The Royal Australian Air Force is facing a three-year gap in operating an unmanned aircraft (or remotely-piloted aircraft systems – RPAS – to use the RAAF’s preferred nomenclature) following the retirement of the IAI Heron in June.
Three Herons were leased in late 2009 to meet an urgent operational requirement to provide surveillance support to Australian and coalition troops in Afghanistan, becoming the first unmanned aircraft to be operated by the RAAF (the Jinidivik target drone aside).
With Australia winding down its presence in Afghanistan in 2014 Defence elected to extend the lease on two Herons for operations in Australia for a further six years at a cost of $120 million, however Defence has evidently negotiated an early cancellation of that lease.
“The Heron is leased from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd (MDA). The lease was negotiated to expire in 2017,” a Defence spokesperson told Australian Aviation via emailed statement late last month.
“Defence does not have a requirement to extend the lease because the Heron is a legacy RPAS. It has limited potential to provide experience in the more complex aspects of RPAS operations.”
That will leave the RAAF without an unmanned aircraft capability until the early 2020s when an armed medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system is acquired under Project AIR 7003, the contenders for which are the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and the IAI Heron TP.
“Air Force has taken steps to retain and further develop medium-altitude, long-endurance RPAS knowledge and experience, including embedding RAAF personnel in the United States Air Force flying the MQ-9 Reaper,” the spokesperson said.
“These personnel will form the core of the future ADF capability to be delivered by AIR 7003.”
Between January 2010 and November 2014 RAAF Herons flew over 27,100 hours in support of operations in Afghanistan, while between April 2015 and June 2017 the two Herons based in Australia flew a further 710 hours. The two Australian-based Herons have mostly flown from RAAF Base Woomera, South Australia, but have also flown from RAAF Base Amberley and participated in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015.
Operated by 5 Flight, approximately 75 remote pilots and 75 sensor operators were trained on the Heron in its time in RAAF service.
The unmanned aircraft operated its last mission for the RAAF from Tindal on June 23 when it flew the last of 17 sorties as part of Exercise Diamond Shield in support of the RAAF’s inaugural Air Warfare Instructor Course.
“I want to congratulate the 5FLT team, including our technical workforce from the contractor MDA and our embeds from No. 87 Squadron, JEWOSU and No. 1 Combat Communications Squadron, who all worked together to ensure that 5FLT and Heron closed for business on a high,” CO 5FLT Wing Commander Lee Read said in a statement.
5 Flight is due to be disbanded at the end of the year.