Author Archives: rtshephard

Aerial evolution

Counter-insurgency has been the defining format of military operations, particularly for Western countries, for the past couple of decades. As regular forces adapt to a more conventional approach to conflict, so too do unmanned vehicles have to take into account the prospect of denied-airspace operations.

As expressed recently by a NATO official in London, platforms and operators are so accustomed to working in compliant airspace that operating in contested environments could well prove difficult. As it stands, the UAV is a sitting duck for ground and airborne defence systems, given that it is slower, less manoeuvrable and infinitely less robust.

Militaries and industry aren’t complacent about the problem, however, and are busy trying to find the best ways to get their platforms into areas that might be viewed as less than welcoming.

However, there exists a way of thinking, doing and building that emerged as a consequence of a time in which we once lived and that is rather less suited to the time in which we now find ourselves. As fast as technology moves, mankind and its way of dealing with state and non-state combat moves faster, and is looking to leave present unmanned CONOPS in its dust.

Reaper extends range in Afghanistan


Tackling challenge

We have seen unmanned systems shot down by both sophisticated and relatively simple methods in battle zones from Yemen, to Syria and Ukraine. There is no evasive manoeuvring, no reaction to the threat, just a target plodding along in unfriendly skies.

But then again, do we need to bother about ensuring drones are safe from physical attack? If you have hundreds, if not thousands, of systems saturating a denied area at a single time there will be a point when air defence systems won’t be able to cope. Making the rate of attrition high enough to effectively physically and financially overwhelm a targeted enemy remains one of the best possible use cases for unmanned systems. A machine going down in a plume of smoke is still just a machine.

Of course, at present, the more capable systems are of a cost that more or less prohibits these tactics, although some tactical platforms now come in at a price that may allow such action when technological miniaturisation and sophistication improves. Swarm programmes are also being investigated and researched by militaries and government keen to explore this capability.

But it is not just the physical threat that the drone has to worry about. Being bounced out of the sky by modern day versions of Me109s and flak cannon are only the most visible of threats for unmanned systems, with cyber security generally considered as critical to safe and secure operations. Examples of drone hacks usually only refer to suggestions or rumour but one – the optical hack of Israeli drones by Western allies in 2016 – lay bare the scope of the threat and the potential ease with which it can be accomplished.

2016 AFRL Commanders Challenge

Human function

Hardening systems that generally require a great deal of data throughput between the platform and ground station is ongoing throughout industry and operator alike, but until the UAV is able to ‘think’ for itself and decide on actions without having to refer back to control, it remains a significant issue.

Even today, there are very few manned aircraft that have the capability to penetrate denied airspace and successfully carry out the assigned mission, and all this with the benefit of having one of the most sophisticated systems ever made – the human being – controlling the platform and making on-the-spot decisions in real time.

Creating an artificial system that is able to imitate enough of the machine learning and decision-making functions of a human operator is one of the great challenges for industry.


For more on counter-UAS trends, see the latest issue of Unmanned Vehicles magazine.

Richmond missing missiles?

Hard-working and part of a 13-strong Royal Navy frigate force HMS Richmond should ideally be one of the more capable and versatile platforms in the fleet.

And it usually is. Perhaps however, until now.

Social media images on Monday showed the frigate leaving Portsmouth on a tasking, something far from out of the ordinary for the hard-pressed Type 23s, only this time it appears that the quad-packed Harpoon missile launchers are missing.

With the Harpoon recently stated as due to be retired in 2018 the capability was coming to the end of its useful life anyway, but eyebrows might be raised at seeing the only ASuW missile fitted to the vessels removed ahead of its out-of-service date.

When contacted the UK’s Ministry of Defence said that ‘it would be inappropriate to comment on the details and specific weapons systems carried by each of our ships’.

Furthermore, the MoD said that all Royal Navy ships ‘carry a range of offensive and defensive weapons systems and sail with the appropriate capabilities for their tasking’.

Potentially this means HMS Richmond, commissioned into service 22 years ago, is left with more traditional projectile weapons for surface warfare. It is not known if the removal of the Harpoon from the vessel is temporary.

