Category Archives: Heads Up

Catching on: commercial UAS expansion

There is no doubt that the commercial unmanned market is continuing to grow in leaps and bounds. Many of the events aimed at the UV sector are now leaning increasingly towards non-military operators, and solely civil-focused unmanned events are now a firm fixture on our calendar.

An examination of the market shows there is huge opportunity for both the likes of DJI, providing small UAS to hobbyists and photographers, as well as the traditionally defence-orientated companies looking to service large industries such as energy and agriculture.

The latest issue of UV magazine looks into the commercial business units (CBU) that have been set up by such companies as they look to tap into what looks to be a lucrative market.

It is easy to recognise the likes of the Insitu ScanEagle and Textron Aerosonde as platforms initially made for the military. However, both companies are leading the commercial charge, and while they continue to maintain their relationships with government customers, executives are clearly looking to the future and a commercial world predicted to be worth billions of dollars.

What we have found to be most interesting about these commercial offerings is the idea of providing a whole service. It is understandable that, unlike government customers, those in the business world do not want the added expense of actually acquiring systems.

Additionally, the service concept puts a large focus on analytical tools. It was apparent at this year’s Xponential in Dallas that there is now an emphasis on data analytics within the unmanned market beyond simply the platforms themselves. Again, while government customers are able to pay for their own in-house analytics, commercial users prefer to contract someone to provide that as part of a service.

Textron and Insitu are now over 12 months into CBU operations and are both beginning to see the fruits of their labour, although at this time it is making up a small part of their profits.

One reassuring aspect of big defence organisations working in the commercial world is their know- how when it comes to regulations. Insitu told me that it continues to work with regulators on how best to incorporate UAS into commercial airspace and wants to lead by example.

While legislation on UAS is still in a state of flux, there is clearly a desire from industry to get it right. The misuse of UAS is only likely to damage opportunities in the future for those in the commercial market.

What is positive to see is a serious and thoughtful approach by the defence world to satisfy commercial requirements.

Military use of UAS also continues to move forward, with more demands being put on the platforms than ever before, including increased payload capacity, extended operational range and the fast collection of ISR data.

The enduring capability of tactical UAS is something that the same companies who are looking to the commercial market are trying to keep on top of. Military contracts continue to come thick and fast.

Again, the challenge for those key players who currently dominate US and European military procurement will be transitioning this success to the commercial world.

Competition will come from disruptive new players entering the market. While we have seen plenty of start-ups attending events with small quadcopters, there is also room for companies with new business models that appeal to the commercial customer.

Defence companies are set to make a bigger splash in the civil market – they have now gone well beyond just dipping their toes in the water, and Shephard will continue to follow the CBU journey closely.

Let the DSEI madness commence

DSEI is almost upon us and everyone from exhibitors to journalists (and protesters) begin their preparations for the week-long show.

As global defence spending is on track to continue on its upward path, this years’ exhibition is expected to be the biggest yet.

Over 1,600 exhibitors and 34,000 visitors from 120 countries are expected to descend on the Excel Centre and the Shephard journalists’ schedules are packed full.


The scope of exhibitors continues to expand and this year the importance of innovative technologies, from UAS swarm systems to 3D printing, will be reflected with a new innovation hub forming part of the inaugural Joint Zone, which will be nestled between the colossus land, air and naval zones.

The land zone alone has expanded by 52% and is offering a packed agenda of speakers throughout the event on a wide variety of topics. This includes a keynote address from General Sir Nicholas Carter, chief of the general staff.

Some of the focus in the land zone will be on the continuing threat from Russia and the impact it is having on European defence spending. Many nations are upgrading and bolstering their armoured vehicle capabilities, such as Germany, France and the UK who are all upgrading vehicles or embarking on modernisation programmes, such as the UK’s MBT fleet upgrade.



Over in the naval zone, announcements on new frigate designs are hotly anticipated by Beth Maundrill who expects the industry to be a buzz following Wednesday’s release of the national shipbuilding strategy which could see BMT and Babcock go head-to-head on the design contract.

Seven warships will be on display at the exhibition, including HMS Argyll, the Royal Navy’s Type 23 Duke class frigate; HMS Puncher, a Royal navy Archer class patrol vessel; and BNS Pollux, a Belgian Navy ops vessel.


The air zone will host a static display of over ten aircraft, demonstrating some the latest advances in avionics. In news celebrated by Shephard’s rotary editor, Helen Haxell, the display will be dominated by defence helicopters, including Chinook, Apache, Wildcat and Merlin.


In reflection of the current instability that is gripping world politics and the evolving nature of warfare and security threats, the security zone has been expanded to include an exciting cocktail of exhibitions on a wide range of topics.

