Contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan raised the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to a new level, though in an environment that was unique in several important respects (as were previous air operations in Korea and Vietnam). The withdrawal of most Coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has provided an opportunity to reflect on the present and future use of uninhabited aircraft.
Among other aspects, defence forces may consider what services UAVs can best provide in a more general conflict scenario, what they really cost to acquire and operate, how UAVs can survive in the presence of hostile aircraft and modern air defence systems, and how they can be integrated into home-based peacetime operations.
The Afghanistan experience undoubtedly provided a massive boost for the UAV market. In its aftermath, nobody wants to go to war without (at least) airborne unmanned ISR assets, any more than they would go to war without precision-guided munitions.
Nonetheless, UAV sales still represent only a small percentage of the military aircraft market. In the Pentagon's FY16 request, they amount to only 5.94% of spending on "aircraft and related systems". One of the factors limiting UAV sales is the knowledge that most recent UAV operations have enjoyed a permissive air environment, and thus do not necessarily provide accurate guidance on future needs.
In contrast, during the 78-day Operation Allied Force over Kosovo in 1999 some 47 Nato UAVs were lost, of which 35 were claimed to have been shot down by Serbian air defences. If a UAV is large enough to be seen from a distance, it is an easy daytime target. Three Georgian UAVs (including at least one Elbit Hermes 450) were shot down over Abkhazia by Russian fighters in the run-up to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.
For the short-term, the larger UAVs need defensive aids to dispense flares or jam the guidance systems of the incoming missiles.
If cost is no problem, then the way to penetrate modern air defence systems is to go fast or go invisible. Hypersonic missiles are being developed, so hypersonic ISR UAVs must be on the cards, although air-breathing examples seem likely to be either very large or very limited in range.
Some indication of the magnitude of the development problems is provided by the fact that, although Lockheed Martin has been discussing its Mach 6.0 SR-72 project with propulsion experts at Aerojet Rocketdyne for several years, the company claims only that the penetrating ISR end-product could be operational by 2030. All that has been revealed is that off-the-shelf turbine engines would accelerate the SR-72 to around Mach 3.0 (the speed reached by the SR-71 Blackbird), and that scramjets would then take it to twice that speed.
In endoatmospheric operation, hypersonic ISR assets may come as spinoffs from Darpa's XS-1 experimental spaceplane, on which Boeing and Northrop Grumman (among others) are working. The XS-1 is intended to place a payload of 1,360-2,270 kg into low earth orbit. Boeing is responsible for the much larger X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which has remained up to 674 days in orbit.
Turning to stealth, the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel was evidently designed to be fairly survivable over a country such as Iran, but of no great consequence if lost, making it the first attritable reduced-signature UAV. It is believed to have entered US Air Force service in 2007, and to have been deployed to bases in Afghanistan and South Korea, probably to monitor nuclear developments in neighbouring states. One was lost over Iran in December 2011.
The US Air Force fact sheet says that the RQ-170 is operated by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron at the Tonopah Test Range and the 432nd Expeditionary Air Wing, based at Creech AFB, likewise in Nevada.
To give credit where due, the very limited public knowledge of the US Air Force Northrop Grumman RQ-180 advanced signature-control ISR UAV (another subsonic flying wing in the company's B-2 tradition) appears to be entirely due to research by Aviation Week (AW&ST). It is believed that the development contract was awarded in 2008, that the first delivery took place in 2013 and that the RQ-180 could be operational this year.
There has been speculation that an explosion over the Kola Peninsula on April 19, 2014 may have marked the destruction by Russian air defences of an RQ-180 that had taken off from Stavanger in southern Norway (which seems highly unlikely) to photograph Russian naval bases.
Even relatively low-tech UAVs are costly and provide little operational flexibility in comparison with a normally piloted aircraft. The sale to the United Arab Emirates of eight unarmed General Atomics Predator XP UAVs with EO/IR sensors and maritime radars is worth $ 220 million. At first sight this appears expensive for relatively simple airframe-engine combinations with advanced communications and surveillance and targeting packages. It may be noted that, although these UAVs are unarmed, the State Department was prepared to licence separately the sale of laser designators to mark targets for attack by other means. The US Government banned the sale of unarmed Predator XPs to Jordan, but has more recently cleared marketing to India.
