Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron is a large MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV in the MQ-1 Predator’s Class. It is primarily used as a surveillance UAV over land and sea, and can be equipped with a number of modular radar, sensor, and even electronic intelligence packages. The 2006 war in Lebanon also demonstrated that they could be armed, if necessary. Herons are known to serve with Israel (Heron 1 and Heron TP), India, Turkey, and in France as the EAGLE/ Harfang variant. They have also been used successfully by US SOUTHCOM as drug interdiction aircraft; a leasing deal with El Salvador is reportedly pending, and Brazil is also showing interest.
Canada has a long-term JUSTAS program that includes UAVs in this class, and the Heron will fill the Phase 1 near-term MALE UAV requirements – but the longer-term procurement choices remains in limbo. Meanwhile, the Heron UAV was leased to serve the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, under an August 2008 arrangement. In 2009, Australia added itself as a second customer.
Contracts & Key Events
The Canadian contract involved 4 Heron systems, providing 550 hours of surveillance per month. The Ardea partnership that supplies and operates these UAVs for Canada and Australia parallels Britain’s interim lease of Hermes 450 UAVs from the UTaCS consortium of Thales UK and Elbit Systems. The Heron lease involves Elbit’s Israeli rival IAI, and Canadian surveillance & aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA).
February 14/17: Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has introduced the export version of Heron TP UAV. This XP model has been adapted from the baseline model operated by the IDF and German military, and complies with the restrictions imposed by the international missile technology control regime 2 (MTCR 2) agreement. Another alteration includes the reduction in payload capacity from more than 1t to 450kg (991lb). Potential export customers include India, a recent signatory of the MTCR-2 agreement, and the UAV will be demonstrated at this year’s Aero India 2017 conference.
Oct 28/14: Australia. The ADF decides that they want to keep 2 Herons in Australia for 6 years, at an estimated cost of A$ 120 million. One Heron already operates as a trainer at the Woomera test range in restricted military airspace, and a 2nd will now return to Australia. They’ll be accompanied by portable ground control stations, renovations to facilities at RAAF Base Amberley, and an extended contract with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. for maintenance work and training. The contract extension with MDA will be funded from within the existing RAAF budget.
Australia wants to keep UAV capabilities on tap, while improving their understanding of advanced UAVs in advance of their planned MQ-4C Triton buy. Meanwhile, the Herons can play a part in integrating UAVs into civilian airspace, responding to national disasters as appropriate, keeping an eye on Australia’s borders, or protecting other ADF deployments. Operations will be expanded over time from Woomera to other military and civilian airfields, as required. Sources: Australia DoD, “Heron to be retained to keep Australia’s unmanned aerial capability”.
Australia keeping Herons
July 9/14: Australia. Australia has been asked by ISAF to extend their Heron detachment’s presence in Kandahar to the end of 2014; which is to say, another 6 months. Sources: Australian Aviation, “RAAF Heron mission to Afghanistan extended”.
Dec 11/13: Australia. Australia contracts with MDA to maintain Heron-1 surveillance for the Australian Defence Force from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan until the middle of 2014. Sources: MDA, “MDA continues surveillance service for Australian Defence Force”.
Sept 6/12: Australia. MDA announces 2 contract amendments with the Commonwealth of Australia. One extends MDA’s Heron-1 UAV service for the Australian Defence Forces for another 2 years. The 2nd covers a 3-month “assessment activity that will provide critical information in support of Australia’s efforts in Afghanistan.”
MDA says that the combined contract value of these 2 amendments is over C$ 100 million (about the same in US dollars). Sources: “MDA extends surveillance service for Australian Defence Force”.
July 11/11: Australian extension. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) extends its contract for MDA’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities. Under this extension, MDA will provide a 3rd year of UAV surveillance operations for the ADF’s deployed forces in Afghanistan, from January through December 2012. Terms are not disclosed. Australian DoD | MDA.
March 23/11: MDA, Inc. announces contract amendments “in the multi-million dollar range” to provide additional hours of UAV surveillance for Australia in Afghanistan, and begin UAV flying training of ADF personnel in Australia.
Nov 9/10: Sub-contractors. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is operating its Herons with Sentient’s Kestrel Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI). Kestrel detects any small movements in the field-of-view and alerts operators, who may not have the target in their field of view at the time, or may have their attention on another area.
