The Transformative Effect of Low-Cost Airpower

A proposal to develop a low cost airpower development capability for partner nations as a component of the conflict reduction and stability strategy

Airpower can have a transformative effect on a nation’s security but for many, it is cripplingly expensive. The UK should develop a joint FCO/MoD/Industry capability to harness the power of airpower in pursuit of stability and security for partner and developing nations.

Before anyone suggests it, it is not a proposal to replace Typhoons with armed Super Tucano.

One of the four overarching objectives of the Integrated Review 2021 was

trengthening security and defence at home and overseas: we will work with allies and partners to address challenges to our security in the physical world and online. NATO will remain the foundation of collective security in our home region of the Euro-Atlantic, where Russia remains the most acute threat to our security. We will also place greater emphasis on building our capacity and that of like-minded nations around the world in responding to a growing range of transnational state threats, radicalisation and terrorism, SOC and weapons proliferation.

The new integrated operating concept and command paper also defined a range of activities and approaches that would contribute to security through collective and shared action. There are many aspects of this new approach that could be used to pivot a low-cost airpower development capability.

To establish a more integrated approach to government work on conflict and instability, placing greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict (such as grievances, political marginalisation and criminal economies), atrocity prevention and strengthening fragile countries’ resilience to external interference. We will focus on political approaches to conflict resolution, harnessing the full range of government capabilities, with clearly-defined political goals and theories of change. This will enhance our impact and reduce the risk of ‘mission creep’ or of inadvertently doing harm.

It goes on to highlight funding opportunities

To tighten the focus of the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. We will prioritise its resources on the foundational link between stability, resilience and security, and work with governments and civil society in regions that are of greatest priority to the UK. This activity will be supported by funding of £874 million for 2021-22.

Complex aircraft like the Typhoon, F-18 and F-35 are simply too expensive and technologically demanding to operate for many of our regional allies. And frankly, they are often simply too capable.

The picture below shows a British soldier training Peshmerga personnel

Although this image is from a few years ago and our national approach to mentoring and developing capacity has changed, it has been devoid of any reference to airpower.

Defence Engagement, Capacity Building and Conflict Prevention

This quote from a long passed seminar on international security development is particularly relevant.

Our collective experience from operations tells us that Defence Engagement activity is a constant: it rises and falls in volume and extent as situations evolve and events happen but the boundaries are blurred.  There may sometimes be a fine line between Defence Engagement and combat operations – equally Defence Engagement may continue inside a country or region during combat operations. Therefore, when understanding Defence Engagement, consensual flexibility in both scale, metrics and effect is needed

Defence engagement is therefore designed to build understanding and develop capacity with the objective of preventing conflict. Defence Engagement creates effects through four broad ways; security and non-combat operations; Defence diplomacy, defence and security exports; and regional stability, conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and stabilisation.

Upstream conflict prevention, is a simple concept that at its core seeks to make the UK safer by providing help to unstable nations such that they can help themselves to stabilise. The theory is that an Ounce of prevention saves a Pound of cure. Getting in early, de-escalating early-stage conflict and supporting overseas development efforts are all seen, quite rightly, as effective means of preventing wider and much more expensive conflict. The British Army and Royal Navy conduct upstream conflict prevention missions all the time and can range from training on an opportunity basis to more involved and lengthy engagements. Some no doubt are successes, others less so, that, of course, being the nature of the beast.

Short Term Training Teams and enduring deployments like the British Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT), together with regionally aligned Adaptable Force brigades, demonstrate how the British Army devotes considerable resources to the task, especially in Africa.

There has been a couple of posts on defence engagement over the years on Think Defence, including this from David Hulme Footsoldier;

Current defence doctrine defines capacity building somewhat generically as “a range of activities in support of developing an indigenous security force, such as training, mentoring, partnering, monitoring and enabling.” Defence capacity building is often regarded as synonymous with Security Sector Reform (SSR).  However the two are distinct and while SSR normally incorporates an element of defence capacity building, capacity building can (and often does) occur in the absence of a meaningful SSR effort.  The distinction is important because the effect the UK policy seeks to achieve (stabilization) is probably best achieved by capacity building nested within SSR rather than capacity building in isolation.


