Monthly Archives: July 2015

Skynet travels east

As I have said before satellites are cool. So it was a great opportunity to go to the rolling Wiltshire spacecraft opps -2countryside in the UK last week and explore the Airbus Defence and Space Skynet operations centre as they move one of their satellites 67,000km.

From the autumn this year the UK will have worldwide coverage from its military beyond line of sight (BLOS) satellite constellations for the first time.

Airbus Defence and Space is moving its Skynet 5A satellite to the Asia Pacific region which will complete the worldwide coverage.

As a result of the move the company is able to sell off the extra capacity of the satellite not used by the MoD in the region.

Skynet_5_close upWhile the satellites were in high usage during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and are still widely used in this area, there is now availability for the satellite to be repositioned.

There are also plenty of markets in the Asia Pacific region that require the capability even if they have their own sovereign capability the Skynet satellite can offer X band, UHF and SHF coverage.

For more on details about the move, check out my story here where I talk to chief space whizz at the Airbus operations centre.

After this we could be looking at Skynet 6, which is presumably what Airbus DS is hoping for.

Below: Launch of Ariane 5 with Skynet 5D & Mexsat 3 on VA211 from December 2012.

Specialist kit for Brazil’s Pathfinder teams

IMG_3969blog2The Brazilian Army’s Pathfinder Company is 67 years old. They were the first Special Forces unit in Brazil when they were created in 1948.IMG_3970blog3

Apart from Brazil’s new IA2 5.56mm rifle and the older ParaFal 7.62mm rifle what other rifles can you see here?

I am guessing the Barrett .50cal sniper rifle and the M98 .338 Lapua. Am I right? Can you identify any of the others on show?


Looking at the Pathfinder’s communications equipment it includes the Harris RF-7800S personal role radio; Falcon III 7800V; an Icom ICA6(24) VHF air-ground transceiver radio and Motorola PRO 5150. Their HF radio is the VX-1700 Vertex transceiver and Hughes Inmarsat SATCOMS.

Is this the best communications equipment Brazil can get on the market for their Pathfinder operations? It seems to be similar to what other specialist units have, but are there any differences? What else is out there?

Other equipment seems to include: Blackhawk Assault Vests; Garmin GPS; LRB 12 Knight rangefinder binoculars; a Newcon Optix x80 spotter scope; and a Galaxy Tab 3 with a 1.2 GHz CPU tablet.

Can you identify the diving equipment and some of the uniforms here? They will be used in the different Pathfinder teams to suit their operational environments.


Brazil’s Pathfinders consists of 1 Command Platoon and three Pathfinder Detachments. Each detachment has two teams, with 18 personnel per team. So that is 168 men in the deployed teams altogether.

Each team has a specialised role that is related to rapid deployment and the most likely operational environments and their training programme is run alongside that of Brazil’s newer SF units.

The first is Alpha team, which is specialised in High Altitude Low Opening parachute operations. Bravo team does 12,000ft freefall parachuting.

Charlie team has jungle and Pantanal (swamplands) expertise. One team is prepared each year to do this role, but all teams have this training so there will be more than one available if required.

Delta team is trained to operate in the aquatic environment and includes jungle and Pantanal operations.
Training for Echo team is optimised for arid and semi-arid environments as Brazil has areas with this terrain in the North West of the country.

Foxtrot team is specialised in the preparation of airfields and landing zones.

IMG_3981blog9 IMG_3980blog8 IMG_3979blog7 IMG_3975blog6 IMG_3971blog4


Making war games more realistic


Last week some fascinating TV footage emerged of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) training. What excited commentators was the fact that Chinese soldiers were assaulting a fairly realistic representation of the presidential office building in Taipei amidst a PLA training facility!

This obviously struck a nerve. Maj Gen David Lo, Taiwan’s defence spokesman, said it was ‘unacceptable for the Taiwanese public and the international community’.

He continued, ‘The Chinese Communist Party hasn’t given up on armed assault on Taiwan, and their military preparations are still geared toward the use of force against Taiwan.’

PLA TaipeiOkay, such training was a tad too realistic. But then again, I’ve also had a go on a Taiwanese tank simulator where enemy tanks all bear red star emblems, just like PLA tanks do.

Militaries seek many ways to add realism to training scenarios for soldiers, and the key question is how to keep it fair.

For example, in Australia recently a battalion headquarters and I were subjected to a fiery night-time assault by enemy armoured vehicles. I woke up to witness enemy vehicles racing past the encampment with guns fully blazing.

It was impressive. Unfortunately though, these enemy troops had previously been killed – either no umpire had told them so, or they refused to accept their fate.

Lasers attached to weapons and hooked up to sensors are certainly a good way to go. In a force-on-force engagement it removes the fudge factor. You’re dead if the sensor tells you you’re dead. No arguments please.


However, it’s impossible to completely remove the human factor because no one likes losing… especially in China.

