Author Archives: rtshephard

US Navy reduction in San Juan recovery reminder of submarine rescue challenges

The news in late December that the US Navy will begin to draw down its operations to assist in the search for the ARA San Juan serves as a salutary reminder that simply having a capability does not equate to a guarantee of success.

At the height of its support in search for the stricken Argentinian submarine, the US Navy stated that its contributions included three specialised aircraft, over 200 SAR personnel, four submersibles, one underwater rescue unit, one surface vessel and the deployment of more than 400 sonobuoys.

International support was also provided from a range of sources, including the UK’s ice patrol vessel, HMS Protector. Still, despite the vast range of scanning, support and rescue assets available, there has been (at the time of writing) little indication that the search will result in success.

The dangers of submarine operations have been chronicled by services and historians for as long as such platforms have been used, and despite the best effort to ensure the safety of crew, when things go wrong under the ocean waves the results are often terrible.

The sheer difficulty in simply operating at often significant depths in such an environment brings a unique set of challenges that would not exist on where there is breathable air. One could say that it is incumbent on services to have some sort of rescue capability, with many navies looking to add this to their repertoires.

In example, the Swedish Navy considers it an obligation to operate a submarine rescue vessel and recently concluded an extensive upgrade of its capability. However, with the service mainly operating in the littorals, it recognises the limitations that any rescue capability has when the depths run into the hundreds of metres.

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Which brings us back to the start of this missive and the loss of the San Juan and crew. Mounting a recovery effort in deeper oceans has to be tempered with the knowledge that it is one matter to find the submarine and another equally difficult to enable a rescue if and when it is found.

Dubai Airshow 2017: What a week!

Back in the office after a week of Arabian sun the world can seem an altogether colder experience, less like warm evenings spent writing stories and crunching videos beneath Dubai’s glittering spires.

In a bid then to sooth the winter blues we’ve taken the entirely selfish decision to return again to the DWC flight line and massed ranks of companies, products and people in the exhibition hall.

Given that it was an airshow it is unsurprising that much of the material we gathered and mulled over during the course of the week concerned aircraft. From trainers to light attack, rotary to transport, the show had it all.

Among the most noticeable was Japan, keen to show off its C-2 and in simply travelling to Dubai managed to complete the trans-continental flight section of its test and evaluation process.

In-country manufacturing capability was also on the agenda, with the UAE looking to expand its industrial base to allow and enable domestic production of a range of platforms and systems. Among these was Calidus’ B-250 light attack aircraft.

Elsewhere, the UAS Summit, sponsored by Shephard, took in all the comings and goings in the UAE’s burgeoning drone industry. From applications to regulations, the panellists, keynote speakers and audience covered the topics length and breadth, concluding with minutes to spare.

One significant point was raised early on the first day touching on the UAE’s approach to the question of operator regulations.

Finally, after what was a tough but thoroughly rewarding week we came down to the final set-up and the wrap of some of the highlights on the flight line. By this time, around about the 60 hour mark of show coverage, our rotary editor, Helen Haxell, thought it apt to sign off in a style that is likely to become a signature all of its own.

Thanks to everyone that checked out the show site, read the stories and viewed the videos. We look forward to doing it again in two years.

UK MoD orders 20 more carriers

It so transpires that the UK MoD has awarded a contract for 20 additional flattops ahead of a 31 January delivery next year.

While this might get the navgeeks running for their phones this time around the vessels supplied won’t be 280m, 70,000t behemoths. The decision instead is for smaller scale models destined for apparent distribution among key Foreign Office sites.

A contract award statement confirmed the purchase of 20 Queen Elizabeth carrier models ‘for presentation to British embassies’. The start of the build programme began on 10 August, which leaves a little more than five months to construct the fleet.


A model of a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street (Photo: Creative Commons)

Questions as yet unanswered include how the embassies might receive one of these prestigious models and what criteria any bid process is based on. Is it a raffle, a global game of rock-paper-scissors, or something more grown up?

The winner of the £30,000 programme of work, Wales-based David Fawcett, will see its workshop running to the maritime industrial drumbeat for the next few months in a bid to meet its deadline.

Information available on the company website state that it is ‘committed to providing the very best service’ and work with the latest technologies, including ‘3D CAD software and CNC machines, 3D printing machines and computer-generated photo etching’.

Quill has reached out to the model-maker for comment, although at the time of publishing none had been forthcoming.

A clause in the contract award did state that ‘the contractor shall not and shall ensure that any employee or subcontractor shall not communicate with representatives of the press, television, radio or other media on any matter concerning the contract’.

We might be waiting a while then.

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The new carriers will be strategically placed for maximum global impact (Photo: IMPS image library)

The Royal Navy’s new carrier – is it a waste of space?


QE and GWB front.jpg

Beyond the hyperbole and hysteria that will greet the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth to Portsmouth, it’s worth bringing up its use as a platform and what has been sacrificed elsewhere in order to achieve this milestone.

Pushing around 70,000t at full load with a full complement of crew and aircraft, the carrier is without question the largest naval vessel ever to serve in the UK Royal Navy and a benchmark for the country’s return to maritime power.

Or not?

