by Koen Willems, Market Director Government and Defense, Newtec
Today the German Ministry of Defense issued the news that they will abandon the 1.2 billion Euro project for the Euro Hawk unmanned aircraft. Although it might be a tough financial decision to take, it is not necessarily bad news for the continuation of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) activities. Manned ISR planes are a valid alternative as they can bring better quality ISR content at lower cost.
Why is this not necessarily bad news ? 4 reasons...
Reason 1: Euro Hawk Budget Can Be Reinvested in Cheaper Manned Aircrafts
It is no secret that UAVs are a costly investment for governments. Testing, changing the package to suit operational needs and maintenance of the unmanned aircraft all take a large bite out of the defense budget. Some governments have already taken the decision to invest in cheaper manned aircrafts instead of UAVs.
Many nations already have a fleet of army planes that can easily be refurbished to become dedicated to ISR operations. A new C-12 King Air plane comes with a 3.5 million dollar price tag whereas the cost of UAV type Euro Hawk will be 10 times higher. As such you could have a lot more ISR planes in operation and get even better quality ISR content.
Reason 2: Manned Aircraft Allow for Increased Quality of ISR Content
When launching a UAV program, the payload on-board the airborne platform will always be a restrictive issue to deal with. The on-board sensor and communication technology (next to the other equipment) needs to be small and light in order not to reduce the number of operational hours or distance covered during a UAV mission.
The purpose built technology fits nicely into the UAVs, but the amount of ISR data from the plane to the mission control over satellite is still surprisingly small. When flying at 65.000 feet, the resolution of the surveillance feed needs to be quite high in order to get detailed images and ultimately make the right tactical decisions based on this intelligence. A High Definition video feed (H.264/MPEG-4, AVC), with decent resolution requires at least 10-20 Mbps throughput. The reality today however is that most UAV programs still run at 2 Mbps data rates, which is just enough to send a Standard Definition video feed from the plane to the ground.
Manned Aircraft can take more payload and still run decent ISR missions. The direct result by having more and better performing equipment on-board is an increase in quality in ISR content. Higher data rates over satellite can be transmitted from plane to mission control and more on-board processing can be achieved. The on-board engineer is in constant two-way communication with the mission control and can already filter ISR data and take decisions on what strategic content needs to be sent first.
Today manned fixed wing aircraft ISR missions already operate at more than 20 Mbps, whilst still maintaining maximum service availability thanks to Newtec satcom equipment and technology.
As a side note COTS satcom equipment and technology can be used during the manned aircraft missions instead of the costly purpose built technology for UAVs, resulting in both better CAPEX and better quality ISR content results.
Reason 3: Manned Aircrafts Are More Flexible during ISR Operations
The Euro Hawk type of surveillance planes are built to hover at high altitudes and stay there to collect information whilst viewing a vast area.
When looking at ISR missions in detail however, some operational issues need to be taken into consideration. During overcast and rainy days, clouds will block or lower the quality of the video image and the Euro Hawk needs to rely on additional on-board sensors.
As global hotspots move to the African continent, closer to the equator, these kinds of harsh conditions need to be taken into consideration as well. In a manned ISR aircraft the pilot is in control and can make immediate decisions depending on the meteorological conditions to fly below the clouds or take position in-between clouds to guarantee quality images transmission.
Thanks to technologies such as Newtec's FlexACM and Cross-Layer-Optimization, rain fading will not cause the satellite link to drop and no data will be lost when transmitting over higher frequency satellite transponders such as Ka, Ku-, X-band or High Throughput Satellites.
Additionally, installing satcom and sensor processing equipment on a roll-on, roll-off type of rack will allow for the equipment to be moved from one ISR plane to another depending on the duration, the type of mission or even when the plane needs to go into maintenance.
Reason 4: Manned ISR Aircrafts Do Not Need Sense and Avoid Technology
The ultimate nail in the coffin for the Euro Hawk project was the lack of "sense and avoid" technology and a lack of pan-European agreement for flight clearances in European airspace for UAVs. There is currently no direct indication that Europe (nor other regions) will change policy rapidly and it is not practical to close down an entire regional airspace for each UAV operation or test.
This, however, doesn’t impact manned ISR planes as they have less impact on airspace regulation and planning. A flight plan can be quickly handed over to the proper authorities and no sense and avoid technology is needed as the pilot can make autonomous decisions.
Although the Euro Hawk had some fine capabilities such as cruising at 20.000 meters (65,500 feet) and remaining airborne for 40 hours, the budget reality, airspace regulations, the return in ISR quality content and operational flexibility need to be taken into consideration.
Manned ISR fixed wing platform are a valid alternative to UAVs. The manned aircrafts can be acquired at a fraction of the cost of a UAV. Moreover due to higher payload and on-board filtering and processing capabilities in combination with operational flexibility, better quality and more detailed ISR video feeds and sensor data can be sent over satellite to the mission control. A prerequisite to allow for better decision making and make every ISR mission a success.
Today Manned ISR planes already operate at more than 20 Mbps over satellite thanks to Newtec hub and modem equipment in combination with Newtec's FlexACM and Cross-Layer-Optimization technologies.
If you want to know more about what we do in this market, check out this dedicated page on Manned Aircrafts, ISR and Border Control.