Learning Lessons from Libya, ISR and Maritime Land Attack


Reality is depressing and I am even struggling with the motivation to finish the bridging series, even though it’s 90% done. So ignoring the fact that we are poorer than a jobless church mouse yet continue with our fantasy spending plans I thought a fantasy kit post was in order.

A recent Janes Defence Weekly reported on a Royal Navy lessons learned document in which the two major shortcomings were a lack of precision land-attack capability and organic unmanned ISR.

Janes quoted Colonel Pierson RM, the Deputy Director of NATO Operations in Libya;

It was evident that the Libya campaign showed the need for precision fires, [perhaps the Lockheed Martin] Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS), from the sea base, deep into enemy littoral territory.

He added that there was a requirement on RN Warships for;

Unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), such as the brilliant live feed, full motion video provided by [Boeing] Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle

Looking at both these lessons learned it is obvious that both these clear gaps in capability are where the Royal Navy has lagged behind many other naval forces.

Incidentally, I note we discussed the issue some time ago, how very bloody clever we all are!

I know I might get accused of sounding like a stuck record but these are the kind of obvious capabilities that get left beyond whilst pursuing a certain large programme, it crowds out investment in moderately priced equipment that delivers huge value in likely operations.

We might also reflect on the cost, especially in comparison with carrier-borne or land-based fast jet aircraft and Apache helicopters. Whilst not replacing either, the simple fact that we keep getting reminded how much the world population coalesces around coastlines when discussing CVF/JCA is something that cuts both ways.

If we can improve our ability to deliver strike up to a couple of hundred kilometres inland from surface vessels does it reduce the demand for the RAF and RN’s fast jets?

Anyway, onto the post…

Organic ISR

The ability to extend the sensor reach beyond the horizon is of obvious benefit and usually, this would be carried out by a frigate or destroyers helicopter but when there is a threat from ground fire helicopters become more difficult to deploy so many solutions exists for deploying sensors (and sometimes weapons) using unmanned systems.

It is depressing to think that the Royal Navy has been so slow to the unmanned parties, the reasons are of course largely financial but despite testing a number of systems like the Insitu Scan Eagle several years ago nothing has been introduced into service.

One might assume that an unmanned air vehicle operating from a ship must be vertical take-off and landing, like a helicopter, but that is not necessarily the case although the emerging VTUAS requirement would seem to dictate a vertical take-off and landing solution.

The initial target date seems to be around the 2020 to 2024 mark, incredible given the range of low-cost off-shelf solutions available and obvious need now.

The debate seems to be whether to opt for something that is just used for ISR or a system that offers a greater payload for weapons or even stores. Greater payload generally means shorter endurance and range so there is a balance to be struck. Whilst carriage of larger payloads may be useful, to match the endurance of the smaller ISR systems would mean multiple vehicles, increasing cost and of course, most ships are not overflowing with space.

A few options;

Schiebel Camcopter

Similar to Skeldar, the Camcopter S-100 from Scheibel has an hour-longer endurance than Skeldar at 6 hours and can carry a range of sensor and communication payloads weighing 34kg in total. An external fuel tank can also be fitted to extend endurance to 10 hours.

It has also been shown armed with a single Lightweight Multirole Missile from Thales.

The Camcopter is in service with the UAE, being introduced in German naval service, has been demonstrated from a French Gowind class offshore patrol vessel and Libya also ordered 4 systems in 2009, wonder where they are now!

Gizmag wrote a good article on the Camcopter, click here, in which they describe the cost of a two air vehicle system complete with control station, payload, ground equipment, logistics package and training to be in the order of $2m

Click here to read the brochure which includes an interesting picture of the Camcopter being used to drop leaflets.

Saab Skeldar

The Saab Skeldar V-200 is the latest version of the Skeldar rotary-wing UAV in both land and maritime variants. Although having a much shorter endurance than the ScanEagle the advantages of VTOL and hover in flight are obvious.

Saab has also demonstrated the Skeldar operating from a CB90 which highlights an interesting combination of smaller patrol craft operating at distance from the host vessel and extending their ISTAR reach even further.

The maritime version has a 40kg payload, an endurance of 5 to 7 hours and uses a diesel engine, important for ship safety reasons.

The Skeldar has an interesting ISO Container system that houses the air vehicle, all maintenance equipment and spares and can be configured to have a roof-mounted landing and take-off platform so the whole system can be easily hosted aboard a variety of vessels and transferred just as easily.


