In the previous post I suggested that UAV’s are not yet the panacea that many think they are. Situational awareness, operation in adverse weather and running costs in many situations favour manned platforms. In the post on SIGINT I suggested the RAF obtain half a dozen King Air 350ER based SIGINT/COMMINT aircraft to supplement the 3 new(ish) Air Seeker aircraft.
Recognising the basic fact that manned platforms are inherently more versatile and in many ways more flexible than UAV’s the US have fielded a number manned platforms. The RAF has also followed suit with the Shadow R1 and leased of a small number of DA42’s. The Sentinel based ASTOR system uses the Bombardier Global Express airframe and Sea King ASaC Mk.7’s are also being operated to good effect. The Sea King is due out of service in 2016 and the SDSR announced that Sentinel would be withdrawn at the conclusion of operations in Afghanistan or when it is no longer needed, whichever is sooner.
In this post I am going to look at the options around manned ISTAR platforms, Nimrod will get its own post later on and the E3 will get a mention in that post as well.
Airborne Stand odd Radar (ASTOR) is a ground surveillance system designed to provide information about the deployment and movement of enemy forces. It uses MTI and SAR technology to obtain high resolution imagery of static features and to identify and track moving vehicles.
The programme originated during the mid 1980s when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) initiated the Corps Airborne Stand-Off Radar (CASTOR) programme, which was intended to provide medium- and high-altitude Moving Target Indicator (MTI)/Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capabilities in support of 1(BR) Corps in Germany, tracking Russian panzers streaming through Germany on their way to the Channel.
The medium-altitude capability (CASTOR I) was to be provided by an army-operated system, the high-altitude (CASTOR C) by an RAF one. This programme got as far as a technology demonstration of the CASTOR I on a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft with a Ferranti radar before being abandoned because basically, it wasn’t good enough with a the usual dash of inter service politics and budgetary concerns, although the basic concept was well proven.
The Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) programme incorporated some of the early work on CASTOR C and continued development work using a Canberra test bed aircraft with a modified Thorn EMI Searchwater radar. The system incorporated technologies developed for Raytheon’s HISAR radar, the SAR integrated with the Teledyne Ryan Global Hawk Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) and in the Lockheed Martin U2′s ASARS-2 improvement programme.
In 1989 a Technology Demonstration Programme worth £12M (at 1999/2000 prices) was agreed with the MOD Research Establishments who are now incorporated into QinetiQ. This feasibility work ran for two years and demonstrated that the concepts used in Airborne STand Off Radar were practicable. A move into Project Definition was approved in September 1993. Following open competition, two parallel contracts for an 18 month Project Definition programme were let in February 1995. After assessment of the Project Definition proposals it was considered that the optimum solution would be to invite the two consortia to submit Best and Final Offers for the Development, Production and In-Service Support. During the Best and Final Offer phase, a decision was taken to consider a third bid based upon the US Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) upgrade programme known as the Radar Technology Insertion Programme. As a result, various unsolicited revisions to the bids were received during the assessment process, further delaying the planned In Service Date by 14 months. Approval for the implementation phase was given after down selection in June 1999.
Raytheon System won the contract in 1999 and In Service was declared in late 2008.
To say it was a troubled project with a protracted development would be an understatement of Nimrod proportion!
The cost of the complete programme was just under £1.1billion with the 5 air vehicles production cost at £76m each and the 8 ground systems having a production cost of 15m each (MoD figures)
What did we get for £1.1billion plus the cost of CASTOR and all the time spent on development, especially interesting as we are about to chuck it into the round filing cabinet?
By all accounts it is a very effective system, able to track targets, create high resolution imagery and carry out pattern/scene analysis.
The Bombardier Global Express XRS, the donor aircraft for Sentinel, has prodigious range and endurance, relatively high speed and altitude. These qualities were deemed essential for the synthetic aperture radar but the radar, crew stations and associated processing equipment has proven to be heavy and this has impacted performance, reportedly leading to the decision not to fit an in flight refuelling probe, the money saved might have helped that decision along the way though, there is nothing like dressing up something that is too difficult to do as a cost saving, makes it easy to sell.
Why is it being withdrawn?
I think because it is single use, unable to grow, and with the combined radar capabilities on offer from F35, Scavenger and Watchkeeper it cannot justify its continuing existence. It was also due a mid life upgrade in 2015 which might have weighed heavily on the minds of those making the decision.
Is it a sensible decision?
