Latest updates[?]: The US has tested an upgraded satellite communications (SATCOM) capability on an MQ-9 Reaper aerial drone during a multilateral exercise at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Led by the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC), the demonstration is part of an effort to deploy the drone on future intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions internationally from remote US military bases.
The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the famous Predator. Until you look at the tail. Or its size. Or its weapons. It’s called “Reaper” for a reason: while it packs the same surveillance gear, it’s much more of a hunter-killer design. Some have called it the first fielded Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).
The Reaper UCAV will play a significant role in the future USAF, even though its capability set makes the MQ-9 considerably more expensive than MQ-1 Predators. Given these high-end capabilities and expenses, one may not have expected the MQ-9 to enjoy better export success than its famous cousin. Nevertheless, that’s what appears to be happening. MQ-9 operators currently include the USA and Britain, who use it in hunter-killer mode, and Italy. Several other countries are expressing interest, and the steady addition of new payloads are expanding the Reaper’s advantage over competitors…
Latest updates[?]: Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems won a $7.5 million deal for B-2 countermeasure receivers. This was a sole-source acquisition using justification 10 U.S. Code 2304 (c)(1), as stated in Federal Acquisition Regulation 6.301-1. This is a two-year, nine-month contract with no option periods. The performance completion date is February 1, 2026. The contracting activity is the Defense Logistics Agency Aviation, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
All together now…
Britain’s practice of “contracting for availability” for key equipment, rather than paying for spare parts and maintenance hours, may be its most significant defense procurement reform. In a world where older air, sea, and ground vehicle fleets are growing maintenance demands beyond countries’ available budgets, it’s an approach whose success could have global significance.
Across the pond, the USA is significantly behind in this area. Fortunately, they have not ignored the model entirely. Recent changes to the contracts covering their B-2 Spirit stealth bomber fleet demonstrate that some progress is being made, via a $9+ billion commitment from 1999-2014, and 2 parallel development programs that are changing key sub-systems.
On Sept 30/08, “The USA’s National Cybersecurity Initiative” focused on the belated but growing reaction to recent uses of cyber-attacks as an adjunct to warfare, and by the growing rate of attempted intrusions into American systems from countries like China. “Secure Semiconductors: Sensible, or Sisiphyean?” discussed the growing realization within the US military that massive use of commercial electronics, coupled with the complexity of modern chip designs, made it very difficult to be sure that “backdoors” and other security flaws weren’t being inserted into high-end American defense equipment. It’s a difficult conundrum, because commercial chips offer orders of magnitude improvements in cost and performance. Hence DARPA’s “Trust in IC” program, which hopes to crack the problem and offer the best of both worlds.
On Oct 2/08, Business Week’s in-depth article “Dangerous Fakes” claimed that a key component of the silicon security threat might be even simpler:
“The American military faces a growing threat of potentially fatal equipment failure – and even foreign espionage – because of counterfeit computer components used in warplanes, ships, and communication networks. Fake microchips flow from unruly bazaars in rural China to dubious kitchen-table brokers in the U.S. and into complex weapons. Senior Pentagon officials publicly play down the danger, but government documents, as well as interviews with insiders, suggest possible connections between phony parts and breakdowns… Potentially more alarming than either of the two aircraft episodes are hundreds of counterfeit routers made in China and sold to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines over the past four years. These fakes could facilitate foreign espionage, as well as cause accidents. The U.S. Justice Dept. is prosecuting the operators of an electronics distributor in Texas – and last year obtained guilty pleas from the proprietors of a company in Washington State – for allegedly selling the military dozens of falsely labeled routers… Referring to the seizure of more than 400 fake routers so far, Melissa E. Hathaway, head of cyber security in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says: “Counterfeit products have been linked to the crash of mission-critical networks, and may also contain hidden ‘back doors’ enabling network security to be bypassed and sensitive data accessed…”
August 19/15: A Chinese company has been accused of selling counterfeit Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems, using a design taken from Israel’s Elta Systems. NAV Technology Company is believed to be selling a version of Elta Systems’ EL/M-2052 system, an airborne fire control radar capable of tracking dozens of targets simultaneously. The company also offers other products thought to be taken from US designs, including a copy of the GBU-39 precision munition.
