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Low Cost Manned ISTAR

There is a general and widespread assumption that unmanned ISTAR is cheap ISTAR but I think the best that can be said of this assumption is that the jury is still out. Taking into consideration loss rates, bandwidth costs and other factors there is still a demand for manned ISTAR in high or low threat environments.

A good example is the RAF’s Shadow R.1 based on the twin turboprop Beechcraft King Air.

Shadow R1 5(AC) Sqdn RAF Waddington
Shadow R1 5(AC) Sqdn RAF Waddington

Quietly going about its business with little fanfare or the attention of Reaper or Watchkeeper it has proven to be an excellent investment for the RAF and according to recent announcements will be retained post Afghanistan and joined by a sixth aircraft.

Great news, we need more.

Manned aircraft are increasingly being used instead of helicopters and in the RPAS surrogate role.

An example of this in a UK context is the National Police Air Service (NPAS) use of the Vulcanair P68R and the continued use by the British Army of Diamond DA42’s in the fast jet/RPAS surrogate role for training support, contracted to the Army through 3DSL

Diamond DA42 RPAS and CAS Surrogate
Diamond DA42 RPAS and CAS Surrogate
Flt Lt Jon Griffin (OC 613 TACP 16AAB) and Sgt Nathan Timbrell (2 i/c 255 TACP Bty RA) use 3SDL assets to provide 3 Para with ISR & CAS training during BATUK's Exercise Askari Storm 4
Flt Lt Jon Griffin (OC 613 TACP 16AAB) and Sgt Nathan Timbrell (2 i/c 255 TACP Bty RA) use 3SDL assets to provide 3 Para with ISR & CAS training during BATUK’s Exercise Askari Storm 4

The next logical step is to arm these low cost ISTAR aircraft and whilst I don’t think low cost manned aircraft like the ever present in these discussion Super Tucano can provide an effective replacement for ground alert close air support I do think they are worth considering for persistent combat ISTAR or in situations where targets of opportunity present themselves.

Low cost is also a comparative term, compared to what?

Some of these options really are cheap, as in really cheap. Some are a lot more expensive but still much cheaper than an F35.

This is a brief look at some of the lower cost manned ISTAR options (not a market survey, selected examples) and a summary of thoughts on the subject.

How cheap to you want to go, how about a second hand Seabird Seeker for less than £90k?

The Seeker started out in Australia, the product of Seabird Aviation, Queensland Australia.

The owners (Don and Peter Adams) noted an upcoming niche for a low cost airborne observation aircraft and the first SB7L-360 Seeker flew in 1993, just over ten years after the Seabird Rousabout flew (a similar but smaller aircraft). Seabird also recognised that despite many light observation tasks being fulfilled by helicopters those helicopters flew from conventional airfields and did not use vertical flight or hovering, instead, low speed safe operation was the most important factor.

With operating costs at least a third lower than for even the cheapest of helicopters the Seeker was a modest commercial success in the pipeline and power cable monitoring markets, environmental protection and security sectors.

A number of improvements were made in 2003 and the Seeker 2 bought into production. This coincided with a joint venture in Jordan being formed with the King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB). Trials were carried out focussing on border patrol and road surveillance including operations from austere location, as can be seen from the image below, refuelling does not need much in the way of specialist equipment!

Seabird Seeker 2 Jordan
Seabird Seeker 2 Jordan

A couple of them were supplied to the Iraqi Air Force, equipped with FLIR 8600 surveillance systems. Flight costs were claimed to sub $100 per hour

Iraq Seeker
Iraq Seeker
Seeker Iraq 2
Seeker Iraq 2
Seeker Iraq
Seeker Iraq
Seeker road landing
Seeker road landing

Development has increased capabilities since then and Seeker Aviation is now owned by the US joint venture, Seeker America. Read more about the evolution of the Seeker here

It can take off in just over 250m and land in under 200m, endurance between 4 and 7 hours (depending on speed) and be fitted with a range of mission equipment and sensors, including the Thales iMaster SAR system as used on Watchkeeper. The cockpit is NVG compatible and a down link can transmit imagery to receivers up to 100km away.

In 2013 the USA supplied a dozen Seekers to the Yemeni Border Guard. Manned aircraft like the Seeker look nothing like a Predator and in some circumstances, that is a very good thing. They are cheap to operate and capable of being used by less advanced forces without the technical and logistic depth enjoyed by others.

New aircraft, fitted with all the military bells and whistles, came in at less than a million pounds in 2003 but for the Yemeni purchase of 12 aircraft, the US DoD paid $27m including pilot and sensor operator training, a maintainer and Field Service Representatives (FSRs) and an initial provisioning of spares, detailed in the request.

The Seabird Seeker reminds me of the Edgley Optica trialled by the Army in Northern Ireland

Also in Iraq, the US and Iraqi forces made great use of the Cessna 208 Combat Caravan. The Combat Caravan is a modified variant of the 1980’s vintage Cessna Grand Caravan, an aircraft in widespread use throughout the world.

Cessna 208 Caravan
Cessna 208 Caravan

The Combat Caravan was designed and built by ATK and includes an AAR-47/ALE-47 Defensive Aids System with composite armour panels for key areas. The ATK STAR mission system is integrated with a Wescam MX15D EO/IR sensor and a range of communication systems.

The icing on the cake is a pair of hardpoints used to mount Hellfire II missiles.


AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
The UAE's AC-208 attack version of the Cessna Caravan turboprop single is on display at the Dubai Airshow, making its public debut. It carries a complement of Hellfire missiles.
The UAE’s AC-208 attack version of the Cessna Caravan turboprop single is on display at the Dubai Airshow, making its public debut. It carries a complement of Hellfire missiles. (Image Credit – AIN)
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire
AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire

Iraq has 3 in service and Jordan, 2 with the UAE also purchasing a handful.

The Iraqi aircraft have seen a great deal of the recent action in Iraq and Defense Industry Daily has a great write up on the Combat Caravan that describes the full history of Iraqi Cessna’s, combat or therwise.

Costs are reportedly sub $15m per aircraft

In Africa, the Paramount Group and Aerosud have taken concept one step further and created the Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light Attack (AHRLAC) aircraft.


What sets the AHRLAC apart is the simple fact it has been designed in Africa for low cost operations from austere locations, it should also be noted that Paramount is developing the aircraft with its own money.

It has a sophisticated sensor and mission system and is clearly aimed at the combat end of the combat ISTAR spectrum. The design is reminiscent of the OV-10 Bronco or Cessna 337, a pusher propeller configuration and tandem cockpit. It has a 7 hours plus mission endurance with 800kg payload and full fuel. Take off distance is 550m with full payload. The high wing and pusher propeller configuration helps with operation from austere locations it can self deploy with tools and equipment stored in the lower pod.

This lower pod takes up the majority of the lower half of the fuselage and can be configured for different payloads from SAR, EO to EW and Cargo. Each wing has 3 hardpoints, 1 of which is plumbed for fuel.


It is still at a relatively early stage of development with first flight only a few months ago but it has many advantages over trainer derived light attack aircraft like the Super Tucano or repurposed crop dusters like the Iomax Archangel, it has been purpose designed for the mission, whether that mission is anti poaching or close air support. Another key point is the options list that can take the basic platform and add a range of sensors, weapons, engine upgrades, avionics and weapons.

Looping back into the more specialised ISTAR domain and away from the combat aspects of the AHRLAC and Combat Caravan are a handful of specialist aircraft with a European heritage.

In November the National Police Aviation Service awarded a contract to deliver a Vulcanair P86R fixed surveillance aircraft to the Austrian company, Airborne Technologies. The standard airframe costs less than £750k and although the final cost with all the extras will be much higher, the running costs are said to be exceptionally low.

NPAS had previously trialled a Tecnam MMA aircraft, another of the new breed of advanced low cost twins. The Spanish company Indra have also taken the Tecnam airframe and developed it further into a lightweight maritime patrol aircraft, the MRI.

The Tecnam Multi Mission Aircraft might be on the small side with a modest payload of just less than 150kg but capital and operating costs would be very low, it is claimed they have the lowest operating costs of any similar aircraft.

A curious design and yet one that has achieved considerable success is the Diamond DA-42 Twin Star. Originally designed as a light utility and training aircraft its key features were low operating costs and its use of diesel engines.

Diamond DA-42
Diamond DA-42

A number of third party integrators have modified the DA42 to meet requirements as diverse as aerial cinematography, mapping and radar sensing.

The basic model is the DA-42 NG, capable of operating with a payload of 470kg  at 5,500m altitude and range of 2,00 km. A couple of special mission variants use the basic NG as a base platform, the DA42 MPP Guardian and DA42 MPP Geostar. Both special mission have similar performance to the NG, 12 hours endurance although typical missions are between 6 and 8 hours.

DA42 MPP Guardian
DA42 MPP Guardian

The Geostar is optimised for mapping and survey missions whilst the Guardian has a more general purpose role that can accept a variety of sensors in the nose pod and under fuselage belly pod.

DA42 Sensor Pods
DA42 Sensor Pods

Niger operate a pair of DA-42 MPP’s in support of counter narcotics operations and border security that utilise the Zeiss Goshawk 350 mission system with a range of the usual suspect sensors and data links.

Read the brochure here

Diamond have introduced a lighter version and are planning to introduce a 6 seater soon.

The MoD contracted with DO Systems in 2008 for a surveillance capability in Iraq whilst other aircraft were bought into service. A pair of DA 42’s flew over 2,000 hours in support of UK operations whilst another was used for training. They were equipped with the FLIR Systems Star Safire III.

In 2013 Thales and Diamond integrated the I Master Synthetic Aperture Radar with the DA-42.

Conducted in partnership with Diamond Aircraft Industries and Diamond Airborne Sensing at its facility in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, the week-long trial covered different radar modes at a range of altitudes and speeds. The demonstration included using the onboard payload to transmit full-resolution radar images and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) footage via a high-bandwidth line-of-sight data link to controllers at the ground station.

The DA42MPP NG, with its de-icing TKS protection, is all-weather capable, enabling flight operations to use the Thales I-Master radar to detect targets; these can then be identified by the EO/IR turret, which is also mounted on the platform, before the footage is sent back to headquarters via line-of-sight datalink.

I-Master is an all weather, lightweight payload that is easily installed in a standard 15-inch gimbal outline. Its high-performance radar offers two modes: Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery.

GMTI is used to detect moving targets – from high-speed vehicles to targets moving at a walking pace. Its 360-degree capability can scan a wide area, such as deserts, savannah, borders and road networks, and its use over time can help to build a ‘pattern of life’ situation awareness.

SAR is used for long-range stand-off image collection – both high-resolution spotlight pictures and extended ‘strip maps’. It is deployed as an alternative to gathering images by camera; its long range enables aircraft to avoid dangerous situations, and it is unaffected by severe weather conditions or lack of light.

