This is a long post but I couldn’t find a logical way of segmenting it so apologies in advance.
Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance is a cross cutting capability area but for ease of reading is included here. It makes obvious sense to have a layered approach to ISR with similar capabilities duplicated in different layers. Although there have been large investments in this area, a number of capability gaps exist and it should receive a greater priority than currently.
The Ultra Electronics modified Litening III EF targeting pod has been selected for the Tornado and Typhoon and this is a sensible decision to standardise on a single system. It is relatively priced and enables a great deal of effect for such a modest expenditure although the numbers in the inventory should be increased.
The Goodrich DB110 RAPTOR reconnaissance pod which is integrated with the Tornado, in service with Japan and Poland provides exceptional imagery and should be integrated onto Typhoon in the medium term to provide more flexibility. It has also been successfully tested on the Predators in service with the RAF.
The Airborne Stand Off Radar system (ASTOR) on the Sentinel aircraft (based on the Bombardier Global Express business jet) uses a dual-mode Synthetic Aperture / Moving Target Indication (SAR/MTI) radar to provide radar ground imagery. The Global Express is fast, can operate at high altitude, has extreme range/endurance and is starting to mature into a very capable system applicable across a range of operations. Cost and weight issues meant that an in flight refuelling probe was omitted, if feasible, this decision should be reversed and a probe fitted.
Adding electro optical and infra red imaging would create an even more useful system and the RAPTOR pod would be an obvious choice but it is unlikely that the 1000kg pod could be accommodated on the Sentinel.
With global reach and a low reaction time an electro optical and infra red version of the Sentinel, carrying the mission equipment from the RAPTOR pod inside the vacant radar housing would provide a very useful adjunct to other capabilities, acting independently or in concert with them.This could be a unique capability and one that would be in much demand in coalition operations.
Fitting it into the existing radar fairing (if possible) would reduce the need for costly airframe modifications and aerodynamic testing. The operator area would have the space for a number of imagery analysts with facilities for extended missions and because of the lower weight of the mission equipment the airframe might be able to be fitted with an air refueling probe.
It is recommended that between 3 and 6 EO/IR variants of the Sentinel are obtained.
We have covered the Beechcraft King Air 350 based Shadow ISR aircraft in a previous post and arming these would create a potent armed battlefield ISR platform that would compliment perfectly the proposed EO/IR Sentinel version and various UAV’s, especially if their numbers were to be increased. The King Air 350 is now in service in a number of roles and airframe commonality has an obvious advantage.
The Nimrod MRA4 will also provide overland ISR and battlespace management capability in addition to its obvious maritime capability.
With the withdrawal of the MR2 platform the Nimrod R1 electronic intelligence aircraft are in desperate need of replacement. The Nimrod R1 and crews from 51 Squadron are genuine world beating combination and we must not allow this capability to wither through indecision. BAe have offered to convert the 3 MRA4 prototypes but the MoD have rejected their timeframe and so look likely to go with the ‘last chicken in the shop’ option of the US Rivet Joint. Although larger than the R1 it is nowhere near as capable or flexible. It would be a significant step back.
Electronic (signals and communications) intelligence is a vital capability and this should be a high priority.
Airframe commonality with the A330 based FSTA would make sense although it could reasonably be argued that the A330 is on the large side the benefits of standardisation again come into play and the excess space will support spare crew facilities, wide antenna spacing, additional operator consoles, traveling ground crew, additional sensors and large screen displays whilst leaving plenty of space for future expansion. The R1 was constrained by space; the A330 will provide room for growth.
The large airframe also allows wide spacing of sensors and easier equipment cooling.
There are only three R1’s in service, the new fleet as proposed should be doubled to 6 so as to support sustained operational deployment. Crewing would be a challenge because of the highly specialised nature of the role but it could be expanded in line with development and deployment of the new aircraft.
The A330 would be an expensive option and perhaps too large but the space could also be used for future applications as the ISR and UAV technology matures, perhaps an airborne ‘sensor fusion’ platform.
Developing an A330 based R1 replacement would not be ready when the R1 is withdrawn so we must accept a capability gap or implement some stop gap, the problem with stop gaps is they tend to become permanent so accepting a gap might be preferable. The MRA4 will offer a limited capability in this area so relying on this might be a realistic short term option.
Unmanned systems are a cross cutting capability, elements of close air support, strike and various ISR roles can be performed by unmanned systems. They are not a panacea and do have significant issues with survivability in contested airspace, bandwidth constraints and situational awareness.
Despite these problems their utility cannot be denied, the UK has been late to the UAV/UAS party but is rapidly catching up and surpassing that of other nations. BAe in a joint funded programme with the MoD has quickly built an impressive set of capabilities across a range of systems.