Latest updates[?]: The US Air Force has announced the selection of new bases to receive its latest fighter jets. Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts will be the host of the next F-35A squadron. Meanwhile, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans and Fresno Air National Guard Base in California will replace their F-15C/D Eagles with F-15EX Strike Eagles. Each new squadron will consist of 18 aircraft, and the decision to select these respective bases was made after conducting site surveys to ensure that they have the infrastructure capacity to facilitate the mission. The selection process also took into account community support, environmental factors, and cost.
F-15C over DC
“Array of Aging American Aircraft Attracting Attention” discusses the issues that accompany an air force whose fighters have an average age of over 23.5 years – vs. an average of 8.5 years in 1967. One of the most obvious consequences is the potential for fleet groundings due to unforseen structural issues caused by time and fatigue. That very fear is responsible for the #1 priority placed on bringing new KC-X aerial tankers into the fleet to complement the USA’s 1960s-era KC-135 Stratotankers.
It can also affect the fighter fleet more directly.
Following the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C aircraft Nov 2/07 (see crash simulation), the US Air Force suspended non-mission critical F-15 flight operations on Nov 3/07. While the cause of that accident is still under investigation, preliminary findings indicate that a structural failure during flight may have been responsible. In response, Japan suspended its own F-15 flights, which left them in a bit of a bind – even as Israel’s F-15s joined them on the tarmac. As the effects continue to spread and the USAF and others continue to comment on this situation, DID continues to expand its coverage of this bellwether event. A conditional restoration of the American F-15A-D fleet to flight status was soon overturned by the re-grounding of that fleet as a result of the report’s conclusions – a status that remains only been partially lifted. Meanwhile, the accident report has been released (compete with video dramatization) and the status of the remaining aircraft will have significant implications for the USAF’s future F-15 fleet size. Not to mention its other procurement programs.
Then, too, this is America. Now there’s a lawsuit.
Latest updates[?]: The Indian government on Tuesday approved the purchase of a domestically-developed portable air defense system. The Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORAD) is part of a wider defense acquisition approved for $523 million, including HELINA anti-tank guided missiles and BrahMos missile launchers, and fire control systems.
Back in November 2005, The Hindu newspaper reported that India’s government had given the go-ahead for exporting missiles, and that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was looking to market several of its products internationally. The missile systems in question included several products from the decades-long Integrated Guided Missile Program (IGMP) set of development programs, and one new success that used a very different approach. DRDO has led the long, turbulent development histories of the Trishul (“trident”) short-range surface-air missile (SAM), the Akash (“sky”) medium-range SAM, and the Nag (“cobra”) vehicle-mounted anti-armor missile. In contrast, the Indo-Russian PJ-10 BrahMos medium-range supersonic cruise missile was developed very quickly, and performed as advertised.
As of August 2010, India has not made an export sale, or even formally decided which countries would be eligible to receive these missiles. The programs themselves have also seen changes and developments, with Trishul canceled, Akash finally ordered, BrahMos expanded, and ongoing IGMP work in other areas.
Latest updates[?]: Saab relaunched the HMS Uppland. The Uppland is a Gotland Class Submarine. Two ships of the class now have concluded comprehensive mid-life upgrades. The Swedish Navy’s diesel-electric subs are the world’s first submarines to feature a Stirling engine air-independent propulsion system. This extends their underwater endurance from a few days to weeks. The mid-life upgrades saw the submarines receive an additional 2 meter hull section to accommodate the third generation of the Stirling air-independent propulsion engine and a diver lock-out chamber in addition to combat management and ship management systems upgrades. The updated version of Uppland and her sister ship Gotland are paving the way for the next generation of Swedish air independent propulsion submarines: the Blekinge Class, or A26.
