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Developments in unmanned aerial vehicles and armed drones

by Steve Hathorn

CommentUS commanders in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) have complained about the lack of UAV assets being deployed to their theatre. The mission in Afghanistan is still considered the top priority by the Pentagon, and is therefore in possession of the lion’s share of the inventory. This is leaving a significant gap in US capabilities in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, IS tactics since the start of the Western air offensive have changed significantly. To avoid being targeted from the air, IS fighters have moved from operating in large numbers in the open countryside to moving in small groups within urban civilian populations. This has made it more difficult for conventional manned aircraft to operate and engage targets effectively. US President Barack Obama has now asked for funding for small surveillance UAVs for the region, possibly the Eagle or Blackjack vehicles in use by the US Marine Corps and Navy. In the meantime, the United Kingdom has redeployed some of its own Reapers from Afghanistan to the IS operation, though unconfirmed reports suggest only two platforms have so far been moved.

The United States reportedly now monitors half of its border with Mexico using drones, specifically in areas where there are few existing watchtowers, sensors or patrols. The Predator Bs make multiple sweeps of areas using HD cameras to identify man-made changes in the landscape, such as new rubbish, tyre tracks or footprints. Patrols are then deployed to areas of interest or, alternatively, sensors are planted to enable 24/7 monitoring. This is not intended to replace men on the ground but rather to reinforce – Border Patrol personnel levels have still doubled since 2000.

A two-year feasibility study has been launched by the British and French governments to initiate the development of a joint future unmanned combat air vehicle to replace current manned platforms. Six private industry partners (three from each country) have been identified to bring forward a system definition for a concept aircraft by the end of 2016. BAE Systems and Dassault will work on the vehicle design, Rolls Royce and Safran/Snecma will study engine development and Selex ES and Thales will cooperate on sensors and communications. The target date for a fully-developed test model is around 2030.

Also of note

  • The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued a request for ideas on the development of an airborne ‘mothership’ to transport UAVs to their target area and launch and recover them in-flight. It is envisaged that this will be an existing large aircraft, such as the C-130 transport or the B-1 bomber. The initial timeline is to have a full flight demonstrator in operation within four years.
  • The United Kingdom launched its first drone strike against IS in Iraq over the weekend of 8-9 November. The target was reported to be militants planting IEDs in the area of Bayji, north of Baghdad. Since the British parliament approved offensive air operations against IS in September, Tornado GR4 attack aircraft have conducted dozens of combat missions, but this is the first involving a UCAV.
  • China has unveiled an anti-drone laser capable of shooting down small aircraft at short ranges of up to two kilometres, altitudes up to 500 metres and flying at speeds below 50 metres per second. It is considered that this limited capability will make it best suited for policing the skies over sensitive sites.
  • China is reportedly developing a holographic ground control system that permits UAV operators to directly interact with a holographic projection to monitor and fly the aircraft and engage targets.
  • Iran claims to have produced a stealth UAV developed from captured US technology. The drone was reportedly reverse-engineered from a RQ-170 Sentinel that crashed in Iran in 2011, but the Iranian version is only 60% of the size. However, analysis of video footage of the aircraft taking off and flying has raised suspicions that such claims are unreliable and that the footage was doctored to make a much smaller aircraft look significantly larger and faster.
  • There are plans to use drones to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians trapped in combat areas. Using airplanes cheap enough to allow for mass manufacture by Syrian refugees, and small enough to avoid being seen on radar, the US Air Force officer who privately developed this scheme hopes to transport sufficient food and medical supplies to relieve the besieged Syrians’ plight. Initial funding has been provided, development of the aircraft continues and negotiations are planned with Turkish authorities to allow the country to be used as the base for trials next year and operational flights thereafter.
  • Pakistan has condemned a US drone strike that reportedly killed members of militant groups backed by the Pakistani government. The strike by CIA Predators on the village of Garga in North Waziristan killed eight people and wounded several more. Local media reports that the dead were linked to the Haqqani Network and Gul Bahadar, the leader of a Pakistani Taliban faction, both of which do not support attacking the Pakistani state and are therefore considered ‘good Taliban’ by Islamabad.
  • The US Army has developed a pocket-sized drone for issue to platoon-sized groups to provide a local aerial surveillance asset. The Cargo Pocket Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Program (CP-ISR) drone carries three tiny real-time cameras on a micro-helicopter platform, and can fly all-but silently for 25 minutes above and inside buildings or through dense woodland.

This update is taken from our remote-control warfare briefing for December 2014.