Category Archives: Rearview Mirror

The curious case of Iran’s new helo

This week Iran unveiled a new helicopter purported to have been designed and manufactured domestically. According to one Iranian press agency, the new Saba-248 helicopter demonstrates the country’s ‘great headways in manufacturing a broad range of indigenous equipment’.

But as with many Iranian equipment projects, all is not what it seems.

Saba 248 Iran 2

Looking at photographs of the Saba-248, there are clear indications that the basis of helicopter is actually the Italian-made Agusta 109. In fact, dig a little deeper, as our full story shows, and you’ll discover that the Iranian Helicopter Support and Renewal Company (IHSRC) actually used a crashed A109E for the ‘prototype’ Saba.

It’s unclear how much of the A109E has been reverse-engineered and whether Iran can transition the helicopter into full-rate production. Other attempts at indigenous military helicopters – including the Shahed 278 and 285 – don’t appear to have come to much, particularly as many have relied on recycled parts from older helicopters.

Saba 248 Iran 3

It might not be the sexiest part of manufacturing, but supply chain is hugely important.

Years of sanctions means the Iranians don’t have access to OEM spares and its own attempts at parts manufacturing will be limited. As a result, they have become particularly adept at ‘making do’ and somehow keeping aircraft flying that should probably have been retired and scrapped decades ago.

There are numerous examples of US-built aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat, supplied to the Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution, that somehow still manage to get airborne. The aviation wing of the army, for example, operates a geriatric fleet of CH-47Cs and AH-1Js.

Of course, this is not the first time that Iran has publicly ‘reverse-engineered’ a crashed western design. Last year, the authorities unveiled a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that appeared to be based on the US RQ-170 ‘Sentinel’ stealth drone that crashed in the country in 2011. Whether it’s a real capability, or just another cheap knock-off, is anyone’s guess.

The lesson to all this? Take any announcement of a ‘new’ Iranian aircraft with a pinch of salt.



Who is protecting your coastal borders?

As highlighted by our maritime security editor in his last blog, attacks at sea are as real a threat as attacks on land.

Pressures posed by terrorism, island disputes and ongoing sovereignty issues have seen countries continue to enhance their shoreline and maritime border protection capabilities.

One of the complexities for nations attempting to protect their maritime borders is which organisation holds responsibility for this mission?

You might think that many of these roles would fall under the remit of a national coast guard, however, in practice it is more complex than that, given the range of operations such forces are expected to perform.

In some cases, the overlap between maritime security functions becomes apparent only as navies and smaller civil border forces compete for the same operating space.

The Cape Class patrol boat for the Australian Border Force, built by Austal.

The Cape Class patrol boat for the Australian Border Force, built by Austal.

Coast guards come in many guises. The Australian Border Force carries out most of the country’s coast guard-type duties, while in the Middle East, the UAE deploys its Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority for such activities.

The UK maintains a border force that carries out the traditional safety, policing and maritime security role, and a separate coast guard agency responsible for SAR operations.

Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard is akin to, if not larger, than some naval forces.

The USCG operates some of the largest cutters around and is one of the five armed forces of the US.

With this variety of duties and varied organisations supplying equipment and vessels it can be challenging. With a broad range of operations comes a broad range of requirements.

The USCG is currently embarking on a fleet renewal with new Offshore Patrol Cutters, Fast Response Cutters and National Security Cutters, the latter being some of the largest vessels in service.

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Meanwhile Japan is increasing its budget for its coast guard as well as helping out its neighbours as regional tensions in the South China Sea worsen.

Notably in November 2016, Tokyo announced it would donate two decommissioned Japanese Coast Guard vessels to the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency.

For more on coast guard procurement and the latest vessel technology, see the latest issue of International Maritime and Port Security.

New missile developments on target

Most people, when thinking about weapon systems on board military helicopters, will automatically recognise the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire as the system that is dominating the market.

But a number of the world’s militaries are seeking to adopt the latest missile technology and acquire more advanced capabilities.

The US Army is currently looking at a replacement for the AGM-114 with the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), also developed by Lockheed Martin.

Recently JAGM was fired from an Apache AH-64D for the first time targeting a small moving boat.


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This demonstrated one of the advantages that JAGM will have over Hellfire. The Hellfire’s laser targeting system limits its ability to see reflective energy from the target in challenging environments, such as maritime. But with JAGM the pilot can lock-on before and after launch in these conditions.

