The use of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) and High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is picking up across the globe as militaries look to push boundaries on their Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
In the Asia-Pacific region uptake of the technology has been somewhat slower than in North America and Europe, but the last five years has seen a number of interesting developments in the region, with acquisition programmes underway in a number of countries. While the appetite for MALE and HALE UAVs is growing in the Asia-Pacific, few nations have the capability or motivation to develop their own designs, given that UAVs in these categories are approaching the top end of aircraft manufacturing cost scales. MALE UAVs typically fly at altitudes of between 10000 feet/ft (3048 metres/m) and 30000ft (9144m) with an endurance of between 24 and 48 hours. HALE UAVs, meanwhile typically fly at altitudes in excess of 30000ft and have endurances of circa 48 hours.
Of those locally-designed platforms that have made it through the design/development programmes into production, the best known is the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Wing Loong aircraft. Developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute (CADI), a division of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the MALE UAVs exists in two main variants. The first, Wing Loong-I (also known as Pterodactyl 1/Yilong) appeared at the Zhuhai Air Show, held on the southern coast of the PRC, in 2012, although its development dates back to around a decade earlier. The UAS is similar to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper in appearance, and is fitted with one hard point on each wing, each with the ability to carry a single weapon, and at nine metres (29.5ft) in length has a 9m wingspan. According to AVIC, the UAV was developed for reconnaissance and combat missions.
Details of an updated version, the Wing Loong-II, were released at the China Aviation Expo in September 2015. This larger (eleven metres/36ft in length with a 14m/45.9ft wingspan) aircraft has the ability to carry twelve air-to-surface missiles: two missiles on three hard points on each wing. The aircraft is understood to have an endurance of 20 hours and maximum take-off weight of 1909 pounds/lb (4200kilograms/kg).
In addition to being acquired by the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the UAV has also been the subject of a number of export deals, most recently in June 2016 when it was reported that two Wing Loong-1/11 system had been sold to Kazakhstan. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also acquired the UAV in 2014 and 2011 respectively.
As one of the biggest importer of UAV technology in the region, the Indian military offers a significant market to Western UAV manufacturers. In September 2015 it was announced that Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was set to benefit from the country’s growing appetite for unmanned technology, with the government approving the purchase of ten Heron-TP UAV. The UAV are to be operated by the Indian Air Force, in an armed configuration to enable the UAVs to deploy air-to-surface missiles for combat operations. With a maximum altitude of 45000ft (13716m) and endurance of 36 hours, the 14m long/26m (85.3ft) wingspan Heron-TP provides a capability upgrade over the legacy Heron-1 system (8.5m/27.8ft long and a 16.6m/54.4ft wingspan) also deployed by the Indian armed forces, which can fly at 30000ft while carrying payloads of up to 550lb (250kg). The Heron-TP’s main performance envelope increase lies in its significantly larger payload capacity. The smaller Heron-1 can carry up to 550lb of payload, including optronics; a Television (TV) and Infrared (IR) combination or a triple sensor encompassing TV, IR and a laser designator, a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Maritime Patrol Radar (MPR); an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capability; a communication relay package and/or a customer furnished sensor suites. The Heron-TP can carry a typical mission payload of up to 2200lb (1000kg), including optronics, SAR, MPR and ELINT. This allows the latter to perform as a multi-mission platform with simultaneous and flexible payload operation. The aircraft can also fly in all weather conditions above commercial air traffic, and makes use of Satellite Communications (SATCOM) for extended range operations.
In July 2016 IAI announced that it was looking to further expand the capabilities of the Heron family with plans to develop a sense-and-avoid capability with Honeywell Aerospace. This capability, set to be demonstrated in 2018, will use Honeywell-developed software, algorithms, hardware and the fusion of inputs from various sensors embedded in a single prototype box or Line-Replaceable Unit (LRU), combined with IAI’s separation and collision avoidance manoeuvring logic and Ground Control Station (GCS) pilot interface. The system will provide the UAV with improved situational awareness with the tracking of other nearby aircraft, enabling collision avoidance manoeuvring, and will suggest alternate flight manoeuvres, resulting in a safer airspace.