Sentient is based in Melbourne, Australia, and their Kestrel Land MTI was developed as a part of the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s Capability and Technology Demonstrator Program. Kestrel MTI is also deployed on Australia’s ScanEagle UAVs. Sentient release | Australian Aviation | Shephard Group
Nov 1-2/10: MDA suspends, then resumes flights of Australia’s Heron UAVs. The move was a precautionary measure, pending advice from IAI, after a Sept 28/10 crash in which the landing gear in the nose failed to deploy. Australia DoD.
Sept 3/10: Crash 2. Australia’s Daily Telegraph reports that the RAAF has crashed 2 Heron UAVs – 1 in July, while training in Canada, and another in June at Kandahar. The Australian government has tried to keep the crashes quiet, but some costs are clear enough to report.
UAVs are cheaper, and offer longer endurance, but they do have a higher accident and loss rates than manned aircraft.
June 4/10: Crash. A Heron UAV operated by the RAAF crashes short of the airfield at Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. Replacing the sensor suite cost $1,094,810.38, while the UAV damage assessment bill from Canadian operator MDA was $110,000. Airframe repair costs are reportedly outside of those verified charges. Australia’s Daily Telegraph.
May 18/10: Canadian extension. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. announces a contract amendment with Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), exercising the 1st 6-month option to extend Heron operations in Afghanistan for the Canadian Forces Afghanistan. The extension will last through June 2011, and Canada is scheduled to leave Afghanistan in July 2011.
Dec 10/09: Australia. The first Heron UAV is delivered for use by Australia. Its designation number will be A45-262, and operations are expected to begin in early 2010. Australian Aviation | SatNews Daily.
Sept 7/09: Australia’s contract. Australia’s government will lease Heron UAVs and support from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., for use in Afghanistan. The surveillance solution will be operational in early 2010 for a period of 1 year, with options for an additional 2 years. Australia already leases smaller ScanEagle UAVs from Boeing, in a similar arrangement.
For the Herons, the Australian Defence Force has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Canadian Forces, and Australian personnel trained in Canada have already been absorbed within the Canadian Heron UAV Detachment at Kandahar airfield, conducting combat operations in support of ISAF’s Afghan mission. Australian Ministerial release | MDA release.
July 2009: Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Army personnel undertake Heron UAV training in Canada. Source.
Aug 7/08: Canada’s Heron contract. MDA announces the “Project Noctua” Canadian contract, adding that its surveillance solution will be operational in Afghanistan before February 2009. The initial C$ 95 million (then about $90 million) UAV operations and training contract will keep the Herons in service until early 2011, with a C$ 35 million option for an additional 3rd year. MDA release.
July 10/08: MDA and IAI are promoting the Heron UAVs as a cheaper option for search-and rescue (SAR) and related surveillance tasks over Canada’s boreal forests and northern regions. An exercise in Suffield, Alberta involves the Heron UAV finding the wreckage of a ‘crashed’ Cessna, and coordinating the ‘rescue’ of Canadian MP Art Hangar. The Canadian Civil Air Search and Rescue Association attended and commented approvingly, and the Discovery Channel filmed the exercise. MDA release | Red Deer Advocate story, PDFs.
Aug 29/07: Sperwer’s procurement problems. The Montreal Gazette reports that Canada’s Department of National Defense, and its counterparts in Public Works Canada, are putting troops in danger by failing to act on problems with Canada’s UAVs in Afghanistan:
“The use of Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, in Kandahar is being hindered by extremely hot temperatures, the aircraft’s limited endurance as well as serviceability issues, military officers said privately. Those limitations also have resulted in gaps in surveillance during recent firefights in the Kandahar area, putting soldiers at risk… But the firm handling the Sperwer contract, Rheinmetall Canada, says it’s been standing by for months with low-cost improvements… [but] has yet to hear back from the Defence Department… the company has produced a new launcher for the Sperwer that will increase its endurance by 50 per cent… [and] can be delivered in 15 days… the company also informed the Defence Department months ago it has a more powerful engine that also will significantly increase its endurance.”
* IAI – Heron.
* Israeli Weapons – Heron.
* UAVs.ca. MDA’s site for its UAV services.
* NATO Joint Air Power Competence Center magazine (Edition #13, April 14/11) – Full magazine [PDF]. 2 articles of note: “Impact of a Combat Air Wing – Canadian Air Power in ISAF” and “Project Noctua: A Model for Enhancing NATO UAV Capability.”