The Iraqi air force recently fired its first AGM-114 laser-guided Hellfire missile from a AC-208 Combat Caravan. Here’s an edited version of the video MNSTC-I (the organization working with the Iraqi military) released:
For about nine months, the French government has had an unsolicited proposal on the table from Thales to provide Hermes 450s for Afghanistan operations, not unlike what the contractor is doing for the U.K. Now, a senior Thales exec says a decision on moving forward with the deployment could come in April.
There are differences between the U.K. and French operation, if the latter gets the green light. The U.K. has about 10 Hermes 450s — they’ve amassed around 17,000 flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan — on a lease basis. The basic French program is for three vehicles, probably purchased.
Thales officials believe France will suffer the same problems with the Sperwer UAV now in Afghanistan as other countries have had to deal with. That, they expect, will provide impetus to the Hermes 450 operation — the Hermes 450 also can stay aloft much longer.
Meanwhile, the contractor is hoping the Brit experience will help convince Paris. No Hermes 450s have been lost and the U.K. government just extended the fee-for-service deal by 18 months.
One issue in France is the budget. There is no clear funding line for urgent operational needs, although Paris is trying to improve the process to get equipment out to deployed forces.
There’s been interest among U.S. special operations personnel for some time to field unmanned aircraft. In fact, even though the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) still is looking for a tactical or more capable system, other units have already been working with smaller UAVs. And that’s not even talking about the support the U.S. Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency have been providing specialops units.
Nevertheless, U.S. Special Operations Command is now turning to industry to see if they can deliver UAV services, rather than just air vehicles and ground stations. The service would have to be available on a worldwide basis. The mission is for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services; armed UAVs may still be a step-too-far for outsourcing.
It’s an interesting development and one wonders if Thales is looking to get into the game. The company has already been working with the U.K. military to provide Hermes-450s on an urgent basis to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thales also isin talks with the French government to do the same as part of the country’s force commitment to Afghanistan. (Click here to read the earlier post on those activities)
There’s been a huge demand for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection systems in Afghanistan, particularly for full-motion video, and finally the French are looking to do their part.
As part of the French government’s new found emphasis on getting military equipment to troops in Afghanistan they will likely include the deployment of two SIDM medium-altitude, long-endurance systems (based on the Israel Aerospace Industries Heron). SIDM, the French acronym for interim MALE system, is fitted with an electro-optical/infrared payload or a radar sensor.
But the French government may also add a tactical UAV capability to what it operates in support of NATO operations. Thales is in talks about with the government about providing Hermes-450 UAVs. Thales is the prime contractor on the U.K. Watchkeeper program, which uses the Elbit Systems Hermes-450, and has already provided London a quick reaction capability of Hermes-450s in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The French are considering 5-10 UAVs of the type for Afghanistan operations. The UAVs could be in country within three months of contract award, a Thales executive suggests.
France has put more emphasis on getting military equipment into the region after an August mission went awry, leading to the death of 10 of its soldiers. As is so often the case, it took the loss of life for the bureaucracy to catch up with military needs.
The Iraqi Air Force has taken another baby step to become less dependent on the U.S., this time in the realm of intelligence collection.
After several months of working closely with U.S. trainers, the Iraqis, last week, for the first time supported an exercise using a fully Iraqi crew. The exercise was a special operations drill, with the King Air intelligence aircraft overhead.
The Iraqis used their MX15I forward looking infrared sensor to provide convoy watch, and warn of potential threats. They also conducted more broad-based surveillance. The General Atomics synthetic aperture radar is not fully operational, yet, although it should be in the coming weeks or so, U.S. officials told me when I visited the Iraqi unit.
The information can be stored or downlinked directly to the ground, although for the purposes of the exercise any alerts were provided through voice communication.
One of the issues the Iraqis apparently still have is image exploitation. The joint intelligence school is still building up a cadre of expert imagery analysts, but there’s not enough capacity or experience, yet, to adequately do the job, I was told.
So make no mistake, even though this all-Iraqi mission was an important milestone for the young service, the Iraqi Air Force is far from ready to taking on the intelligence task on its own. There’s still many aspects of how to use the system that they need to learn about, including the SAR, so it’s unlikely U.S. advisors will be gone soon.