The Diamond DA42MPP (Multi-Purpose Platform) GUARDIAN is an innovative twin-engine aircraft specially designed for carrying interchangeable multi-function sensor equipment. The aircraft used during the I-Master trial was configured for an airborne mission capability of 7-9 hours with a two-man crew.

Eddie Awang, Vice President of Intelligence Surveillance & Reconnaissance at Thales UK, said, “I-Master delivers an advanced capability in a lightweight payload that is easy to install or swap between aircraft. We believe that the combination with the Diamond DA42 is particularly attractive, and meets an increased need for cost-effective, light, manned ISR platforms. It offers a complete solution for military, paramilitary, homeland security and border surveillance, pipeline security and incident management.”

“It was impressive to see how quickly and easily the I-Master could be integrated into the DA42MPP GUARDIAN,” said Markus Fischer, Sales Director for Diamond Airborne Sensing. “The ease of installation, in combination with the outstanding performance demonstrated in the field trials, opens up huge new sales opportunities for Diamond. It is now no longer necessary to operate an expensive and cost-inefficient heavy platform to gather data from different sensors.”

I Master is the same radar system as fitted to the Watchkeeper unmanned system, which is now available with maritime capability.

Thales I-Master DA42MPP 2013
Thales I-Master DA42MPP 2013
I Master Maritime
I Master Maritime

The Airborne Sensing website shows the range of payloads that have been proven on the DA-42, shamelessly lifted and shown below!





EO/IR Cameras

Cassidian Optronics


Universal Nose


General Dynamics


V-14 Cineflex V14MSII

Cineflex ELITE


Star SAFIRE 380-HD



UltraForce 350



Corona 350

Kelvin 275


MX-15 True HD




Elbit System ELOP



HD Cameras

General Dynamics

Cineflex V14HD



Laser Scanner





Air Monitoring





Data Transmission LOS




Wood & Douglas



Heli-Coder 4


SOLO H.264


FM Datalink

Data Transmission BLOS

Scotty Group

Scotty Aero System

Flight Inspection System (AFIS)

Airfield Technology




Radio Communication

Rohde & Schwarz

M3AR Series VHF/UHF Radio


KTR 909 UHF Radio

Barrett Communications

HF2050 Radio

Moving Map and Task Management Systems


EuroNav 5
EuroNav 7



Skyforce Observer
Skyforce Sentinel

Churchill Navigation

ARS – Augmented Reality Mapping System

Radar Applications



Underfloor Pod



Seaspray 5000E



COMINT Systems

Rohde & Schwarz

Airborne COMINT



VIS Line Scanner






UltraCam Lp
UltraCam HAWK

Nose Pod


Quattro DigiCAM




PAV80 Mount


A3 Digital Camera


SSM350L Mount

In addition the the I Master and Elbit CoMPASS (as Watchkeeper) there is the Seaspray 500E for maritime patrol applications and the Rohde & Schwarz COMINT system.

The Rohde & Schwarz COMINT system;

The system is available in three different configurations – basic version, standard version and advanced version. It can be flexibly adapted to customer requirements and expanded as needed. Broadband signal interception and processing ensures that signals are reliably detected. It is even possible to monitor multiple radio channels per frequency band

DA42 Guardian with COMINT
DA42 Guardian with COMINT
DA42 Guardian with COMINT
DA42 Guardian with COMINT

DO Systems have recently integrated the Satlink Hawkeye Beyond Line of Sight Datalink with the Thrane and Thrane (now Cobham) Aviator 300 satelite antenna which is claimed to transmit video transmission at speeds as low as 6Kbs

Thrane and Thrane Aviator 300
Thrane and Thrane Aviator 300

It is this flexibility and low cost that has seen the DA42 achieve such widespread adoption, even in niche areas like RPAS and fast jet training surrogate for land forces.

Another interesting development of the basic DA42  aircraft is the Areonautics Dominator.

The Dominator turns the DA42 into an unmanned aircraft or Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS. It is a smart strategy, the aircraft is proven and low cost with a range of already integrated sensors and communications links. By offering an ‘optionally manned’ solution the solution also solves the problem of using unmanned systems in restricted airspace.

For training and transit, manned, difficult long endurance missions, simply fit the unmanned guidance systems.

The Dominator XP, launch customer Mexico,  offers endurance up to 28 hours, maximum altitude of 30,000 feet and a top speed of 350kph. In the unmanned mode, payload is 350kg and for the Mexico order, will be fitted with a SAR, SIGINT, IFF and Electro Optical systems.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of the low cost manned ISTAR aircraft is the US Beechcraft King Air. A number of forces have used the king Air for many years in the ISTAR, SIGINT, training and utility roles, RAF and RN included.

The basic aircraft has a massive user base (over 6,000 aircraft), is safe and reliable with proven performance and great adaptability. It has a high top speed, plenty of endurance and payload (for sensors, DAS and Comms) and pressurised cabin, perfectly suited to the role.

If a sensor is available, chances are there is a King Air flying with one.

The USAF first used King Air’s in the md 70’s and designated them RC-12’s. Since then the aircraft has evolved and a number of integrators have taken the basic aircraft and stuffed them full of all manner of sensors, mission equipment and communications gear.

This image from Northrop Grumman shows the evolution of the US Army Guardrail aircraft from the RU-21E in 1971 to the RC-12 Super X (Multi Intel) today.

King Air Guardrail evolution

There are thought to be over 25 different King Air ISTAR variants in service with the most recent versions including the MC-12 Liberty, Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance And Reconnaissance (CEASAR) and Shadow R1.

