Britain Examines UAS Procurement Approach

Apr 25, 2011

By Robert Wall

Even as the U.K. steps up efforts to boost its unmanned aircraft prowess, an internal Defense Ministry document warns that the government risks a fractured approach unless stronger oversight emerges.

“A lack of unity of joint purpose in U.K. [unmanned aerial systems, or UAS] thinking will likely continue until an overarching body is set up that takes ownership of the road map and that is empowered to oversee and coordinate U.K. UAS and supporting lines of development,” the document declares.

What’s more, an update of the existing UAS strategy would be useful, it adds. The last road map was issued in 2005, before the U.K. acquired the General Atomics Reaper, the Army bought the Honeywell RQ-16Q T-Hawk, or special forces began operating Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk 3s.

“As the U.K. military plans for a period of post-Afghanistan rationalization and regeneration, in preparation for Future Force 2020, the U.K. road map could be usefully refreshed to provide the detail of how U.K. UAS will be developed, tri-service, with joint oversight, over the next 20 years,” the authors from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Center reason.

Such a plan would help avoid services acquiring systems that only narrowly meet their own requirements without a view to broader utility, the report says. It also argues that a relative high-level oversight body should be established, at a two-star level of civilian equivalent, to manage the plan’s implementation. The strategy would be underpinned by a research and technology pipeline that has already received endorsement by the ministry’s Defense Research and Development board.

The recommendation comes at a major crossroad for U.K. unmanned aircraft ambitions. Having largely worked on filling gaps and playing catch-up with what other militaries—particularly the U.S. and Israel—have already fielded, the focus is turning increasingly on setting the foundation for a long-term inventory of systems.

The doctrine center also provides a window into some of the thinking about the U.K.’s evolving UAS programs, including the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) Scavenger. Scavenger is effectively the U.K. element of the new Franco-British MALE program created out of last November’s decision by London and Paris to form a long-term security partnership. BAE Systems and Dassault have committed to work together to pursue the program; other companies, such as General Atomics and Thales, are in a wait-and-see mode while determining how they could participate. EADS hopes to build on its Talarion concept, but is still struggling to secure a launch customer for the effort.

One question hovering over the Franco-British ambition has been whether the two militaries can reconcile their requirements. The doctrine center suggest that may not be necessary. “The U.K. will consider if other complementary components are needed to fully satisfy the U.K. capability requirement,” it notes, while adding that the exact requirements for the system have not yet been set.

The report also puts a nominal price and program size on Scavenger. Life-cycle costs are estimated at £2 billion ($3.3 billion). The procurement would be for 20 aircraft to support operational needs, although an additional 10 air vehicles would likely be needed as attrition reserve for a 15-year program life. The development and fielding timeline is expected to stretch eight years.

Scavenger has also been held up as a potential way to mitigate operational shortfalls the U.K. will face as a result of program cuts made in last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review. In particular, the system has been touted as a means to take on some of the maritime surveillance tasks left unmet by the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 program and by the ground-surveillance requirements that the Sentinel R1’s retirement would bring.

The doctrine center, meanwhile, pours cold water any many of those notions. “Scavenger is unlikely to be in the same class as Sentinel in terms of its ability to monitor a very wide area or to provide radar imagery at equivalent standoff ranges.” For maritime surveillance, the current notion for Scavenger would only “partly alleviate” the loss of the Nimrod MRA4, with effectively no contribution to the anti-submarine warfare mission unless the unmanned aircraft’s envisioned role changes dramatically.

Nevertheless, the Royal Navy is working to help set the Scavenger requirement, in part to ensure that forces at sea can benefit from the intelligence collected. Moreover, the Navy wants to plug a tactical surveillance hole, and this year will demonstrate a medium unmanned helicopter capability to help refine its needs.

The doctrine center also suggests that the Defense Ministry may want to consider changes in its acquisition strategy, in part to help maintain industrial capacities. “Infrequent acquisition of small numbers of airframes creates significant difficulties for industry in maintaining continuity of design and build teams,” the report warns. The ministry may want to “move to a new procurement model that relies on a trickle feed of  orders to sustain industry and to allow continuous insertion of new technology.”

In addition, the emerging unmanned aircraft may require a new generation of weapons. “New, smaller and lighter, precise weapons may need to be developed; otherwise compromises will have to be made on the number of weapons that can be carried,” the report says. It also notes that electromagnetic-pulse and directed-energy weapons would be a good fit for UAS missions, although they bring with them great power demands.

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