I am going to start this post by looking at the history of the Watchkeeper project, the Army’s battlefield UAV system and try and explain why it is different to the RAF’s Predator/Reaper/Scavenger.
Despite getting a proper caning in the press, the Phoenix UAV did have a notable success in the early stages of the Iraq conflict. However, beyond its brief moment in the sun, it was an unmitigated disaster, hugely over priced and with reliability rates that were frankly, shocking. How it ever got into service is one of the enduring mysteries of defence acquisition. If anything, it told us exactly what we didn’t want. There is a picture (can’t find it at the moment) of a Phoenix UAV going nose first into the ground straight off its launch rail!
In fairness to the Army, the RAF didn’t seem interested in UAV’s and some might be forgiven for thinking that they were having a head in sand moment whilst humming the Battle of Britain March, aircraft without pilots, a bloody outrage!
It is all credit to the Army that they stuck with the concept through much pain and embarrassment. UAV’s have traditionally been used for artillery spotting, observing fall of shot and target assessment; hence the Royal Artillery’s vice like grip on the subject matter.
The first proper UAV in UK service (accepting the vintage Queen Bee’s and MQM57-Falconers) was the Canadair Midge 501 (a UK version of the CL89) which was used in the first Gulf War. The Midge was more or less a recoverable missile that flew a pre planned route and was fitted with an IR linescan camera and traditional optical camera. Launched from a truck mounted rail and recovered by a parachute the Midge was primarily used as a divisional resource to locate the enemy’s artillery so they could be destroyed in a proper big guns artillery duel.
After the Westland Supervisor programme cancellation the requirement for a replacement was created in the early 1980’s as a system to provide a real time, day/night interface, to the Battlefield Artillery Target Engagement System (BATES) Phoenix was eventually bought into service in 1999, yes, and nearly 20 years after the requirement was outlined although to be scrupulously fair it entered ‘trials’ in the early nineties.
The system was supposedly named Phoenix because it rose from the ashes of the Medium Range Unmanned Aerial Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (MRUASTAS) programme. This was to be an unmanned rotary platform from Westland’s but proved to be impossible to bring to an adequate maturity.
Look at the MRUASTAS at this link, perhaps most upsetting is just how forward thinking we used to be.
In 1967 the Westland Helicopter future projects team developed the concept of an unmanned rotorcraft fitted with an electro‐optic sensor to provide the function of battlefield surveillance and target acquisition. The concept envisaged deliberate penetration of hostile air space with a small “semi‐ disposable” aircraft as an alternative to manned systems that were seen as increasingly vulnerable
Westland also submitted a proposal for Phoenix requirement but were unsuccessful.
The fixed wing GEC/BAe Phoenix had Its first operational debut was in Kosovo where 13 of the 27 deployed were lost and despite a spot of face saving by the MoD was widely considered to be a bit of a failure, despite catching the Serbs in the act of flying Mig 21’s that had survived the NATO air campaign out of the airport at Pristina, least said about that the better, we would not want the sky gods to be faced with evidence of a lack of success of the air campaign!
Phoenix was actually more forward looking than many people gave it credit for, bucking the trend for completely integrated air vehicle and sensor payload it consisted of the Air Vehicle Taxi (AVT) and Air Vehicle Pod (APD), with the pod containing the sensor and communications equipment. We might even give it credit for the fast jet targeting pod that was to follow; the thinking was the pod could be upgraded or different payloads developed without expensive integration work on the air vehicle. The payload included a daylight sensor and thermal imager (BAE Systems Thermal Imaging Common Module (TICM II)), both of which could be locked onto a ground location for continuous coverage whilst the taxi was moving. Completing its bag of tricks was a data link into the artillery system, BATES; that could adjust the fall of shot.
Operational use of Phoenix and others nations UAV’s in the Balkans demonstrated their sheer usefulness and utility beyond the artillery spotting mission that had generally characterised similar tactical systems. Much was also learned, the hard way, about operational management and control of UAV’s, especially in a complex air environment with multi nation components.
The UK tried to circumvent the problem of slow authorisation by proposing to use a forward air controller in a Phoenix ground control station to direct Harrier GR7 strikes but the USAF senior leadership in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) refused to sanction the idea unless a satellite link could be installed to allow the CAOC to view the imagery and give the final authorisation of any strike. Needless to say, we ran out of war before the red tape could be untangled.
