ADF playing catch-up on UAVs

RAAF marked Predator B 200dpi 24x36w
How the Predator B might look in RAAF markings. (GA-ASI)

The assessment of Australia’s progress in adopting unmanned systems for military purposes was blunt.

“We are probably about eight to 10 years behind where we need to be, certainly in Air Force in some of those cases, and we will be working pretty hard to catch up on that,” said Group Captain Guy Adams, addressing an industry advocacy group.

For instance, although the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is already gaining operational experience with the MQ-9 Reaper, through personnel attached to the US Air Force, it will be a while yet before this sort of remotely piloted aircraft is being operated by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in its own right.

Speaking at the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) conference that was held in early September in conjunction with the LAND FORCES 2016 exhibition in Adelaide, GPCAPT Adams said the process of acquiring an armed medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft for the ADF is expected to take six years.

However, even this timeline could prove to be optimistic, the RAAF’s Director Unmanned Aerial Systems added.

The turboprop-powered Reaper, marketed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems as the Predator B, is regarded as the exemplar for AIR 7003 Phase 1 Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial System, as the project is known.

That being said, any such acquisition, which would most likely be pursued through the US government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, is not a done deal.

“If we were to go down the MQ-9 path it would probably be an FMS case; if we were to go down a path from a different producer, [Israel Aerospace Industries with the] Heron TP or otherwise, then we would either look at government-to-government arrangements or direct commercial sales,” GPCAPT Adams said.

Regardless of which unmanned aircraft system (UAS) is selected, there are risks associated with introducing platforms of this type.

Indeed, the term ‘unmanned’ is something of a misnomer as being able to maintain the necessary workforce is in fact one of the RAAF’s main worries.

“Generally these systems are hyper-manned,” GPCAPT Adams said. “There are more people required to operate a platform that is capable of sustaining 24/7 operations than many people realise, so identifying, recruiting and training the workforce required to sustain any 24/7 capabilities is one of our largest concerns.”

Operational role

It was announced back in February 2015 that the RAAF had started training aircrew and support staff on the Reaper in the US.

At the time of this announcement, Air Force had five personnel training to be air vehicle operators and payload operators at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and a communication systems engineer at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

This training has been completed and participants have been posted to operational and direct support roles with the US Air Force, a Defence spokesperson told Australian Defence Business Review sister publication Australian Aviation.

Five RAAF personnel are embedded with the 432nd Operations Group, which flies armed Reaper aircraft across Iraq and Syria in support of coalition operations.

Four of the RAAF personnel attached to the US Air Force are “performing operational duties” with their parent unit as Reaper pilots and sensor operators, the Defence spokesperson confirmed.

The US Air Force lists the primary function of the MQ-9 as being to ‘find, fix and finish’ targets, with the remotely piloted aircraft’s employment as an intelligence collection asset being secondary.

As for the ADF, the Integrated Investment Program document that was published with the 2016 Defence White Paper describes an armed MALE unmanned aircraft that will be acquired to provide an integrated and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and attack capability to be used to support Australian and coalition forces.

“A fully integrated, armed, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft capability supported by intelligence analysts will facilitate the timely delivery of accurate information to commanders at all levels, providing superior situational awareness to inform decision-making,” the Integrated Investment Program states.

“This system’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability will also enhance the ADF’s counter-terrorism support capability overseas, and could augment search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and coastal surveillance tasks.”

Clear frontrunner

The MQ-9 would appear to meet Defence’s broad requirements for an armed remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), according to Warren Ludwig, director for international strategic development in Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia at General Atomics Australia.

However, depending on what the ADF’s detailed requirements for AIR 7003 turn out to be, the developmental Certifiable Predator B (CPB) remotely piloted aircraft might be an option for consideration.

The CPB, which is a substantially redesigned Predator B, is the basis for the UK’s ‘Protector’ program, with the first aircraft due to be delivered to the Royal Air Force later this decade.

The US Department of State has approved the possible sale to the UK of up to 26 CPB aircraft (16 with an option for an additional 10) and equipment, training and support under the FMS program for an estimated US$1 billion.

