Latest updates[?]: Northrop Grumman won a $333.4 million contract modification, which exercises options for the production and delivery of three low-rate initial production MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft, two main operating bases and one forward operating base in an integrated functional capability-four and multiple-intelligence configuration, with associated export compliance support for the government of Australia. Northrop Grumman had announced June 19 the Australian government’s decision to provide funding for an additional three of their planned six MQ-4C Tritons and associated ground mission control stations. The MQ-4C Triton is a cooperative development program between the Royal Australian Air Force and the US Navy. Operating at altitudes exceeding 50,000 feet, Triton can cover more than 2 million square miles of ocean and littorals in a single flight, bringing unprecedented awareness to operational commanders’ common operating pictures. Work will take place in California, Texas, Maryland, Utah, West Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana and North Dakota. Estimated completion will be by April 2025.
BAMS Operation Concept
The world’s P-3 Orion fleets have served for a long time, and many are reaching the end of their lifespans. In the USA, and possibly beyond, the new P-8 Poseidon Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft will take up the P-3’s role. While the P-8’s base 737-based airframe offers strong service & maintenance arguments in its favor, the airframe is expensive enough that the P-3s cannot be replaced on a 1:1 basis.
In order to extend the P-8 fleet’s reach, and provide additional capabilities, the Poseidon was expected to work with at least one companion UAV platform. This DID FOCUS Article explains the winning BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) concept, the program’s key requirements, and its international angle. We’ll also cover ongoing contracts and key events related to the program, which chose Northrop Grumman’s navalized MQ-4C Triton Global Hawk variant.
Latest updates[?]: The US Air Force has decided to buy two to three A-29 and AT-6 light attack aircraft. The final request for proposal was published on October 24. The A-29 will be deployed at Hurlburt Field, Florida, by Air Force Special Operations Command to develop an instructor pilot program for the Combat Aviation Advisory mission. The contract award is expected to be end of the year. The AT-6 will be going to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for continued testing and development of operational tactics and standards for exportable, tactical networks by Air Combat Command. The propeller-driven planes will be part of the Light Air Support program of the Air Force, which seeks a light counter-insurgency, ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft. The Air Force and US Navy have flown both planes since 2017 to assess their capabilities.
The USA needs a plane that can provide effective precision close air support and JTAC training, and costs about $1,000 per flight hour to operate – instead of the $15,000+ they’re paying now to use advanced jet fighters at 10% of their capabilities. Countries on the front lines of the war’s battles needed a plane that small or new air forces can field within a reasonable time, and use effectively. If these 2 needs are filled by the same aircraft, everything becomes easier for US allies and commanders. One would think that this would have been obvious around October 2001, but it took until 2008 for this understanding to even gain momentum within the Pentagon. A series of intra-service, political, and legal fights have ensured that these capabilities won’t arrive before 2015 at the earliest, and won’t arrive for the USAF at all.
The USA has now issued 2 contracts related to this need. The first was killed by a lawsuit that the USAF didn’t think they could defend successfully. Since February 2013 they have a contract that they hope will stick. The 3 big questions are simple. Will the past be prologue for the new award? Will there be an Afghan government to begin taking delivery of their 20 planes much beyond 2014? And will another allied government soon need to use this umbrella contract for its own war?
Latest updates[?]: Jane’s reports that Portugal received eight AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven Digital Data Link lightweight hand-launched tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The Ravens were delivered on June 27, and will be delivered to Artillery Regiment No 5's Surveillance Systems Company. The NATO Support and Procurement Agency purchased the drones under a $5.9 million multiyear contract awarded on August 20, 2018. The Raven B is a lightweight and low-altitude, remote-controlled, man-portable UAV system designed and developed for the US Armed Forces. It performs intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance operations. The Raven is hand-launched. It lands safely through auto-piloting without the need for landing gear and prepared landing strips. Portugal’s purchase includes 36 drones, 36 electro-optical/infrared payloads, 12 ground control stations, 36 EO payloads for training purposes, 12 initial spare parts kits, and 18 remote video terminals with radio systems, as well as a comprehensive training package.
Latest updates: USAF to use RQ-11Bs at bases worldwide.
The RQ-11 Raven is a 4.2-pound, backpackable, hand-launched UAV that provides day and night, real-time video imagery for “over the hill” and “around the corner” reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.
Each Raven system typically consists of 3 aircraft, 2 ground control stations, system spares, and related services. The digital upgrades are still designated RQ-11Bs, but they enable a given area to include more Ravens, with improved capabilities. The secret? Using L-band spectrum more efficiently.
Latest updates[?]: The British Royal Air Force (RAF) holds its annual Cobra Warrior exercise in September at Coningsby Air Base in Lincolnshire and it features a premiere: Israeli Air Force aircrew and fighter jets are to take part in a joint exercise with the Royal Air Force in Britain for the first time. The exercise is the culmination of the advanced Qualified Weapons Instructor course, and usually also includes crew and aircraft from other allied air forces who fly together with the British teams in complex combat scenarios. Last year, German and Italian aircraft joined the RAF. Recent British-Israeli defense cooperation has included the training of British personnel on the use of Israeli weapons systems acquired by Britain: the Watchkeeper WK450 drone, the Exactor ground-based missile, and the Litening targeting pod carried by RAF Typhoon and Tornado aircraft.
Britain’s Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program aims to give the Royal Artillery an advanced mid-range UAV for surveillance – and possibly more. Watchkeeper will be an important system, working within a complementary suite of manned (vid. ASTOR Sentinel R1) and unmanned (Buster, Desert Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper) aerial Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition Reconnaissance (ISTAR) systems. This will make it a core element of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Network-Enabled Capability strategy.