Operations in the Balkans also exposed slow and predictable UAV’s to enemy ground and air attack, the Serbs even had some success with flying a helicopter parallel to the airborne system and simply machine gunning them out of the sky, no need for MIG’s and AA missiles as used by the Russians in their spat with Georgia.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned, apart from their vulnerability to even half competent air defence forces, from operational use of UAV’s in the Balkans was the difficulty of matching a strategic air campaign to what were in effect, tactical assets being used for an operation type for which they were not designed for.
The ‘ownership’ of these tactical UAV’s was never, apparently, challenged.
Have a read here for an analysis of UAV operations in Kosovo.
Despite its relatively poor showing in the Balkans Phoenix was credited by General Brimms (GOC 1(UK) Armoured Division), along with Challenger and Warrior, as being the top 3 war winning assets in the initial stages of the Iraq war, operation TELIC.
The Phoenix provided for the first time situational awareness commanders had not had access to before. We flew in front of the commandos before they went into attack and provided up to date, real time information to commanders on the ground, enabling them to make key decisions before they went into battle and during the battle itself
This despite 23 falling from the sky in the 2 month period.
Phoenix was last flown in 2006 in Iraq and formally left service in 2008.
In a written answer to a Parliamentary question it was confirmed in 2006 that the Phoenix programme had cost £345million, value for money at £1.75m each on a programme basis?
Perhaps the most charitable thing we can say about Phoenix is that when it worked, it was pretty good, it just didn’t work very often.
It was obvious a replacement was needed and as early as 1998 DERA was flying the XRAE1 test UAV, out of this work came the Sender (unit level UAV) and Spectator (formation level UAV) projects. BAe, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Racal were awarded 12 month study contracts. Both sets of requirements were changed and merged and so was Watchkeeper born.
In 2002 it was revealed that the following air vehicles were being considered; Hermes 450, Predator, Eagle, Firescout, Shadow 200, Hermes 180, Ranger and Spectre 3. The original Sender and Spectator split was retained.
Two consortia were down selected in 2003 for the Systems Integration Assurance Phase;
Thales-UK with Aerosystems International, Elbit, and QinetiQ, offering the Israeli Hermes 180 and Hermes 450 UAVs
In July 2004 Thales were selected as preferred bidder and contract award was in 2005 with an in service date of 2007. It was also announced that the smaller vehicle would now no longer be part of the programme.
A number of MoD programmes like DABINETT and DII(F) have coincided with Watchkeeper and the UOR deployment of the Hermes 450 and Desert Hawk have considerably moved the programme on. We can complain that it has taken too long and that at nearly a billion pounds for 54 air vehicles is hideously expensive but we should look at what the programme actually consists of.
It is crucially important to understand that whilst the Hermes 450 and Watchkeeper have more or less the same air vehicle they are not the same, far from it.
The additions include;
- Substantial redesign of the existing air vehicle to provide greater payload, structural integrity and ease of maintenance
- Enhancement of EO/IR sensor resolution
- Addition of a SAR/GMTI radar sensor
- Addition of a Laser designator/rangefinder
- Redesign of the undercarriage to allow rough strip operations
- Addition of an Automatic Take-Off and Landing (ATOL) system
- Secure UK datalink and communications infrastructure
- De-icing system for improved survivability and operating envelope
- Integral expeditionary and mobile capability
- Organic training facility
- UK airworthiness qualification and Release to Service for UK training
- UK logistic infrastructure, manufacturing and repair facility
Watchkeeper sets the infrastructure framework for other systems, this is absolutely crucial. The twin sensor will allow one to cross cue the other without requiring a separate airborne system. The data link is encrypted, designed to avoid standing out in the EM spectrum and the engine has additional silencing.
The sensor fit comprises the Elbit/Thales COMPASS and Thales i-Master Ku-band (12.5 to 18 GHz) Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI)/Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) which can operate in the GMTI, spot and strip SAR modes. Having both these in the same air vehicle really does extend the functionality. It can be used to determine patterns of life, a reduction in road use might indicate presence of an IED, analyse moving targets, detect changes in the ground (footprints, tyre tracks) and cross cue the visual sensor for a closer look. There is a problem with this though because SAR works best at altitude and offset from the area of interest for a wide area view, the cross cuing currently in Afghanistan takes place between ASTOR/ASaC and Hermes 450 and takes advantage of the optimal operating conditions for these two different sensor types. As usual, trade-offs have to be considered.