‘The biggest benefit that a JAGM will provide to the warfighter is the mission flexibility that it offers where you have a semi-active laser system in Hellfire and a millimetre-guided system in Longbow – this combines those capabilities into a single missile,’ said Colonel David Warnick, US Army Project Manager for Joint Attack Munition Systems within PEO Missiles and Space.

Warnick is confident that if the programme continues down the path it is currently on the US Army will be able to deliver this capability ‘as soon as possible.’ Though JAGM may provide more capability than Hellfire it is not the only offering out there for customers of the AH-64 Apache.

One alternative comes from MBDA which is testing a solution that could fit onto the UK’s fleet of Apache aircraft. The UK is exploring its options through the Future Attack Helicopter Weapon (FAHW) endeavour.

Apache launches MBDA Brimstone missile

Apache launches MBDA Brimstone missile

MBDA has completed a series of physical trials and firings of Brimestone from Apache with the assistance of aviation services company Amber Tiger.

‘Above all else, the missile firings from the AH-64E debunked the myth that integrating Brimstone onto the Apache wasn’t feasible,’ Andy Furness, CEO at Amber Tiger said.

Brimstone, manufactured by MBDA in the UK, could be an attractive option for the British.

‘The nation’s enemies for the next 20-plus years are not yet known, and so having a missile and manufacturer who can easily adapt to meet the requirements in an uncertain future holds a significant appeal,’ said Furness.

With Brimstone already selected for Typhoon and Protector, adapting the missile onto the AH-64E could be a sensible move for the UK.

As these projects continue development we will be covering them at

For more on Brimstone vs Hellfire developments and an exclusive update on the JAGM programme see the Jan/Feb issue of Defence Helicopter.

Let us know your thoughts on those battling it out to dominate the missile market in the comments below.

Trump, the defence story so far

Inauguration day is upon us. Whether you think this is the beginning of the end or are willing to give President Donald Trump a chance this going to be the way of the world for the next four years.

The Donald has already ruffled a few feathers on his way to January 20th and not least in the defence and aerospace sector.

So here is the story so far, well at least part of it. Everybody knows the man has tweeted A LOT.

First of all there is F-35.

Incidentally following this tweet it was reported that Lockheed shares fell 2% and Boeing’s rose 0.7%.

We all know the cost of the F-35 programme has spiralled and is proving to be one of the most expensive programmes the US military has embarked on despite Lockheed Martin suggesting that the cost of each aircraft is beginning to drop.

With this Boeing perked up as it has reportedly had plans to make an Advanced F-18 Super Hornet for some time now having demonstrated the capability back in 2013. Though it is worth noting they are two very different aircraft.

Since the F-35 tweets, which sent the defence industry into a spin, the CEO of Lockheed Martin has been to speak with Trump.

So the game is on. As Hewson attempts to keep the F-35 programme going with the promise of more jobs, which Trump has made a top priority, and the idea that new contracts, from foreign sales, that could keep the programme active.

At this point some commentators have said F-35 is too big to fail anyway but with a President Trump at the helm anything is possible.

Relations with China are not off to a good start either.

First the then President-elect broke decades of protocol by receiving a call from Taiwanese president after winning the election.

It is worth noting that China’s security White Paper totally ignores Taiwan – more details of which can be read here.

Then following a US Navy UUV that had been seize in the South China Sea he tweeted the following:

The US Navy insisted that the UUV was collecting oceanographic data though it has been suggested that it was there to monitor and track the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines operating in regional waters.

With turbulent times ongoing in the South China Sea this is a situation that will likely present itself again to the Trump administration. Trump seems to not look upon China favourably at this time.

More details can be found in this story. 

NATO has also been in Trump’s firing line.

He has been less than positive about the organisation claiming it to be ‘obsolete’ and criticising other members for not pulling their weight.

Meanwhile US troops have been arriving in Poland under a NATO umbrella as a show of force against Polish adversaries.

NATO was founded in 1949 as a reaction to two devastating world wars that consumed most of the world and devastated Europe.

With transatlantic cooperation being at the core of NATO’s existence these blasé comments about the organisation could make some European members, especially those in the East, feel skittish.

Though it is correct that the US is the largest contributor to the alliance and some are arguing it is fair enough that Trump is asking others to pull their weight.

At the moment few of the member states are meeting NATO guidelines that require member states to spend a total of 2% of GDP on NATO defence expenditure.

Defence spending could be on the up for the US anyway. 

All the while during his campaign Trump alluded to increased defence spending and the end of sequestration.

It was no secret that the day after the election share prices of some of the defence equipment went up significantly.

So for all of use in the defence and aerospace industry, fasten your seat belts because I have a feeling the next four years are going to be a bumpy ride.