Security Sector Reform addresses security problems and tries to improve the situation through institutional reforms.” “…the crux of the reform of the security sector is the development of both effective civil oversight and creation of institutions capable of providing security.” The problem with defence capacity building in the absence of an SSR effort is that it is highly unlikely to be sustainable. The Iraqi Army did not suddenly collapse in Ramadi in May 2015, it corroded from the inside out over a period of some five years as predatory political and institutional interests undid almost a decade of US and Coalition defence capacity building efforts. Military capacity building in isolation of an SSR effort is unlikely to address root causes of military weakness, in much the same way that building military capacity in unlikely to deliver stability unless security weakness is the primary driver of instability.

DHF concluded that capacity building to prevent conflict must be integrated with Security Sector Reform (SRR) and share three characteristics;

Focused, prolonged engagement,

that includes

Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany,

and is

Nested within an SSR context.

Phil also wrote another post, highlighting risks and urging some degree of caution with upstream engagement;

The logic behind upstream engagement is sound in the abstract – it is better to invest smaller amounts of resources and effort early than it is to invest huge amounts of resources and lives later fighting a bigger threat. But in practice, as we have seen upstream engagement brings with it its own additional and different risks which means we must be realistic about its limitations as a cornerstone of our military direction. The further upstream you go, the more your success or partial success becomes a dynamic non-event (undermining efforts to mobilise support for action) or inappropriate action is taken.

What does this mean in practice?

It means we have to accept some realistic fulcrum point will always exist and that we will sit by and watch threats emerge and grow to a certain critical mass where they therefore become clearer and the phenomenon of safety being a dynamic non-event thereby becomes less applicable. This will be reinforced when domestic governments get their fingers burned in an early engagement, either by history judging an intervention as inappropriate in itself, or by early actions themselves being inappropriate: thus will Governments become more averse to upstream engagement and thus ironically increase the overall security risk through being less inclined to meet threats early again in the future. This will also therefore fundamentally undermine the whole strategy which represents one of the biggest risks of all since we’d still have on the surface a force structured to engage in defence and upstream engagement thereby leaving us less able to meet conventional threats and give us false reassurance in our seemingly pro-active direction

From these two posts, it is apparent that upstream engagement and capacity building are connected, have risks and must be seen in a wider context to be successful.

The Air Component

Joint Doctrine Publication 0-30 defines UK Air and Space Doctrine, particularly the three core air power attributes;


Air capabilities exploit the vertical dimension. Aircraft are usually faster than surface vehicles and can often go directly to their destinations. By definition, elevation is inherent to air operations. These factors result in the core air power attributes of height, speed and reach


The advantage of height is an enduring military reality. Air power’s high vantage point allows us to observe and dominate activities in other environments. At the tactical level, height may put us out of vertical range of some surface threats. It also allows us to manoeuvre in three dimensions, helping to enhance our survivability.


The speed of aircraft allows us to project power rapidly and responsively and to complete missions quickly. This increases tempo and provides the opportunity to exploit the fourth dimension – time. At the tactical level, speed allows us to create surprise and reduces our exposure to hostile fire, thereby, increasing survivability.


The pervasiveness of air power provides reach. This potentially exposes all of our adversaries’ resources to influence through attack or observation, regardless of their location.

On preventing conflict…


Preventing conflict involves identifying and managing threats before they materialise. This demands an integrated, cross-government approach, including outreach, influence activities and conflict prevention based on diplomacy, deterrence and aid Air power provides particular opportunities to support these activities. These include: Engaging overseas, beyond our core alliance within NATO – activities include providing mentoring, advice and training to other air forces (capacity building); Building understanding – using air-derived intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for horizon-scanning to identify threats and opportunities; Managing developing crises – by delivering humanitarian aid, disaster relief and early-intervention forces; and Supporting conventional deterrence – providing a demonstrable and credible capability to hold potential adversaries at continuous risk.

