The dilemma for airdropping supplies has always been a stark one. High-altitude airdrops often go badly astray and become useless or even counter-productive. Low-level paradrops face significant dangers from enemy fire, and reduce delivery range. Can this dilemma be broken?
The US military believed that modern technologies could allow them to break the dilemma. The idea? Use the same GPS-guidance that enables precision strikes from JDAM bombs, coupled with software that acts as a flight control system for parachutes. JPADS (the Joint Precision Air-Drop System) has been combat-tested successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan, after moving beyond the test stage in the USA… and elsewhere.
In 2005 the RQ-11 Raven mini-UAV was enjoying positive field reports from Iraq. In November 2005, StrategyPage reported that the RQ-11 Raven was also turning heads in what it calls “the commando Olympics” of Afghanistan:
“In addition to all the cooperation, there’s also a lot comparing notes. One thing everyone has noted is the large number of useful gadgets American Special Forces troops have. The most envied item is the American Raven UAV.”
It’s an apt phrase. This Spotlight article looks at Special Forces related mini-UAV buys from a number of countries, spurred by requests from special operations troops in theater.
Long-endurance UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper may be able to take off using line-of-sight controls, but many of their missions depend on satellite bandwidth at some point. Those satellite bandwidth expenses add up, as militaries are forced to supplement their own constellations with commercial providers. The USAF thinks they’ve found a way to cut those costs, without adding to the load on military constellations.
The RQ-4 Global Hawks isn’t a full successor to the famous U-2 spy plane just yet. It’s close, however, and some people have described the HALE (High Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV as the equivalent of having a photo satellite on station. Flying at 60,000 feet for 30-40+ hours at a time, the jet-powered UAV uses sophisticated radars and other sensors to monitor developments on land, sea, and air over an area of about 40,000 square miles/ 100,000 square km. Reported image resolution has been described as 1 foot or less. The USA has made effective use of Global Hawks since their formal unveiling in 1997, which has prompted interest from other countries. NATO’s AGS system will deploy Global Hawk UAVs as well.
Outside of NATO, however, sales have been much trickier. Four issues have worked to hold up potential sales – 2 of which are acknowledged openly, and 2 of which tend to play out very much behind the scenes. South Korea ran afoul of all 4 of those issues, when the USA rejected their application to buy 4 of the larger RQ-4B UAVs in 2006. Now, it seems, the tide has turned in the USA, but South Korea is less sure. What’s certain is that the USA will be fielding its own Global Hawks over the peninsula. What’s less certain is whether South Korea will buy some of its own.
In December 2006, Australia bought a new tactical UAV to go with the Israeli Skylark mini-UAV. Australian Minister of Defence Senator Hill said the Government had agreed to the A$ 145 million (USD $109 million) UAV project to provide its Army with a high precision day and night surveillance and targeting capability.
The initial winner was IAI’s short-range I-View Mk. 250 UAV, but that didn’t last. Issues with the platform led to contract cancellation, and the use of leased solutions as interim options on the front lines. JP129 didn’t go away, though. Australia was still interested in owning a tactical UAV solution, and events in Afghanistan upped the urgency level. Finally, an August 2010 deal got them their JP129 UAVs.
Unmanned drones for aerial surveillance are routine now. UAV systems that can use weapons are also routine. What isn’t routine yet is cargo resupply, but the Marines were asking for it in Afghanistan. That’s no easy task, since the country’s geography really hates helicopters. Can a helicopter UAV handle Afghanistan’s high altitude terrain, and show that it has what it takes to get its cargo exactly where it needs to go? The Marines thought so. Adm. Bill Shannon, NAVAIR Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, says:
“We are trying to get this much needed capability to the warfighter as quickly as possible… By evaluating two different systems, we have the ability to accelerate development of technology and use it immediately to support the warfighter while maintaining competition.”
From its inception, the competition has been a battle between Lockheed Martin’s larger-capacity but shorter-endurance K-MAX, and Boeing’s quiet, ultra long-endurance A160T Hummingbird. K-MAX won, and the Marines’ cargo UAV experiment began. It’s still going.
The last quarterly report [PDF] from SIGIR (the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction) included an interview with OSC-I (Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq) head Lieutenant General Robert Caslen.
Among other things, it provides an interesting breakdown of Iraq’s planned future purchases. Overall:
With all the focus on North Korea, it’s easy to forget about the Latin American LAAD 2013 exhibition. Chile has been a regional leader in the use of UAVs, including their 2011 purchase of long-endurance Hermes 900s. Now, they’re taking the next step, and joining a larger trend by adding a short-range “over the hill” mini-UAV to complement the long-endurance Hermes. The new winner is also an Israeli firm, but this time the order went to BlueBird Aero Systems in Kadima, Israel, for their SpyLite mini-UAS. Bluebird CEO Ronen Nadir says that SpyLite beat competing systems “in both performance and price level.”
General Atomics may make the USA’s Predator and Reaper drone fleets, but Battlespace Flight Services LLC in Arlington, VA has been a key provider of maintenance support for several years now, and their FY 2007 multi-year contract ended up being worth over $500 million. It actually applies to “predator MQ-1 aircraft and related systems”, which may include the Predator B (as it was known, now the MQ-9 Reaper). Both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are explicitly within the scope of Battlespace’s 2012-2014 follow-on contract, which is worth up to $950 million.
Recent contracts appear to be the close-out and bridge to the new arrangements. Note that Battlespace is hiring, if you’ve been an MQ-1 or MQ-9 pilot or sensor operator. As for the contracts…