These include the challenges of mass migration, next generation cyber warriors, cyber intelligence and capabilities, urban warfare and emerging security trends from the IoT to wearable devices.


We’ve got our comfortable shoes on, notebooks and cameras all set; we’re ready, are you?

You can find Shephard’s full show news coverage online throughout the week.

Japan and US Conduct Live Fire Drills Amid Regional Tension

Following on from DB editor, Grant Turnbull’s blog on rising tensions in Asia, guest blogger Sam Bocetta takes an in depth look at the recent US-Japanese military exercise.

Last week, some 300 US and Japanese military personnel carried out live fire drills in northern Japan, despite the simmering regional tension between the US and North Korea.

The drills were part of an artillery training exercise being jointly conducted by the US and Japanese militaries. Live shells were fired from armed vehicles at a training area on the northern island of Hokkaido. Troops from Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) and the USMC were both involved.

Northern Viper 4

These live fire drills formed part of a huge 19-day joint exercise between the two countries. Though the exercise had been planned years in advance, there had been calls for it to be called off due to the increased tension between the US and North Korea. The drill is likely to further inflame the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, during which the North Korean leader has threatened to fire missiles at the pacific island – and US military base – of Guam.

Northern Viper 2017

The drills form part of Northern Viper 2017, a huge and ambitious joint exercise of the US and Japanese militaries. More than 2,000 US Marines, and some 1,500 members of the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF), were involved. The drills took place at the Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.

The exercise was designed to test the compatibility and interoperability of the JSDF and the US Marine Corps. Though primarily focused on troops’ abilities to deal with peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, the drills also saw an impressive deployment of military hardware.

Northern Viper 6

Though the US and Japan have been military allies for many years now, they have not often trained together, and some analysts had worried about the ability of the two countries to co-operate at a tactical level. Northern Viper sought to address this issue by stressing low-level interoperability between the two forces.

The exercise involved a range of US forces. The USMC deployed in Okinawa are a highly-capable, forward-deployed unit, and are critical to the US’s ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. The relationship between the US and Japanese militaries allows these troops to train in Japan.

Accordingly, the exercise involved US troops from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and the 3rd Marine Division. The aircraft wing were charged with providing direct aerial support to the ground troops of both the 3rd Marine Division and the JSDF. Various training exercises were conducted alongside the live fire artillery drills. These consisted of assault support missions, simulated offensive air support, and simulated casualty evacuations.

Northern Viper 5

During the exercise, the US military fired, for the first time ever in Japan, the M142 High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). This system can fire a range of guided missiles – either a barrage of six short-range missiles each armed with a 200lb (91kg) warhead, or one long-range missile that is capable of hitting targets out to 186 miles (299km).

HIMARS require a crew of three – a driver, gunner and chief. An advanced computer-based fire control system enables the crew or even a lone soldier to operate the entire system. The fire control system includes keyboard control, video, programme storage and GPS. The fire control computer allows firing missions to be carried out in automatic or manual mode. Fire systems use advanced GPS and optics systems to find and lock onto targets.

MV-22 Northern Viper

Northern Viper also involved a range of aircraft. The US deployed F-16 fighter jets, UH-1 Hueys and AH-1Z Cobra helicopters. Controversially, the US also deployed several MV-22 Osprey helicopters, against the wishes of the Japanese government. Several recent crashes have led to concerns over the safety of this tilt-rotor vehicle.

Training in Japan allows the USMC to conduct exercises that are impossible in Okinawa. Hokkaido has ranges that allow for aircraft to conduct live fire exercises, for instance. Large exercises such as Northern Viper also allow US forces to identify weaknesses, and possible areas of conflict with coalition partners, that are invaluable to the ongoing development of these forces.

Northern Viper 7

Regional Tensions

Though Northern Viper had been planned months in advance, there had been pressure for it to be called off due to the increased tension in the Asia-Pacific region. It has been claimed that military exercises like this, especially when incorporating live-fire drills, run the risk of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea.

Though none of the weapons deployed in Northern Viper are a threat to North Korea, the exercise serves to underline the close relationship between the US and Japanese militaries. This relationship has long been a source of tension between the US, North Korea, and China. And although Hokkaido is quite some distance away from the Korean Peninsula, it is reasonable to assume that both China and North Korea watched the exercise with interest.


For Japan, the exercise not only provides valuable training experience, but also the opportunity to showcase its increasing military capability. Japan’s defence budget has steadily risen over the last few years, driven by the deteriorating security situation in the region, and it is now coming under increasing pressure to acquire a pre-emptive strike capability.

Sam Bocetta is a retired engineer who worked for over 35 years as an engineer specialising in electronic warfare and advanced computer systems. Bocetta is also a contributor on Gun News Daily. He now teaches at Algonquin Community College in Ottawa, Canada as a part time engineering professor.