The ground control station is fitted into a 20ft ISO container, moved by any DROPS/EPLS vehicle (happy days) and can control three air vehicles.
We sometimes complain about wanting an 80% system but Watchkeeper is a great example of the flip side of that argument. After several decades continuous experience it is finally looking like the technology and operating concepts will have matured and converged to finally deliver on the promise.
To put a cherry on the icing on the cake, Watchkeeper is looking like it will deliver more or less on time and cost, although digging deeper it is obvious that this isn’t quite the case. The 2010 NAO Major Projects Report shows an in service date of 2011. Initial estimates put a cost of £860 million, the main investment decision approved a cost of £907m and the estimated final cost will be £889m.
So all in the garden is rosy?
Unlike Phoenix the Hermes 450 derived Watchkeeper UAV will require a runway, even though it has been fitted with a more robust undercarriage and tested on non runway surfaces I don’t think it is likely to be deployed from any location other than a fairly stable air operations area. Its range and endurance is such that there is not really a pressing need for it to be operated from austere locations. The logistics, bandwidth, maintenance, airframe stress and other requirements mean that the preferred operating location will be exactly the same airfield that is operating other aircraft and UAV’s.
Robonic do have a launch rail system that has been tested with the Hermes 450 but Watchkeeper will not include one. Given pressure on runway space this might be a useful addition but this also fails to take into account the very fact that extreme endurance means that systems can simply be flown in from distance, of course you might need a few more airframes in the air but what you lose on the roundabout you gain on the swing. Even with tactical systems like Watchkeeper, with satellite control, they can be programmed to fly in on a route and control picked up closer to the area of operations by the ground control station.
In a nod to my container fetish, they can even be fitted into a 20ft ISO container!
The airframe has been loaded with extras so expansion potential is likely to be limited and although there remains an aspiration to fit it with SIGINT and weapon payloads the effect on performance may preclude this. With increased weight comes increased fuel burn and decreased endurance.
Ownership remains an issue, although the Royal Artillery has a tremendous amount of experience in the operational use of UAV’s the likely training to allow operation in non segregated airspace means yet another expensive pilot (or equivalent) training pipeline.
By keeping it as an Army system it has discouraged interoperability, there are no plans for maritime use for example. It is defined as Brigade or battlegroup asset and therefore will not be able to be retasked or stolen for theatre level priorities; this is understandable but hardly an efficient use of resources and is yet another stovepipe.
Arguably, the best part of Watchkeeper is not the air vehicle but the sensors, their back office integration and the ground component.
A number of Hermes 450 have been leased for use in Afghanistan where they now provide the bulk of full motion video for UK forces, these will be phased out as Watchkeeper comes into service this year.
After steadfastly refusing to see the benefits of UAV’s the RAF has joined the party late with the UOR purchase of a small number of General Atomics Reaper’s, operated by 39 Squadron. These have proven to be very useful and numbers have been recently increased, or at least ordered. Reaper is a high performance system with a similar type of sensor fit (EO/SAR) to Watchkeeper but encased in a larger airframe. It can fly for longer, faster and at a greater altitude. Its satellite communication system means that it is not reliant on in theatre communication resources so can be operated at distance. Finally, its party piece is a large weapon fit. This combination means the predator has value as both a strategic and tactical system. There is no reason it cannot carry out the battlefield missions of Watchkeeper equally as well a deep and persistent intelligence gathering or attacking targets in support of special-forces.
Because we are using the Reapers on US infrastructure this is a situation that cannot endure if we are to have any sovereign autonomy.
The MoD has been ‘looking’ at the requirement for a while now and working with industry on a number of projects like JEUP and various demonstrators. The Herti system had a useful deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 under the joint BAe/RAF Project Morrigan to demonstrate its autonomous flight control and image collection systems. When the RAF’s Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) was cancelled it was replaced with the strategic unmanned air vehicle (experiment) SUAV(E) programme in 2005, this is a more combat UCAV oriented programme with the Taranis being part of its output and a joint collaboration with the US on a UCAS system.