The HALE platform that has seen the biggest successes in the Asia-Pacific region over the past few years is the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk. The company was awarded a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract in December 2014 to deliver four RQ-4B systems (four aircraft, two ground stations and supporting equipment) to the Republic of Korea Air Force, with the systems to provide wide-area intelligence gathering capabilities. Production of the aircraft commenced at the start of 2015 and by April 2016 components were being delivered by Korean defence industry partners, Korean Jig and Fixture (KJF) and Firstec Company, for the first aircraft: “Production of the Republic of Korea’s RQ-4Bs is currently underway at Northrop Grumman facilities in the US, and our Korean partners Firstec and KJF have played a critical role in the aircraft’s development: Firstec manufactures wire harnesses, while KJF makes build-to-print aerospace grade precision machine parts for the Global Hawk,” Mick Jaggers, Vice President of the Global Hawk programme at Northrop Grumman’s aerospace division, told AMR: “The first two Global Hawk are expected to be delivered in 2018 and the remaining two aircraft are expected for delivery in 2019.”
The other major development for the RQ-4B in the Asia-Pacific is its imminent acquisition by Japan. Like the Republic of Korea purchase, Japan is acquiring the UAV via the US FMS route, with the official notice of the request delivered to the US government by the Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in November 2015. Japan has requested three RQ-4B Block-30 Global Hawks along with ground support equipment at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. According to the DSCA notification, Japan has requested the aircraft in order to enhance its ISR capabilities to ensure the Japan Air Self Defence Force can continue to monitor and deter regional threats: “We believe that (the) Global Hawk significantly enhances Japan’s ISR capabilities while providing the right combination of performance, capability, and value that is critical to supporting regional stability,” Mr. Jaggers said: “The US Pacific Command currently uses (the) Global Hawk in the Pacific region given its more than 30 hours of flight endurance, surveillance capability over vast areas at high altitudes, and the fact that it is the most affordable ISR system in the inventory, manned or unmanned … Global Hawk has operated in the Pacific region since 2011 out of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and has also temporarily operated out of Misawa airbase, Japan, in 2014 and 2015. Global Hawk operations from Misawa airbase demonstrate how Global Hawk’s unmanned aircraft systems can operate safely within Japan and also easily be used at a joint-use airfield with military and civilian aircraft.”
The RQ-4B is designed to carry multiple payloads and collect a wide variety of intelligence data, while flying for more than 30 hours at up to 60000ft (18288m). The aircraft, which is also used by the US Air Force and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), surpassed 200,000 flight hours in July. Northrop Grumman is continually updating the RQ-4B to meet emerging requirements; earlier in 2016 it flew with the US Air Force legacy UTC Aerospace SYERS-2 intelligence gathering sensor, made possible due to Northrop Grumman’s Universal Payload Adaptor. The company also has plans to fly an Optical Bar Camera (OBC) sensor and an MS-177 multi-spectral sensor later this year.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) is narrowing in on the maritime domain as it looks to market the maritime variant of MQ-9B Sky Guardian/Sea Guardian, being marketed locally as the Guardian. Capable of carrying Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System-B (MTS-B) optronics sensor and SeaVue multi-mode maritime radar, SATCOM, AIS (Automatic Identification System for maritime traffic transponders), ELINT and Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), the aircraft is designed to perform wide area long-endurance ISR missions. Able to fly at maximum altitude of 50000ft (15240m) for up to 27 hours, GA-ASI considers the UAV a good match for the types of requirements it is seeing emerge from the Asia-Pacific region: “There requirements are certainly there, and the Pacific lends itself well to UAV operations in general because of the large distances involved and the persistence required,” Terry Kraft, GA-ASI’s regional vice president for the Asia-Pacific region, told AMR: “While we see a big concern from military organisations for disaster relief, search and rescue and humanitarian assistance, a lot of countries are also very interested in the civil mission from coast guards and other government agencies … Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) monitoring is a big one, billions of dollars a year are being lost in illegal fishing, and they also care about controlling their coastlines in terms of smuggling and illegal immigration. So in addition to the maritime surveillance piece you get with our 360 degree radar, full motion video and other sensors, you are getting this multi-agency role that we are seeing more and more demand for.”