[Update; US Army RC-12x is another recent upgrade H/T AAMR]

Although endurance at 8 hours is lower than many unmanned systems they can haul over a tonne of payload at high altitudes and higher speeds. CEASAR uses the same Raytheon AN/ALQ-227 system as the Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare (EW) aircraft. Sensors carried by others variants includes exotica such as the Horned Owl (electro-optical and ground-penetrating radar), persistent wide area system, LIDAR and multi-spectral sensors.

The latest newsworthy King Air is the Boeing RAMIS, a modular multi role system.

Ramis Tactical ISR Testbed
Ramis Tactical ISR Testbed

In an interview for a trade magazine Mike Ferguson from Boeing said;

“There are five things you have to think about when building an ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] aircraft.

These are:

What is it that I am trying to collect data on (is it a truck, person, ship, or command post);

What does this target do that differentiates itself from the background and allows me to find it, and what data am I trying to collect on that target;

What is the terrain – mountainous (a radar won’t work, so you need a sensor that looks directly down) or flat lowlands (where radar or wide-area surveillance [WAS] detection systems do work);

What is the vegetation – is the target in the open or under a triple jungle canopy (which requires [LIght Detection And Ranging] LIDAR or foliage-penetration radar);

and how big is the search area – is it a city or the Pacific Ocean?

Modularity and reconfigurability of systems and sensors is a key feature of RAMIS. You can fly a different sortie against a different target in the morning and evening, and change the aircraft’s configuration to match that.

In order to fulfil this multi-INT mission set, RAMIS employs a suite of communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) sensors fitted in an extended nose section and an underbelly ‘canoe’ fairing divided into four under-fuselage payload bays.

In the extended nose section, the modular mission equipment comprises the option of an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di and -15HDi retractable electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensor turret, a Thales UK Ku-band I-Master Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS) turret, and a ground moving target indicator/synthetic aperture radar (GMTI/SAR).

The underbelly ‘canoe’ fairing can house a gimballed EO/IR turret, WAAS equipment, Wide Area Motion Imaging (WAMI), LIDAR systems; FOLiage PENetrating (FOPEN) radar, GMTI/SAR, hyper-spectral sensors, ELINT/SIGINT systems, communications systems, and datalinks.

A dorsal satellite communications (SATCOM) radome is also fitted to the upper body of the aircraft.

Boeing have positioned RAMIS between their Scan Eagle range and the Challenger 650 Maritime Surveillance Aircraft

Many readers will have heard of the Gorgon Stare Wide Area Persistent Surveillance system, RAMIS have been tested bit a similar system from CRI called Lodestar.

Although Lodestar might be very smart it cannot challenge the Vehicle And Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER) for having a cool name! VADER has been carried by Islanders, Predators and Twin Otters in addition to King Airs.


Think of it as JSTARS for people

L3 (the Air Seeker/Rivet joint people) have integrated their comprehensive RIO SIGINT system with the King Air and other sensors called SPYDER creating an advanced cross cuing capability between SIGINT and optical systems.


SPYDER Spiral 1 includes;

Platform Independent Capabilities – Modular Design

  • Re-Configurable Extended Lower Pod (100 lbs. Payload)
  • Extended Frequency: Upper (High UHF / SHF)

Advanced Radar Capabilities

FMV: WESCAM™ MX-15DiD EO / IR Turret (with TVES) on Pod

Full Rio SIGINT System with added UHF Scan Capability

  • Theater Net-Centric GEO-Location (TNG)
  • Remoted Video / SIGINT Operations

Additional Capabilities

  • Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) (Nose / Tail)
  • Lightweight Interior, Low SWaP Mission Computing Provisions
  • Telephonics ICS

Spiral 2 adds;

Second High Definition EO / IR Turret in Extended Nose

Future Advanced Radar Capabilities

For both versions a range of technology insertion options exist;

  • Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV) Capability
  • Emerging Advanced Radar Capabilities
  • Wide Area Surveillance System (WASS)
  • Hyper Spectral Imaging Systems
  • Updated TCDL
  • Wing Tip Pod Sensors
  • Maritime Radar
  • Ka/Ku Satellite Data Link
  • 4G Airborne Cell

Algeria operates an extended range King Air in the maritime patrol mission, equipped with Selex radar and other sensors.

Raytheon was the prime contractor for the UK’s Shadow R.1’s, the sensor fit has not been disclosed but I think it would be safe to assume it is very capable.

Also worth mentioning is the handful of King Air B200’s in service with the RAF (10 of) and RN in the training role, plenty of fleet commonality to reduce overall operating costs.

King Air aircraft of 45(R) Squadron, based at RAF Cranwell, displaying the new livery.
King Air aircraft of 45(R) Squadron, based at RAF Cranwell, displaying the new livery.
King Air aircraft of 45(R) Squadron, based at RAF Cranwell, displaying the new livery.
King Air aircraft of 45(R) Squadron, based at RAF Cranwell, displaying the new livery.

There are a load of other options


Omasud MMA
Omasud MMR


Army Air Corps Defender
Army Air Corps Defender


Northrop Grumman Firebird with BACN SmartNode Pod
Northrop Grumman Firebird with BACN SmartNode Pod


Schweizer SA-38B
Schweizer SA-38B

The simple fact is these kinds of aircraft are vulnerable to well equipped and well trained military forces, there is simply no way they would be survivable in the teeth of modern radar or infra red guided missiles and guns.

Against lower capability MANPADS modern defensive systems provide adequate protection but they might still be vulnerable when operated at low level to anti aircraft guns.

Against the majority of enemies the UK has found itself ranged against the last couple of decades though, they are perfectly adequate and I think there is an argument for more, possibly even at the expense of a small number of the higher end, especially as the upstream engagement mission takes on greater significance.