National broadcaster CCTV exposed rampant cheating in military exercises. For example, commanders tired of losing battles would tell soldiers to tape up laser sensors and remove helmet-mounted smoke candles so they could not be ‘killed’.There have been other revelations such as underwater guideposts installed to help submarines improve navigation scores.

With rampant corruption in the PLA, and many commanders achieving promotion solely through illicit payments, it should be unsurprising that underhand ruses occur in training as well. CCTV’s exposé is evidence the PLA really wants to improve its training culture, and the military has correspondingly established special surveillance teams to weed out cheating.

Precision marching, bands and kung fu displays have long been the bread and butter of PLA public demonstrations. Breaking bricks or wooden boards with bare hands or heads are now being frowned upon as PLA training gets serious. The PLA Daily reported in January that a naval marine brigade will cut back on such showboating. It quoted marine Wang Xiaohui, ‘I’m finally liberated now’. He spent so much time practising stunts that he had little time to perform basic military skills.

The unmanned postman

A storm of interest swept the global media recently after the news that Swiss Post had begun commercial drone trials to see if it made financial sense to replace the delivery van with the airborne supply drop.

The reaction wasn’t surprising given that a number of other international firms have begun looking into the idea in the last couple of years: FedEx, Amazon, DHL and UPS to name but four.

We’re deliberately not getting involved in the legislative aspect of the industry here – this is a blog after all and can do without any arid legalese – so the question posed is what of the risks to the package?

In the case of the smaller delivery services being looked at, see Amazon and Swiss Post, what’s to stop a modern day UAV entomologist waving a great cyber or literal net in the hope of snagging a hitherto unknown species of drone, bearing the bounty of a mystery package as reward?

It’s worth keeping in mind thaboeing-x-45a-541212_1280t aside from whether or not it is technically possible (it is), the customer also needs to be fairly sure what they ordered will actually arrive.

And unless we’re talking about drones the size of the X-47B or X-45A, dispensing dozens of consoles, flat screen TVs and other bits from a cavernous payload bay, it’s unlikely that the unmanned post-drone will be able to carry much more than one parcel at a time, depending on the item.

Will the mail vans turn into great drone hubs, spewing forth clouds of buzzing autonomous delivery machines? Think of the volume. Take for example the number of items delivered by the US Postal Service each day – 512.8 million pieces of mail processed and delivered – and you begin to get an idea of just how numerous delivery drones could be.

One suspects that the best use for commercial unmanned delivery is to be found in accessing remote areas (see Google Wing) perhaps without road access, delivering hard-to-get items for the community, or in the distribution medical supplies, as was demonstrated last week in Virginia.

Take a look at the Brazilian Army’s jungle equipment (gallery)

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The Brazilian Army has a huge Amazon Command that is set to grow in the coming years. But their soldiers need special equipment to operate in this terrain as well as expert training.

Here is some of the equipment that they use shown to Shephard during a MASA press trip to the Army’s Amazon Command in Manaus.

The army is replacing is old Para Fal 7.62mm rifle with a new Brazilian-made 5.56mm rifle called the IA2.

They started replacing the Fal over two years ago but the transition is still ongoing. A spokesperson from Amazon Command told Shephard that they army refused to accept the IA2 more than ten times until it was perfect and properly tested.

The IA2 weighs just 3.4kg and has a range of 1,800m. The effective range is about 300m but it has a 30 round magazine and more suited to shooting in the jungle where ranges are much less.

In this way it compares favourably to the Para Fal, which weighs more at 4.87kg. Although the Fal has a longer maximum range of 3,800m and an effective range of 600m this has little use in the jungle when you are more likely to engage at short ranges. It has a 20 round magazine.

According to the army, it will take 5-10 years to replace all 200,000 Para Fal rifles so it will continue to see service for some time yet. It is part of the army’s plan to be able to supply itself with its own rifle and not have to rely on imports.

The army also uses the Tactical Trirail 12mm pump action shotgun from Mossberg for close encounters and used by the point-man on patrols. It weighs 2.9kg and has a range of just 15m. It holds
seven rounds.

Other small arms include the Imbel 9mm GC MD1 pistol. It weighs just 1094g with a maximum range of 50m and a magazine that holds 17 rounds, plus one up the spout. There is also a range of different sized bayonets designed to be fitted to the end of the barrel of the IA2 rifle.

All the jungle battalion soldiers have laser target designators and every soldier is equipped with Harris SPR 7800S individual radio that uses VHF and has a range of 1-2 km. At the higher company level they are equipped with Falcon II  radios, also from Harris. For SATCOM they use Global Star and Iridium.

Spotters use the Newcon Optix telescope and the rifles are fitted with the HDS 3x lens scope and the HDS 3AA red dot sight also from Newcon Optik.

Soldiers use a rucksack that can hold loads from 15kg to 20-25kg in weight depending on the mission. Movement is slow with distance of only a kilometre or two covered in a day.