“That aircraft comes with a range of improvements over the existing MQ-9,” Ludwig told Australian Defence Business Review.

“It has considerable range and endurance improvements; it can be rapidly reconfigured with different payloads and sensors. It is a far more ruggedised platform, stronger; certainly designed to operate in tougher conditions, including bad weather.

“It is designed and built around engineering standards, which is a first for a UAS, and most of that effort is based on certifying the platform for operations in controlled airspace.

“The UK is pioneering the airworthiness efforts for RPAS operations in European airspace, and GA has been working with NASA and the FAA to prove that technology in the US.”

The aircraft includes a detect-and-avoid system, which integrates a due regard radar with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) air traffic surveillance technology and the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS II).

“CPB is an aircraft that is designed to operate seamlessly in controlled airspace,” Ludwig said.

Questioned about opportunities for Australian industry involvement derived from a potential Reaper acquisition, he said the focus would be substantially on through-life support and training, rather than manufacturing.

“One of the difficulties in offering a Predator B is that it is an off-the-shelf, mature platform with known suppliers and an established global supply chain,” Ludwig said.

“Not unlike many other recent large aerospace acquisition projects – whether it is the F/A-18F, the C-17, the P-8A – there is not anywhere near the same potential for Australian industry involvement from a manufacturing point of view when compared to shipbuilding and submarine-building programs.

“Now, having said that, there is substantial scope for through-life support and training for these projects, and that is where in the aerospace domain the Australian industry involvement can occur.

“Not to say there are not minor opportunities for manufacturing, particularly during spiral upgrades…but for the initial acquisition most of that effort would be focused around through-life support and training.”

General Atomics has already teamed with Cobham for through-life support and training, and has commenced discussions with CAE regarding a teaming agreement for simulation and training.

“We have been talking to a range of leading-edge, high-technology Australian manufacturing firms to see if there is a place for selective involvement in the Predator global supply chain,” Ludwig added.

“I think it behoves us to try as hard as we can for Australian industry involvement; it is what is expected, and we are redoubling our effort to look at opportunities in Australia.”

General Atomics is investigating the possibility of bringing a company-owned MQ-9 to the 2017 Avalon Airshow to go on static display.

Intelligence analysis

Separate to the AIR 7003 project, a centralised processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) capability for ADF airborne ISR platforms is to be established under AIR 3503, known as Distributed Ground Station Australia (DGS-AUS).

In the meantime, a project called Distributed Ground Station Australia (Interim) is delivering a system that will provide a limited multi-source PED capability for airborne ISR assets to support ADF and allied exercises and operations.

“The interim centralised PED capability provided by DGS-AUS Interim will inform the development of the DGS-AUS capability to be delivered by AIR 3503,” the Defence spokesperson explained.

“The DGS-AUS will include predominantly uniformed intelligence analysts to process, exploit and analyse ISR feeds from airborne platforms in support of ADF operations. Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) directs all ADF joint operations, and the Air Operations Centre within HQJOC will command and control the DGS-AUS.”

Meanwhile, new facilities at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland will support the introduction of the armed UAS. Additional fixed facilities, including at RAAF Base Townsville, will be required to support the capability, the Integrated Investment Program notes.

At the unmanned systems industry group’s conference, GPCAPT Adams said that there are opportunities for Australian industry involvement derived from AIR 7003.

“They are still aircraft, they still require maintenance and we still need people to load bombs on them,” he said.

“Aircraft ground systems support: maintenance for the ground control stations, the information and communications technology systems, the satellite dishes; they also require maintenance, and a lot of that will need to be done here in Australia.

“Bandwidth requirements: how do I access and guarantee the bandwidth requirements associated with platforms of this type? Some of that can be provided commercially…so there are still opportunities for that bandwidth access to be provided.”

GPCAPT Adams added that aircrew and ground crew training could also be delivered by a commercial provider, which might help the ADF manage the workforce challenges it faces as Australia seeks to introduce an armed UAS in the early 2020s.