Responding to questions in the UK’s House of Lords in November last year Earl Howe, minister of state at the MoD, said that the current batch of Harpoon missiles had ‘reached the end of its natural life’.

‘To replace it would require significant investment in a new missile stockpile. It was the Royal Navy’s judgment that that would be a less than optimal use of its budget for future investment.

He continued: ‘Its judgment was that investing in the carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the new submarines and the offshore patrol vessels, as well a range of missiles and capabilities, rather than reinvesting in a 1980s weapons system, represented the right order of priority for the Royal Navy’s overall capability. That firmly remains its judgment.’


Not something that HMS Richmond can do at the moment (Photo: US Navy)

The risk remains

Congratulating itself on a job well done late last year NATO said it would end its counter-piracy Ocean Shield mission in the Indian Ocean and move assets elsewhere, predominantly the Mediterranean.

The European Union’s own anti-piracy mission news streams have been full of gleaming ship visits and friendly training exercises with even friendlier regional forces.

It was probably with no little degree of consternation that the maritime industry was snapped wide awake with the confirmation by EU NAVFOR that the Comoros-flagged fuel tanker, Aris 13, was hijacked by suspected Somali-based pirates on 14 March. Reports indicate that the vessel is operated by a UAE-based company.

ARIS-13-beeing-held-at-anchor-off-the-northern-coast-of-Puntland-623x393 (1) v2.jpg

This is the first successful hijacking in the region since 2012, although attacks do still occur but until now unsuccessfully due to the increased use of best practices at sea, defensive measures as well as the slightly more controversial use of embarked (and armed) private security contractors.

According to the EU force, the ship and its crew are currently being held in an anchorage off the north coast of Puntland, a region that gained a degree of notoriety in recent years as something of a pirate haven.

Reports said that the attack on the vessel was reported by the ships master who issued a mayday as two skiffs, fast craft traditionally used by Somali pirates, were closing in on his ship in the Gulf of Aden.

The next steps in the tale are perhaps best told by EU NAVFOR.

‘Upon receipt of the mayday alert an EU Naval Force maritime patrol aircraft was launched from its base in Djibouti to overfly the tanker and make radio contact with the ship’s master. Despite hailing the ship several times, no contact was made and the situation on board remained unclear until late this afternoon, when the EU Naval Force operational HQ in London was able to make telephone contact with the ship’s master,’ it states.

‘The master confirmed that armed men were on board his ship and they were demanding a ransom for the ship’s release. The EU Naval Force has now passed the information regarding the incident to the ship’s owners.’

ShiuFu1-300x203.jpgThe UK’s Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) detailed a warning issued by EU NAVFOR earlier this year informing yachts of the dangers in passing through the area, which in years gone past had seen a number of hijacks and ransoms such as that seen with the SY Quest in 2011, resulting in the deaths of four crew.

In the most recent warning, it states that the ‘danger of piracy and consequent loss of life and property in the Gulf of Aden, Yemeni waters and Somali waters remains a threat to sailing vessels’ and that such craft were ‘strongly recommended’ to avoid the area.

Notably, it says that the conclusions of this report state that ‘Somali-based pirate networks and their affiliates retain both the intent and capability to conduct acts of piracy’.

The MSCHOA also mentions ‘numerous incidents’ of armed robbery, indiscriminate shooting and attacks on local fishing dhows’.

Clearly this shows that the threat for merchant, fishing and leisure vessels in transit through the High Risk Area, often coming close to shore in order to save fuel costs, puts them at great risk from attacks.

The resultant prospects once captured and held for ransom are grim, with insurance costs and a corporate need to balance cost with benefit, often playing just as important a role as pure humanitarian concerns in deciding whether to accede to demands.


Back on the map

The Gulf of Aden and the Bad al Mandeb strait are very much back on the public maritime map after what purports to be a video of a suicide attack released earlier this week on a Royal Saudi Navy warship operating in the waterway.