One of the issues of using the RAF for upstream conflict prevention is nothing at all to do with them, it is the other guys. Whilst the British Army can train an infantry soldier from Sierra Leone in first aid or section attacks without needing Challenger 2 tanks it is more difficult (although not impossible) to exploit the many advantages of air power without aircraft. Although the RAF conducts defence engagement activity with many nations and like the other services, has many nations wanting to come to the UK for training, the complexity of the RAF’s basic equipment does have a limiting effect on the types of defence engagement activity it can carry out. For many years the gulf between modern Western combat aircraft and those of less developed nations has grown ever wider.

Aircraft like the Typhoon or even F-16 are enormously expensive to purchase and operate and need a developed engineering and training infrastructure that is simply unattainable for most, especially those likely to benefit most from even basic air power components such as logistics and ISTAR.

One of our guest authors has previously chronicled the complete waste of money and almost total failure of ISAF’s efforts to create an Afghanistan air force but in Iraq, the US had much more success. In Iraq, they started with simple equipment and worked up to the F-16’s they are now flying. The Iraqi forces had the advantage that they could read and write and that they had used complex aircraft before, but by starting with aircraft like the Cessna Combat Caravan they achieved a workable, sustainable and effective capability without breaking the bank or it collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.

AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire

Accepting the extensive and excellent work carried out by the RAF with NATO partners and other advanced air forces this is a proposal to extend that down the technology ladder for less advanced air forces, especially those in Africa and some parts of the Middle East. Building on the activities that are currently carried out.

If as a nation we are at all serious about preventing conflict then we must include the benefits of ‘air-power and invest in capabilities accordingly.

When it comes to roles and requirements the ‘fightiness’ diagram is useful, again.

Small, relatively low tech air forces in Africa may well require all of them but at a level significantly lower than more advanced forces.

A more detailed view of potential roles is described below;


Is the Royal Jordanian Air Force going to be conducting airborne early warning or is the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (Air Component) going to be conducting deep-attack, unlikely. Both still would aspire to mobility, situational awareness, and control of the air and attack at a lower level though.

In addition, roles in the ‘safety and security areas would contribute significantly to security and stability, counter-poaching and illegal fishing for example, both of which have major implications for national and regional stability and security.

Typical roles might include;

  • Training and logistic support,
  • Air transport and despatch,
  • Surveillance and reconnaissance,
  • Air interdiction and close air support.

I have left out missions such as airspace battle management, air superiority and counter-air defence missions because of their inherent complexity. This assumes that those nations in receipt of such support from the UK would use it for counter-piracy, poaching and fisheries protection, counter-insurgency and humanitarian support in an environment where Mig 29’s were not the principal threat.

We have to be realistic.

Neither is this a proposal to create a neatly boxed off self-contained unit, it is about a collection of people and equipment that can be tailored for the needs of sustaining a deployed training and mentoring capability with varying levels of support, a modular capability of you will.


If we are to expand the conflict prevention activities conducted by the RAF and/or Army Air Corps, there have to be new sources of both funding and personnel.

The use of ex RAF and AAC personnel, sponsored reserves, contractors, other government department personnel and RN/Army/RAF reserves should all be considered as part of any personnel matrix. Given that the objective is to build host nation capacity, the fundamental principle of using host nation personnel is central to success.

The government recognise the interconnected nature of building stability and created the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF)

The CSSF is a cross government fund which supports and delivers activity to tackle instability and to prevent conflicts that threaten UK interests.

The CSSF has considerable resources, approximately £1.5 Billion per annum.

Levelling Up is a whole of Government initiative to improve the economic fortunes and wellbeing of all parts of the UK, especially the English Regions and devolved nations. Like many such initiatives it can mean different things to different people but there is no doubt about the seriousness which this government places on it, and the financial backing it is providing.

The Government has also committed to double research and development investment with a target of spending 2.4% of GDP on public and private R&D by 2027. Some of this R&D will go towards contributing to the now legally enshrined ‘Net-Zero by 2050’ objective. Government-supported initiatives include the National Productivity Investment Fund, Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Strength in Places Fund.

There is cash available for conflict prevention, serious cash, delivery mechanisms can be changed and further funds are available as part of the prosperity agenda.