The mistake people make when talking about this subject is seeing them as a replacement for fast jets but they are not, and can not, be a replacement. What they are is a useful complementary capability that delivers proportional effects at a low cost, thus preserving the high end for when high end is needed.

Instead of comparing them to an F35 or Typhoon, I think a more useful comparison is that of a helicopter, the Lynx AH9a in the convoy overwatch role for example.

Beechcraft have modified the King Air wing to take a hardpoint, it would not be a huge leap to see an RAF Shadow equipped with a Brimstone 2 or single cell LMM launcher. Being able to conduct armed ISTAR missions or the ability to prosecute targets of opportunity would be a useful uplift.

One cannot turn the clock back but look at Watchkeeper and compare its sensor fit and endurance to a DA42 or Dominator.

The main difference is the ability to operate from austere locations but how many times do we think Watchkeeper will operate from anything other than concrete and with that in mind, compare the costs.

Aircraft like the Shadow (and other numerous King Air ISTAR variants) and DA43 (manned or unmanned) ask some serious questions of the current generation of unmanned and fast jet systems in contemporary operating environments.

And if they ask questions of fast jets and current RPAS they certainly ask questions of helicopters, Apache and Wildcat will be the most expensive Army aircraft to operate by several country miles. Look at how they (Lynx) were used in Afghanistan, unique capabilities on offer from the rotor blades used infrequently.

The question is, should we reduce Apache, Typhoon/F35 and Reaper/Watchkeeper and more Shadows and DA42’s

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36 Responses

  1. I think I’d go further- Why do the army need a separate a/c fleet? Can the King Air airframe not do what the Defender/ Islander can do?

    I’d have a Common Light Airborne Platform (Yes- CLAP!) to carry out multi-engine/ Nav training, light transport, coms, ISTARs, surveillance & any other myriad roles.

    …about 40 light twin turbo-props, all with hard-pointed wings. Could be operated by RAuxAF squadrons for most roles.

    …I still like the idea of RAuxAF sqns equipped with Hawk 200s, operating in the direct air support role…

    …keep the high end stuff for…well… high end tasks

  2. As an outside choose how about the Grob G520T sounds like an interesting platform.
    11 hour flight time with 1000kg of mission equipment and at 45,000ft.

  3. I recall the DA42’s weren’t very popular with their aircrews when we sent a couple to Iraq.

    Of course, looking at its design and the environment they were flying in, you can see why!
    Similarly, the Shadows also aren’t that comfortable in hot and high climates for long durations.
    (typical Crab complaining… but there is a point)

    But yes, we were slow to follow the US Armys/CIA’s lead on the use and huge potential of the king airs… though we have had similar style of ops for quite some time on the Army defenders in N.I. and the shadowey RAF Halton flight.

    Though I do think our Shadow R1’s are purely intelligence and recon, adding a limited attack capability may be a bit much – more a “useful to have but not vital” atm.

  4. @TD/Thread

    Please excuse my ignorance, but presumably the only reason why a UCAV might be cheaper is that you can use a smaller airframe, packed with equipment, but not requiring crew space.

    Presumably fuel costs would be similar for a UCAV v civil design conversion ? Aircraft maintenance costs ought to be lower for a civil design and the UCAV would likely be more expensive to build given the smaller production run ? In addition, if you have a big aircraft, you could presumably build in decent crew accommodation (I’m thinking first class style beds – don’t some have showers as well these days ?) and food provision to extend the sortie length (especially with a2a refueling if internal range is a problem).

    So long as your capability isn’t operating in the battle space and might get shot down, is the UCAV cheaper assumption a valid one at all ?

  5. Nick, there is a chance that using UAVs are actually more expensive! It might have changed, but the conops I know for UAVs involve flying them from a base, then handing them over to a local ground control station, flying the mission, then handing the UAV back to the “transit” crew. So in the case of a surveillance UAV, you will have the “transit” flight crew, then the “ground control” crew in addition to the “mission” crew while a manned vehicle will only need the flight crew and mission crew, so you’re actually doubling your flight crew needs.

    Crew space is actually quite cheap, after all, it’s just empty area with seats and beds, mission equipment is the same, just in a different location (ground vs in the air) and you have to add all the comms equipment to transmit the data received back to the ground station in lieu of the mission equipment on the plane, so you’re also adding another layer of equipment (comms vs on site analysis).

    In the end, the UAV may actually be more expensive!

  6. The US army just rolled out RC-12x. Complete new gear and all, with new istar pods, communications system. I saw in some news that first deplpyment of these impressive system will be in korea. Reportedly those new istar pods are so impressive that USAF are looking to scale up the system and bring them into jstars upgrade.

  7. The point on runways immediately followed this statement
    “One cannot turn the clock back but look at Watchkeeper and compare its sensor fit and endurance to a DA42 ”
    But looking at the take-off distance required, the comparison is quite striking.

    Take-off mentioned separately as gettingthese thingsin the air when needed (as opposed to continuous circuits) from close to the area of ops is one thing, and recovering them (with their range and endurance) somewhere safer is another.

  8. The answer to TD’s grown up question about what do we cut to pay for our armed twin-turboprop scouts is probably Army Wildcat.