GA-ASI also sees scope within the maritime domain to apply the work it is currently doing in the area of manned/unmanned teaming. In November 2015 the company’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle long-range, long-dwell UAV took part in a US Army-led manned/unmanned teaming exercise demonstration in the Republic of Korea. The UAV streamed video and metadata via a line-of-sight data link directly to a US Army Boeing/McDonnell Douglas AH-64D Apache attack helicopter from extended distances. The AH-64D re-transmitted the imagery to a remote video terminal, allowing ground forces to view the video; field commanders within the Tactical Operations Centre were able to receive both live MQ-1C streaming video and re-transmitted video sent by the AH-64D. Contact reports and target coordinates were also passed to operators in the aircraft’s GCS, who were then able to direct the MQ-1C’s sensors to positively identify and track the targets: “We see great potential in manned/unmanned teaming, and think that in the next ten to 20 years you’re going to be looking at an environment where UAVs will be teaming with manned aircraft to extend the range, extend the combat capability, or provide very large area cueing for those aircraft,” Mr. Kraft said: “For (the) aircraft in the maritime role, that would span up to being able to team with manned maritime surveillance assets such as the Boeing P-8A Poseidon or Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft. There’s a huge untapped potential here for our aircraft to team with manned aircraft which is where we’re going to be for a long time.”
The Australian government is looking to tap into the potential for unmanned assets to support the capabilities of its incoming P-8A, having confirmed in its 2016 Defence White Paper, which outlines the government’s defence spending and strategic priorities, that it will acquire seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton aircraft to monitor its maritime approaches. Based on the RQ-4B platform, Northrop Grumman has developed the MQ-4C for the US Navy. It is designed to provide real-time ISR over vast ocean and coastal regions, using its 360-degree sensor suite to provide maritime domain awareness to naval commanders.
Although Australia has not yet entered into a contract with the US government for the MQ-4C, with the US Navy having placed a firm order for three aircraft in September 2016, the MQ-4C is positioned strongly now that it is an in-production system: “The Australian programme has been through two of the acquisition milestones … in 2014 where (the aircraft) was selected to provide the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) capability, and earlier this year when intermediate consideration was achieved,’ Greg Black, Northrop Grumman’s business director for Australia Triton, told AMR: “The Defence White Paper also indicated Australia’s intent to acquire seven (aircraft) with the final acquisition milestone planned for 2018, with the contracting process to follow thereafter … We like to call (the MQ-1C) a perfect match for Australia. It is the only HALE UAV with the range and endurance to meet the BAMS requirements, and by the country’s geography alone, it represents the third largest EEZ in the world, surrounded by a lot of water, so a purpose-built system such as MQ-1C really provides a capability for extended persistence, endurance and range, and that’s why we think it’s a perfect fit.”
The White Paper indicated that MQ- would be introduced into service in the 2020s, around the same time as its eight P-8A Poseidon aircraft will enter service. The unarmed Triton will complement the manned aircraft, providing a persistent maritime patrol capability and undertaking other ISR tasks as required: “For both the US and Australia, the MQ-4C UAV was built to complement the (P-8A), and we really look at them as a manned/unmanned team,” Mr. Black said: “The persistence that the Triton provides in terms of endurance, sensor capabilities, helps to optimise the mix of manned and unmanned so those missions can be executed most effectively.”