Scavenger is part of the wider DABINETT/SOLOMON programme and the requirement is described this;
Inaccessible loitering intelligence collection from difficult and distant locations. SCAVENGER will fill significant gaps in the UK’s strategic and theatre collection capabilities, using a mix of UAVs, standalone sensors and potentially Low Earth Orbit satellites.
UK has collection gaps which need to be filled if we are to gather all the intelligence we need.
It is thought that a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV in the Reaper class will form a key component of Scavenger.
Scavenger is intended to provide sovereign capability but it has also been reported that we are considering the Reaper and its stealthy follow on, the Avenger, which has also been proposed as a maritime variant, the Sea Avenger. The Avenger will also have the same electro optical system as the F35, the much vaunted EOTS which dispenses with turrets and distributes the sensor throughout the airframe.
The BAe Mantis demonstrator recently completed a successful Spiral 1 flight test programme in Australia. Spiral 2 will likely integrate a range of Selex sensors and UK weapons. The Mantis air vehicle is relatively large, 22m wingspan, powered by a pair of Rolls Royce RB250B-17 engines (better for resilience) developing 450shp each which compares well with the 900shp single engine in the Reaper. Performance targets for a production version include a 24-36 hour duration, high operating altitude and a weapons payload of approximately 3,000kg or 12 Brimstone/6 Paveway IV on 6 wing hard points. Other payloads might include ECM, SIGINT, comms relay or even the RAPTOR pod.
With the recent Anglo/French defence cooperation agreement the Scavenger requirement is looking like it aligns perfectly with the similar French requirement, although the French may obtain a small number of Reapers as gap fillers. In a recent report from the French National Assembly the desire for increased funding for MALE UAS was laid out including a commitment to the technology and the classification of it as a strategic capability that should not be obtained from outside the EU.
The report acknowledges that because of funding issues the programme will have to be a collaborative one and suggests that the BAe Mantis might be the sensible choice with Thales and Dassault providing the payload and integration respectively, this is building on the greater collaboration on ISR announced in November 2009. Italy, Germany and Spain would likely be interested in joining any collaborative venture but only if EADS could be involved and therein lies the problem. EADS has a competing development called Talarion but this is at a much less advanced stage than Mantis and would no doubt be a riskier proposition i.e. more costly, however much snootily dismissive of Mantis EADS appear.
What started out as a possible joint venture could easily get wrapped up in European defence politics and likely morph into a multinational programme like the Typhoon or A400. No doubt it would be a fine system but it would be 10 years late, several billions over budget and not likely to be exportable because the Israelis and Americans had dominated the market.
It is interesting to note the rapid progress the MoD and BAe have made in unmanned systems development and contrast that with other European nations. The MoD and BAe have created a number of de risking programmes, getting on with the job quietly and competently. Mantis is the culmination of these to date and has cost very little in comparison, a limited set of deliverables, moderate aspirations and a low risk technology approach yielding significant results.
The MoD and BAe have valuable experience and a tangible lead over our European competitors in this area now.
We must not squander it and concentrate on fielding Mantis to provide the UK with a system that is independent of US infrastructure and easily exported, meeting the Scavenger requirement. There is a large future market for MALE UAS so let’s make sure the UK gets back into the weapons exporting business by not farting around for the next ten years deciding who is going to make the wings.
As a minimum, given our new found friendship with the French, a joint effort might be worth exploring but please please please, let’s not involve uncle Tom Cobbley and all. This would also exploit the replacement for the Skynet satellite PFI that is looking like it will also be managed on an Anglo French basis.
Scavenger envisions an in service date between 2015 and 2018.
There is far too much duplication which we can ill afford but plans are advanced, with Watchkeeper about to drag itself into service so it would be foolish to discard that. Service rivalry means that the Army wants to wrap its arms around Watchkeeper so that it won’t be used by anything other than an Army command and the Royal Artillery sees it is the key to its survival.
Scavenger seems to be dead set on creating a system that has more or less the same set of sensor capabilities as Watchkeeper but will be armed and able to operate much deeper but even given that, how likely is it that it will be looking at the same patches of ground?
Scavenger does not at the minute have a maritime version, given the potential for extending the ISTAR horizon and even having a future role in airborne early warning for a deployed task group.
