Uninhabited systems for the ADF – getting the balance right
Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra
During the 1950s and 60s Australia was a world leader in the design and development of uninhabited aerial systems for military use, with products such as the Jindivik jet powered target aircraft, the Ikara rocket-delivered anti-submarine torpedo and the Nulka hovering decoy rocket. Only the latter remains in existence. All of the other skills and capabilities vanished – a bit like Australia’s nascent space industry of the same era – for complex reasons including official indifference to local technology and a fondness for imported products.
It is strange to think that in a time when Australia imports so much defence technology, just a few decades ago Jindivik had a number of international users (UK; US; & Sweden), as did Ikara (Brazil; Chile; New Zealand & UK). Nulka – which had its first tethered flight in 1969 – is still being built and exported to the United States and Canada by BAE Systems in Melbourne. Everything else has fallen by the wayside.
Looking at the situation today, the three services are interested in the use of uninhabited systems to varying degrees. It is fair to say that the current and future use of aerial systems dominates discussion, with naval and ground products not at the moment generating as much interest. It is also a reasonable observation that Australia lags behind major users of uninhabited systems such as Israel, the United States and some European countries ( for example, Sweden is a world leader in uninhabited underwater systems).
The principle Army Uninhabited Aerial System (UAS) is AAI’s Shadow-200, eventually delivered through the teeth-grindingly slow JP 129 and currently being used in Afghanistan. A Defence spokesperson explained:
“The Australian Army operates two Shadow 200 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (TUAS) for tactical reconnaissance and surveillance tasks in support of Army’s land force. The Shadow 200 capability is force-generated out of the 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment, located at Enoggera Barracks, Queensland. Army’s deployed Shadow 200 capability operates from Tarin Kot, Afghanistan.
“The Shadow 200 system is capable of transmitting full-motion video and metadata to ground troops, allowing them to see and receive real-time information through the air vehicle’s camera. Typical tasks conducted by the Shadow 200 include route reconnaissance, point reconnaissance, and surveillance flights to monitor ‘pattern of life’ activities using electro-optic and infrared cameras.
“The Australian Army views TUAS as an enduring capability for its land force and one that has a large role to play in providing real-time video and data to land forces, as demonstrated by the ADF’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Before acquiring the Shadows, Army had been leasing Scan Eagle UAS from Boeing / Insitu Pacific. Asked to summarise the current situation, an Insitu Pacific spokesperson explained:
“The ScanEagle UAV completed its operational support to the Australian Regular Army in June 2012 but has continued to provide operational support to Army Exercises including Exercise Talisman Sabre in July 2013. Between entering service in 2006 and June 2012, the ScanEagle flew 45,000 hours in total with 41,000 of those in Iraq and Afghanistan across 7,600 missions with a mission readiness rate of 99.8 percent.
“….. under existing contracting arrangements with the Australian Defence Force, the Royal Australian Navy (has) acquired ScanEagle services. This has enabled trials to be conducted since 2012 of both embarked and disembarked UAS operations as the Royal Australian Navy look to develop a permanent embarked UAS capability and a UAS dedicated unit by 2020. In addition to work with the Royal Australian Navy, Insitu Pacific Limited signed a contract with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force in July 2012 with the first aircraft being delivered in May 2013. The ScanEagle is currently being operationally tested in preparation for entry into service. Other defence customers across the Asia-Pacific region include Malaysia and Singapore.”
The main UAS game in town is of course AIR 7000, which seeks to replace RAAF’s AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft with both inhabited and uninhabited systems – though with regard to the latter the term Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) is preferred. At the risk of angering some, we will use the terms RPV and UAS interchangeably in this article. While the inhabited part of the equation has been decided in the form of the Boeing P-8A, the RPV element is less certain and has been subjected to a certain amount of recent skullduggery both in terms of numbers to be acquired and the platform itself.
