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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