A Comparison of UK Sensor Turrets

One of my hobby horses is that of commonality, or usually, the lack of it. Before I start ranting it should be recognised that commonality can go too far but wherever possible we should be absolutely ruthless in our approach to equipment across equipment and the services. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force use the SA80 so why do we often fail to realise the immense benefits of standardisation in many other areas?

Airborne sensor turrets are a good example, these are not the highly integrated system like that installed on the Apache attack helicopter or RAPTOR pod but those which equip transport helicopters or UAV’s.

L3 Wescam MX15

One of the most widely used sensor turrets the MX15 in its various guises has equipped a number of UK aircraft.

Fitted to Royal Navy Merlin HM.1, Royal Navy and Army Wildcat, Mantis demonstratorand also the Cortez Aerostat system

Selex Galileo Titan 385ES

Another product the MoD has stumped up development cash for, the Titan 385 is an advanced system designed for a range of aircraft.

Fitted to Royal Air Force Chinook and Merlin

Elbit/Thales COMPASS

Thales and Elbit formed a joint venture called Unmanned Tactical Systems Ltd (U-TacS) who of course selected the Elbit COMPASS system for Watchkeeper.

Fitted to Army Watchkeeper UAV

Northrop Grumman Night Hunter

Arguably much less capable than the MX15’s fitted to the MR.2’s the Night Hunter was ordered in 1997 and although the MRA4 has of course been cancelled, no doubt there is a shed somewhere with twenty or so looking for a home.

Fitted to Royal Air Force Nimrod MRA4

Remote Optical Target Acquisition System

This uses the Thales Catherine thermal imaging camera which is also fitted to the Scimitar formation recce vehicle.

ROTAS is fitted to Talisman Mastiff ‘Protected Eyes’ and the Supacat Jackal ISTAR

No doubt there are differences between these but do those differences justify the inevitable duplication of maintenance and training required to use and support them?

Have we invested in systems only to buy others?

Would be interesting to find out!

About The Author

Think Defence hopes to start sensible conversations about UK defence issues, no agenda or no campaign but there might be one or two posts on containers, bridges and mexeflotes!

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January 3, 2011 1:38 am

Platform specifics is one issue. For a fast, high-flying and maneuvering aircraft (which may mean rapid temperature differences – never mind electrostatic weather – which electronics don’t like) the capabilities for a sensor differ compared to those on a relatively stable wheeled vehicle. Power requirements, data transfer, EO range, laser range-finding etc. etc.

It’s easy to develop a gold-plated super sensor that can fit on all platforms – air, land, sea, space – but the cost would be prohibitive.

January 3, 2011 10:02 am

Hi TD,

RE “no doubt there is a shed somewhere with twenty or so [Night Hunter sensor pods] looking for a home.”

Let’s assume for a second that the statement is factual (rather than flippant). I would quickly count North Sea Rigs (SBS protection responsibility), gas terminals and nuclear power stations and compare the number with the contents of “the shed”.
– the “balloons” to put them on station can’t be the major part of the cost?
– physical protection squads can’t be everywhere (in sufficient numbers)

I am quoting from your August piece for a rival, the 98 lb L-3 Wescam MX-15 EO/IR sensor:

Program officials noted that the coverage areas of [the PGSS with] the MX-15 EO/IR payload are as follows: detect a vehicle at 18km; identify a vehicle at 12km; detect a man at 12km; identify a man at 4km.

Peter Arundel
Peter Arundel
January 3, 2011 6:12 pm

This sounds like an MOD problem. Perhaps, if a system is in service with, for example, the Navy and the Army want a similar system then the MOD should insist on the Army buying the system that is already in service unless a compelling argument can be made on the grounds of obsolescence?

January 3, 2011 8:07 pm

It’s a bit of an oversimplification to say that the US has the same turrets on their systems.