Just to put an end, for now, on the drawn-out-drama that was involved in getting German Tornado recce jets to Afghanistan, the six aircraft are now at Mazar-e-Sharif. The 51st recce wing (not squadron, as I’d erroneously said previously) detachment should be operational mid-month. Meanwhile, my Aviation Week colleague in Italy reports, the Italians are sending two Predator-A unmanned aircraft to Afghanistan — at least someone will be providing real-time intelligence, since the German Tornados can’t do that.
Just a brief update on the status of the German Tornados due to support NATO forces in Afghanistan. Departure is now set for Monday, April 2.
German defense minister Franz Josef Jung, inspector general of the armed forces Gen. Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Luftwaffe chief Lt. Gen. Klaus-Peter Stieglitz will give the six aircraft a send off at the Jagel air base where the 51st recce squadron is based.
When it comes to war, German efficiency certainly isn’t what it once was. NATO may have asked the German government in December to provide alliance forces in Afghanistan with airborne reconnaissance assets, but it’s taken until now to clear the hurdles.
First the coalition government was slow come to agreement, formally asking parliament in early February to approve sending Tornado reconnaissace aircraft. Parliament took until March 9 to give its go ahead, and then the courts got involved.
But now, Germany’s federal constitutional court has effectively given the green light to the deployment of German air force Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to
The court has struck down an emergency case brought by two of
Germany’s left wing parties to block the deployment, which had been okayed by Parliament on March 9.
The court ruled that allowing the deployment to proceed wouldn’t harm the main issue the plaintiffs have raised, namely that NATO is being transformed from a defensive to an offensive alliance with its leadership of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and that therefore Germany’s participation is unconstitutional. That issue will be reviewed in an April 18 hearing.
The German air force has already dispatched a first contingent of about 40 persons to Afghanistan, to prepare the deployment to Masar-e-Sharif. The Luftwaffe wants at least six operational reconnaissance Tornados, and may send eight aircraft to give it adequate spars. All aircraft belong to the 51st reconnaissance squadron.
The German military planners hope the Tornados will be operational mid-month, despite the delay.
The reconnaissance system doesn’t provide the much prized real-time data NATO forces are really interested in. So forces will have to wait several hours before they can review what snaps the Tornados have actually taken.
Transport operations using Ilyushin Il-76s are already underway to get the support equipment in place for the deployment. Two of the freighters are flying daily for the squadron’s base at Jagel, in northern Germany, to
The attacks on several U.S. military helicopters in Iraq in recent weeks has put hardening these aircraft against attempts to bring them down back in the spotlight.
The spate of helicopter combat losses by ground fire, with the associated loss of soldiers’ lives, rekindles a concern that had taken center stage more than a year ago. But worries at the time subsided when incidents became rarer after
U.S. pilots started employing new tactics and helicopters were kitted with enhanced self-protection systems.
But events this year indicate still more needs to be done, particularly when trying to counter less-sophisticated systems, such as small arms fire. The Pentagon plans several further enhancements to its helicopter fleet to strengthen self-protection capabilities. It also is looking at non-traditional approaches to spoof potential attackers.
One of the more unorthodox ideas being advanced now is the development of a system that would sound like a helicopter and have the same heat-signature, but in fact be no more than a small unmanned aircraft. The idea is to fly the drone in a potentially hostile area and trigger a threat that otherwise could be used against a real helo.
The idea of using decoys to fool air defenses isn’t a new one. The Pentagon has been working with various versions of airborne decoys for years to help protect fighter or bomber aircraft from higher-end, radar-guided air-defense systems. But what is a chance is expanding the operational concept to helicopters, which operate much closer to the ground and are primarily exposed to a completely different type of low-tech threat.
Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which acts as the Pentagon’s in-house technology incubator, is starting up the program called the Battlefield Helicopter Emulator. Darpa concedes there are still hurdles that need to be overcome. Nonetheless, the vision for such a system is to “enable the military to locate and harmlessly engage anti-helicopter mines, man-portable air defense systems, and provide a source of confusion during special operations.”
Although the stated concern is about anti-helo mines, which are often triggered by noise and then launch a projectile in the air to damage the rotorcraft, as well as the manpads — the shoulder-fired, heat-seaking missiles used on several attacks on military and commercial airliners in recent years — a unmanned aircraft-based decoy system could also be used to lure into the open individuals wanting to attack a helicopter with small arms or other devices.
