The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 8/6/20

 In Weekly Wire
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Summer Rescue Drones

Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate

Ahead of the UK’s Second Generation Search and Rescue Aviation Service (UKSAR2G), the new phase of the search-and-rescue (SAR) service that will start in 2024*, Bristow is experimenting with new technologies to increase SAR mission efficiency. Operating on the behalf of the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, two S-100 Camcopters designed by Schiebel (an Austrian-based firm) successfully demonstrated how flying drones can be a game changer in rescue missions. With this experiment, the UK joins a growing list of coast guards and rescue services worldwide testing drone applications in SAR operations. Both Canada and Norway conducted trials in 2016 and in 2019, respectively, with Schiebel drones. Military operators are also familiar with the S-100 after integrating it in tactical ISR roles in for the French, Thai, Australian, and South African navies as well as the Australian army.

On the drone aspect, Australian-based agencies Westpac and Surf Life Saving, the California Task Force 3 in the US, and coast guards in Spain and France (to name only a few) are known for operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in SAR missions on an almost regular basis while in season. However, these countries are operating significantly smaller drones in rescue missions, mostly on sea sides and beaches to provide greater surveillance reach and prevent accidents. Some drones are equipped with medical equipment or life vests to swimmers spotted in distress.

These small UAVs are being flown in the line of sight of their operator, typically have an endurance of 30 minutes, and can cover smaller distances (sometimes up to 7km or 4.3 miles). This means that drone applications are primarily focused on precise zones to monitor and the UAV is flown at a low altitude to limit to some extent risk of collision in the airspace with other aircraft. Use cases have witnessed a relatively rapid UAV adoption rate amongst government, civil, and charity operators due to an easy integration in the airspace and low operating costs.

Unlike use cases in Australia, France, or Spain, the trials starting in March 2020 in the UK entail a much larger UAV (empty weight of 110 kg) flying beyond the line of sight of its ground based remote operators. Besides, the military grade S-100 Camcopters are known for flying distances of 200 km (124 miles) from their home base, at a speed of 120 kn (220km/h) and have an endurance of six to 10 hours (depending on additional fuel tanks).

The drones flew alongside Bristow S-92 helicopters in complex mountainous and maritime environments, with an aim to detect and rescue victims faster and save more lives. Ultimately, the desired outcome is to fly the S-100 on a permanent basis which would provide real-time and persistent SAR monitoring, especially in degraded weather. Given this, the S-92 helicopters would eventually remain on stand-by and only be deployed for life-saving missions. In theory, this would help reduce helicopter flight hours costs and platform attrition rate. However, operating UAVs on a frequent basis in challenging environments can hide some unsuspected operating costs.

More trials are expected in the coming months, notably with flights in segregated and non-segregated airspace aeras. Airspace integration of the S-100 remains a cumbersome process and the drone is currently being flown only on weekends for operations and benefits from a facilitated access to the Caernarfon Airport located in Wales. At a larger scale, the SAR community is increasingly considering larger UAVs to complement helicopter missions, the next step being manned-unmanned teaming, as demonstrated by the Austrian Armaments and Defense Technology Agency working with Schiebel in 2018, featuringa H145 helicopter and S-100, in order to ease airspace integration and increase safety during BLOS missions.

*UKSAR was awarded to Bristow in 2013 to provide helicopter SAR services on the behalf of the UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency for 10 years. The renewal will be open for recompete in 2021 and the contract award is expected by 2022.

Spain

The Spanish government has recently announced the establishment of an Aeronautical Technology Plan (PTA), directly dependent of the European Union Recovery Plan set up in Spring 2020 to overcome the COVID-19 crisis on national economies. With exceptional measures to preserve local production, especially by instituting partially refundable grants that can exceed €50 million ($59.2 million) per year, the Spanish ministry of defense is hoping to preserve defense combat readiness and keep Spanish military suppliers in business.

Airbus Spain is expected to be the main beneficiary from these measures; the Spanish ministry of defense announced potential acquisitions of additional C-295s, conversion of a Multi-Role Tanker Transport, H135 and H160 helicopters, completion of the A400M, Tiger MKIIIs, and NH90 programs. The government has also put into place a supply chain support fund, with a minimum funding of €100 million ($118.5 million) for 2020-2025 to protect smaller military suppliers. Additionally, the extra funding will encourage defense innovation and development despite austerity, with annual allocation to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism of at least €15 million ($17.7 million) per year until 2025.

Canada

The submission deadline has closed, and the final bidders are now known for Canada’s $14 billion future fighter competition. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Saab each submitted a bid for the 88 aircraft program that is slated to begin deliveries by 2025. Lockheed Martin is pitching its signature F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Canada, where it is hoping to leverage Canadian industry’s current involvement in the program as part of the competition’s economic benefits criteria. Saab, meanwhile, will partner with IMP Aerospace & Defence, CAE, and Peraton Canada in order to pitch the newest Gripen variant, the Gripen E. Finally, Boeing is pitching the Canadians the F/A-18 Super Hornet Block III as a low switching cost option for Canada’s CF-18 pilots. Canada has the option of down selecting to two contractors in 2021 before a final award in 2022.

Philippines

The US Department of State has approved a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Philippines for 36 Scout, 36 Assault, and 18 Light Support Boats at an estimated cost of $126 million. The Department of State concluded that the sale would enhance US geostrategic interests in Southeast Asia by enabling the Philippines to better fulfil its role as “an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress” in the region. The boats are expected to be deployed in the Philippines’ inland and coastal waterways, likely for counterterrorism and counternarcotic operations.

The agreement also allocates funding for spare parts, training, and a range of related armaments and subsystems. The documented accessories incorporated in the deal include Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) systems, M2A1 0.50 caliber machine guns, 6-barrel rotary Gatling guns, NFS-NVG/IR Lasers, handheld Thermal Imager Scopes, Heavy Thermal Weapon Sights, and Harris Falcon III radios. The Anaheim, CA-based Willard Marine Inc. will serve as the prime contractor for the Scout and Assault Boats. A contractor for the Light Support Boats has yet to be selected and will be determined through an open competition contract.

Serbia

According to the annual report of the Serbian state-run arms company, Jugoimport SPDR, Serbia has ordered the Chinese FK-3 air defense system. Uncorroborated reports cite an order of three batteries. The report states that $620.3 million worth of weapons import deals were made in 2019, of which the FK-3 made a significant proportion. This comes nearly one year after Serbia made a high-profile purchase of Chinese Wing Loong medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial systems. The FK-3 is the export version of the relatively new HQ-22 air defense system. The HQ-22 is the most modern version of an air defense system that traces its lineage back to the Soviet S-75. Serbia reportedly was considering Russia’s S-400, but ultimately decided against the S-400 due to the high cost and potential sanctions via the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. While China does offer the FT-2000, which is closer in capability to the S-400 than the FK-3, the FT-2000 may have still been too costly for Serbia’s limited budget. The FK-3 thus presents itself as a less capable but more affordable option for customers that still require medium to long range air defense. In 2019, Avascent released a report on opportunities for Chinese arms export in Western defense markets, of which recent sales to Serbia helps expand China’s footprint in the market.

Greece

On July 31, Greece signed a letter of acceptance for the purchase of new rotorcraft and the modernization of parts of its current fleet. The value of the contract was not disclosed, but Greek newspapers estimate that the price for the new helicopters was likely very low. The letters of acceptance cover the purchase of four MH-60R rotorcraft and the modernization of an undisclosed number of S-70B6. The modernization program is focused specifically on electronics and sensors. These rotorcraft will most likely be used in conjunction with other elements of the Greek Navy to secure and protect Greece’s territorial waters.

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