The Northrop Grumman MQ-8B is a mature vertical take-off and landing unmanned system with a long development background and proven deployment credentials with US forces. Developed from the Schweizer 333 it is a much larger aircraft than the Camcopter or Skeldar as shown by a comparison of payloads, for short missions the Firescout can lift over 300kg. Normal endurance is between 5 and 8 hours.

Its stub wings also allow the carriage of a variety of missiles such as Hellfire or guided 70mm rockets.

Click here for brochures.


Although still a rotary-winged UAV the Boeing Hummingbird is very different from the others and arguably, much more cutting edge. Its unique propulsion system allows the rotor speed to be varied and this provides advantages in altitude and endurance, where it can operate at 15,000 feet for in excess of 20 hours carrying a payload of up to 130kg.

The Hummingbird was tested with the FOliage penetrating Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Tracking and Engagement Radar (FORESTER) system, click here for an in-depth article, although it had a few problems in Belize

Moving beyond Gorgon Stare is the DARPA sponsored ARGUS-IS project being developed byBAe.

This ambitious programme will create a 1.8 Gigapixel camera system able to cover a 40 km2 area at 15 frames per second from an A160 Hummingbird or Reaper UAV. To process this enormous data volume it will use an airborne processing system to deliver up to 65 windows that users can zoom into or out of on-demand. The software makes the difference; its advanced target recognition algorithms provide movement detection and target tracking.

Other payloads might include the ubiquitous EO sensor pod, SAR or multiples of the same.

It is ARGUS that has been in the news recently with a planned deployment to Afghanistan very soon.

If one compares the Hummingbird with the Fire Scout, the former can fly higher and longer but carry less.

Boeing / Insitu Scan Eagle

The ScanEagle has an interesting history, initially introduced in 2001 to assist tuna fishing fleets it has evolved into a mature, low cost, flexible and highly effective family of vehicles and payloads. A few months ago it notched up its half-million flying hours milestone.

In Libya the Scan Eagle demonstrated its capabilities and after, Insitu released a press release

“What happened over that period of time, no one expected,” says ScanEagle Detachment Officer in Charge Lt. Nick Townsend. “ScanEagle was locating contacts of interest that no one else could find. After the dust settled, ScanEagle was credited with locating a host of contacts of interest due to its ability to capture superior image quality and to operate covertly at relatively low altitudes.” Captured imagery was delivered from the ship to the task force via secure networked channels provided by the Secure Video Injection system from The Boeing Company, Insitu’s parent company. The UAV-provided, near-real-time video helped enable quick, tactical decisions.

The video below demonstrates just how compact and easy to use the launch and recovery equipment is, incidentally shot from the same USS Mahon that operated the Scan Eagle in Libya. 

To see the full specs, loads of video and images click here to go to the Insitu website.

ScanEagle can be upgraded to NightEagle specification in only a few hours.

The Scan Eagle is a mature system and has many optional extras and a full range of sensors and supporting payloads in addition to mission planning and image analysis tools. It really is an off the shelf system.


Scan Eagle has a bigger brother, the Integrator that can carry a larger payload yet still use the same launch and recovery method. The Integrator has been selected by the USN and USMC to fulfil the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS) requirement.

One of the strengths of the Scan Eagle and Integrator is the modular payload bay that has had many systems already integrated; electro-optical, infrared and synthetic aperture radar as imaging payloads for example. Other useful payloads include communications relays of various types and an intelligent ships AIS interrogator that matches a received AIS signal with imagery to confirm the identity of a ship.

The 24-hour endurance is certainly impressive but limited to sensor payloads.

Click here for a brochure.

Gazelle and SW-4

These are interesting not only because they are conversions of existing manned helicopters (like many of these rotary UAV’s) but because of their UK connection, which makes them likely contenders for any RN programme.

Northrop Grumman and QinetiQ proposed an unmanned Gazelle and described their solution as ‘short term and low cost’

The unmanned Gazelle would use the control systems of the Northrop MQ-8B Firescout which does kind of beg the question why not just buy the much more mature Firescout in the first place.

Using the Gazelle as a platform makes sense – it’s a proven system with low support and operating costs. We could bring in a capability a lot sooner than the navy currently believes is possible,” he said.

