The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 3.16.17
On March 3, the French defense minister announced that the Airbus Helicopters H160 had been selected as part of the Hélicoptère Interarmées Léger (“Joint Light Helicopter,” or HIL) program. Under this program, France will purchase at least 160 but possibly as many as 190 H160 helicopters for all three of its military services as replacements for their aging helicopter fleets, which include AS555 Fennecs, AS365 Dauphins, AS565 Panthers, and other rotorcraft. The new helicopters are expected to enter service in 2019. French demand for military utility rotorcraft will total $319 million and grow at a rate of 3.7% through 2021. Approximately $40.5 million of that figure represents ongoing competitions.
On March 7, the United States began deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to defend against potential North Korean ballistic missile attacks. The system is expected to be operational as early as April, though the removal of President Park Geun-hye from office on March 11 and the resulting political uncertainty may delay or halt the process. China has been a vocal opponent of THAAD in South Korea, saying that it would spark a regional arms race and that its sensitive sensors would allow it to monitor and collect information on Chinese missile activity. There have also been South Korean opponents of the system’s deployment, fearing that surrounding areas will become targets. Though this deployment is not a purchase of the system by the South Koreans and will be operated by US Forces Korea (USFK), Seoul is expected to spend over $700 million of its own to aggressively develop indigenous missile defense systems in the near- to mid-term. Systems such as L-SAM and KAMD, both expected to be deployed in the early 2020s, represent the country’s efforts to create a layered missile defense system.
The German Ministry of Defense (BMVg) delayed signing a contract on March 7 for the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) with MBDA. Germany officially selected MEADS to replace the country’s Patriot System in 2015, but signing the contract has been repeatedly postponed. German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen had aimed to get the MEADS contract signed by the end of 2016, but this was later pushed to Spring 2017 after the total cost for the system was projected to be significantly higher than the $4.4 billion previously estimated. The BMVg now states that the delays are due to issues with the MBDA proposal, including how the project will be managed. The contract is now scheduled to be signed in 2018. While Germany remains committed to replacing the Patriot System with MEADS, the BMVg has also allocated funding to upgrade the Patriot System.
On March 10, Romania announced that it had cancelled the selection of the Orbiter 4 unmanned air system (UAS) produced by Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems. The Orbiter 4 is a small, tactical UAS with a maximum endurance of 24 hours and the ability to operate two payloads simultaneously. The cancellation was mandated by a Romanian court after two competing Israeli firms protested the initial decision. The recompete will likely include BlueBird Aero Systems’ ThunderB UAS and Israel Aerospace Industries’ BirdEye 650D. Romania is a relatively new entrant to the UAS market: its current inventory consists of a single Scan Eagle UAS. Romania has increased defense investment 187% since 2015, reflecting Bucharest’s concerns about the conflict in neighboring Ukraine.
On March 10, Planet Labs unveiled its new online geospatial data tool, Planet Explorer Beta. This represents a significant step for the firm, whose goal is to provide affordable and updated earth imagery. The tool automatically processes over two million images for each map, giving the user a resolution of three to five meters per pixel. Last month, Planet Labs launched 88 satellites aboard the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, giving them the largest earth observation constellation—149 satellites total. Additionally, the firm’s acquisition of Google’s Terra Bella Earth imaging business is expected to clear regulations soon, which will yield an extra seven SkySat high-resolution imaging satellites. Planet Explorer has wide ranging commercial applications, but the largest market is agriculture. Customers would have accurate data to classify crops while monitoring their productivity. Planet Explorer also has wide ranging applications in government sectors, namely intelligence communities. While the resolution quality provided is not adequate for countries who operate their own high-resolution earth observation satellites, nations who do not have access to this kind of imagery may be interested in Planet Explorer as a more affordable option. As remote sensing satellite technology continues to advance, data tools such as Planet Explorer have the potential to expand their influence in commercial and government sectors.