A video claiming to show the moment of the attack has been widely distributed online.

attack 2.jpg

Reports indicate that the vessel is an Al Madinah-class frigate. Four of these vessels were constructed for Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s. Displacing around 2,600t they are relatively small although they are equipped with surface to surface and surface to air missiles, a large main gun and helicopter deck and hangar.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of regional and international allies against a Houthi rebellion in the country, a conflict that has turned increasingly brutal on both sides.

The attack on the Saudi vessel comes just a few months after a UAE aid vessel, although Houthi rebels claim it was a warship, was hit by missile fire launched from the shore. In both cases the damage caused to the vessels appears to have been severe.

UAE ship attacked.jpg

In the same month the USS Mason, USS Nitze and USS Ponce were subjected to missile attacks similar to the one that hit the Saudi vessel.

The US and the UK have all increased patrols in the area as a response to the spate of attacks, which indicate a high level of symmetric and asymmetric capabilities being employed by the Houthis. Iran also sent vessels to the area although it is widely believed they are supporting the Houthis in what has become a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 2000 the USS Cole was damaged in a suicide attack while docked at the Yemeni port city of Aden with the resultant loss of 15 US service personnel.

USS Cole.jpg

With commercial and military shipping using the vital stretch of water the prevention of similar attacks occurring again will be uppermost in military planners minds.

They’re everywhere already

The Department for Transport’s ‘public dialogue on drone use in the UK’, published on 21 December, sheds some light into the perception of small UAS used by hobbyists and commercial operators, as well as the perceived risks to privacy and terrorist use.

Drones are of course a serious business and obviously require certification and licensing to operate them for commercial purposes or flights that would otherwise breach the very specific boundaries set by the Civil Aviation Authority.

However, Quill or Capture wants to calm some of the more outlandish comments raised during the process in a bid to do its part, or create mischief. To take a quick (biased) sample of comments (in no particular order) this blog will provide a few answers to hopefully alleviate some of the (at times warranted) public tension about such aircraft.

Comment 1: ‘I think the anonymity of them. That’s what prompted me to think about Skynet in Terminator. You know? They could think for themselves.’

Answer 1: While unmanned systems autonomy in the military sense is progressing there is still a long, long way to go before an RPAS is capable of the independent thought described here. Even if such capabilities pass the ethical barriers, the technological one might prove insurmountable. And if they could, AI drones would probably be more conscientious pilots than people.

Comment 2: ‘When I heard about crop spraying I thought that’s quite a good tool for terrorists isn’t it, chemical warfare.’

Answer 2: In more unstable parts of the world small UAS, costing some hundreds of pounds but not much more, can and have been used in an ISR and military capability by various state and non-state forces. If you are concerned about a quadcopter being used for such purposes in the UK, don’t be, as there is a whole apparatus of security and policing that would prevent item A being payloaded to item B.

Comment 3: ‘If you go in and buy one of these for a kid from Argos at £49.99, does it have the same capabilities and distance as one at £500 or £5,000?’

Answer 3: No. One has to make very clear that up to a point, the responsibility for drones purchased by adults for children and their misuse should be borne by the grown up. And if you’re splashing out £5000 this Christmas for one of your nearest and dearest, can I have one too?


Looking at it seriously, the public dialogue raises very clear points about the potential for drone misuse and the need to create some sort of system to restrict their use, in effect, to force operators to abide by CAA rules. One suspect that, as mentioned in the document, geo-fencing will play it’s part as will the proper and effective licensing of high-end small UAS by hobbyists or commercial enterprises.

Indeed the last issue of Unmanned Vehicles examined the subject of drone flight schools and the at times the extremely lax standards that a few hold their pupils too.

But also worrying is the general public’s actual understanding of the technologies involved, the vast differences in system capabilities (forgetting weight here, as this is by no means a definitive method of classification), and the ignorance/negligence of some operators in flying their aircraft safely.

However the longer government tries to figure out the best way forward, the further and further ahead unmanned technologies gets ahead. But let’s leave the last word to Comment 4:

‘It feels a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted, drones are already everywhere!’