The initial August 2005 contract award to Thales UK’s joint venture was worth around GBP 700 million, but that has risen, and the program expected to create or sustain up to 2,100 high-quality manufacturing jobs in the UK. The Watchkeeper platform is based on Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 UAV platform, which is serving as a contractor-operated interim solution on the front lines of battle.
Latest updates[?]: The US Air Force’s fleet of E-8 JSTARS is earmarked for retirement by the mid-2020s. The National Defense Authorization Act endorses the Air Force’s plan to replace the E-8 JSTARS with a new network of sensors spread across unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft, called the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The USA’s 17-plane E-8C Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. In the future the E-8’s role will be filled by the MQ-9 UAV. The ABMS is a network of de-centralized systems, which fuses the data from hundreds of sensors to provide situational awareness for combatant commanders across the globe. The current NDAA provides $120 million for the accelerating the development of the ABMS and its integration onto the MQ-9.
E-8C JSTARS Connectivity
(click to view larger)
The USA’s 17-plane E-8C J-STARS (Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System) fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. Other countries are finally introducing similar capabilities, but the JSTARS fleet size, maturity, and array of functions make it a unique class asset for America’s entire alliance structure. All Boeing 707 family E-8 Joint STARS aircraft are assigned to the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, GA, a “total-force blended wing” with active-duty Air Force, Army and Air National Guard personnel.
An asset like that needs to be kept current, or replaced with something that is. E-8 planes have received both system upgrades and R&D work, in order to improve aircraft readiness and operating costs. A 3rd round of upgrades is beginning, but the USAF seems to be leaning toward a limited future for its battlefield surveillance and relay planes.
It may yet be a decade or two before the U.S. has an appetite for another “generation” increment for its fighters, but Boeing and Northrop Grumman are hungry now. Northrop is touting its new design teams dedicated to generating capabilities for the Navy and Air Forces future wish lists. The little information about their initial efforts indicate that it is oddly close to Boeing’s own requirements appetizer, which sported a flying wing design and preceded Northrop’s announcement by more than a year.
The flying wing focus may be a product of these airframes being quite similar to existing development work done for stealth fighter UAV programs, which have featured the more stealthy wing designs.
After seeing how chummy the service branches became in creating a joint strike fighter, Northrop is bowing to current service desires and employing two independent teams to ensure that both the Navy and Air Force can dream big without design compromises.
Some F/A-XX work was generated back in April 2012, when the Navy asked contractors for information about F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Growler replacements – an early indication that the F-35 was not going to be all things to all services.
One interesting feature, at least in Boeing’s theoretical offering, is that the fighter can be flown by wire – still a politically charged feature in several ways. Pilots have been skeptical of unmanned fighters, such as the UCAS-D/N-UCAS/UCLASS program. The subsequent UCLASS project has been watered down by the Navy, with its role limited to surveillance type activities it is thought in order to preserve the more kinetic jobs for manned aircraft like the F/A-XX.
It has been a long road for the Iraqi Air Force. According to Iraqi figures, the IqAF boasted more than 1,000 aircraft before the 1991 Gulf war – and around 300 after it. More than 6 years after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, and 4 years after the first Iraqi Provisional government was formed, the once-mighty IqAF still operates just a handful of mostly-unarmed propeller aircraft and helicopters.
Unarmed aircraft can still offer value, of course. Surveillance is critically important to Iraq, especially surveillance of national infrastructure like telecommunications lines, pipelines, and other facilities. In addition to its Cessna “Bird Dogs” and handful of other light spotter planes, the IqAF is strengthening its fleet with an unlikely star of the Iraq War: Hawker Beechcraft’s propeller-driven King Air.
87 Squadron has begun all-Iraqi operations with the new equipment, but recent articles and announcements illustrate that there’s a lot more to fielding new equipment than just signing the contract.
African countries need counter-insurgency and surveillance aircraft, but they aren’t about to buy top-end gear like an AC-130. Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano turboprop trainer and light attack aircraft is about the upper end – a few African countries have purchased them, and the USA’s LAS program offers them through an intermediary. Lower-end alternatives involve widely-used and easy to maintain light planes like the Textron Cessna C-208Bs fielded by Iraq and Lebanon, AirTractor’s AT-802Us, etc. A recent Pentagon contract shows that the low-end idea is catching on.
France is the latest country to discover the usefulness of maritime patrol aircraft over land, as Atlantique aircraft over Mali went beyond mere surveillance to deliver “buddy-designated” Paveway-II laser guided bombs. DGA head Laurent Collet-Billon likened the plane to a Swiss Army Knife, and in 2013, the experience helped push Atlantique modernization to the front of the budget queue…
In June 2006, Saab signed a SEK 8.3 billion provisional contract to supply Argus turboprop airborne early warning (AEW&C) systems to Pakistan, based on the Saab 2000 regional turboprop airliner and the Erieye fixed active array radar. The buy capped a 25-year quest by the Pakistani Air force to field AWACS machines, which can survey the airspace for hundreds of miles around, and co-ordinate intercept and strike missions based on what it sees.
The Saab aircraft beat other competitors, including US offers to sell the E-2C Hawkeye system. In 2007, the buy was reduced somewhat for financial reasons, but Pakistan took delivery of at least 4 planes. Then, in 2008, the PAF looked to China for another 4 AWACS. Despite some setbacks, Pakistan had a diverse AWACS fleet with more than 5 aircraft, even as its rival India has struggled to field 3 planes. That was true, until Pakistan’s own deep state policies supporting Salafist Islam came back to bite their AWACS fleet.