The sniper rifle is fitted with sights from Leupold and there are options for night vision/thermal capability. All sights are tested prior to use on deployment. There is no movement at night, the risk of getting lost or giving away your position to an enemy through noise is too high.

A Brazilian NCO told Shephard that they do not use sleeping bags, just hammocks at night time. They also take standard water purification and medical equipment. Whilst GPS is used for navigation, soldiers are also trained to fix their location using more traditional means such as the sun and stars as well as with maps and a compass.

He added that up to 2004 the Brazilian Army did not use GPS. It was only when the US military operating in Afghanistan and Iraq got lost that they opening up GPS services. Back then accuracy was around 100m, now it is much more.

Looking ahead there are plans for soldiers to be issued with tablets containing battle management system software. Data transfer capabilities will be tested next year and different systems and materials will be used throughout the trials.

Lockheed Martin gets over its helicopter hangover

Some 50+  years after it last attempted to develop a helicopter, only to see it quashed by the US Army, Lockheed Martin is back in the rotorcraft ring following its pending acquisition of Sikorsky.

Lockheed had a go at developing a helicopter in the 1960s and early 1970s, only for the programme to be cancelled and Lockheed never to dip its toes into the helicopter pool again, until now.

The aircraft in question was the AH-56 Cheyenne; developed for the US Army it made its maiden flight on 21 September 1967.

Unfortunately production was never fully launched and the programme did not make it beyond the prototype phase – ten of which were built in total. By the end of 1969 AH-1 Cobras were already being widelAh 1 Cobra in Northern Vietnamy used in Vietnam, and spiralling costs and a fatal crash saw the army cancel its AH-56 order in 1972.

The army later went on to announce another Advanced Attack Helicopter programme resulting in the birth of none other than the AH-64 Apache.

Now it seems Lockheed Martin has belatedly dusted itself off and picked up the helicopter baton once more. This time through the acquisition of an already renowned brand, Sikorsky, for the sum of $7.1 billion.

RaiderThis sees Lockheed Martin taking the reins of the S-97 Raider programme, which has echoes of the AH-56 in that it is also a compound helicopter with a rigid rotor system. Additionally, the company will be working alongside Boeing on the Future Vertical Lift programme, with Boeing and Sikorsky working under a joint venture to develop the SB>1 Defiant.

It seems Lockheed Martin regards helicopters as the way forward  as my in-depth analysis here discovers.

What do you all think of the purchase and should the other rotorcraft OEMs be worried about how this positions the Sikorsky product line?

Waste not, want not – Australia’s DMO

I recently spent nearly a fortnight in Australia to cover the large-scale Exercise Talisman Sabre. It’s always a good opportunity to see the latest developments in weapons and equipment, as well as a chance to talk to soldiers at the spear tip.

A topic of conversation with one battle-hardened sergeant was the disbandment of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) on 1 July. This institution was responsible for procuring and sustaining equipment for the Australian Defence Force.

The sergeant was scathing of the DMO’s performance. He gave one example of a bracket that had been retrofitted to the roof of Bushmaster 4×4 vehicles. After being fitted by a contractor, crews found it was perfectly located to wallop them in the head if they weren’t careful.

To solve this, they turned the bracket upside down and, voila, the problem was solved! However, such a modification hadn’t gone through the DMO’s certification regime, and so when the contractor found out, the bracket had to be changed back.

The sergeant smiled as he reported how, after inverting the bracket to its ‘proper’ site, the contractor prepared to exit the Bushmaster and promptly smacked his head against the bracket and cut open his head!


Another example of the DMO’s inefficiency is the delivery of 2,700 MAN trucks under Project Land 121 Phase 3B. New Zealand ordered similar-specification MAN trucks in April 2013, just three months earlier than Australia’s contract.

Here’s the interesting thing, however. In late June, the New Zealand military received the last of its 194 trucks. However, Australia needs to wait till next year even before the first truck is handed over. Why? Because the DMO must conduct an intensive testing period to make sure it’s fit for Australian service, even though the platform is widely operated by other militaries.

The ‘First Principles Review into Defence’, released on 1 April 2015, determined, ‘The current [DMO] organisational model and processes are complicated, slow and inefficient in an environment which requires simplicity, greater agility and timely delivery. Waste, inefficiency and rework are palpable.’

Speaking to Shephard earlier this year, Harry Dunstall, the DMO’s acting CEO, said, ‘For the most part, DMO does a good job at managing very complex projects. Of course, there will always be technical challenges with cutting-edge projects. Defence projects and procurement are some of the most complex in the world.’

Whether things will improve under the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG), which now falls directly under the Department of Defence, remains to be seen. After all, the staff from DMO is pretty much the same, but just under new management.

I’m sure you have plenty of stories of wasteful or laborious procurement practices as well…

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