    Its vulnerable anyway becuase of the Army’s desperate determination to fund Apache upgrade at all costs, and with Puma replacement also lurking unfunded on the horizon. Unlike Apache, Wildcat isn’t designed to be survivable against even moderate levels of fire from the ground, and is too small to be meaningful in the Medium Transport role. The Twin Turbos would be a fair like for like replacement in the light recce role with lower operating costs and more range and endurance. With Green Wildcat out of the picture the Army would ultimately also be better able to make the case for some Green Machines in the medium Transport Role – even if they have to accept a gap until Joint Merlin Replacement to comes along. After all there are plenty of Chinnoks in the short term.

    As others have said upthread if we go for a common Twin Turboprop model across all roles then we effectively eliminate several aircraft types from the inventory in one go. Kerching! The business case might just fly.

    And putting the surplus Green Wilcats in store also provides a short term war and attrition reserve for a 2 Carrier RN that existing Merlin HM2 and Grey Wildcat fleets simply don’t cover.

  9. On manned ISR v unmanned ISR :-
    Electronic Sensor suite – the same
    MK 1 Eyeball – unmanned – none
    – manned – present – two pairs for the use off live interpretation of data.
    Crew/ maintenance costs to fly said unit – the same
    Weapons load if any – the same
    Comms support – the same
    If it crashes and burns – unmanned – write it off and drop a bomb on the wreckage
    – manned – recover the crew using Combat search and rescue (CSAR) which would have to be available at all times during flight operations. It may all ready be there and tasked with covering other missions but could be an additional cost.
    Each has its uses in terms of risk environment , strengths and weakness’s , a good mix available to the commander would give them options on how to gather intel .
    On David Haine wanting to give the Army CLAP :-) I agree a common air frame using widely available engines ,systems and basic avionics with the clever bits bolted onto plumbed and wired or even naked hardpoints using the SCAR Pod mentioned on an earlier post would be great.

  10. PeterE

    Your argument makes sense, but my impression from the news coverage was that we deployed too few helicopters to Afghanistan and too many of our ground troops had insufficient organic air cover for patrols to spot ambushes etc.

    Is having Apache on call (or Tornado or Harrier back then) then the right solution in the type of operation we’re (?) most likely to deploy UK troops to today.

  11. Nick

    The question is whether Army Wildcat is the right tool for the job either? The point being Army Wildcat is expensive to own and operate without delivering either: numbers, unique capability, multi-role versitility, or being a true high end combat asset.

    So for Counter Insurgency might we be better off with a mix of the manned armed turboprop and maybe a tactical Scan-Eagle that fly out of a Platoon PB to give better siutational awareness to a patrol on the ground. All still backed with Apache and Fast Jet CAS on call if needed…?

    And for hot war if canning Green Wildcat ensures we get a fully funded top-end Apache upgrade in decent numbers then that’s covered too.

  12. On the first reading the standardisation idea, across services, seemed appealing, RE
    “On David Haine wanting to give the Army CLAP :-) I agree a common air frame using widely available engines ,systems and basic avionics with the clever bits bolted onto plumbed and wired or even naked hardpoints using the SCAR Pod mentioned on an earlier post would be great.”

    Then two things came to mind:
    – the airfames are so std so it is actually the loadout of gubbings someone has integrated and tested that we are buying, so that we can forego the cost
    – second, there are Bell 212s in use in several far and outlocations, whichwould seem to contravene with any standardisation… But actually, the standardisation is with a support and spare parts availability in such partsof the world. Externally, not inter- or intraservice.

  13. @ACC
    I should have been clearer , yes the commercial light aircraft support infrastructure available worldwide would mean initial deploying the aircraft could be on an essential parts only basis i.e. bits unique to the ISR fit out , pods etc not the Aircraft itself necessarily.

  14. Green Wildcat to me is pretty irrelevant and wasted in the Army, too few to be meaningful, too small to be useful and too fragile for the battlrfield, it needs binning/handed to the RN. Could a small force of Super Kings (Preferred Regal myself!) work in conjunction with Reaper, and replace defender and Wildcat in all the battlefield recce tasks, I think so! For medium transport on the battlefront I still think they need a chopper smaller than a chinnok but double the capacity of Wildcat, I see the Merlin as a bit big? Perhaps we could keep all the ISTAR within the RAF and go for a buy of King Airs to replace the tri service fleets of lighter A/C? Move the Wildcats to the RN and gift the Puma’s to the Army?

  15. Would not it be more sensible for the police to use a fixed wing aircraft like the OPTICA for 99.9% of activities and likewise utilities for pipeline and cable surveys.

    I think surrey force used to have a Bulldog?

    It was always quoted that they needed to land if infringements were found – but I can only recall a very few cases where either this occurred or when ground support could not be quickly on scene.

    Are choppers a ‘willy waving’ things for chief constables etc?

  16. monkey, on the comparisons, it’s slightly wrong.

    For one, there are 2 USV flight crew compared to the manned 1, the transit crew and the on site ground station crew, so it’s double the flight crew costs. For another, there is also a Mk 1 eyeball for the USV, only difference being that the eyes are on the ground. Comms, there is an additional set, from the sensor to the analyst on the ground while manned cut this step out as the analyst is on site.

    The unit being expendable is a key difference as you pointed out, but it’s becoming less and less expendable as the price tag rises.

  17. Have none of you realised that the significant majority of ISTAR (comprising four mostly unrelated activities) is actually done without needing airborne platforms, manned or unmanned?

    There’s a total fetish on TD’s blog among the commenters for spastic little airplanes. There is an alarming lack of questioning or insight into how Commanders make use of real ISTAR from a multitude of sources, or the dynamism between them. Not one of you understands how human emotion is the most sought after intelligence in operations short of war, the only scenario in which these little Cessnas are suitable, and how dangerous it is to think that just because you can see something, you actually understand it.