The logical choice for more than a decade has been the Northrop Grumman / USN Triton – a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAS. The Triton is the maritime broad area surveillance version of the Global Hawk, which actually made a flight from the US to Australia way back in 2001. The Australian Defence system looked on track to acquire Global Hawk / Triton as part of AIR 7000 until – bizarrely – the RAAF had some form of internal panic attack in 2008 and decided that it was incapable of introducing P-8s and Global Hawk / Tritons into service at the same time. Consequently, the RPV element of AIR 7000 was pushed back by about a decade.
But then a mere two years later in 2010, the RAAF decided to lease a Heron UAS to be deployed in Afghanistan (Kandahar) to support coalition operations. Two more of these RPVs were acquired the following year and they have been in continuous use ever since. Asked what will happen to them as Australia withdraws from Afghanistan a Defence spokesperson coyly replied:
“The future of the Heron will be a decision for the incoming government.”
What isn’t said is that the Herons will continue to be used under a new program that will be called AIR 7100, which will be part of the next Defence Capability Plan – whenever that might see the light of day. The Herons are a very capable a 1- tonne UAS, which means that they are towards the tactical end of the spectrum and could not be considered a broad area surveillance asset.
One is entitled to wonder why the RAAF panicked about introducing a HALE UAS into service but embraced the Herons with all the enthusiasm of a religious convert. A cynic would suggest that a HALE UAS might be seen as a viable alternative to an inhabited platform, but because the Heron is smaller than a single-engine Cessna it doesn’t upset anyone’s dearly held acquisition plans.
The need for Australia to acquire a HALE RPV is explained by a glimpse of the map showing the country’s maritime area of interest – it is huge. Under international law we are responsible for 12% of the of the globe’s oceans. This comes about by virtue of the fact that this is a very large island with some very far-flung territories – and with the administration of a big chunk of the Antarctic into the bargain. While aircraft such as the P-8A have a vital role to play, they cannot sensibly perform all of the designated tasks – and certainly not in an economic manner – hence the recognition that there is also a role for a UAS that has great endurance, speed and altitude.
The Triton has impressive and often quoted performance parameters: a maximum speed of 575kmh and endurance of around 30 hours. It typically operates at a height of 60,000 feet (about 18 kilometres) and at this altitude it has a huge surveillance footprint for its sensors. There are several advantages to operating so high up: the weather is benign, so that the platform remains very stable; it is out of range of all but the most advanced air defence systems; it is economical operating a jet up there because of a lack of wind resistance; and it also means that the RPV is well above civil air traffic.
The performance of the platform is matched to the performance of its sensors, especially the advanced multi-role radar – also built by Northrop Grumman – the
AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) Maritime Radar. This is a hybrid system – a 360 degree mechanically rotated face with electronically scanned transmit and receive modules. It has common elements to the radars in the F-22 and the F-35. Northrop Grumman lists some of its features:
• Provides persistent broad area surveillance of maritime and littoral environments
• Provides 360-deg azimuth coverage and variable size sector scan
• Range is covered using a 2-bar scan approach for
improved performance in near and far range
• Provides the following outputs to Advanced Mission Management System
– A STANAG-4607 compliant target report
– A clutter map
• Radar “hits” are sent to the BAMS tracker
for scan-to-scan correlation and tracking
• Supports the classification of objects in the maritime environment (fine image resolution)
• Provides the following outputs
• A STANAG-4607 compliant target report
• National Image Transfer Format 2.1 compliant images
• Images are taken at selectable rates and resolutions
• Still images can be viewed as frames in a video to show target motion
It also can operate in Strip Synthetic Aperture Radar
(Strip-SAR) Mode which:
– Provides images of the ground and stationary targets
– Strip SAR continuously images the ground along a fixed line. As the platform moves, a linear set of contiguous images is created
• Provides the following outputs
– A NITF 2.1 compliant image
• Selectable size and resolution
(The author confesses to having no idea what National Image Transfer Format 2.1 is)
For radar enthusiasts there is a great deal more information about the AN/ZPY-3 on the internet. While some performance details are classified, in summary it is an extremely high performance surveillance radar that is able to detect small targets – even those very close to shore or tucked away inside bays and inlets.