The relatively high cost of the UAE sale is partly explained by the fact that this was the launch order for a new model, the Predator XP having first flown on June 27, 2014. For comparison, the US Army budgeted $ 357.9 million for 15 weaponised General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagles in its FY16 budget request, around $ 23.9 million per aircraft.
One of the latest UAV sales for which data are available is that of four General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers to the Netherlands. As detailed by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, four MQ-9 Block 5s with six Honeywell TPE331-10T turboprops, four General Atomics Lynx radars, the usual bells and whistles, and a spares package to support 3,400 flying hours over a three-year period were estimated to cost $ 339 million, or $ 84.75 million per aircraft.
On the subject of exports of unarmed UAVs, although the MQ-9 Reaper has been purchased by France (16), Italy (six), the Netherlands (four) and the UK (ten), so far only the British version has armament provisions. Italy has requested this upgrade, and Turkey has asked the US for armed UAVs. Spain (where General Atomics is teamed with Sener) and Germany have expressed interest in acquiring MQ-9s, and will probably request the weaponised version. Australia has requested pricing and availability information, and RAAF personnel are being trained in America on the MQ-9 in anticipation of an order.
In February 2015 the US Administration announced that it had established a marginally more relaxed policy, allowing sales of lethal UAVs through government-to-government deals to (unspecified) approved nations and subject to end-use assurances. The implication was that the previous (unannounced) policy was of absolutely no sales of American armed UAVs, with Britain as the absolutely sole (unexplained) exception.
However well intentioned, American efforts to slow the proliferation of armed UAVs are encouraging other nations to develop aircraft to exploit the resulting demand.
Photographs published earlier this year of a crashed CASC Caihong CH-3, on its back in a Nigerian field with two air-ground missiles attached, show that China is one respondent. Reports indicate that the 630-kg CH-3 has been exported to at least four countries, including Pakistan. The larger (1150 kg) Chengdu Wing Loong or Pterodactyl, which is also armed, has been delivered to three countries, thought to be Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan.
The IAI Harpy anti-radiation loiter-attack UAV was exported in 1994 to China (and subsequently to Chile, India, South Korea and Turkey), but further Israeli sales of armed UAVs may be subject to pressure from the United States (as was upgrading of Harpy).
However, countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa (with China, members of the Brics group) are all capable of developing UAVs and lightweight guided missiles. For the more complex types, the easy stepping stone is to first build one under licence, and this is what Brazil has recently embarked on-the home production of the IAI Heron male. It is known as the Cacador (hunter).
Japan, South Korea and the various European countries with these capabilities may want to respect Americas International Traffic in Arms Regulations (Itar), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement, but can they do so in a time of relatively high unemployment?
In the Western World, the UAV industry is probably reaching an apex in terms of sales and is likely to experience a situation already witnessed by the armoured vehicle industry. The scenario was very clearly exposed at this year's Idex exhibition in Abu Dhabi with a plethora of perfectly adequate vehicles produced by those emerging countries that hitherto imported them. Not only do they make them, but as proved by their presence at defence exhibitions they are now exporting them. As far as UAVs are concerned, several examples have already been pinpointed in the above paragraphs, although as far as China's real capabilities, these are only partly revealed when a mishap occurs. Like anything it develops, China keeps data close to its chest.
We shall leave the lighter UAVs aside for the time being, as very often their development boils down to militarising relatively advanced radio-controlled aircraft (or part of them) and have them type approved by ones own certification offices at a comparatively frightening cost-indeed a very juicy activity for the so-called consultant agencies involved.
Eyes are currently focused on the male UAV types and perhaps their immediate sub-category. The champions in terms of export in this domain undoubtedly are the Israelis, if one combines the types marketed by Israel Aircraft...