Fusion doctrine and the integrated operating concept should be able to articulate the thread between these.

The good news is that in seeking to develop a capability to develop other nations air forces to support the conflict prevention agenda is that between the RAF, RN and British Army, the know-how already exists. As above, additional capacity can be evolved from a changing view of the use of contractors, sponsored reserves, former service personnel and commercial organisations.

Developing an airborne capability starts on the ground; airfield facilities constructions, engineering support, logistics, operations planning, escape and evasion, air traffic control, fuel management and other support functions.

Developing the Capability

It All Starts On the Ground

Each nation will start from a different point, Sierra Leone and Nigeria may be close geographically but some distance apart in terms of air forces. It would make sense to have a regionally focussed core capability that is supplemented with country-specific groups. And so the first area to consider is the ‘ground components’, everything from whiteboards in a briefing room to remote airstrip fuel storage and dispensing. A composite field engineering and airfield construction squadron, together with an air operations wing would be the core onto which individual country operations would be attached.

The overall capability and capacity building programme would be tailored for each country and this core capability supplemented with contractors and other organisations as the programme develops. Again, the intent is to develop national capability, not do everything for them, so not only would knowledge transfer but also equipment and facilities.

This latter point is an important one, assets would be transferred to the country in question, and new ones purchased going forward. There is also a significant opportunity for defence exports, much of the equipment should be manufactured in the UK. Defence engagement has a stated role in supporting the UK prosperity agenda.

Some of the ground elements could be housed in demountable and rapidly constructed equipment such as Rubb Shelters and the Deployable Engineering Workshop for example. The Deployable Engineer Workshop (DEW), supplied by G3 Systems, supports Royal Engineer artisan trades such as carpenters, fabricators, welders, fitter machinist’s, builders, structural finishers, electricians, utility engineers and petroleum engineers. All the containers and shelters are supplied by Ably Shelters (Denholm Defence), the RACU and EXTENDA being specific examples. Of course, these trades would need to change, instead of a carpenter, an avionics technician for example.

The principle is sound though, deployable self-contained systems that can be used whilst more permanent infrastructure is being developed.

The MoD has a well-established relationship with Rubb UK, fabric building specialists. Rubb produces a number of different products for port warehousing and their specialist military range, the EFASS (Expeditionary Forces Aircraft Shelter System). EFASS can be used for storage, as a hangar for aircraft or temperature-controlled maintenance space. It is available in 11.1m, 20.4m and 25 m spans with typical lengths up to 100m. Power, heating and cooling options are available, as are a range of doors, double skin fabrics and other ancillaries. They are quick to erect, with a 25m x 100m shelter built in 13 days, and not overly expensive.



Fuel storage and dispensing (Fluid Transfer Ltd), navigation aids and control facilities are also available in containerised and/or vehicular form

Operational planning, developing air navigation and survey information, personnel management and logistics will all need space, power and computing facilities.

As an example, the Nigerian Air Force has recently established a helicopter maintenance capability as part of its Aeronautical Engineering and Technical Services (AETS) capability, it is exactly this kind of development we could support with a combination of second user equipment, expertise and finance.

So even before we can consider aircraft, there are a huge variety of other things to sort out. There might be a desire to move quickly past these essential ‘back office’ functions and go straight to F-16’s but developing airpower has to be seen as a multi-year effort that starts on the ground.

In the Air, Start Small, Start Simple

For nations that have little or no existing capability, air transport and surveillance and reconnaissance are likely to offer the greatest and most cost-effective means of improving security and stability. Working in conjunction with land and maritime forces, a single aircraft type may be all that is needed.

Countering illegal fishing, counter-poaching, medical evacuation, light transport and surveillance are all easily delivered by simple aircraft like the Britten Norman Defender or Cessna Caravan. These can also be used for national geomatics, surveying, agriculture and flood prevention. Where the current capability is next to nothing, even something we might ordinarily consider rudimentary can make a significant difference.

Wherever possible, aircraft selection should focus on maintainability, cost, flexibility, robustness, ability to be operated locally and connectivity with either strategic partnerships or the UK prosperity agenda and other strategic objectives.