Recently Captain James Hoke, Triton UAS Program Manager for the U.S. Navy was able to remotely answer some questions put to him by APDR, one of them relating to operating costs of Triton. There has been some media commentary that it might be as much as $34,000 per hour, which seems nonsensical for an uninhabited platform powered by a single small jet engine. Captain Hoke agrees:
“Sure. I can state unequivocally that it’s not correct. And I have briefed many people about what the true cost per flight hour is.
“I can tell you I’ll leave the conversation with services compute cost per flight hour slightly different. And, but so I’ll say that. But then I’ll also say so we ran studies of Triton versus manned platforms within naval aviation.
“We are currently well below $10,000 per hour. We are below most manned platforms. We have confidence that we can continue to drive that cost down. We are looking at a lot of initiatives going forward that will continue to do that. And it comes down to reliability of components that we’re working closely with Northrop Grumman on and things like that.”
Not only is Triton a highly capable surveillance platform and relatively inexpensive to operate, perhaps most importantly of all it is a key component of the USN’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program – along with the P-8A. In fact the P-8A and the Triton are designed to work together to providing a complete surveillance picture.
The topic of what sorts of UAVs / RPVs are needed for Australia was discussed at a major seminar organised by the Sir Richard Williams foundation on July 3 in Canberra. It was titled “Protecting Australia with Drones: Cheaper, Better, Smarter, Safer?” Even the word Drone provoked quite a bit of discussion about whether its use was appropriate. (APDR does not like “drone” because it refers to a monophonic effect usually associated with less gifted after dinner speakers and most politicians).
The keynote speaker was Air Marshal Geoff Brown, who spoke of the need to view an RPV or UAS (he didn’t like drone either) as a means to an end – in other words just a tool for achieving an effect. He was followed Nick Arthur from Border Protection Command who, he spoke positively about the potential contribution of both MALE and HALE UAS to the surveillance task, summarising the situation:
“Important criteria for surveillance platforms looking for small targets in big oceans, are firstly radar or other technology that cues them to the target and a secondly collection and dissemination of product that is readily usable by the operator. This product must include compelling evidence for prosecution.
“The use of a platform that cannot transit significant distances, be cued to target, collect and transmit surveillance product will be very limiting in providing confidence about small targets, especially in bad weather.”
He mentioned that Border Protection Command had trialed a Heron UAS in 2008 and found its use to be manageable. He also said:
“No matter how capable an asset is, if it is used for tasks outside its intended role or performance envelope, the results will be disappointing. UAVs, in a range of sizes, will bethe best technology for a range of tasks – particularly those requiring persistence, extended range, or there is a requirement to keep human operators out of harm’s way.”
In answer to a question from the audience, he seemed to equivocate on the suitability of Triton for some missions, which prompted a clarification a few hours later:
The CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS), Mr Michael Pezzullo, has this evening clarified comments made earlier today by a senior officer of the Service in relation to the capability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the Sir Richard Williams Foundation’s Biannual Seminar on ‘Protecting Australia with Drones: Cheaper, Better, Smarter, Safer’ in Canberra.
ACBPS is fully conversant with the virtues of unmanned aerial systems and the contribution they can make to border protection. The specific contribution that high altitude UAVs (such as the Triton) can make to border protection is being examined by the Department of Defence, with support from ACBPS, as a result of work commissioned in the 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers. Mr Pezzullo, as the Deputy Secretary of Defence responsible for the 2009 Defence White Paper, was the principal author of that document, and was also consulted as a member of the Secretaries Committee on National Security on the 2013 Defence White Paper. The Service has no pre-determined view about the merits of any particular platform in this capability area.
Mr Pezzullo added that the capabilities of UAVs are evolving rapidly, and relevant sensor technologies are continually being improved to overcome the difficulties of high altitude detections.