Volatile conditions – tensions rise in Asia

As the Sep/Oct issue of Shephard’s Digital Battlespace went to press, it was reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the brink of firing missiles towards the US territory of Guam. That has not happened, yet, but it is another sign that the unhinged leader of North Korea continues to be a threat to the region and, as his missile and nuclear technologies advance, to countries outside the region.

This year has seen North Korea’s ballistic missile capability go from strength to strength and by July the country had carried out at least 14 firings of various domestic-built missiles. The 14th was possibly the most significant, with the firing of a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could have hit the US west coast (which was instead was fired 2,300 miles into space).


Add to that already dangerous situation the development of a possible nuclear warhead for an ICBM and the situation becomes almost apocalyptic. If it’s any comfort, it is believed that North Korea still does not possess the capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead or even the technology for the warhead to survive re-entry. Yet despite these limitations, and an international community grouping together to impose harsh sanctions, Pyongyang still manages to achieve successes.

Another volatile leader to add to this combustible mix is Donald Trump. In his short time as president, he has shown himself to be unstable and irrational – two character traits that do not bode well for international diplomacy and dealing with despotic regimes. His response to North Korean missile tests was to promise ‘fire and fury’ if the country made any more threats to the US.


Addressing missile threats

Ultimately, it will be patient diplomacy that brings the two countries back from the brink of all-out war. But what lessons can we learn from this? First and foremost, it should act as a wake-up call – if it hasn’t already – that governments have to invest in ballistic missile defence (BMD) technologies for the protection of not just soldiers in theatre, but also citizens going about their daily lives.

Admittedly, that is easier said than done.

BMD is a huge and costly endeavour that requires significant investment, often in the billions. It necessitates a host of early-warning sensors (on land and sea, and in air and space) and for those sensors to be networked so that data can be fed into complex C2 systems. Highly capable, highly manoeuvrable interceptors must be acquired to shoot down the missiles, a feat that has often been compared to shooting down a bullet with a bullet.


The US is the only country in the world that can field multiple BMD systems, including the homeland Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which in May achieved its first-ever intercept – probably not by coincidence considering recent events – of an ICBM fired towards the US from deep in the Pacific.

However, the GMD programme has been notorious for its significant cost – its yearly budget is around $1.5 billion – and the fact that before May, it failed eight of 17 tests.


To reduce costs, NATO has pooled resources to offer a territorial BMD capability, which achieved initial operating capability last year. It includes ship-based radars as well as ground-based systems, such as Aegis Ashore, based in Romania and soon in Poland. The US also works closely with its Asian allies to provide BMD systems, including THAAD in South Korea and possibly Aegis Ashore in Japan in the future.

Effective defence

Another way BMD will become more cost-effective in the future will be the increasing effectiveness and reliability of sensors, particularly next-generation radars that can detect, track and provide fire control data for interceptors. Industry is particularly focused on how it can ensure lifecycle costs remain low, by increasing a sensor’s reliability and keeping repairs to a minimum, which is especially important at sea.


In this edition of DB, we look in more detail at naval radars, with several of the systems outlined now featuring some kind of BMD function or growth potential. With industry utilising the advances in commercial electronics, these systems are rapidly evolving in terms of capability – particularly with the onset of active electronically scanned array systems and Gallium Nitride technologies – allowing for longer detection ranges and greater kill rates for interceptors.

Of course, challenges remain, not least when it comes to funding, but the alternative of having no effective defence against ballistic missile threats does not bear thinking about.

Pasted image at 2017_08_31 08_41 AM


The latest edition of Digital Battlespace (Sep/Oct 2017) is now available to download FREE on IoS and Andriod. 

Going the distance in Afghanistan

Despite his rhetoric on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has reaffirmed the US commitment to Afghanistan, promising military commanders they will have the resources and support they need “to fight and to win”.

With few attractive strategic options on the table, there is little surprise that the man who loves winning so much has chosen to stay the course, rather than withdraw US troops and be the president that ceded Afghanistan to the Taliban.

As Gen John W. Nicholson, the Commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in February, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) is currently capable of “fundamentally altering the operational environment”.

This leaves a situation where the government in Kabul currently claims control over roughly two thirds of the population, the Taliban is in control of some ten percent of the country, and the rest remains contested.

As with all previous stages of the Afghan conflict since 2001, SOF remain a critical element of any successful strategy, particularly given that of the 98 US-designated terrorist organizations globally, 20 are located in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan region.

As part of its counter-terrorism (CT) mission, US SOF operators have become extremely efficient over the past decade at “kicking in doors” in the hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders, facilitators and key associates.

Trump’s comments suggest this effort will only widen under the new administration. The trap the Pentagon must now avoid is any renewed emphasis on the CT effort to the detriment of ANDSF capability development under the training, advising, and assistance (TAA) mission.