Light Transport

Widely used for basic light cargo, medevac and passenger transport in wilderness locations, a number of manufacturers have also adapted them to surveillance ad other specialist roles. What characterises these is their very low cost, rugged construction, simplicity and low running costs. These results in a sustainable capability for an emerging air force. We do have to be realistic about capability though, they are unsuited for anything but the most permissive of environments, generally unarmed and certainly limited in speed, carrying capacity and general sophistication.

Typical examples at the low end are the Kodiak 100, Cessna Grand Caravan or Mahindra Airvan 8, all are rugged and can be upgraded to more complex surveillance roles, but one that I think is very interesting is the Pacific Aerospace P750, from New Zealand.


The undercarriage is designed for semi-prepared airstrips with simple maintenance requirements, endurance is 8 hours and the basic design has been used for a wide variety of roles, 10 seat passenger carrying or fire fighting and aerial survey for example.

It has incredible short take-off and landing performance. With a payload of 1.8 tonnes is can carry more than the Airvan 8, although like the Airvan 8, can carry an under-fuselage cargo pod. At maximum weight, take-off distance is less than 250m, or 30m less than the length of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier (just sayin!). The landing distance is 160m.

If greater payload and twin-engine safety are required, the obvious solution is the Britten Norman Islander, from the UK’s only sovereign aircraft manufacturer. These incredible aircraft with such a long track record would be perfectly suited, and the latest ‘net zero’ development is relevant as it would tie into the UK’s security objectives.

They are available with piston engines for simplicity and low maintenance or Rolls Royce turbofan engines for greater performance. The Islander can be quickly re-roled for passenger, cargo or Medevac.

Medium Transport Aircraft

If greater payload and endurance were appropriate, other aircraft choices include the Viking Twin Otter, Cessna Sky Courier,  Indonesian Aerospace NC212, and the Polish PZL Mielec M28

The Series 400 Twin Otter has many improvements over the old model and its versatility is obvious; wheels floats or skis and the environmental hardening to operate in these diverse environments mean its legendary toughness has been retained.

Viking Twin Otter 1

A recent Vietnamese Navy order worked out at about $5 million Canadian each and that includes initial training and logistics. The latest float version is called the 400S and is being marketed at US$6 million.

In passenger configuration, it has 19 seats and carrying only cargo, just under 2 tonnes payload with cargo rollers and a large door. Fuselage life is 66,000 hours.

Like the Twin Otter, the CASA C212 has a long heritage and many hundreds in service.

CASA C-212 Aviocar - EA, 4

The NC212I is now produced in Indonesia, with a payload of just under 3 tonnes, it has a greater lift capacity than the Twin Otter and features a rear cargo ramp for ease of loading and unloading. Take off distance is 390m and landing, 270m.

Indonesian Aerospace also offer the NC219, a slightly larger aircraft without the rear cargo ramp.

There is obviously much larger and defence focused aircraft like the C-27J, C-130 or Airbus C-295, but these are a significant increase in the purchase and operating costs. Marshal Aerospace have a significant C-130 engineering services capability and if there was potential for including larger aircraft within this overall matrix, we simply could not go wrong by including Marshall. 

Upgrading with Specialist Equipment

Each of the aircraft described above are basic utility types, but their capacity and capability can be significantly upgraded with the addition of specialist equipment.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Maritime Surveillance Patrol
Oil Spill Detection, Oil Pipeline Surveillance, Air Ambulance, Parachuting
Geographical Survey, Environmental Data Collection, Search and Rescue, Flight Inspection/Calibration. Special Forces Support, Aerial Photography/Mapping.

Equipment can be in the form of a detachable pod or integrated with the aircraft.

The P750 has been demonstrated with a sensor turret in the detachable carrier underneath the fuselage.

The Britten Norman Defender has been used in specialist and surveillance roles for decades.

Viking proposed the Guardian 400 specifically for the surveillance, security, sovereignty and search and rescue market that has an extended range fuel tank (10-hour operations) and an electro-optical and infrared imaging turret which can be displayed on either the flight deck Honeywell Primus Apex Multi-Function Display, or on a separate cabin console. The Guardian 400  will be equipped with 4 crew observation stations, rescue equipment drop hatch, air operable cargo door, searchlight, and a galley with adjacent lavatory and not forgetting, 4 wing hardpoints for additional stores are also fitted.