L-3 Wescam
Lockheed Gyrocam
General Dynamics Axys

Are all deployed on a variety of platforms for various needs, with a large overlap in capability and a variety of models for each manufacturer.

January 5, 2011 4:54 pm

A) We fund R&D that we don’t then use because our third-rate defence industry has got its hooks into the Treasury, and is adept at obtaining funding for expensive junk that we’re wiser to pass over. It’s not about capabilities, it’s about graft.

b) Standardisation can have massive drawbacks. The RAF and RN shouldn’t use the SA-80, because it’s a piece of dreck. No-one uses it but the UK and Jamaica – if the rifle was good, it would sell abroad. It’s that simple.

Almost anything would be a better choice than the SA-80, and a bit of purchasing flexibility might have saved the RN and RAF money and given them better performance.

C) Knowing the duffers, spongers, liars, alcoholics and inbreds in the MOD and industry, more standardisation would be another excuse to engage in obscene profit creaming, endless PowerPoint orgies and taxpayer-funded capability studies. No decent weapons would slip through the all-encompasing net of ineptitude.

A ‘systems integrator’ (ie BAE, and only BAE) would make a fortune running the show, sewing up contracts, peddling tat, and cutting out the independent contractors who actually deliver on time, spec and budget.

Then when they had us really by the balls, they’d **** off to America with the remaining UK jobs they hadn’t yet been able to transfer over there, and we’d be really shafted.

January 5, 2011 7:35 pm


A) That’s a pretty broad brush you’re painting with there. I’m also pretty sure that the situation is a little more complicated than that. Who would you class as a first or second rate defence industry?

B) No-one is going to argue that the SA80 saga has been torturous, but by most accounts, what is in service now is a far cry from the original production versions. It is also not available for international purchase, so no-one else can buy it.
In any case, it is not a convincing argument for equipping each branch of the armed services different rifles, rather it’s an argument for doing things properly.

C) What, all of them? Or a select group?

As for “systems Integrators” perhaps you could look at Thales, General Dynamics, MBDA, Lockheed Martin and Selex for companies that operate in that role in the UK.

Richard W
Richard W
January 9, 2011 11:36 am

“The point I am making is that we seem to fund development of equipment and then buy competitors!”

This statement is borne out by the evidence of much of the UK’s defence procurement effort and unfortunately isn’t just limited to Sensor Turrets. It is a common trap leading to the waste of much time, effort and money, and distorting other procurement decisions in the process.

Imagine the situation – research or a development in technology hints at a new application that might advance military capability in some area of operations. Someone’s experimental prototype may be tested by the MoD and liking it they may buy a few for limited use. Seeing more potential they start fiddling with the design themselves. Then, someone in the MoD, dazzled with the promise and ignorant of the risks, sets out an adventurous specification for some high end utopian equipment based on the exponential extrapolation of the new technology and an infamous MoD development project is born.

Of course the MoD has no monopoly on technology. So while the MoD project is plodding along on its long road to a high specification goal, other people, research institutions, commercial entities, other governments, etc, continue to push the boundaries and after a few years by incremental steps and cross-pollinating each others’ work, someone will put onto the market equipment that is a passable alternative to the MoD specification; meanwhile the MoD project in trying to leap from infancy to the high end specification in one go is still grappling with multiple hurdles, deadends, and unexpected delays with consequential unbudgeted increases in cost.

Then to top it off some urgent need comes along or impatience sets in and the Services go out and buy what is by then already available from elsewhere, rendering the MoD project an expensive white elephant. Eg AWACS.

There is the whole topic of MoD procurement in here – but to put it in a nut-shell the MoD has to ask itself when it should be in the business of technological development and when it stay out of it.

June 19, 2012 11:40 am


Success in battle is dependent on the supply chain. Surely the indigenous manufacture of equipment and supplies is crucial.

Whether we should necessairly buy what we develop isn’t a difficult question. No usual business and supply principles apply. Hopefully the better equipment will enable a better understanding for future development too.