A26 SOF concept
Submarines remain the ultimate maritime insurance policy, which is why so many countries treat the ability to build or design them as a strategic capability. Sweden is trying to recover from a disastrous pair of assumptions in the early 21st century, and preserve both their industrial capabilities and their country’s defenses.
The narrow, shallow Baltic seas present their own special challenges, but Swedish designs have proven themselves very capable. In order to field their next-generation design, however, Sweden may have to do something unusual: partner with other countries…
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.
Brazil’s “Project H-X BR” medium transport helicopter competition featured 3 established players: AgustaWestland’s EH101 has found success in Britain, Europe, and Japan, and was chosen as the base for the USA’s VH-71 Presidential helicopter before that program was canceled. Eurocopter’s EC725 Cougar is an updated version of the popular AS332/532 Super Puma, and has been ordered in limited quantities by the French and Mexican governments. An up-to-date version of Russia’s widely used Mi-17 was the 3rd contender; like the Super Puma, Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters are already in wide use within Latin America.
In truth, however, Eurocopter always had an edge. The Brazilian Army’s Aviacao do Exercito already uses the AS532/”HM-3″ Super Puma, basing them in the Amazon at Manaus. Its Navy also uses Super Puma variants: AS332s and AS532s both serve in the Navy as the UH-14, flying from Brazil’s NAe Sao Paulo aircraft carrier, and from the southeastern base of Sao Pedro da Aldeia in support of Brazil’s Marines. Now, Eurocopter’s offering will become Brazil’s medium-lift helicopter across all services… thanks to a new contract.
Latest updates[?]: Sierra Nevada will upgrade two aircraft as part of the Saudi King Air 350 program. The company will add an intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance/synthetic aperture radar capability to the two King Air 350 extended range aircraft. The twin-propeller King Air 350 is an affordable, long-endurance option for effective manned battlefield surveillance and attack. US aircraft in their ISR configuration are equipped with signals intelligence (SIGINT) electronic interception capabilities, and carry L-3 Westar’s MX-15i surveillance turrets. One transportable ground station; one fixed ground station; and one mission system trainer are also included in the contract. The definitization modification is priced at $23.8 million and involves 100% foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia. Work will be performed at Sierra Nevada's facility in Hagerstown, Maryland and is expected to be completed by May 2020.
In recent wars, a lot of high tech gear has been upstaged by a surprising contender. Countries like the USA, Canada, Britain, Egypt, Iraq, and others are flying low-end turboprop business aircraft fitted with an array of sensors and a small crew. They’re cheap to buy, don’t use technology that makes export approval difficult, and are easy to maintain. Operating them is well within the capabilities of any country with an air force. Their sensors also offer more diversity and power than all but the highest-cost UAVs, in exchange for having just 1/2 to 1/3 of a high-end UAV’s mission endurance. No wonder many countries see them as a good complement to, or substitute for, existing UAV offerings.
Saudi Arabia has the money and clout to buy the expensive stuff. Nevertheless…
Sen. Leahy’s [D-VT] worked in the mid-2000s to keep the Hydra 70mm rocket family alive through special appropriations, just in time for the Hydras’ potential on the battlefield to rise again. The key was the addition of low-cost precision guidance, which would expand the number of precision weapons carried by helicopters, aircraft, and even UAVs.
Over the last few years, the US Army’s 2nd attempt at an APKWS 70mm guided rocket had a near-death experience, before righting the program with Navy funding. Meanwhile, private development efforts are introducing new competitors into the precision-guided rocket space: Lockheed Martin, Thales TDA, and a raft of international partnerships involving major defense firms and partners in Korea, the UAE, Canada/Norway, and Israel. This DID FOCUS article covers the most prominent competitors within the guided rocket trend. Their products will sit between full anti-armor missiles like Hellfire, TOW, and Brimstone, and an emerging class of ultra-small precision attack weapons like Northrop Grumman’s Viper Strike, Raytheon’s Griffin, etc.