One particularly interesting development is the self-contained sensor pod from Logos and Airborne Technologies 

The Airborne Technologies Self Contained Aerial Reconnaissance (SCAR) Pod uses a WIFI link to the crew operating area that avoids costly and complex integration issues, I wrote about a few years ago, here 


It has been demonstrated on a wide variety of crewed and uncrewed aircraft, fixed-wing and rotary.

SCAR Pod Gazelle

Airborne Technologies and Viking recently collaborated by integrating the SCAR pod with a Viking Guardian.

The SCAR pod can be fitted with various radars and electro-optical turrets, as well as downlinks, uplinks, moving map, augmented reality system and COMINT/SIGINT equipment,

Airborne Systems has also demonstrated the SCAR pod with the same SAR/GMTI system as found on the Watchkeeper Tactical UAS.

I Master 1

It is exactly this kind of flexibility and multi-functional approach, whilst maximising commonality and cost reduction, that would work very well in the context of this proposal.

Indonesia Aerospace are marketing a maritime patrol variant of the NC212I

Specialist Aircraft

Although there are cost benefits to having a few aircraft types as possible, some situations might warrant the use of specialist aircraft.

How cheap do 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. Seabird 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, the 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 was 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 locations, as can be seen from the image below, refuelling does not need much in the way of specialist equipment!


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. Development has increased capabilities since then and Seeker Aviation is now owned by the US joint venture, Seeker America

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 downlink 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 looks 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 initial provisioning of spares.

In 2009 it was announced that the MoD would be operating a couple of Diamond DA42MPP aircraft in the UK and overseas.  The MoD had earlier contracted with DO Systems in 2008 for a surveillance capability in Iraq whilst other aircraft were bought into service. A pair of DA 42 fly 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.

DA42 MPP Guardian

The DA42 is a lightweight twin-turboprop designed for aerial sensing which has long endurance and extremely low capital/operating costs. Operated by civilian contractors on a lease they reportedly performed well although their small size and lack of crew facilities made extended duration missions not particularly comfortable in the hot weather conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Originally designed as a light utility and training aircraft its key features were low operating costs and its use of diesel engines. 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. The Geostar has 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

Both special missions have similar performance to the NG, 12 hours endurance although typical missions are between 6 and 8 hours.

Niger operates 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.

In 2013 Thales and Diamond integrated the I Master Synthetic Aperture Radar with the DA-42. The 32Kg 620W Thales I-Master / Viper (Ku-band 12.5 to 18 GHz) synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI) was eventually selected for Watchkeeper. I-Master was developed from the Racal POD SAR and includes technology from the Searchwater radar. It can rotate through 360 degrees operate up to 20km in strip mode and 15km in spot mode, able to detect slow-moving targets such as vehicles or people out to 20km. There are four GMTI operating modes (sector, 360 degrees, tracking and spotlight) and two for SAR (strip and spotlight). GMTI is extremely useful for change detection, showing patterns of life and tracks, for example, the same kind of capability as delivered by the RAF’s Reaper and Sentinel (and RN Crowsnest) systems. I Master also has a number of new maritime modes.

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

DA42 Guardian with COMINT

There are a number of similar aircraft, specialised, but very low cost, competing with uncrewed systems.

These do not have the short field and austere location performance of the Seeker or the LIGHT  utility types but as a trade-off, running costs are low and the sensor fits are much more sophisticated. Typical missions include maritime safety, fisheries protection, maritime oil fields protection, marine environmental protection, drugs interdiction, Illegal immigration interdiction and search and rescue.

Even more expensive, would the numerous King Air 350 ISR variants, like the RAF’s Shadow R1’s

Shadow R1 5(AC) Sqdn RAF Waddington


My view is this should be last on the list, and not even an absolute requirement. Transport and logistics, medevac, surveillance and mapping are huge force multipliers and enough to occupy the capacity of any such organisation.