  18. @TD – BZ , nice one.

    Interesting to see Islanders flying missions with FBI crew over Birmingham to trace links to ISIS/L – they claim to be able to detect residual heat from typing passwords on keyboards from the air :

    Even an iPhone with IR case can detect the thermal residue from typing PINs at cashpoints :

    but doing it from the air is impressive.

    Also got to mention my favourite Islander, the CASTOR “Platypus” G-DLRA that was a predecessor of Sentinel, which was later reused as an AEW testbed as ZG989 :

    One argument against arming Shadows etc is that you’re much more likely to get foreign basing for a pure recce aircraft.

  19. Go on then, Mr Fred. Deconstruct my comment, phrase by phrase. Tell me where I am going wrong.

    I don’t drink spirits, except once a year, and even then only a double.

  20. It’s not really the technical content of the post I have an issue with.
    Most of the time your posts are interesting, even-handed and thought-provoking.
    Every so often, as just demonstrated, you go off the handle with insults and harsh language. Is that necessary?
    It is behaviour I associate with drinking. Wine perhaps?

    I agree with much of your comment, bar the sweeping statements and pejoratives. Airborne surveillance certainly seems to be important but one should not fall into the trap that airpower and technology will solve all your problems. From my standpoint, far removed it may be, much of the problems of recent campaigns seem to lie with a lack of information from sources other than remote video feeds.
    A further problem with remote video, especially that transmitted back from UAVs, is that may encourage higher echelons to get involved in operations that should really be handled by a more local commander with a better appreciation of softer aspects of the situation. A manned platform might, depending on how the communications are run, allow for a more local command as the analysis of the video is conducted locally and fed in to the commander as a summary rather than an unedited feed. Maybe this already happens with UAVs, but I get the impression that the temptation would be greater if the video feed is already back at a major base.

  21. Me Fred,

    I fail to see how my post above could be perceived as drunken. Where are the insults and harsh language? What is unreasonable?

    I am greatly offended by your suggestion.

  22. Relax RT, no insults, just harsh tone and wording, but the point really is correct, most intel is really “humint”. Even mr fred agreed on that point.

    “Me Fred,”

    Hi Fred. :)

  23. RT,
    It’s the deviation from the usual more level tone that has me wondering.
    “There’s a total fetish on TD’s blog among the commenters for spastic little airplanes”
    “Not one of you understands how human emotion is the most sought after intelligence in operations short of war…”

    Now there may well be a fetish for little aeroplanes, but I don’t see why they should be spastic (a term I’ve not heard for the best part of a decade). I also suspect that one or more commenters on the blog have an idea that intelligence covers a much broader area than remote video feeds.

  24. ” intelligence covers a much broader area than remote video feeds.”

    Unless you’re following ISIS who seem to put everything on video streaming. :P

  25. @ RT

    In WW1 the most useful thing that the RFC did was to provide the dedicated artillery squadron to each corps. It was this that enabled UK to win the CB battles, and from that victory.

    In WW2 the RAF service was nowhere near as timely and they really weren’t very interested in the Arty/R role, fortunately neither Germany nor Japan were noted gunners in that war (the former having been sold the air support dog by the Luftwaffe).

    Come the Cold War and facing probably the most artillery conscious army in the world, the situation in the ’50s led to the introduction of drones in the early ’60s. Their primary task was CB target acquisition. Modern drones are capable of surveillance, and in some circumstances such as Afg, very good at it. However, depth target acquisition is the real game, and the view from above is the winner for CB (and other things).

  26. We keep coming back to the same old question don’t we

    Prepare for the fight that never happens and assume we can always ‘step down’ or prepare for the the most common fights that we get involved in and hedge against the possibility of needing to step up

    Tough decision to make

  27. @RT

    “Me Fred,
    I fail to see how my post above could be perceived as drunken. Where are the insults and harsh language? What is unreasonable?
    I am greatly offended by your suggestion.”

    Hmmm lets see:

    “Red Trousers
    July 13, 2014 at 7:44 pm
    Fuck off. I’m perfectly capable of articulating what I want to say, and I don’t need you to help me. I utterly reject what you think I should have said, and going into the future, fuck off again.”

    My reply which was respectful, explained I was having a bit of a gentle joke, explained my position, apologised for any offence caused and politely asked to lets just agree to disagree:

    July 14, 2014 at 1:50 am
    At no point have I ever told you to “Fuck off” RT? Certainly we have disagreed on some matters in the past and agreed on others.
    It was clearly meant as a joke going on your leanings in the past. To have such a sense of humour failure is frankly disappointing. I apologise if I offended you but really that was a childish response not becoming somebody who proudly tells us all his military background as an officer. Regulars here well know that you feel carriers are mostly redundant, that is your opinion and I respect that. Nevertheless your opinion is not fact and you need to respect that others myself included don’t agree.
    If you can’t handle what was a bit of mild banter based upon your prior statements then maybe this isn’t the hobby for you.
    Unless you were being ironic?”

    You answered with silence…until a few weeks later when in another thread purely for having the temerity of disagreeing with you I was told by yourself to:

    Again “Fuck off”
    To grow a pair
    That I was the opposing force
    All my opinions were basically not worth paying attention to or lacking worth(sic)

    All for a disagreement when I have been in the cordial and respectful of your opinions in the past. At that point I started calling you a WALT because my pee was boiling at you general level of disrespect and nastiness. I almost gave up on this site altogether because of your behaviour.