Juicing the gen in Zhuhai


The world – including North Korean technicians dressed in mufti, uniformed African delegations by the busload and Iranian officials flown in by executive jet – flocked to the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai from 1-6 November.

Nowadays the biennial Zhuhai Air Show is undisputedly Asia’s largest military exhibition and, unfortunately, that means the price of hotel accommodation doubles or triples and the event is overrun by people who have no business being there. Just what is the point of allowing housewives, the elderly and infirm, and thousands of souvenir hunters and selfie-takers to run roughshod over the show?

However, as one elbowed their way through the heaving masses, there were numerous exciting revelations to discover. The highlight was the J-20 stealth fighter’s cameo appearance on opening day. However, if you blinked, you would have missed this brief apparition as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) enigmatically played hard to get.

Other PLAAF aircraft debuted in Zhuhai, however, to sooth the disappointment of those who blinked. Among them were the J-10B fighter, H-6K bomber, KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, Y-20 transport aircraft and Z-10K attack helicopter.

All photos by the author.

Nearby were towering air surveillance radars, a number purportedly able to detect F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. Fact or fiction? Certainly China is happy with either as it handcrafts an aura of technological advancement. On display was the JY-27A 3D long-range surveillance/guidance radar, the PLA’s first active phased array system. The debuting SLC-7 radar integrates mechanical scanning with phased-array technology, and yet another anti-stealth fighter radar was the JY-50 2D passive system.


What about the halls crammed with lethal weaponry, which give the outside world vague hints as to what the PLA might be fielding? Was the two-stage TYD-1 missile target a tantalising hint that China is robustly pursuing a ballistic missile defence programme?

There were explosive missiles revelations too. Very potent was the supersonic 290km-range CM-302 anti-ship cruise missile, an export version of the YJ-12 in PLA service. Chinese media called it ‘the world’s best anti-ship missile’ thanks to supersonic speed sustained throughout flight, before it accelerates to Mach 3 in its terminal phase.

There were startling revelations about China’s space programme too. Perennially touted as being for wholly peaceful purposes, it was shown for what it is in one fell swoop. On show were scale models of two transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) able to launch Long March rockets, both clad in a military camouflage schemes. Why does China need military TELs for Long March rockets? Obviously, their function is to rapidly launch satellite payloads to replace satellites lost in a space war. Such satellites could also deploy microsatellites possessing warheads to destroy US satellites.

And no description would be complete without mentioning the bewildering array of UAVs. Leading the charge were unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), which China is hawking worldwide and are being used for manifold purposes by somewhat dubious regimes.

The well-known Wing Loong 1 and 2 appeared, while models and brochures indicated the existence of a Wing Loong 1-D and Wing Loong 3, the latter powered by two propeller engines.

Two new jet-powered UCAVs also had maiden appearances in Zhuhai. One was the high-altitude, long-endurance Cloud Shadow with 14,000m cruising altitude and 620km/h maximum speed. Also, the competing CH-5 UCAV can carry a 1,000kg payload to a ceiling of 10km.

Although it was an air show, there was a massive amount of heavy armour on display too. Norinco unveiled its VT5 light main battle tank, this sharing heritage from the PLA’s own light tank that entered service in 2014.

To summarise, if you’re looking for new fighters, helicopters, UAVs, radars, missiles or armoured vehicles, China’s giant military-industrial complex is churning out equipment that will suit you. And even better, anyone can apply, despots from North Korea, Africa and Iran included.

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Tanks for the memories

One hundred years ago today, in the early hours of 15 September, the first tanks went into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, itself part of the prolonged, bloody quagmire that was the Somme.

It was a world war that brought enough misery to last a millennia but mankind seemed determined not to learn its lesson and stoke the embers only a generation later.

Recognising, but putting to one side, the terrible human cost, war did bring about some of the most important technological developments and laid the template for warfare in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

From the first tentative creaks of MkI’s tracks, to the vast rumbling of the 400 or so MkIV’s that took part in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, the tank was on the path to become king of land warfare, just as biplanes were having the same impact in the sky and submarines at sea.

The progenitor of them all, seem here during WWI

The progenitor of them all, seen here during WWI

The invention would be considered a game changer for the Great War. As nations each sought and acquired their own tank programmes, industry created a range of different styles, interpretations and uses for such vehicles.

Following on from World War One, the tank had gained a rightful place as a vital part of an army’s makeup, although exactly how they would and should be operated was open to interpretation.

