The unmanned option…
Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly being seen as a military option in the Middle East. David Oliver looks at the rise of the technology.
The United States has been reluctant to give approval for the export sales of armed UAVs even to friendly nations in the Middle East.
It has, however, sanctioned sales of the Insitu ScanEagle, an unarmed long-endurance mini-UAV that is launched using a pneumatic wedge catapult.
Equipped with an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor and high-resolution video cameras that enable the operator to track both stationary and moving targets, the ScanEagle has a service ceiling of 5,000 metres and an endurance of more than 20 hours.
Tunisia was the first country in the Middle East to operate the ScanEagle and, in July 2016, it was revealed that additional UAVs would be delivered under a US foreign military sales (FMS) contract.
Insitu has also been awarded a $9.4 million contract to supply four upgraded ScanEagles to Lebanon, along with training, programme management and field service. Much of the work will be carried out at Hamat in Lebanon.
Deliveries of 12 ScanEagles to Yemen began in 2015 but these have been halted due to the civil war. Ten UAVs were delivered to Iraq in 2014.
Taking advantage of the US reluctance to give approval for the export sales of armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS), China has been staging a successful marketing programme in the Middle East to fill this gap.
One of its most capable unmanned medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms is the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) Rainbow CH-4.
With a wingspan of 18 metres and a length of 8.5 metres, the CH-4 has a maximum take-off weight of 1,330kg and a payload of 354kg. It has an endurance of 14 hours cruising between 150 – 180km/hr with a dash speed of 210km/hr.
The payload includes electro-optic and infrared sensors for TV in a semi-retractable turret, synthetic aperture radar and semi-active laser guidance.
The armed variant, the CH-4B, can carry up to six HJ-10 laser-guided anti-tank missiles or FT-9 60kg precision-guided bombs, or four FT-6A 250kg range-extended precision-guided weapons.
Designed for the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) role, the FT-6A utilises a fragmentation warhead to destroy radio frequency communication systems, jamming, and command posts.
Two systems of three CASC CH-4B platforms were delivered to Iraq in 2015 and are operating from Kut Airbase, supported by Chinese operators and maintainers.
An undisclosed number have also been delivered to Saudi Arabia, which have been used to attack rebel forces Yemen during Operation Restore Hope.
Saudi Arabia also operates the German EMT X-2000 Luna, an unnamed short-range surveillance UAV over Yemen.
The Algerian Air Force’s No 545 Squadron is equipped with unarmed versions of the CH-4, while Egypt and the UAE are also reported to have acquired the UAV.
The UAE has been developing a family of MALE Yabhon UAVs designed by Adcom Systems but few have reached production.
In March 2016, the UAE signed a €316 million ($353m) contract for eight Piaggio P.HH Hammerhead MALE UAVs. These are derived from the P180 Avanti II business twin-turboprop aircraft produced by the Italian company, which is now owned by Mubadala Development Company, an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm.
The twin-pusher MALE has the Selex ES SkyISTAR mission management system (MMS) that manages sensors, video and data, and communications. The Hammerhead has an operational ceiling of 13,500 metres and an endurance of 16 hours with a 225kg payload and with a transit speed of 395 knots. It is the fastest MALE ever designed. However, the prototype crashed in May 2016, which may delay deliveries.
One of the most successful short-range surveillance UAVs is the Austrian Schiebel S-100 Camcopter, a small rotary-wing air vehicle with a 50kg payload. An S-100 derivative, the Al-Saber, is in production in the UAE with more than 40 of 80 on order delivered to date. Two S-100 systems of two air vehicles, equipped with the L-3 Wescam MX-10 EO/IR sensor turret were delivered in 2011 for operation by the Jordan Armed Forces Reconnaissance Squadron.
There is a growing global market for low-cost ISR platforms. Ecarys GmbH, the military division of Germany’s Stemme AG, which won the French Army’s tactical UAV contract with its S15-1-based Sagem Patroller against the Thales Watchkeeper, is offering an optionally manned variant (OPV), the ES15.
Powered by a single 115hp Rotax 914F, the Patroller can carry 250kg of high-performance multi-sensor intelligence-gathering payloads, including optronics, radars, and electronic warfare (EW) systems in sensor turrets and under-wing pods to an altitude of 6,000 metres for up to 30 hours.
In September 2015, Sagem announced that it had teamed up with the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI) Aircraft Factory to offer the Patroller MALE to the Egyptian armed forces. AOI would be responsible for final assembly of the Patroller in country, and would provide system support and commissioning, according to Sagem. No firm order has yet been announced.
Stemme is promoting its ES15 OPV, a single-engine multi-sensor surveillance variant of its high-performance composites aircraft, on which Patroller is based. With an endurance of up to 20 hours, and a maximum range of 2,500km at low consumption cruise, the ES15 can carry a 350kg payload, including an electro-optical gimbal system and an infrared sensor on under-wing pods and an airborne laser scanner or synthetic aperture radar in the fuselage.
The aircraft’s composite construction gives a very low radar signature and low cross-section. With low noise emissions and an operating cost of only €300 ($335) per hour, Ecarys is confident of a wide market, especially in the Middle East.
At the same time, Qatar is developing an OPV ISR – the Q01 platform – designed by the former CEO of Stemme AG, Dr Reiner Stemme.