Another of the speakers, Raytheon Australia’s General Manager of Business Development Gerard Foley, spoke of the need for a tiered approach to the use of Uninhabited Aerial Systems. A strong supporter in the overall aim of AIR 7000, Mr Foley felt that the best possible solution for Australia’s maritime and overland surveillance requirements might be to include a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) aircraft into the equation to complement the acquisition of P-8As and Tritons.
He explained that while Tritons are the right platform to provide broad area maritime surveillance because of their ability to travel enormous distances quickly and at great heights, it is not necessarily the right capability in terms of cost effectiveness for some of the uniquely Australian tasks that require a focused area or surveillance capability in an overland or littoral role. He said there might be some circumstances where complementary MALE assets could enhance the capability of Triton with a lower altitude but highly focused surveillance capability. Typically this would be where the platform needed to descend to a low altitude to have a closer look – possibly with a different sensor mix. While a Triton could do this, it is not the optimal use of the airframe to have it perform such a task.
Mr Foley indicated that there were a number of multi-sensor proven MALE platforms on the market that could fill this middle tier between the strategic and the tactical. He pointed out that while AIR 7000 is about the acquisition of P8-As and uninhabited systems, it does not specify that there should only be a single type of UAS. In other words, the DCP would not have to be substantially re-written to permit the acquisition of a MALE UAS. Similarly, he felt that a MALE could be accommodated with the existing AIR 7000 budget by looking at the overall mix of platforms needed to meet the needs of the ADF. In other words, it might be better to acquire a more balanced and complimentary fleet of HALE and MALE platforms.
He also spoke of the need to ensure that the vast amount of data that will be gathered through AIR 7000 can be compiled and collated through an integrated ground environment. After all, the purpose of surveillance is to gather actionable intelligence from all of the sensor data that will be provided – information for its own sake is of no particular benefit. He felt that Australian industry could play an important role in this part of the project.
Another intriguing idea he raised was to continue to use the sensors from AP-3C aircraft after the platforms have been retired. As a result of a late 1990’s upgrade, the AP-3C has formidable data-gathering capabilities with equipment that is still relatively new. So the issue for the RAAF is not so much the AP-3C sensors but rather the life of the airframe – which is now five decades old and which has already been upgraded. This approach would enable the ADF to design, redesign, redeploy and reconfigure its ISR capability to meet the demands of the changing natures of maritime and overland surveillance. Mr Foley submits that the future of airborne ISR capability should include reconfigurable technologies in the MALE space including options such as the re-packaging of the AP-3C capability in a suitable MALE UAS.
Without nominating a particular alternate platform to mount the sensors, Mr Foley’s suggestion raised quite a buzz at the conference. He also pointed out that the work could be done in Australia because it would make use of existing hardware and software.
To conclude on some non-aerial uses of uninhabited systems, APDR also asked Defence whether the Army had any interested in the growing domain of uninhabited ground systems (UGS) – an area where Israel in particular is accumulating a lot of experience. A spokesperson explained:
“Over many years Army has invested in Uninhabited Ground Systems for roles such as explosive ordnance/ improvised explosive device disposal and countermine applications. Army will continue to maintain an interest in employing Uninhabited Ground Systems where their application can remove soldiers from harms way or provide an improved way of fighting. In the future, in addition to the continued employment of Uninhabited Ground Systems against explosive hazards, Army is exploring opportunities to employ robot systems to support the detection of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological hazards and for the remote reconnaissance/ surveillance of threat situations.”
And for the RAN:
“Navy has no active DCP projects for uninhabited systems at the moment. However, several programs including SEA 1778, JP 1770, and SEA 1180 will in all likelihood produce several uninhabited systems for roles including mine countermeasures, hydrography, rapid environmental assessment and surveillance. Navy is also currently conducting an experimentation campaign utilising contacted UAVs that will inform future capability requirements for UAVs across the fleet.”
Even though Australia has failed to build on the local knowledge base that existed in the 1950s and 1960s the use of uninhabited systems is set to expand. With regard to the uninhabited element of AIR 7000 in particular a number of experts are lining up to suggest that Australia should acquire not only Tritons but also some MALE UAS – but that debate still has several years to run.