We have Sentinel/Astor, Watchkeeper, Reaper and the Sea King ASaC’s all providing Synthetic Aperture Radar coverage for ground forces in Afghanistan. I suspect this was one of the reasons for withdrawing Sentinel, the fact that Watchkeeper, a future Scavenger and even the F35 will be able to provide similar service but I will come on to that in another post.
UAV operating costs are not the low cost panacea many think and despite being touted as low risk because of not risking aircrew, if one goes down we tend to launch ground patrols to recover it or some other form of intervention to deny it to enemy forces.
UAV loss rates continue to be a serious challenge and the presence of them signals to all that there is an operation ongoing.
The explosion of data has left analysis and dissemination systems flailing behind.
A Few Ideas
Project DABINETT/SOLOMON is often talked about as being the highest priority but this never seems to translate to reality or adequate funding, the higher profile projects always seem to attract more funding. This has to stop, if we cannot rapidly assess and disseminate useful information as opposed to masses of data then everything else is wasted. Watchkeeper has actually made great strides in this area and a strong case could be made for extended this to ensure that other systems can easily snap into the infrastructure, using common ground control stations and connectivity for example.
The first suggestion would simply be to match the talk about SOLOMON/DABINETT with action and build a fit for purpose ISTAR back office. The US is also doing some interesting work around the dissemination of their wide area ‘Gorgon Stare’ product which pushes the product out without hoarding and over analysis and this might also be a an exciting avenue to explore. If this means fewer F35’s and UCAV’s then so be it.
The second suggestion would be ensure that any MALE UAV that comes out of the Scavenger can fit seamlessly into the Watchkeeper infrastructure, no more service centric stovepipes please.
This brings us neatly on to why the majority of this post about the RAF has been discussing an Army system. With my overall suggestion of bringing all airborne assets except micro and tactical UAV’s into RAF control so would Watchkeeper. There is no practical reason why the RAF should and could not provide ISTAR for a sustained Brigade sized deployment or multiple interventions at a smaller scale. The earlier suggestion of expanding the self contained RAF expeditionary force would include the Watchkeeper aerial vehicle. Because it will more often than not operate from the same airhead as other RAF units putting all airborne assets into a single management structure simply reflects the reality of combined operations. As I mentioned earlier, the jewel in the Watchkeeper crown is not the air vehicle but the infrastructure and sensor integration.
The third suggestion is to absorb the Watchkeeper infrastructure into the RAF ISTAR/Expeditionary function to absolutely ensure maximisation of all airborne ISTAR investment, eliminate duplication and create a coherent capability.
Fourth, there exists a great deal of export potential for a twin engine, civil airspace certified, autonomous H/MALE UAV in the Mantis mould, but the window of opportunity will not be there forever. Israeli and US competition will dominate unless we can create a credible alternative in the next 4-6 years. The death knell for this timescale will be if we indulge in the usual European collaborative programme. A joint development with the French may be feasible and indeed advantageous but if history tells us anything it that two’s company, threes a crowd. Let’s keep things achievable and make sure we don’t get too ambitious, creating a product with the success of the Jaguar.
Fifth, the production Mantis should be capable of being deployed from CVF. Although the long range and endurance might actually make this less useful than one might think it is still an important and valuable capability. However, this should not be a core programme requirement and developed as a spiral, outside of the main development path. This means provision should be made in the basic design, strengthening etc, that will avoid the need for an expensive redesign but not fully developed or on the critical path for introduction to service. Fitted for but not with is a god way to describe this.
Sixth, let’s not fall too head over heels in love with UAV’s because the loss rates, operation in civilian airspace, all weather operation and cost arguments often favour manned platforms. I am going to look at manned platforms in the next post and although we might make the assumption that the long term future is unmanned, the short and medium term is characterised by a strong case for manned platforms.
Seventh, in the medium to long term, is the Hermes derived WK450 necessarily the best platform for the Watchkeeper tactical requirement? Given its limited growth potential, limited weapons capability and likely tethering to an existing theatre entry airhead in most operations these limitations might hamper its usefulness and duplicate capabilities. Would it be better to use a Mantis type vehicle for both the deep and tactical roles and why does the Army need its ‘own’ airborne ISTAR resources?
Ninth, what about the ultra long range endurance and very high altitude systems, would a satellite or Global Hawk type platform be best suited, can we even afford or need such a capability?
## Other posts in this series ##