The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 4/9/20
COVID19 Unveiling New Use Cases for Robots
Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate
On March 22, Tunisia deployed security ground robots to enforce the COVID-19 lockdown in Tunis. Previously ordered by the government for an undisclosed amount to perform surveillance and detection missions, these resources were re-allocated to street patrols to contain the spread of the virus. Locally conceived and produced by Enova Robotics based in Sousse, the P-Guard robot weighs 180 kg and moves at a speed of 12 km/h. Equipped with a thermal camera and sensors, it provides real-time intelligence to operators, and it can be remotely operated via 3G and 4G networks.
Amid the unprecedented wave of quarantines and lockdowns due to the Coronavirus outbreak, use of robots and drones by armed forces and security services keeps rising. Over the last three weeks, Spain, France, UK, Jordan, Kuwait, and even a few US states have deployed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to perform patrol missions and enforce curfew rules. Robots had already made a breakthrough in previous epidemics for decontamination purposes and patient health monitoring, most notably during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Operating UAS and ground robots in urban areas is challenging due to the scale and length of deployment, involving more active involvement and quick reactions in the chain of command than in traditional patrol and surveillance missions.
Deploying UAS in congested areas such as major cities has been previously limited to incident response, crowd management, crime control, and ISR missions. However, current controlled airspace regulations have been specifically lowered, and the absence of road traffic simplifies deployment and substantially reduces safety risks. Additionally, the current pandemic makes drone and robot deployment quite acceptable. Deployed as a force multiplier to complement and protect security and armed forces, their usage over the last few weeks has drastically increased and highlighted a new spectrum of roles and new requirements in terms of personnel, mission shifts, average daily rotations, and ground time for maintenance and data exploitation. These experiences will need to be carefully analyzed to demonstrate how robots and/or drones genuinely added value to confinement mission success, if any. When lockdowns come progressively to an end, UAS applications in controlled airspace and urban environments will bring new use cases and needs, leading to a potentially larger volume of orders and higher demand for drone pilots and technicians.
Media reports from Taiwan claim that the government is moving forward with the purchase of 10 MH-60R anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, Mk54 torpedoes, and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles worth TWD 27.3 billion ($908 million). This acquisition was initially cancelled in 2015 due to the price, which was originally TWD 37 billion ($1.2 billion). In 2018, the acquisition was revived after the US government showed openness to lowering the price. Supposedly, the US had slashed prices three times, thanks in part to other MH-60R orders from the US Navy, Greece, and India. The US has been urging Taiwan to purchase the MH-60R as a response to China’s growing submarine force and ongoing tensions in the region. The Taiwanese Navy currently operates 18 S-70C and 10 aging MD500 modified for the anti-submarine warfare role. The MD500s operate from the decks of Taiwan’s frigates and destroyers.
The Taiwanese Navy has not yet confirmed this sale, which casts some doubt on the veracity of the report. Taiwanese media has in the past published and rapidly spread articles regarding defense acquisitions that have turned out to be inaccurate. But even if this specific report turns out to be false, there is no doubt that the MD500s are obsolete and are not adequate for the submarine threat that Taiwan faces. Furthermore, Taiwan is planning to build its own surface combatants domestically, some of which will likely need their own ASW helicopters. The US is likely the only country that is willing to sell Taiwan such advanced anti-submarine warfare equipment.
On March 26, Germany confirmed its intentions to replace its aging fleet of 93 Tornado aircraft with a mixture of Eurofighter aircraft from Airbus, and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers from Boeing. Up to 90 Eurofighters will be procured to take on the ISR and ground attack functions currently being carried out by the Tornado, while also replacing a number of older, Tranche 1 Eurofighter aircraft. In order to continue to perform the nuclear strike mission that the Tornado fleet currently performs with the B-61 bomb, 30 F/A-18 E/Fs are to be procured. At the same time 15 EA-18G Growler aircraft will provide an electronic warfare capability. The B-61 bomb will need to be integrated onto the F/A-18 E/F since only legacy F/A-18 A/B Hornets are certified to carry the weapon. A split buy is seen as an alternative to integrating the B-61 bomb on the Eurofighter, which may not have received approval by the US government.
On April 7, the US Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) decided to postpone the launch of the third GPS III satellite due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to mitigate COVID-19 risks to employees involved in the launch. The satellite will be launched on June 30, at the earliest. According to the SMC, delaying the satellite launch does not hinder the GPS constellation’s coverage, which currently contains 31 satellites in orbit. The next generation GPS satellites are being built by Lockheed Martin and will have a 25 percent longer lifespan, will be three times more accurate, and will have anti-jamming capabilities eight times stronger than the previous GPS satellites. Lockheed Martin is building a total of 32 satellites to replace the older GPS satellites in orbit, with the estimated cost to be $7.2 billion, though the Government Accountability Office estimates the actual cost will be closer to $12 billion.
Facing the need to replace their aging armored vehicle fleets in the mid-2020s, a trio of European nations have signed technical agreements to jointly develop armored vehicles. The agreements will see Estonia, Finland, and Latvia develop an armored vehicle that can be used by all three nations using common components. Moreover, it is expected to add some certainty to the countries’ industrial bases during the current COVID-19 crisis, by widening the existing defense industrial base. It will also likely serve to solidify the future order books of Patria, the Finnish armored vehicle manufacturer, which is already the legacy armored vehicle manufacturer in both Finland and Estonia. The countries currently plan to move toward the development of a prototype vehicle this year.
On April 6, Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) announced that it is suspending its plan to sell FA-50 light fighter aircraft to Argentina due to the coronavirus outbreak. A significant portion of Argentina’s fighter aircraft fleet has retired over the past five years, and it is currently relying on 32 IA-58 Pucara ground attack aircraft to maintain its aerial strike capability. Argentina was expected to announce the new purchase of approximately six fighter aircraft in 2020 or 2021. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the Argentinian economy such that it is unlikely to be able to spend much money on new fighter aircraft in the near term. However, KAI and the Argentinian government have not yet signed an official contract, nor made an official selection. It is currently unclear when the effort to restart the planned sale will resume. Additionally, on March 27, Argentina received delivery of its sixth IA-63 Pampa advanced trainer. The aircraft is the last of latest batch of three units to be ordered. While the Pampa is an advanced trainer, the aircraft is expected to be used primarily as a patrol aircraft, due to the lack of modern fighter platforms to perform this role.