Without knowing the performance, which of course only a few people will, it’s hard to make any judgements but perhaps it has simply been overtaken in performance terms by newer systems and the primary mission of tracking tank and truck movement in rear areas has been superseded by the need to detect IED’s, changes in terrain and ‘patterns of life’. The operational level (ISO container) and tactical (Pinzgauer) ground stations might also not be easily interoperable with other systems, especially Watchkeeper, although this is pure guesswork.
Sentinel also has some common systems and engines with MRA4 so one decision might have affected the other when looking at cost savings of withdrawing sub systems.
In light of the need to save money and possible duplication of capabilities I suppose it is understandable, not in any way desirable but understandable nevertheless.
Islander and Defender
The Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force operate a number of light turboprop aircraft. The oldest in service is the Britten Norman Islander and later Defenders. The AAC have operated Islanders for many years in support of UK operations and in recent times have also obtained a number of Defender 4000’s for light utility and liaison roles, reportedly for Iraq. There are also a number of ISTAR models in use but these tend to be well hidden and used on secret squirrel missions so maybe least said about these the better. Islanders and Defenders have also been used as trials aircraft for a number of years and are often seen with new bits of kit hanging off them.
Manchester police use one, as the video below
I have included them for completeness more than anything else but in whatever form, they continue to be a useful low cost option
In 2009 it was announced that the MoD would be operating a couple of Diamond DA42MPP aircraft in the UK and overseas. The DA42 is a lightweight twin turboprop designed for aerial sensing which has a long endurance and extremely low capital/operating costs. Operated by civilian contractors on a lease they have reportedly performed extremely well although their small size and lack of crew facilities might make extended duration missions not particularly comfortable!
The DA42 has recently been demonstrated with bio fuel and the engines can use diesel, unlike the UAL engines of Watchkeeper. The latest variants have an innovative nose and fuselage modular payload pod for interchangeable sensors.
An interesting way to look at the DA42 is as a Hermes 450 yet much cheaper to buy (about a couple of million with all the toys) and operate, able to easily fly in civilian or non segregated air space, has a greater payload, longer endurance, better situational awareness, reduced bandwidth requirements and improved payload flexibility.
I should go and wash my mouth out, better not say anything against the unmanned is best argument.
Offering an interesting compromise is the Aeronautics Dominator II which takes the DA42 and turns it into a UAV
There is also an optionally manned version from Aurora Flight Sciences called the Centaur which apart from a small payload penalty offers the best of both worlds. For transits, training in civilian airspace and operations in relatively safe areas use a pilot, when things get risky, go unmanned. If we chose to use it as a manned asset in higher risk areas then we would need a defensive aids system so the cost goes up and payload goes down.
Another UOR that is likely to disappear after Afghanistan is the Shadow R1. Based on the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 it is equipped with an electro optical sensor turret, possibly a SAR and full communications and DAS fit. With a crew of 5 the RAF now operates 4 or 5 of these extremely versatile aircraft.
The US has also been operating the Beechcraft C12 in a similar role for some time; perhaps they are experiencing the same bandwidth, cost and flexibility issues that are taking the shine off UAV’s and leading operators to look again at manned platforms, the MC-12W Liberty receiving a lot of attention, and funding.
A Few Suggestions – Pragmatism about Unmanned
I think we all know that unmanned systems are the long term future, as problems around situational awareness, obstacle avoidance and operation in non segregated airspace are resolved. In the short term though, the promise of low cost and uncomplicated operation has yet to be fulfilled, bandwidth issues continue to dog deployment and these are not easily resolved by simply switching more on. As artificial intelligence, on board data handling and autonomous operation technology improves these will also be resolved which leaves the rather thorny issue of ethics to be resolved.
In the mean time, we have matters to attend to and the demise of manned platforms will not be happening any time soon, plus of course all these technologies needed like artificial intelligence, sense/avoidance and on board image processing do not sound cheap.
So as we maintain a pragmatic view of UAV costs/capabilities and consistent with the general proposal to expand ISTAR capabilities this is a proposal to build on the Shadow R1 programme and not dispose after Afghanistan is over.
The capabilities of Shadow remain in the shadows (sorry about that) so it is difficult to speculate, does it have a SIGINT or SAR capability for example, who knows. If I had to guess at cost, I can’t see them coming in much beyond the £12-15m mark. A force of 10 would possibly come in below the price of a couple of F35’s so which offers more utility, I know which one my money would be on?