Speaking at DSEi 2011, Qinetiq’s assistant technical director of avionics, Jeremy Howitt, said;

Qinetiq would be responsible for programme management and integration activities under the proposal, which would also include flight test activities from the West Wales UAV Centre at Aberporth. Unmanning an aircraft is the relatively easy part. The difficult part is providing the multiple levels of redundancy and failure management required that allows you to deliver military effect. We could do an initial demonstration within 12 months, and within the order of £10 million

12 months and ten million quid for a demonstrator, mmm

Given that Gazelle is due out of service soon and the maturity of competing systems it is hard to see the advantages of reinventing the wheel.

At around the same time, Agusta Westland (now owners of the Polish helicopter manufacturer PZL-Swidnick) announced a possible conversion of their SW-4 light helicopter.

The first unmanned flight was scheduled for early this year.

Both these were aiming for the endurance of 8 hours depending on the payload weight.

Precision Land Attack

The Future Maritime Fires Concept Phase is due to complete in around mid-2012 so no doubt the lessons from Libya will play a large part in informing the study. With the cancelling of the BAe 155mm TMF project, the choice of a naval gun has narrowed but there are also missile and UAV delivered systems worthy of consideration.


Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his policy is on the replacement of existing warship guns by ones of 155mm; and if he will make a statement on his policy, with special reference to (a) the future frigate fleet and (b) Type 45 destroyers.


Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative)

No decision on the calibre of the new Maritime Indirect Fire System (the new naval gun) has yet been made. This will be taken when work to consider the available options under the Future Maritime Fires Concept Phase is complete in around mid-2012.


The Maritime Fires Concept, of which the Maritime Indirect Fire System (MIFS) is part, is being delivered in conjunction with the Niteworks Partnership and is expected to be met by a medium calibre gun or MCG. The other part of MFS is the Maritime Indirect Fire Precision Attack (MIFPA) is expected to be delivered using missile systems, potentially Fire Shadow.


The existing 115mm/4.5” Mark 8 Mod 1 gun aboard Royal Navy vessels has its origins in the late sixties and has given excellent service. The HE Extended Range round uses base bleed to propel the round to a maximum range of 27.5km and the existing illumination nature is also still available. In order to maintain a sustained rate of fire of 16-20 rounds per minute and accommodate the more powerful ammunition types, the barrel is 62 calibres long. It has seen extensive service including action off the Falkland Islands (8,000 rounds), Iraq and Libya.

As we know though, there is not a large installed base on which to spread development costs of precision, proximity and IR illumination or smoke natures so the open market seems an obvious place to look, especially given the 155mm TMF concept has been cancelled.

There are a number of options but probably only two realistic ones, the BAE 5” Mark 45 and the Oto Melara 127mm Compact and Lightweight.

The Mark 45 Mod 4 from BAE, as used by the US Navy, South Korea, Denmark, Australia and others, is a 5”/127mm system with a 62 calibre barrel and is capable of a rate of fire up to 20 rounds per minute.

The Oto Melara system comes in a Compact form and the newer Lightweight version with a 64 calibre barrel.

In 2010 Babcock and Oto Melara signed a Memorandum of Understanding to offer the Light Weight Medium Calibre Gun System to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the Type 26 frigate.

To quote the sales blurb;

The Oto Melara 127/64 LW gun is capable of firing up to 35 rounds per minute. The production turret weighs less than 29 tons and the ‘peppered’ muzzle brake with an aluminium shield keeps cost down, improves maintenance and reduces radar cross-section. The gun uses an advanced ammunition handling system, consisting of four revolving drum magazines holding 56 ready-to-fire rounds of more than four different types, allowing flexibility in ammunition selection and a high rate of sustained fire. It is capable of anti-surface and anti-air defence, and area engagement. The new Vulcano ammunition is capable of precision engagement at ranges previously only achievable by missile systems but at a fraction of the cost.

Very impressive.

After many years of very expensive trials, the US Extended Range Guided Munition was cancelled, leaving the USN without precision gun launched land attack but Oto Melara has continued to persevere and have introduced the Vulcano range of munitions.

The Vulcano has both an extended range unguided and long-range guided nature that is used with the 127mm to deliver rounds out to 120km.

I don’t think it is in service yet though.

There is also of course the mental 155mm Advanced Gun System (AGS) from BAE that will equip the USN DDG-1000 Destroyer but given that we seem unlikely to build a new ship class around the needs of this gun, it’s for interest only.

Guns have several distinct advantages, the ability to fire different natures, apply their effects over a wide area (pin point precision is not always desirable) and to sustain operations over a longer period are just a few of them but missiles generally speaking, at least in this context, can fire at greater ranges and potentially apply a larger warhead with greater precision.


Off the shelf, there are surprisingly few options.