In his evidence to the SASC, Nicholson noted that the “professionalism and competence” of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command was one of the best examples of success of the TAA effort in 2016.

The 17,000 special operators conducted 70% of ANA offensive operations last year, and their proficiency is “directly attributable” to their long-standing partnerships with US and coalition advisors.

Capability gap

However, given Western reliance on close air support and aerial mobility, these areas remain a critical indigenous capability gap that needs attention.

The Afghan Special Mission Wing is fully night vision goggle-qualified, allowing it to conduct night-time operations anywhere in the country. But the larger Afghan Air Force (AAF) remains in “dire condition” due to an extremely high operational tempo and lack of aircraft.

In 2016, the AAF added 18 MD 530 attack/scout helicopters and eight A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft, with the first A-29 strike mission flown on April 14, 2016. Some 120 Afghan tactical air controllers had also been added to help improve the combat capability of the ANDSF.

However, the decision to purchase UH-60s to replace Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters was ill-advised and the Black Hawks will not be available until the 2019 campaign.

The poor quality of ANDSF leadership and the persistence of corruption within the ranks have shown the need for reforms to the appointment systems and effective leader development programs. Here, Afghan Special Forces have also led the way, demonstrating it is possible to shape effective leaders from the country’s sizable youth population.

Trump’s speech did hit the right notes in many areas, including highlighting the destabilizing role played by Pakistan and the fact that military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan, as well as heralding a shift from a time-based approach to one reflecting conditions on the ground.

But funding must now be properly allocated to reflect one truism of Trump’s address – the stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less the US will have to do there.


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.

model boat 2.jpg

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

Sacré bleu! Should we be more like the French?

In the lead-up to this year’s Bastille Day, I had the opportunity to visit Satory in France, an area that has a rich history both for the defence industry and armed forces. While there, I spoke to local defence companies, DGA procurement officials and the armed forces about the Scorpion programme, an ambitious effort to revamp the army’s vehicle fleet and C2 systems for the 21st century.

The French Army and domestic industry is clearly proud of its modernisation agenda and the programme achievements so far, inviting leading media outlets to Satory to see it all first hand. This involved an exclusive look at the first prototype of the Griffon 6×6 vehicle, which is currently going through testing, as well as demonstrations of the army’s new sensors and communication systems, including an updated FELIN soldier suite.


Indeed, one of the French Army’s biggest achievements is the fact that despite being so ambitious, it has not become so massive that it has collapsed in on itself like other modernisation initiatives undertaken by the UK and US. Studies for Scorpion were initiated as far back as 1999, with work ramping up in the mid-2000s.

‘We have been preparing this programme for a very long time,’ the project manager told me in Satory.

Many might consider this to be a drawn-out procurement process, but as Scorpion begins to provide tangible results, it actually shows that France’s slow and maturing approach has delivered results (much like a vintage Bordeaux wine).

This is in stark contrast to the US Army’s disastrous Future Combat Systems modernisation programme, which ran through the 2000s and was eventually cancelled, wasting billions of dollars in the process.

Similarly, the British Army’s strategy to recapitalise its armoured vehicle fleet in the 2000s, known as the Future Rapid Effects System also ended with little to show except wasted taxpayer’s money and capability gaps. Indeed, the UK is still attempting to pick up the pieces of that failed procurement process and has once again kickstarted acquisition for the 8×8 Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, which will likely be a focus of this year’s DSEI.

Even the British Army’s less ambitious attempts to upgrade its existing inventory of armoured vehicles and replace obsolete subsystems appears to be moving at a snail’s pace. Countries such as France and Germany have already started programmes that will see comprehensive upgrades of their MBT fleets, yet the British have only formally contracted an assessment phase for its ageing Challenger 2, which will determine what needs to be upgraded.

The UK’s attempts to upgrade its Warrior fighting vehicles under the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme has also been dogged by uncertainty, with a production contract yet to be signed despite the upgrade effort now being in its sixth contracted year. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin UK is understandably anxious to be awarded a production contract to provide some certainty in an increasingly uncertain economic environment.


Of course, decisions to delay or cancel modernisation initiatives can be put down to budgetary concerns and pressures. The French, however, spend roughly the same on defence as the UK (and considerably less than the US) yet in terms of ‘effect’ (to use a military term) it appears to have much greater impact and spends its money much more wisely.

French defence industrial capability is also strong, with the country still able to produce high-end equipment for its armed forces unlike the steady erosion seen in the UK and elsewhere.

It will pain some in the defence industry to hear this, but should we be more like the French?

Land Warfare International Aug-Sep 2017


The latest edition of Land Warfare International (Aug/Sep 2017) is now available to download FREE on IoS and Andriod. 

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