The RAF currently has a number of Predators and Reapers in service, operating in Afghanistan obtained on a UOR but the MoD has announced they will not be integrated into the wider RAF in the long term. This is a sensible decision because the Predator ties us into US systems. Whilst the Predator is an effective UAV it would make us totally reliant on US information dissemination arrangements. Buying into the Predator programme would also mean we would cede this valuable market to others.
BAe, its subcontractors and the MoD have some promising UAV’s such as Corax, Fury, Raven, Herti, Taranis and Mantis. Under the Battle Lab Project Morrigan BAe and the MoD have been quietly gaining invaluable experience in autonomous UAV’s. The current programmes have been funded by 50/50 by industry and the MoD and this is a sensible way forward. BAe and the MoD have great progress and in part this may be due to the lack of other countries in the development programme, perhaps we should take note.
There is clearly commercial potential in these systems and we, as a nation, should be thinking strategically in this area.
The Mantis might seem like a ‘me-too’ design, matching the US Predator just as it transitions to the semi stealthy and jet powered Predator C but it is an important evolutionary step, especially for bandwidth efficient semi autonomous operation and will have many advantages, not least of which is the independence from the US. It is also reported that the Mantis does not rely on US equipment so is exempt from US export restrictions.
Although only a technology demonstrator with no orders beyond that, the Mantis seems a mature system with achievable aspirations for a relatively rapid service entry date as part of one if its development spirals. It has very recently taken its first flight and this vindicates the rapid prototyping approach taken by the MoD and BAe. If possible an austere airfield operational capability should be included in any Mantis derived platform to improve its deployability. The recent issues with the deployment of aircraft to Afghanistan have shown that airfield space availability will often be a constraining factor on air operations and a greater flexibility in basing should be considered an essential capability.
If a Mantis evolution could be bought into service as reasonably practicable means to provide some strike, close air support and ISR capabilities, supplementing the Typhoon, Shadow, Sentinel and replacing the in service Predator/Reaper it would be beneficial to both the armed forces and UK industry. Modular payloads such as tactical jamming, signals intelligence and radio rebroadcast would be an extremely useful set of additional capabilities and should be developed in parallel. Over water search radar might also be incorporated to support maritime applications in the future.
EADS (the European defence equipment manufacturer) have also recently initiated a similar concept in the Talarion and have been encouraging the MoD to collaborate with France, Germany and Spain to bring the project to fruition but our experience with the A400 and Typhoon should make the UK very circumspect about entering into collaborative ventures with other EU nations. The rapid progress of the BAe and MoD programmes is simply too valuable to give away to European defence organisations, with careful management and a sensible evolutionary approach the UK has the potential to create a significant lead and a realistic alternative to US systems.
The Army have developed the Watchkeeper system which is due to come into service soon, the original concept called for a layered approach with two air vehicles but budgetary pressures reduced this to a single type, a heavily modified Elbit Hermes 450.
Watchkeeper is designated as a battlefield system and therefore under the control of the Royal Artillery but the air vehicle will operate at a medium altitude and need a relatively substantial runway facility. It has been loaded with sensors and there is even talk of arming it but this will make it even heavier. Although Watchkeeper is designed to stay within the Land domain of brigade and divisional areas with RAF supporting out of area operations these are artificial boundaries and do not exploit the advantages of common platforms or current operational usage.
There exists a similar argument with Army’s UAV and Support Helicopters. The argument with Support Helicopters is that by maintaining such a resource at a higher formation level it allows their deployment to be directed ‘for the greater good’ rather than at a Brigade level.
This desire to have a responsive resource that is under Land command rather than RAF which might not always be available.
Whilst understandable this encourages duplication and waste.
In some ways the choice of platform and who operates it is irrelevant because one can always fly in a UAV from a suitable facility and most brigade level operations would be headquartered at an airhead anyway but in expeditionary or some naval operations the ability to launch and recover in locations that do not have a runway is an obvious advantage.
The fundamental issue with Predator/Mantis and Watchkeeper (and to some extent other systems) is that they will largely be looking at similar areas, from similar altitudes, will need a similar runway and a similar air minded management approach. Watchkeeper will be in service sooner and much effort and cost has been expended already but Mantis will arguably have much greater capability and can carry a greater sensor, electronics and weapons load.
The Royal Artillery also operates the smaller Desert Hawk mini UAV that does not need a runway, obtained under an Urgent Operational Requirement and is also operated by Special Forces.
At platoon level there may be some advantages to issuing a semi expendable vertical launch and recovery UAV to provide extreme short range and low level imagery. Emphasis should be on low cost and limited capabilities, almost throwaway. We use Javelin missiles at £70k or even more expensive Brimstone missiles to kill a single or small group of Taleban so providing infantry platoons or fire support companies with a sub £10k UAV that has a limited set of capabilities is not going to break the bank. If we purposelessly make sure it cannot be networked or the information backhauled to higher formations we avoid expensive duplication and over specification. Cheap and cheerful is the watchword here.
