Market challengers in the burgeoning unmanned space
The value of the global unmanned aircraft system (UAS) market over the next 10 years is largely speculative. The real value of future contracts IS unknown, but there is agreement on one fact – the potential value of the military UAS market is huge.
US-based market research firm Teal Group forecast annual sales, research and development of US$15.8bn (A$21.9bn) in 2020, rising to US$20bn (A$27.7bn) by 2029. This figure includes US unclassified and classified procurement. In the Asia-Pacific, Jane’s Market Forecast estimates the potential size of the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV market, excluding US security partners such as Japan, Singapore, and Australia, to be US$890m (A$1.23bn) a year.
Armed UAVs have proven their utility over the past two decades of counter insurgency and low intensity conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the Middle East. The relatively low cost per airframe, reduced training burden, perceived reduction in risk, and prestige and country status associated with operating armed UAVs, all contribute to this burgeoning market.
While the US-made General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Predator and Reaper airframes are the most well-known armed UAVs, sales of the GA-ASI aircraft have been limited by US adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR states that signatories should have a “strong presumption to deny” the sale of ‘Category I’ UAS capable of carrying a 500kg payload a distance of 300km.
The intent of the MTCR is to prevent the spread of delivery systems for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Adherence by the US to the MTCR has meant non-signatory states such as Israel, China, and Turkey have been able to sell armed UAVs to a range of customers, including many in the Middle East, South America, and Africa, although it is unclear if the products on offer from these states are direct competitors to the US airframes in Category I of the MTCR. In a 2018 report, UK-based NGO Drone Wars noted that, “while many assume that China is now flouting MTCR rules by exporting its armed UAVs … the systems that it has sold appear limited to ones that fall into the less sensitive Category II status.”
A 2017 RAND Corporation study found all Chinese and Israeli export sales of MALE UAS were ‘near-Category I’ UAVs with a payload below 500kg and line of sight (LOS) range under 300km – but also noted most of these systems could perform many of the missions of Category I UAVs and were ‘significantly less expensive’.
However, Israel and China are aggressively pursuing armed UAV sales in the Asia Pacific, and appear to be competing for sales with US-made systems. Based on current open source intelligence, ADBR estimates five non-US UAS designs are being actively marketed in the Indo-Pacific region.
AVIC WING LOONG II
The Aviation Industry of China (AVIC) Wing Loong II (Pterodactyl) has been exported to the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reporting on arms trades, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also purchased Wing Loong variants around 2015-16, although Drone Wars notes neither country appears to be flying the aircraft.
Media reporting suggests the UAE used Wing Loong II UAVs in 2017 during air operations in the Libyan civil war (a claim the UAE denies), although it is unknown if the UAVs were used in a strike or ISR role.
Externally the Wing Loong II is a copy of the MQ-9 Predator with an almost identical airframe configuration. The wings have three underwing hardpoints for external stores. Payload capacity is claimed at 480kg, and AVIC advertises a range of Chinese-made air-to-surface weapons as compatible with the Wing Loong II, including antitank missiles, guided rockets, glide bombs and laserguided bombs (LGB).
Sensor fit is unknown, but based on airshow and arms sales literature the Wing Loong II carries an EO/IR camera and laser designator in the sensor ball under the nose. Airframes are fitted with a SATCOM antenna, and AVIC claims an operational radius of 1,000nm with SATCOM. The engine is probably the 500kW AEP50E turboprop, giving a maximum speed of 200kts and maximum altitude of 30,000ft, with an endurance of 32 hours.
The China Aerospace Corporation (CASC) CH-4 Rainbow is offered as an unarmed and armed CH-4B variant, while Jane’s International Defence Review reported in April 2020 that an updated CH-4C variant is now in development.
SIPRI figures record CH-4 sales to Algeria, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, although in November 2018 the Assistant Commander of the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) said the RJAF “wasn’t happy with the performance” of the four CH-4B UAV, and was planning to retire the airframes. Indonesia’s purchase of the CH-4 is also unclear – while SIPRI records a sale of four CH-4s delivered in 2019, Indonesia’s indigenous Elang Hitam (Black Eagle) armed MALE UAV will reportedly be in service by 2022 and is planned to replace the CH-4.
The CH-4 also closely resembles the Predator UAS, although CASC officials claim the airframe is a clean-sheet design. The CH-4B airframe has four underwing hardpoints, and can carry four AR-1 LGBs. Sensor fit includes the standard EO/IR imager, while CASC offers synthetic aperture radar (SAR), electronic support measures (ESM) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) self-protection suites, laser range-finding, and communications relay equipment as payloads.