Much of the interwar period saw nations looking at ways and means to develop more capable vehicles that could continue to move with dismounted infantry. However, it was Germany that brought the next evolution of the tank in making it a reinterpreted version of the cavalry of yesteryear, able to advance quickly, piercing perceived front lines and bringing the efficacy of the Blitzkrieg.

We know the history of course. German Panzers became synonymous with the idea of mobile armour, a lesson British designers tried to follow with their Cruiser series, most often used in North Africa. Tanks were being mass produced, with hundreds of thousands of Panzer IV’s, T34’s, M4’s and Crusader’s and all the variants in between cemented armour as the pre-eminent force in war.

The German Panzer class saw a number of developments

The German Panzer class saw a number of developments

However, the armour protecting the crew was becoming unsuitable as the destructive power of artillery was fused with the mobile promise of the tank. Vehicles became heavier, the destructive power of the main guns making for slower and far larger platforms. Tanks developed sub-variants, vehicles designed specifically to hunt their own kind.

Armoured warfare became just that.

Following the last World War, tank design moved on, further improving on established capabilities and taking advantage of better science, better design and better technology. As the Comet gave way to the Centurion, Centurion to Chieftain and Chieftain to Challenger, the tank has for a century been at the forefront of military thought.

Any army needs a good tank. And as it moves into its second century it perhaps faces its biggest challenge in order to stay if not relevant, then its standing in the order of battle. Kinetic attacks with advanced munitions, airborne tank killers and unmanned capabilities all threaten the ageing beast.

A century from now, when Quill next marks the occasion and 200th anniversary of the tank, it might well be offering a postscript to a platform that had its day, its century, but had to step to one side.

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The art of flying: Or how to lose friends and alienate people

This week BALPA released seven reasons not to be scared of flying as Brits go on their holidays this August Bank Holiday weekend.

BALPA sought to address the anxiety of nervous flyers, reassuring them about turbulence and stating that it was highly unlikely for a modern aircraft to be brought down by it – although to always wear a seat belt when seated.

‘More than 3.5 billion people flew safely on 37.6 million flights last year and there were only four fatal accidents,’ the BALPA release noted.

Here at Shephard we are adept at flying as we attend shows across the globe from Eurosatory 2016 in Paris, DIMDEX in Doha to FIDAE in Santiago, Chile [we have more shows coming up, including AUSA in Washington DC, Helitech International 2016 in Amsterdam and MSPO in Poland: see for further details – ed].


Therefore, things like turbulence over the Atlantic or storms as you travel across the Pacific are small fly to us.

However, during a group therapy session at Shephard Towers, we have shared our top five bugbears (in no particular order) when flying. If you would like to contribute to the list, please do make your suggestions in the comment box below.

1.The toilet – The reasons for why are endless – like the queue when there’s 30 minutes till landing. Like the time one of our journos went to the toilet forgetting they had taken their shoes off only to stand in an ominous puddle. On one long haul flight to the States, Shephard had to come to the rescue when people struggled to understand the mechanics of the toilet door once inside the cubicle.

‘They kept pushing the door, thinking they were stuck. Sitting by the toilet, I had to save each one, telling them to step back from the door so it opens. They thought I was some kind of engineering genius.’

2. People – Hell is other people on a ten-hour flight – whether they are reclining and making you spill your Stella Artois onto your lap or they have a child that either looks at you through the seats or howls the whole journey.

Passengers on aircraft are challenging beings: taking off socks as well as shoes, loud eaters, the utilisation of a Ped-egg on one’s feet is something that cannot be unseen, and the shoving in of overhead luggage.

737 Space Bins at 737 Configuration Studio

Overhead luggage is like a game of chess. Bet her fellow passengers aren’t smiling.

3. Food – Nothing is more satisfying at 30,000ft than a dried roll, limp-looking lettuce and a plastic ham sandwich. Man on the moon? Simple. Aerodynamic aluminium carrying up to a few hundred people? Done. Non-dry, unpalatable, plastic food made tasty and appetising – it’s an evolution not a revolution.

4. Cabin crew – With the utmost respect to those that service us in the sky in a challenging environment that smells of stale eggs an hour in. Sometimes a surly cabin crew can bring a damper on our excitement of travelling to faraway lands reporting on military logistics or recent procurements and acquisitions. Service with a smile is always welcome.

Gareth asleep

5. Ourselves – There’s nothing worse than having a soirée the night before to let loose after a physically and ‘journalistically’ challenging show to then get on board a plane feeling ruff [#national dog day], watching the same films on repeat like Toy Story 3 and general restlessness as the journey edges into its nine hours across time zones enforcing the loss of a day in the process before returning to work the next day.

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