It is proposed that the Army and Royal Navy obtain a common tactical UAV that, either rotary or catapult launched that, can be operated from austere locations without a runway or launched from Frigate sized vessels or even smaller. To support ease of deployment it should be capable of being transported in a standard 20ft ISO container
The Boeing/Insitu Scan Eagle is a high endurance UAV that employs a novel launch and recovery mechanism which means it could feasibly be used by the Army, Royal Marines and Royal Navy. It is a mature system, relatively low cost (basic air vehicle is less than £70k) with many hours of combat experience on which to draw. The latest Block D variant incorporates a number of improvements and sensor flexibility is growing all the time with the latest versions able to mount synthetic aperture radar, advanced shortwave IR, sniper detector or communications relay payloads which can be swapped in the field.
Another good option might be the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout rotary UAV although that would be much more expensive bot in capital and running costs. It has a greater payload but much shorter endurance than the Scan Eagle.
Service and cap badge rivalry has bedevilled UAV’s systems in the armed forces which has resulted in a lack of coherence, no commonality and wasted money. This needs to stop, now.
The UK needs a coherent and joint approach to unmanned systems; any RAF systems should be fully integrated into the Army’s Watchkeeper infrastructure and future RN system, making sure the important aspects of information management and use of common equipment and modes of operation, again, this is discussed in common capabilities, the ability for any ISR asset to slot into a common information backbone for access by all services.
It might seem nonsensical to cancel a project that is on the cusp of completion but transitioning to an RAF Mantis derivative and implementing a common tactical UAV for Royal Navy and Army provides a coherent approach to UAV’s capabilities.
Aerostats offer an effective and very low cost (less than £10m for a complete system) means of providing sensor coverage to fixed locations such as forward operating bases or other key installations. A number of manufacturers exist and this should be a relatively simple military off the shelf purchase although the benefits of combining an aerostat with some form of elevated communications rebroadcast system may be worth investigating.
Whilst discussion of platforms is of great interest the real focus area should be on analysis and dissemination of useful information and to ensure it is available in a timely manner at the point of use, this is a significant challenge and an area in which significant progress is being made in Afghanistan. Raytheon are doing some interesting work combining commercial open source technologies like Google Android that is used to plug into a common intelligence backbone, called RATS, the capability shows what can be done when the breakneck pace of commercial technologies are harnessed for defence needs.
Operations have a tendency to collapse service and cap badge rivalries but there is still some way to go. Network Enabled Capability is an overarching approach and elements of if have proven to be extremely useful but a lack of funding and a coherent approach have hindered progress.
Efforts to produce a common tri service ground control station architecture should be accelerated, a single ground station should be able to receive, analyse and disseminate information. This common ground structure should be easily air portable and able to plug into any naval or ground location.
Project Dabinett was an ambitious attempt to create a single collection, analysis and dissemination architecture that combined platforms, people and procedures and would actually have realised some of the postulated benefits of NEC, unfortunately it has been split up into smaller projects, most of which remain unfunded or funded at tick-over level. The result is the continuing fragmentation of ISR along service lines and a diminution of effect.
ISR has self evident links to command and control arrangements and needs significant information transport capabilities, ISR information can be very high bandwidth and the transmission of this data in a secure and consistent across geographical space manner is yet another significant challenge.
In order to harness this plethora of collection, analysis and dissemination systems it is proposed to create a joint service ISR Command to manage and coordinate the collection, analysis and distribution of ISR information.
This Joint ISR Command would also combine military intelligence, analysis, civilian intelligence capabilities including elements of GCHQ and the security services. All three services must be represented, especially the Royal Navy which seems to have been left behind by the RAF and Army in this area.
Rather than placing this command in the Land, Air or Maritime domain which will inevitably create inter service issues the command should be placed directly within the Joint HQ domain.
01. Increase numbers of Litening III Pods
02. Integrate RAPTOR pod with Typhoon
03. Fit AAR refuelling probe and equipment to Sentinel if possible
04. Obtain EO/IR variant of the Sentinel using the RAPTOR sensors, small quantity
05. Increase numbers and arm Shadow ISR aircraft
06. Develop and obtain 6 Electronic Intelligence aircraft based on A330 airframe
07. Develop evolution of BAe Mantis and rapidly enter into service
08. Cancel Watchkeeper
09. Retain Desert Hawk UAV
10. Obtain military off the shelf UAV for Land and Naval use
11. Obtain off the shelf simple micro UAV in quantity for platoon/company use
12. Obtain 8-10 aerostat systems
13. Reinvigorate Project Dabinett and fully fund
14. Create a Joint ISR Command to harness and manage the plethora of capabilities
I have taken some of the points raised in the comments section and amended the post, hope everyone approves and thanks.