The report that sparked this post mentioned GMLRS, the famous 70km sniper.

A maritime MRLS/GMLRS is not a new concept, the US Navy initiated a study into something similar called the Precision Over the horizon Land Attack Rocket (POLAR) that used the MRLS rocket as its base, although the motor was nearly a third larger. This was cancelled in favour of the Land Attack Standard Missile that was also itself, subsequently cancelled.

Navalising a land-based system is no trivial task and the principal problem with this idea is managing the corrosive exhaust. Others include maintaining corrosion resistance, reloading and compensating for the movement of the ship (the guidance system may not be able to cope with a moving launch platform)

There may be simple design rather than scientific research answers to some of these or simply accepting compromises. Instead of reloading at sea, simply accept that it is an alongside task, instead of expensively making everything corrosion resistance design in semi-protected components and accept a higher frequency of replacement and instead of creating a complex exhaust gas management system or replacing the propellant design the system so that it can only be fired (not sure what the proper nautical term is) at right angles to the axis of the ship, thus venting the majority into the sea.

Now, none of these might be feasible and there might be other issues but could some of the disadvantages be overcome with compromise?

Not sure.

What is certain is that a naval GMLRS would be invaluable, potent, have some degree of commonality with land forces and be relatively low cost.

What is even more intriguing is that should we be able to integrate a GMLRS launcher aboard an RN vessel open up the possibility of using the same launcher for the 300km BROACH warhead variant, ATACMS, 1 per pod. The Israelis also make the 150km EXTRA rocket that fits two to a G/MLRS pod.

Standing 25km offshore (with that indefinite poise thing) a ship-launched ATACMS would be able to attack targets up to 275km inshore.

The images below shows a 300km radius circle.

There are minimum range and many more thorny issues to consider with ship launched ATACMS/GMLRS but they remain an intriguing prospect.

A more conventional and off the shelf option is the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM3), in service with Norway and Poland.

With a 150km range, the NSM weighs 400Kg with a 125kg warhead and can attack a mix of land and surface targets. This would also have the added benefit of being integrated onto the F35 for commonality all around. The Stand Off Land Attack Missile, based on the Harpoon is another option.

Another system that is likely to be a shoo-in is the Team Complex Weapons Fire Shadow that is a difficult system to characterise, half missile and half UAV is called a loitering munition.

Fire Shadow will be deployed to Afghanistan this year. I must admit to being a sceptic on the Fire Shadow in a land environment but in a maritime environment, it has many plus points.

If we really want to spend a fortune the CVS401 Perseus concept missile from MBDA will also provide plenty of options, potentially replacing Storm Shadow, cue, an enormous bunfight between the RAF and RN.

We might also consider that our ISR UAV may also be used to deliver precision ground attack at range. The Camcopter has been shown with the Lightweight Multirole Missile and the Fire Scout has also been demonstrated with a wide variety of missiles.

The LMM is now in the manufacturing phase and will be deployed on Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters. Arming a UAV with multiple missiles would provide a low yield land-attack system.


To summarise, there seems a tremendous variety of military off the shelf equipment that we could take as a base and integrate into UK systems, the UAV into the Watchkeeper infrastructure for example so it does not look to be a compelling case for a UK development.

With the need to extend the reach of surface vessels, I carefully avoid the use of the term major combatant because vessels lower down the flightiness ladder can equally benefit, with both ISTAR and attack capabilities is obvious.

We could still deliver improved land-attack capabilities without investment in maritime UAV’s because target identification and guidance can come from other ‘platforms’ but the availability of an organic UAV would greatly enhance the ability of a frigate or destroyer without requiring others or relying on a manned helicopter where it might be difficult to deploy.

The Gazelle and SW-4 unmanned developments from QinetiQ and Agusta Westland look interesting but what do they really bring over and above the Fire Scout, Camcopter or even the Scan Eagle, all of which are available now.

Land attack from surface vessels is a capability area that the Royal Navy is comparatively weak in but this can be addressed without resorting to a mahoosive project. We should not forget, whilst bemoaning the lack of capability in this area, that the RN is one of the few nations able to deliver cruise missiles from submarines, a fearsome capability if there ever was one.

Whilst we might consider cruise missiles as strategic in their effect the ability of the lower-cost systems should not be dismissed.

Let us equally not forget how CVF with Apache and in the future JCA will also provide a significant land attack from the sea capability, however costly.

With a relatively modest investment, the RN could have a multi-layered system of systems (sorry) that can deal with a wide variety of operational needs.

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