The decoy is supposed to be able to mimic a variety of helicopter types, from the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk that serves as the backbone of troop transport for the
U.S. military, to the MD500, which is the basis for the Army special operations AH-6 Little Bird attack helos.
Developing the technology will not be quick nor easy. Field testing of such a device may be four years off, with some of the basic technology only being demonstrated next year. One of the challenges is to properly duplicate the sound of the main rotor and tail rotor, which means getting the noise ratio and harmonics just right. Similarly, replicating the heat (or infrared) signature of helicopters of different models also isn’t trivial.
The decoy effort isn’t the only or first move to boost self-protection systems. The Naval Air Systems Command, for instance, which manages Navy and Marine Corps helicopter programs, is embarking on another round of upgrades using more traditional systems. In 2004, the organization shifted priority from funding advanced fighter self-protection equipment to helicopters.
Now, according to a colleague at Aviation Week & Space Technology, the Marine Corps plans to put a laser-based IR-countermeasures systems, similar to the one already used on some Air Force C-17 transports, on its CH-53E troop-hauling helicopter workhorse. The upgraded helos should be in the field in about a year’s time. But those systems are designed to counter heat-seeking missiles, and will do little against less sophisticated systems that have been the source of the latest shoot downs.
Other efforts are also underway. One example is an activity
Bulgaria is leading under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The work focuses on developing a system to protect rotorcraft against the ubiquitous RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). With heat-seeking missiles, the countermeasures generally fool a missile into chasing a false target. The challenge with RPGs is that they don’t have any smarts that can be spoofed in that manner, so the projectile has to be intercepted or deflected some other way. But those systems, which exist for ground vehicles, are large and heavy, and finding an airborne version that’s operationally suitable remains to be achieved.
NATO forces in Afghanisitan will see some new air assets supporting operations there in the coming months, with the French government having decided to deploy special operations capable Eurocopter EC725 helos to the area, as well as air force Rafales. For the air force Rafales, it will be the first overseas deployment, after the service formally fielded the multi-role, twin-engined fighter last year – the French navy has already cruised with its Rafales, although those are at an earlier build standard.
For the EC725, it is the second deployment already, although the helicopter has been fielded less than a year. The operational debut was in Lebanon. The twin-engine helo features missile, radar and laser warning receivers, as well as a dispenser system, but so far no laser-based countermeasures.
France also is still trying to get the Rafales fully up to speed for its deployment, and is in talks with Raytheon about purchasing some Enhanced Paveway 2 laser-guided bombs with GPS capability to give them an all weather strike capability.
The French moves come as a decision was made to pull out special operations ground personnel, who have long been deployed to Afghanistan. One French military observer suggests the pull out of ground forces was driven by political calculus. It was a risk mitigation effort in the run-up to late Spring presidential elections, he argues. There was concern among some quarters that having a large number of ground forces exposed to potential losses could lead to damaging headlines during the electoral season.
The French army also is mulling deployment of its Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicle, a tactical system already used in Afghanistan, most heavily by the Canadians, although Dutch forces are also equipped with the drone.
Meanwhile, German politicians continue their long debate on whether or not to send six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan to meet a request for additional support by alliance commanders. There is now a consensus emerging in Germany that the government doesn’t require new legal authority for the Tornado deployment, but political forces from the left and the center are urging such a move nonetheless.
For now, Berlin feels no pressure to decide. NATO foreign ministers are salted to meet January 26th, and only after that get together will the federal government make its decision, according to a foreign ministry representative.
The six aircraft that would deploy belong to the 51st Immelmann reconnaissance squadron . The unit saw its first overseas deployment in 1995 as part of military operations in the former
Yugoslavia. The aircraft carry reconnaissance systems of two KS153A optical cameras, built by Zeiss, as well as infrared line scanner and recce management systems from Honeywell. The suite has a digital data storage system, but currently no real-time data feed which NATO commanders have said they have great demand for.
The German air force also is trying to quickly buy a combat proven, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft to meet their NATO obligations, although that wouldn’t be fielded in time for deployment this year. Although funding in Germany is currently tight, the debate over the Tornado deployment could trigger funding support for purchasing a UAV, whose deployment would be politically more palatable in a future scenario.
Military obligations in Afghanistan have already demonstrated they can break free extra money in Germany, where modernization spending is hard to come by. Last month, the defense ministry received approval to triple its planned procurement of Dingo 2 armored vehicles to 100 from 33 this year.