But, there are always options.

What characterises all the aircraft described above is they are unarmed. If an offensive capability is required, it can be used to cue other aircraft or land fires, but if an organic offensive capability is needed, an armed aircraft is needed, obviously. Arming an aircraft does not necessarily mean the aircraft only becomes affordable for the most technologically advanced force but it does drive the price up.

In Iraq, the US and Iraqi forces made great use of the Cessna 208 Combat Caravan. The Combat Caravan was designed and built by ATK and included 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.

AC208B Cessna Caravan AGM114 Hellfire

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

Costs are reported to be sub $15m per aircraft

Converted crop sprayers also seem to be popular, although I expect more in marketing materials than in operations.

As a final comment on armament, the Thales Martlet (LMM) missile would be a good option to explore for this role. It is proportionate, low cost and relatively easy to integrate.

BAE Fury UAV and Thaless LMM

Uncrewed and Rotary

I have left out uncrewed systems and helicopters because I think they represent a level of complexity and cost that might overwhelm such a proposed operating structure. Doing a few things well is better than trying to do everything but poorly. That said, there are obvious advantages to both.

Smaller providers like Blue Bear Systems and Zeus UAV would benefit from integration into a larger capability.


This is a proposal based on the following understandings;

ONE; That the UK Government has a wholly sensible and integrated strategy for conflict reduction, stability and security that uses resources from across government.

TWO; That this strategy is backed with cash, and a not inconsiderable amount of it.

THREE; Airpower, in all its forms, can magnify activities conducted on the ground and offer unique advantages that exploit its key attributes; height, speed and reach.

FOUR; The UK has a number of aerospace manufacturers and integrators that could contribute to the prosperity agenda whilst also contributing to the conflict reduction strategy.

This proposal is to establish an enduring and air focussed defence engagement capability with the objective of building stability overseas and crucially, can work at the lower end of the capability spectrum on an enduring basis to build a SUSTAINABLE national capability.

It is this last sentence that lies at the core of this proposal, the ability to apply the undoubted advantages of airpower but at a lower cost on an enduring basis.

It is not a proposal to replace Typhoon with Super Tucano or cease the already considerable activity the RAF does with more sophisticated allied nations.

A central core would consist of regular personnel from the RAF, FAA and AAC but this would be relatively small. Grafted onto this would be personnel from NGO’s, other nations, DFiD, FCO and former service personnel on a contractor or sponsored reserve basis. By having a flexible and creative approach to staffing, the capability can be delivered on a sustainable and economical basis without placing more stress on organisations that are already under severe manning stress.

Once the core staff have been established, each country would have a dedicated team that in conjunction with the overseas government/ministries defines a long term plan to establish and/or improve their air power capability. This plan would be based on an assessment of current capabilities and aspirations. It does have to be realistic though, and this may well be a significant and delicate challenge but that is why we have diplomats!

Moving forward in partnership, underpinned by guaranteed funding through ODA, gifting and long-term loans, each nation plan would have a different start and endpoint.

The start point will probably begin on the ground in all the boring but essential subjects of logistics, operations planning, engineering, communications, airfield construction, instrumentation, documentation, intelligence and of course, training. Much of this training and development can be carried out in the UK.

Creating appropriate facilities and infrastructure is then the next step, again, we can carry this out in conjunction with local construction companies and resources, supplemented with selected equipment and expertise from the UK public and private sector.

Once the building blocks are in place, aircraft and operations come next.

The diagrams above show a range of roles that exist on a spectrum; safety, security and combat. In lower threat environments, the safety and security areas encompass everything from search and rescue to mapping, counter-poaching and illegal fishing interdiction, medical evacuation and light transport. As threats increase, more combat-oriented roles emerge as being of importance.

My point is a simple one, we can use joint ODA and Security Assistance funding to establish and maintain air capabilities that contribute to safety, security and stability disproportionate to the costs involved, especially if we have a modest outlook and pick appropriate equipment.

A Good ThingTM

Table of Contents

Change Status

Change DateChange Record
 10/07/2016Initial issue
 20/07/2021Content refresh and format update 
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments