The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 4/17/20
Portugal Successfully Tests Maritime VTOL Unmanned Systems
Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate
Portugal is the latest country to conduct tests and integration of vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aerial systems (VTOL UAS). Last February, the Portuguese Navy conducted VTOL UAS trials using the SPYRO 4N on its Viana do Castelo-class offshore patrol vessels (OPV). The SPYRO 4N is a small VTOL UAS designed by the Portuguese drone maker UAVision. With a maximal payload of 4kg, a wingspan of 1,843 mm, and a height of 664mm, this carbon fiber UAS has an operational range of 15km with a bidirectional datalink with a 15km Line-of-Sight capability. The Portuguese firm also reported that the SPYRO 4N can fly at a maximum speed of 55km/h and it has a maximum flight time of one hour.
This is not the first time the Portuguese armed forces have used UAVision technology. In 2018, the Portuguese Air Force reported flying the Ogassa OGS42 UAV, a tactical UAS, to detect wildfires. The Ogassa OGS42 have also been used by the Portuguese Navy to perform maritime missions for the European Maritime Safety Agency. With an endurance of up to 10 hours and an operational range of 100km, the Ogassa OGS42 is more than capable of performing maritime surveillance missions.
However, the Portuguese Navy has been paying closer attention to smaller unmanned aerial systems (such as the SPYRO 4N) for maritime surveillance missions, chiefly to monitor Portugal’s exclusive economic zone. Initial tests were conducted last year in the Guinea Gulf, in partnership with UAVision. Both the Ogassa OGS42 and SPYRO 4N are using the same StormCOMM IP Communication System which is capable of a maximum reach up to 100km. During these tests, the SPYRO 4N was fitted with a UGS400 EO/IR payload and a C3 module package built by UAVision that was acquired by the navy in October 2019. Like the Ogassa OGS42, the SPYRO 4N is also using G2000 C2 ground station.
The Navy has also expressed its intent to install the C3 package in the OPV bridge to allow UAS automatic take-off and landing. Beyond the system commonality and reduced equipment footprint offered by this family of UAS, these recent tests confirm a sustained interest over VTOL UAS capabilities in maritime roles. The debate has recently focused on future manned platforms (naval helicopters such as the Lynx, Seahawk, Panthers, etc.) versus unmanned aircraft (VTOL UAS such as S-100, RQ-8C) and how likely it is that VTOL UAS will cannibalize the market.
However benchmarking maritime helicopters against heavy VTOL UAS is the same as comparing pears and apples; however, navies are all facing the same objective which is to find the right product for the mission and see which systems will fit the best within an increasing scope of missions. In the case of the Portuguese Navy, operating smaller VTOL UAS such as the SPYRO 4N for maritime missions on an OPV is not necessarily a replacement option for helicopter missions but a smart supplement. It potentially enables navies to fulfill short or dangerous missions without the need to deploy the helicopter unless collected intelligence requires it.
As tests are continuing across different navies, the critical outcome will be to determine if investing cumulatively into new maritime helicopters and small VTOL UAS for surface vessels will offer greater mission value (range, endurance, success) and less operating costs (flight hour costs, maintenance, training, wages), instead of acquiring only helicopters or heavier VTOL UAS. Positive results could then see a pivot in the market demand for maritime surveillance UAS.
On April 11, the Japanese government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) held discussions about exporting Japan’s future fighter, the F-3. Japan has tried with little success to export defense equipment, following its relaxing of arms export regulations. Besides the fact that these regulations are still quite stringent, a hurdle of arguably equal size is the projected cost of the fighter. During the government-LDP discussions, development costs were projected to exceed 2 trillion yen ($18.6 billion). Cost per aircraft were projected as potentially surpassing 20 billion yen ($186 million). This is well above what any modern fighter jet costs. If Japan’s experience developing the F-2 is any guide, that development program saw R&D costs nearly double government estimates. Per unit procurement costs for the F-2 jumped 50% to over $100 million. While the F-3 development program will certainly be a very complex undertaking prone to cost overruns, the F-3 program does have the advantage of building on the experience of the ATD-X technology demonstrator. Furthermore, early R&D work is already underway on key subsystems like the XF9 turbofan engine, lightweight materials, stealthy air intakes, and internal weapon bays.
On April 9, the Egyptian Navy accepted its third Type 209/1400 submarine from ThyssenKrupp. The Egyptian Navy signed an agreement with ThyssenKrupp in 2011 to acquire a total of four submarines, with the first submarine delivered in December 2016. The final submarine is expected to be delivered in 2021. The value of the acquisition is unknown. The Type 209 is a diesel-electric attack submarine with a nautical range of 400 miles while submerged. The Type 209 class submarine has been in production since the 1970s, reaching a wide range of buyers in South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Type 209 is operated by 10 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Peru, South Korea, and Turkey. Turkey operates the largest fleet of Type 209s, with a total of 12 submarines currently active.
The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency has announced a pair of potential weapons sales to India in order to equip the nation’s growing fleet of P-8I Poseidons. The deals would be worth up to $155 million. The first deal would be for 10 AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles that would provide the Poseidons with anti-ship capabilities, and is valued at $92 million. The other $63 million of the agreement would be to provision the aircraft with 16 MK54 lightweight torpedoes that can be used to counter a growing submarine threat in the region. Commercial offsets will be negotiated as part of the sale.
On April 15, the UK confirmed that its Integrated Defense and Security Review has been halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation. It is unclear when the process will re-start but at this time it appears unlikely that the results of the review will be published by the end of 2020. Given the near-term funding shortfall that already exists in the UK’s equipment program, the need to delay major decisions is likely to further exacerbate the situation. It is also expected that additional funding for defense will not materialize due to the economic impact.