Let’s build the force so we can sustain at least a pair on enduring operations to compliment the proposed SIGINT version in the previous post. Another benefit of these systems is that they don’t look warlike which can have many advantages in a range of operations. If a UAV is operating in an area then it is pretty obvious that there is a military operation on the go, a twin engine business jet, which is what this would look like, will attract much less attention both on the ground and in the air.
The aircraft might be fitted with different payloads and for an even more off the wall suggestion, how about fitting them with a pair of stores rails and integrating the Hellfire or LMM. The Iraqi Combat Caravan’s have shown the effectiveness of a lightweight fixed wing aircraft for Hellfire launch.
If we sacrifice some performance it might even be possible to fit a gun, the BAe Remote Guardian that has been fitted to the V22 and is pretty self-contained. Now that would be an interesting proposition, a low cost but limited capability Apache!
Of course, the aircraft might not be able to carry one and it would decrease the payload for sensors and crew so this is only a tentative suggestion but it is food for thought.
A Few Suggestions – Recycling Sentinel
If we accept through gritted teeth that the decision to withdraw Sentinel is probably reasonable in light of future systems capabilities and financial realities we are left with the question of what to do with the 5 aircraft, ground system and training infrastructure.
Option 1 – bin the lot; the cheapest solution if we can squirm out of any support contracts or swap its value to other Raytheon provided equipment, like the Shadow R1 for example. If we are interested in business as usual and keeping our commitment to F35 then this is the most likely option but the Think Defence proposal for the RAF sees a reduction in fast jets in favour of ISTAR and other capability plus areas so I would discard this one. Even selling them will involve cost, stripping out the equipment and reverting them to a basic specification will cost.
Option 2 – VIP transport; The RAF 32 Squadron currently has an ageing fleet of BAe 125’s and 146’s. Reverting the 5 Sentinels to personnel transport would provide a step change in capability but would be a difficult political sell so worthy of consideration but fairly low down the list.
Option 3 – Maritime Patrol; given the capability gap we have imposed on ourselves with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme we find ourselves unable to provide long range maritime patrol and search and rescue cover. Of course any conversion would not have an anti submarine capability but it would still provide a vital capability. The excellent Canadian American Strategic Review website has proposed something similar, a Global Express based patrol aircraft for their enormous patrol area. Despite the potential to partner with the French, which would inevitably use a Dassault Falcon, a maritime patrol conversion should be worthy of serious consideration. The basic aircraft has the range and endurance, we have them ‘in stock’ and a basic off the shelf sensor, mission system and communications fit would not be hugely expensive.
Option 4 – Manned ISTAR; we have been missing the Canberra PR9 since it was withdrawn some years ago, a high altitude, relatively high speed optical sensor capability, able to quickly respond and obtain very high quality time sensitive imagery in situations where we can’t hang about for ponderous UAV’s to get there. By getting rid of the heavy radar system and on board processing equipment we can significantly reduce the weight and power requirements and in the sensor fairing fit the same Goodrich DB110 sensor as the RAPTOR pod. The reduced weight will improve performance and allow for fitting an in flight refuelling probe and the sensor itself is relatively light weight. Leave the satellite uplink in place and the product becomes real time, carry an image analyst and that would be even better.
The Goodrich DB-110 sensor that forms the core of the RAPTOR pod, in service with the RAF, Poland and Egypt, is a derivative of the SYERS-2 system in the U2. As a measure of just how effective it is, the US are keeping their U2′s in service even though they have the Global Hawk. Goodrich and the RAF have also tested the RAPTOR pod on Predator UAV under the Joint UAV Experimentation Programme (JUEP) and subsequently, Goodrich proposed a compact reduced weight version, perhaps the size and weight proved troublesome for the Predator. The trials also integrated the sensors high definition imagery with the US Army’s Night Vision Laboratory change detection work station for IED detection.
The paper below describes some of the capabilities on offer so instead of using it as a tactical asset in the RAPTOR pod the same sensor could be allied to s a strategically capable aircraft as well.
The Bombardier web site claims a range of over 5,500 nautical miles for the XRS, how this compares with the performance of such a modified Sentinel is not known but I think it is a reasonable assumption that it is much better than an F35 or Tornado.
Option 5 – High Altitude Multi Purpose Platform; I will be looking at high altitude platforms (HAPs) in the next post but the Sentinel aircraft might form part of these plans.
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