31 March 2009
This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Cost is emerging as a key determining factor in British Defense Ministry considerations over the respective merits and force mix of loitering munitions and armed tactical UAVs.
The U.K. is examining both loitering munitions and armed UAVs to provide what it terms "persistent deep fires." The considerations also expose continuing tension between the Royal Air Force and Army over "ownership" issues.
Thales and MBDA are developing weapons suitable for UAV applications, while the latter is also the lead partner in Team Loitering Munition, which is developing the Fire Shadow weapon. The loitering munition work is part of the Army's indirect-fire precision-attack program. The next Fire Shadow test could take place as early as April.
"A loitering munition could be a valuable part of the mix, but it must be cost-effective. At the moment, my concern is on the unit cost," says a senior RAF officer.
The Fire Scout will offer a loitering capability in excess of 10 hr. at a range of up to 150 km. (93 mi.). Concepts of operation include deploying multiple air vehicles over an area of interest or of operation. Man-in-the-loop guidance would be used to attack emerging targets. If none materialized, the weapon could be retasked onto secondary targets; or if its fuel were exhausted, it would be discarded in a safe area.
"There's huge pressure to keep costs down [on Fire Shadow]," says Steve Wadey, MBDA U.K.'s managing director. "For the concept of operations to be valid, it's got to be low cost."
The unit price, as well as the operational cost, of the weapon has to be low enough to allow it to be fired for effect rather than necessarily being tasked against a specific target before being launched. Loitering munitions offer the advantages of long range and endurance, the potential for inflight retargeting and positive target identification, and battle damage assessment (since they will likely be used in multiples).
However, as the RAF officer points out -- and as industry recognizes -- to gain the maximum benefit from the capability, the weapon has to have a price that makes it disposable, even if the likelihood is that no target is engaged. If this is not the case, then a loitering munition risks becoming just another system in the weapon inventory.
The U.K. is already gaining weaponized UAV experience with its acquisition of the General Atomics Reaper through an urgent operational requirement for use in Afghanistan.
At the industry level, BAE Systems and Thales are pursuing weapon integration on UAVs -- both tactical and, in the case of BAE, medium-altitude long-endurance platforms. BAE and Thales carried out the experimental integration of the Javelin missile on BAE's Fury UAV; firing trials occurred during 2008. Ground firings were conducted in the U.K., with air-launched trials done in Australia. The Herti reconnaissance UAV (on which Fury is based) has had a test deployment in Afghanistan.
Thales is the prime contractor for the Defense Ministry's Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance UAV, which is due to enter service in 2011. BAE Systems is leading the Mantis medium-altitude long-endurance UAV demonstrator, a first flight of which is expected in the next few weeks. The next phase of the Mantis program includes weapons work.
Thales Air Defense's Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) is being developed with the tactical UAV role as one of its applications. Development is well underway, and test firings have been carried out. The company is also looking at using components of the LMM married to a wing kit to provide a small glide weapon with a flyout range in excess of 20 km.
The LMM would be suitable for carriage on a Watchkeeper-class UAV, though Thales will not discuss whether there is U.K. interest -- potentially through an urgent operational requirement -- in integrating this weapon.
Notionally, the Watchkeeper and the Fire Shadow could both be fielded to support operations in Afghanistan during 2011. In the case of Fire Shadow, this would effectively be an in-theater operational evaluation.
Regarding Fire Shadow, a further area that must be addressed is
whether, and how, its operation is integrated into the air tasking order,
to ensure there is no conflict with manned platforms or other UAVs.