Somalia’s insecurity

If ever a place was in need of a bit of good fortune and a helping hand it is Somalia.

Wracked by decades of internecine conflict and making more headlines in recent years through its pirate bases and notorious Al Shabaab (The Youth) terrorist group, the political and social power brokers have a long way to go before the land mass can be considered integral and secure. Whether or not the upcoming presidential elections later this month will have any positive effect is yet to be determined.

The news on 12 December that the European Council had extended the mandate of its two missions in Somalia, the civilian mission of capacity building EUCAP and the military training mission EUTM, both until 31 December 2018, will probably be welcomed.

Additionally, the Council renamed the capacity building mission from EUCAP Nestor to EUCAP Somalia. According to the Council, the mission objective is to ‘assist this country in strengthening its maritime security capacity, so that maritime law is enforced more effectively’.  The EU military mission contributes directly to the capacity building of Somali National Army.


Despite the progress there are still regular attacks on vital commercial and industrial infrastructure, such as at the Port of Mogadishu on Sunday, which left dozens dead and injured.

And despite the reduction in the size of the high risk area, a corridor of water in the Gulf of Aden traditionally associated with piracy threats occasional attacks are still being reported. NATO will end its counter-piracy mission to the region with assets redistributed among its existing maritime security operations.

While the EU’s counter-piracy force, otherwise known as EUNavfor, will opt to extend its mandate (one of its key roles is escorting World Food Programme ships into Mogadishu) there is still a vast lack of indigenous capability in Somalia to patrol its own seas and secure coastal facilities.

Reports had suggested that some GCC states, including the Sultanate of Oman, were in discussion with agencies such as the UNODC to provide support and training to the Somali coast guard although it is not known how far along such programmes are.

Lawlessness on land however cannot be solved at sea as – just look at Libya.

EuNavfor and Somali fisherman.jpg

The Global Hawk at 15

Flashback to 15 years ago and there is little chance that news coming from that time will be laden in anything other than the context of the 11 September attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.

The event changed a number of things in the social, political and defence spheres, but it is to the latter that we nod our head: the first deployment of the Global Hawk UAV over Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

To mark the occasion Northrop Grumman released a film detailing the birth of the platform, its early introduction into service, the uncertainty of whether it will actually work and the missions that helped to answer this question.

The Global Hawk landed at Al Dhafra airbase on 11 November, a date cemented in the Western World as the day the Great War ended in 1918, and would itself be caught up in one of the newest conflicts of the 21st Century just nine days later.

Commenting about the occasion Mick Jaggers, the programme lead for Global Hawk and a Northrop Grumman VP, said that the system ‘went to war’ soon after the attacks in 2001 and has since ‘never come home’.

Since then the platform has matured and is currently testing and integrating a range of new sensors and payloads, including the SYERS and MS-177.

Indeed, the addition of the MS-177 is what Northrop officials told this writer recently is one aspect of a wider programme of work to increase capability while driving down costs. Integration of the system into the Global Hawk is currently underway in a classified laboratory but officials did say that it would be tested in the field by the end of the year.

One way that the company is looking to keep operating costs down, while at the same time dealing with an 83% increase in flying hours, is through common and open architecture systems. One official said that they ‘couldn’t talk to the US Air Force [about systems] unless is was open architecture’.

Originally designed to support DARPA evaluation of HALE aircraft, the Global Hawk demonstrator first flew on 28 February, 1998.

In July this year the system surpassed 200,000 flight hours. The US Air Force’s Global Hawks logged 88% of those flight hours with the remaining flown by NASA, Germany’s full scale demonstrator and the US Navy’s broad area maritime surveillance aircraft systems.

For Jaggers the Global Hawk has come a long way from a drawing on a piece of paper in 1995.

‘The tragic events of 9/11 caused the system to be put in operation five years ahead of schedule and it took only a few missions 15 years ago for the value of Global Hawk to be realised.

‘The future is bright… The need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is ever increasing and Global Hawk delivers a persistent, long-range and cost-effective solution.’

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