UAVs are becoming increasingly competitive as air forces around the world catch on to their potential. Our guest columnist, retired Air Commodore Azfar A Khan, who served in the Pakistan Air Force for 31 years, explains why they are proving so popular.
In the modern world, technology is the name of the game. Until recently, piloted aircraft were thought to be the core strength of any air force. Now, that concept is changing as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) enter the field.
The pace of technological progress in the development of UAVs is astonishing, and they are already supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the next few years, however, their use is likely to become even more widespread. It is estimated that that the UAV market could soar to $160bn over the next ten years.
There are two countries that have made spectacular progress in the field of UAVs – the US and Israel. In the US, two companies, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, dominate the production of the UAVs, while in Israel, the most prominent company for producing world-class pilotless machines is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
There are two main UAVs in great demand – the Heron and the Reaper. Produced by Israel and the United States, respectively, these UAVs are able to be in one country with their control team in another, allowing the UAV to fly over Iraq and Afghanistan while being controlled by ground forces in the home nation.
The effectiveness of the UAV as a weapon was demonstrated when one fired two Hellfire missiles on the Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud and killed him when he was in his relative's home in South Waziristan in August.
Heron vs Reaper
Heron is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV that has been developed by IAI. It has an endurance of up to 52 hours at an altitude of 35,000ft.
It is used for land surveillance, maritime patrol missions and wide-area real-time intelligence and can carry a payload of 250kg.
Heron TP is a new version of Heron, which is focused on reconnaissance and is a larger-than-traditional model. It is designed to fly at high altitude, on missions lasting for several days. It is a low-cost competitor to the more expensive Global Hawk UAV, which has far more range than required by most countries. Heron TP can operate at 45,000ft and carries sensors that can give a detailed view of the ground even from that high altitude. Long endurance of 36 hours makes Heron TP a competitor for the US MQ-9 Reaper.
The Reaper MQ-9, also known as Predator B, was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in the US and is the first hunter-killer type that has a long endurance of 30 hours. It can carry out surveillance at an altitude of 50,000ft and its strength lies in better intelligence, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities (ISTAR).
In size, the Reaper is similar to a small business jet and can carry 14 Hellfire missiles. The cost of the craft and associated ground stations is $100m a system. Each Reaper drone is operated remotely by two people, a pilot and a sensor operator that are positioned at a ground control station. The pilot flies the plane, while the sensor operator monitors the performance of various sensor systems used by the Reaper.
Also making its mark on the UAV field is the Predator (MQ-1), which is produced by General Atomics (GA) and comprises four sensored air vehicles, a ground control station and a satellite link.
Also from GA is the Avenger (Predator C), which is slightly bigger than the Reaper. The Avenger is jet-powered and can fly up to 460mph while the Reaper has a top speed of 230mph. It also uses stealth technology to rise to an altitude of more than 60,000ft. In short, it is designed to operate in the same hunter-killer role as Reaper but its response time is much faster.
Global Hawk (RQ-4) is also used by the US Air Force as a surveillance aircraft for intelligence collection and is of a similar concept to the U-2 spy plane of the 1950s.
Global Hawk has a range of 14,000nm with an endurance of 42 hours. Like the Avenger it also flies at 60,000ft and the RQ-4A variant has the distinction of being the first to fly non-stop from the US to Australia.
Euro Hawk, a European Version of the US Global Hawk UAV, is being developed for Germany by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS) and Northrop Grumman to replace its aging fleet of Atlantique ATL1 aircraft. It is equipped with an EADS-built SIGINT mission system that will be the heart of the Euro Hawk's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system. It has an endurance of 30 hours.
Around the world
France has developed a competitor for the US Predator. Its EADS SIDM is actually a modified version of the Israeli Eagle. SIDM can stay in the air for up to 24 hours, at an altitude of up to 30,000ft and has a total payload capacity of 600lb.
France-based Aeroart has unveiled a very-low-cost micro UAV known as Featherlite. The entire system, including control, visual systems and an on-board video camera, costs only $11,400. This model is powered by an electric engine, is 1.2m long with a wingspan of 1.9m, weighs just 1.5kg and can carry a 250g payload for an hour and a half. It is used for training UAV pilots and for conducting surveillance or taking photographs.
Rather than going into the space alone Pakistan and Italy have teamed up to produce the Falco, an advanced tactical UAV. It is being produced by Selex Galileo with Pakistan manufacturing many parts of it and is due to roll out shortly. Meanwhile, back in the US, the innovation just keeps on coming, with the nation developing a bomber that will be flown by ground personnel.
Wherever in the world they are being produced, UAVs are expected to change the total scenario of future warfare.
Predictions are that human pilots will soon be obsolete and with the introduction of UAVs, the risk to pilot life and costly air to air combats will be eliminated.
UAVs are being used to monitor the border to check infiltration, identifying and attacking those who plant roadside IEDs and locating and killing the most wanted terrorists. It's a game of innovation in technology; with whoever possesses the state-of-the-art model, with better lethal power, likely to prove the eventual winner.
As prior intelligence is a force multiplier in any warfare scenario, the UAVs will provide such intelligence to the theatre commander and enable him take action with confidence. Efforts are now in hand to build solar-powered UAVs which will bring a revolution in this field. In short, it could be said that the UAVs are the mainstay of the future warfare.