    I have given it time, cooled off and I even apologise for calling you a WALT. But lets make things clear RT, this website is not yours, mine or anybody else’s personal thiefdom (well except TD himself of course). On an open website that allows commenting you will find differences of opinion, there is nothing people dislike more then other contributors treating their opinions (regardless of how much experience it might be backed up with) as “FACT” and being disrespectful of others.

    Up until we came to loggerheads over our “OPINIONS” about the value of carrier aviation we had been cordial and I had been happy to debate military matters with someone who has actual service time when I do not but that doesn’t give you the right to be abusive then deny knowledge as you have just done with mr.fred. Telling someone to “Fuck off” or “Grow a pair” for not sharing all your views on certain matters is abusive and as Mr.Fred succinctly puts it:

    “Most of the time your posts are interesting, even-handed and thought-provoking.
    Every so often, as just demonstrated, you go off the handle with insults and harsh language. Is that necessary?”

    You did it to me and frankly as I have said before it is unbecoming of someone who purports to be an officer with an illustrious career. I offered to let things lie more then once and all I got for my efforts was further patronising insults, if you can’t handle differing opinions a new hobby might be wise.

  28. @RT – “There’s a total fetish on TD’s blog among the commenters for spastic little airplanes.”

    Nolo contendere. Having a bird overhead that can talk directly to the guys on the ground and to any bomb trucks or arty that may be needed while being able to provide immediate, although limited, firepower can be of great comfort to the guys on the ground. The airborne MK 1 eyeballs in the sky can provide a better “wide angle” view than the little overhead camera shots we keep seeing on video. Many times I’ve heard guys on the ground trying to get fast movers to understand exactly where they were and where the enemy was and where, exactly, they needed the ordnance to go. If the guys on the ground have a guy or two in a “spastic little airplane” who can see the “big picture,” landmarks, and what the “bad guys” are doing, there is a better chance that the guys on the ground will get the support they need, where they need it, when they need it. The O-2 Skymaster and the OV-10 Bronco, while certainly unsuitable for operations where hostile a/c and sophisticated AD may be encountered, did yeoman’s service in providing “eyes” to the fast movers and arty while covering the guys on the ground.

    There is a place for “spastic little airplanes” in today’s modern military. The problem is that zipper-suited thunder gods and some others can’t see past their own pitot tubes.

    Nowadays, something that can loiter for a significant amount time, transit relatively quickly to the AO, “see the battlefield,” designate targets for bomb trucks, and, in a pinch, provide firepower, albeit limited, on time sensitive targets, and can do that with relative economy, strikes me as a very important asset. One thing that the “eye in the sky” UAVs do that I have found disturbing is they tend to turn field grade and flag rank officers into “super company commanders” with communications delays. I would much prefer that the “eye in the sky” be talking directly to the guys on the ground.

    Now, if that means a squadron or two of armed Super Tucanos or Beechcraft AT-6’s being assigned as solo or twoships to cover company/battalion operations or patrol bases four hours at the cost of one FJ or two, then I’m good with that. We won’t even talk about short duration, high operation/maintenance cost AH-64 Apaches using Hellfire missiles to target one guy with an AK.

  29. @ TD – “Prepare for the fight that never happens and assume we can always ‘step down’ or prepare for the the most common fights that we get involved in and hedge against the possibility of needing to step up
    Tough decision to make”

    The problem with preparing solely for the fight that never happens is that when it’s time to “step down,” the high dollar equipment is sometimes (1) unsuitable, (2) too expensive for the return on investment (one might read this as turning triple canopy jungle into toothpicks without effect on the enemy), (3) used up turning triple canopy jungle into toothpicks, sniping 1 to 6 AK-toters, or shooting a camel in the @$$ when something less expensive could do the job less expensively and more effectively. The “step down” theory results in A-6 Intruders bombing “suspected truck parks,” F-105 Thunderchiefs playing medium bombers, and F-4 Phantoms being used as dive bombers (to put a Vietnam spin on it).

    Do we need to expend a $102,300.00 AGM-114R to kill one or two plain vanilla jihadis running around on foot with AKs in the mountains of Afghanistan? The APKWS II costs $28,000.00, is compatible with Hellfire laser codes, and uses a 70mm Hydra rocket motor and warhead. It can be launched from any standard 7-shot or 19-shot rocket pod.

  30. Kent, but if you are comparing costs, then even the $28k weapon is overkill to use on someone toting a $2k AR. It’s a bit of a red herring, you don’t compare it to weapon cost, you compare it to the damage that guy can do if he’s left unchecked.

    As for the step up/down thing, shooting a camel with a $100k rocket is less expensive than buying a new plane on short notice when a conflict turns hot and you can’t use your lower end equipment without risk. It takes 5 years to build a new plane. Will your country be around in 5 years to take delivery if attacked, even assuming a 2 year early warning lead time? You’re still 3 years short. Only hope then is if someone is trying to get rid of their airforce and you can get it 2nd hand, and that is a big “if”. Can’t gamble a country on an “if”.

    And it’s not like planes can’t do old fashioned strafing runs with $20 cannon rounds. They just don’t do it for safety and convenience. I see nothing wrong with loading 2-4 gun pods on a plane and doing it the old fashioned way.

  31. @Observer – Speaking of red herrings, I wasn’t saying we didn’t need higher end equipment for “hot wars.” I wasn’t even saying that high end equipment shouldn’t be available in a “permissive” environment. After all, something has to carry the big bomb loads. If a “permissive” environment turns “hot,” it won’t be a surprise.

    BTW, if you like strafing, the AT-6 can carry six .50 Caliber gun pods with 400 rounds per gun or four 20mm gun pods with 300 rounds per gun.

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