The maximum payload is 345kg. Export versions are offered with SATCOM, providing range performance up to 850nm. The CH-4 has a turboprop as standard fit (although the type is unknown) giving a maximum speed of 100kts, a maximum altitude of 26,000ft, and an endurance of 14 hours. CASC is reportedly developing a heavy fuel engine for the CH-4 to increase endurance, payload, and maximum altitude performance, although reporting on this is vague.
The CH-5 to date has not been exported, however it appears to be designed to compete with the Predator B (Reaper) and CASC is reportedly offering the CH-5 airframe as an upgrade option for existing CH-4 operators. Payload is increased to 1,200kg, with six underwing hardpoints and an additional four fuselage mounts. Compared with the CH-4, the CH-5 can carry up to 16 AR-1 and AR-2 LGBs, or FT-9 SATNAV (JDAM copy) bombs.
CASC has marketed a sensor fit including EO/ IR camera with high definition imaging, SAR, and an electronic warfare or electronic intelligence configurable internal mission payload. With SATCOM BLOS datalink, the CH-5 has a range of over 1,000nm, a cruise speed of around 100kts and a claimed maximum speed of 162kts. Maximum altitude is likely around 25,000ft. Endurance is claimed at 39 hours with a petrol engine, and 60 hours with a heavy fuel engine.
IAI HERON TP-XP
The Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) Heron TP-XP is an export version of the Heron Turboprop (TP). To avoid MTCR restrictions IAI reduced the payload capacity of the Heron TP from 1,000kg to 450kg, putting it into MTCR Category II. To date, India is the only export customer of the TP-XP, although Germany and South Korea both operate the smaller Category I Heron UAV.
The Israeli Air Force has reportedly operated the Heron TP since 2010, and Germany has it on order. The TP-XP version of the Heron has a claimed 30+ hours endurance (compared to 36 hours for the baseline Heron TP), and IAI appears to have reduced payload capacity by increasing range and endurance.
The 2017 RAND study notes that both Heron TP and TP-XP aircraft have identical specifications outside payload weight and space, so the reduction in payload capacity could be reversible. Weapons fit on the Heron TP-XP is unknown, although the airframe has underwing hardpoints. Sensor fit is mission dependent, and IAI offers the usual EO/IR camera, as well as SAR, maritime patrol radar (possibly inverse synthetic aperture radar), and electronic warfare payloads including electronic support (ES), ELINT, and COMINT collection.
The Heron TP-XP likely uses the same Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) turboprop engine with four blade prop as the Heron TP. The P&WC PT6A-67 generates 895kW. Range is claimed at 540nm with BLOS operation, and IAI claims a maximum speed of 220kts and an operating altitude of 45,000ft.
ELBIT HERMES 900
Elbit’s Hermes 900 has been exported to Azerbaijan, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Philippines, and Switzerland, and was leased to Thales to support United Nations peacekeeping operations in Mali between 2016-19. Unconfirmed reports indicate Kazakhstan signed a license production deal with Elbit Systems in 2016, while the Hermes 900 has been in Israeli Air Force service since at least 2010.
According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), all known exports of the Hermes 900 (and other Israeli UAS) were supplied unarmed. The Hermes 900 has an internal payload bay and underwing hardpoints which could allow for four Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). Sensor fit includes long-range EO/IR cameras, SAR radar with ground moving target indication (GMTI), SIGINT and electronic warfare payloads.
Elbit also offers a dedicated maritime patrol version with a maritime surveillance radar and automatic identification system (AIS) fit. The Hermes 900 uses a Rotax 914F turbocharged flat four engine, generating 78.3kW. Endurance is claimed as 36 hours with a payload of 350kg, placing it in the MTCR Category II, and range is advertised as 1,350nm with an operating altitude of 30,000ft.
Elbit also offers a StarLiner HFE engine variant of the Hermes 900, which increases the payload to 450kg. The StarLiner is also NATO STANAG 4671 compliant, meaning it can be certified to operate in other NATO member countries’ civilian airspace.
On paper, there don’t appear to be any direct competitors for the GA-ASI MQ-9B SkyGuardian the RAAF plans to acquire under Project AIR 7003. The MQ-9B has a combined internal payload of 360kg and external payload of 2,155kg, and while range is dependent on payload it can be up to 6,000nm with a 40-hour endurance and 40,000ft operating altitude. While a UAS is significantly cheaper to operate than a manned aircraft, the cost of owning a system compared with the basic air vehicle is difficult to estimate.
A UAS is only as effective as its ground segment in both controlling the air vehicle and collecting, analysing, and disseminating the information to ‘customers’ from the mission payload. Indeed, the ground-based component of a UAS – and by implication the training and support provided by a vendor – is arguably more important than airframe performance.