade. The Royal Navy is still trailing the Insitu Scan Eagle which is being operated off a Type 23 frigate.

Said Grinsted: “I now face five different customers. There is a need to encourage front line commanders to develop joint capabilities. We are making progress but will take time.” He added that he did not see the potential to create a Joint Air Systems command, due to the differing nature of the systems.

He added that one of the biggest challenges was the certification of Watchkeeper and Reaper, and due to segregated airspace flight testing in the UK was limited to test ranges in Wales and over Salisbury Plain, with the UAS based at Boscombe Down. Grinsted also noted that it is the sensors that require the most frequent updates rather than the performance of the platform: “We are moving into an area where we buy a platform for 20-30 years then buy sensors to fit separately with spiral upgrade over five years,” he said.

Talking about the sensitive subject which is the Rules of Engagement for the UK’s only armed UAS, the Reaper, Wing Commander Damian Killeen, Officer Commanding Xiii Squadron, RAF, said that due to the formal process for engaging targets with oversight and review, “scrutiny of the battlefield has never been higher.” He considered that the UK’s police was more restrictive that the established requirements of international law and that legal advisers were embedded on operations. He added: “There is one set of rules and regulations that apply across the board” which included manned fast jets and attack helicopters.

Killeen said that after eight years of Reaper operations the complexity of the information that such UAS could collect and disseminate was impressive. Again, while such a system does fly alone its operators are part of a much wider networked community “broadcasting what we are doing and using military ‘chatrooms’ (operational intranet) to interact with a variety of forces.  He added that there were usually up to 40 networked people involved per mission.”

Major Oli Knight, the senior ISR Operator with the Army’s 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconaissance Brigade said that the new Watchkeeper UAS would operate a range of sensors including  EO/IR/SAR/GMTI through a dual payload capability.

Arriving in time to fly during the withdrawal period of the British Army from Afghanistan, Watchkeeper nevertheless flew 146 hours over 30 sorties. Although the newness of the system meant that they had to learn ‘on the job’, Knight said that the SAR/GMTI package had really proved its usefulness. On one occasion, the system had identified a ‘pattern of life’ in a remote building where four people had been doing circuits around a compound with an area reserved for push ups (indicating a training location for Taliban rather than an ordinary dwelling).

Technologies that the MOD was considering for future employment included hyperspectral imaging, GEOINT, SIGINT, multifunction RF, and multifunction LiDAR over the sea. Full Operational Capability (FOC) is expected to be declared in 2017 with an out of service date set for 2042.

Taranis, a flying Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator with no fair fin, is now in its ninth year and the UK is pushing forward with its joint collaboration programme with the French military on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), said Squadron Leader Archie Brown of the MOD’s Unmanned Air Systems team.

FCAS is planned to enter service as the majority of the Typhoon fleet exits service around 2030. There will be a reduction in fixed wing jet capacity around this time and it is planned that FCAS will meet that shortfall. Brown said that a strategic decision would soon be required if that timeline was to be met. The current development budget is around £120m (split 50/50) over the next 24 months. with a demonstration phase due to be run between 2016-22. Manufacturing would begin after that.
Andrew Drwiega