The two carriers, Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, have topped the £6 billion mark to build and will soak up hundreds of naval service personnel from a hugely diminished pool. Capital ships being decommissioned are being cannibalised of their own crews to make up the numbers, while destroyers and frigates take it in turns to become alongside training ships on account of manpower shortages, equipment removals and engineering failures.

Capable as they are, only six T45 ADDs have entered service, down from 12 planned. These vessels have not been without their own controversies.

The 13 Type 23 frigates will be kept on beyond planned working lives because of delays to the Type 26 programme. Eight T26 will enter service, and be augmented by a yet-to-be designed and barely conceptual T31(e).

There has been no proper response from the UK MoD to Sir John Parker’s National Shipbuilding Strategy report.

Harpoon missiles fitted to the T23s and T45s will be retired next year leaving a national navy, that purports to be a blue water service, without ship-based ASuW capability. The scenes recently showing the Brazilian Navy dispatching the former HMS Brazen in a sinkex with a range of kinetic systems will be beyond replication by the RN from 2018.

The hard-used Ocean will leave. Albion and Bulwark take it in turns to sit mothballed. The SSN fleet will fall to six hulls as delays impact the planned one-out, one-in replacement of the Trafalgar’s with the Astute’s.

Embarked unmanned capabilities were removed this year from the frigate fleet amid cost crunches, a notion that the RN has done little to deny.

The new River Batch 2 OPVs will have to shoulder more of the maritime policing and low-end participatory duties the navy has to cover.

RFA Diligence, the only forward repair ship able to service RN ships, is unlikely to be replaced. One of the four Bay-class landing ship docks was sold after the 2010 ‘review’.

What has been missed after 2010 is an opportunity to mould the RN for the challenges of the 21st century. Can it create that onion-layer of security that a carrier strike group can work within? Will the carriers have the embarked capability necessary to fulfill their roles?

The navy has fewer hulls. Less amphibious capability. No ship-to-ship missiles. Fewer personnel. Less innovation. All for two big ships.

The carriers will slot into the US Navy’s demands, moving into the gaps created by its own CVN replacement programme and emerging challenges elsewhere. It’s an instrument of policy and bombast that could cause more harm to its service than good.

The service seems stripped of its core. Is it now an unbalanced bobblehead of an organisation standing on some pretty unsteady ground?

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Terror drones

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A still taken from a video published by the pro-ISIS Amaq news outlet purportedly showcasing insurgent drone operations

It makes sense that unmanned technologies have migrated across the traditional battlefield and into use by a variety of non-state actors and terrorist organisations.

The ease of acquisition and use of such systems has presented organisations such as ISIS capabilities that not too long ago would have been unthinkable, both in terms of intelligence and surveillance gathering, but also increasingly in rudimentary strike roles.

One only has to look at the simple economic value in converting a simple drone that costs no more than a few hundred dollars into relatively stealthy weapon, to see why they can be viewed as a force multiplier by the non-state actor organisations.

Add to that the notion that a successful strike can damage or destroy equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the physical and psychological threats for the soldiers and operators on the ground, and a potent combination is created.

Judging by what we can see from promotional material published by ISIS after operations, a range of payloads are also being developed. These are predominantly ‘dumb’ munitions in the sense that they are unguided, but when dropped from a height of just a couple of hundred metres can still effect significant damage.

Insurgent conversations in the deep web of chat rooms and internet lounges point as well towards the ambition (or perhaps hope, as it is difficult to quantify written words with intent and ability) to deploy chemical and biological payloads.

The notion of a small quadrotor, unheard above the din of ground activities, effectively carrying or becoming a dirty bomb is one forces have to be aware of.

For more on this topic read  ‘In the Wrong Hands’ in the upcoming edition of Unmanned Vehicles where we explore the methods and digital efforts terrorists go to in order to cover their planning efforts.

How to name your drone

This writer enjoyed a nice bit of banter recently when having posted a story about the French Patroller UAV, a question was posed on social media asking why a more pugilistic nom de guerre was not chosen to boost potential exports.

It’s an interesting point and makes you wonder just what hidden meanings are being kept in the naming of an unmanned system.

Some go for the avian theme because, you know, UAVs fly and stuff. Some examples and in no particular order includes the ScanEagle, Desert Hawk, Heron and Global Hawk. China took this a step further with its Wing Loong family, translating into something like Pterodactyl. Apparently.

Abstracts are also well represented as well as names that infer protection, security, destruction and oblivion. Again, in an order chosen entirely by rolling a dice, we have the Reaper, the Shadow, Predator and one of the newest reported on last month at the Paris Air Show, Nightwarden.

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Watchkeeper is another rather banal three-syllaballed naming effort from those with no imagination.


British Army Watchkeeper

Let’s not forget the Guardian series either which between sea and sky looks to watch over as many domains as it sensorial fingers will allow. The UK meanwhile seems to have taken a decision to lean away from killer-drone PR and named the successor to its MQ-9 Reapers, inspirationally, as Protector.

Then you have the Triton which in a doff of the cap to ancient antiquity refers to the son of Poseidon (the mythical sea-God, not the MPA) as a messenger of the sea. Quite apt. The UK’s Taranis demonstrator aircraft also riffs off the deitic theme.


We can conclude this missive with the Net Ray. No, me either.

Net Ray

AR3 Net Ray

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.

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