CF UAVs in
Afghan Mission – Aerial Surveillance – Tactical UAVs – February 2008
Unattainable Aerial Vehicles? Sperwer, Predator, and Afghanistan
Overview – Canadian Forces' CU-161 Sperwer UAV in Afghanistan
The Manley report has drawn attention back to problems surrounding Canadian Forces use of UAVs in Afghanistan. The shortcomings of the in-service SAGEM Sperwer have been
apparent for some time. However, the CU-161 Sperwer is the sole aerial surveillance asset to be deployed to Afghanistan by the Air Force. Limitations aside, the tactical UAVs are also rapidly wearing out. What went wrong with the Sperwer program?
Why is it taking so long to replace these TUAVs? What are the alternatives for aerial surveillance/reconnaissance ?
A Brief Description of the Canadian Forces' In-Service CU-161 Sperwer Tactical UAV
The SAGEM Sperwer is a small tactical UAV dating back to the late '90s. This French drone was designed as a private venture to meet a requirement of the Dutch Army – an origin
that has haunted Canadian Forces Sperwer since this TUAV was first deployed to Afghanistan.
A CF Sperwer detachment arrived in Kabul in late October 2003. From the outset, it was apparent that the UAV designed for sea level operations by Dutch was struggling to
perform at higher elevations. The stubby, delta wings kept the Sperwer compact but are not the greatest for low-speed lift and the problem worsens at a higher altitude. The tiny
piston engine also has trouble running at high altitude.
These major limitations weren't considerations when SAGEM was designing their drone for the Dutch. But the very features now viewed as flaws, are also inherent in the economy of
the design. In other words, DND chose badly when buying a TUAV for use in Afghanistan. That can be partly attributed to the rushed nature of the procurement – CF patrols in Kabul were
relying on held-over German UAVs to avoid ambush from behind the compound walls.
Sperwer Ups and Downs – the Physical Operation of the CF's CU-161 Tactical UAV
The Sperwer is basically a sensor package with an airframe attached. The vehicle is piloted remotely from a Ground Control Station (GSC also handles mission planning and
analysis). A Ground Data Terminal maintains a radio-link at ranges up to 200 km away. On occasion control authority has been lost by the GCS but, more often, the
problems arise on recovery.
The Sperwer take-off and landing regime is simplicity itself. The aircraft is launched into the air by a pneumatic ram mounted on an HLVW truck. To recover a CU-161, the ground-operator
has the UAV circle a landing
area, cuts engine power, inflates air-bag cushions and deploys a parachute. Most Sperwer losses have occured during this landing phase. Sometimes it is just rough landings,
other times, the UAV has come down in a mine field. A failed recovery is dramatic but also overshadows all of the benefits of not being tied to runways. 
Larger UAVs tend to rely upon conventional runways. This simplifies matters for operators but introduces other complications. The first is taking up valuable tarmac space at airports - already
tight in the case of Kandahar Air Field. The second is operating a hard-to-see UAV in the crowded airspace around airports (a near-miss over Kabul between an Ariana jetliner and a
German UAV vividly demonstrated the dangers).  A less obvious problem for any runway-bound UAV is its increased transit times between airport and the operational
While Sperwer's design frees it from runways, it adds other complications. More recovery equipment (and effort) is required once the TUAV is on the
ground. However, this adds nothing to airframe weight. And this recovery effort is performed by RCHA gunners, keeping the TUAV linked to the Army even after control
of the system (literally and bureaucratically) was passed to the Air Force.
Canadian Forces Tactical UAVs – Bailiwicks, Rivalries, and .. oh yeah ... Bombs and IEDs
Army control of UAVs is now limited to mini-UAVs (like Skylark,
right, being hand-launched at FOB Wilson). This is in keeping with a tradition making observation the purview of the artillery (dating back to the era of balloons). The Air
Force wants control of larger UAVs in part because these drones fall under the same regulations as piloted aircraft (indeed, the Air Force would argue that a UAV is a piloted aircraft,
albeit remotely-piloted ). The Army doesn't much care about such niceties, it simply wants the life-saving situational awareness provided by the data streaming from the UAV sensors. But,
having chosen the tetchy Sperwer, the Army lost control over UAVs and their budget.
Control over the nature and type of UAV becomes critical when the drone's sensors are a key method of detecting the emplacement of IEDs. Too small a UAV may have
insufficient range or sensor payload to do the job. On the other hand, a large UAV may be too noisy or simply visually obvious at low level, giving any IED placers time to blend in with
The debate over who controls UAVs is more than inter-service rivalry. Air Force and Army have diverging priorities springing from their 'corporate cultures'. These two elements may want to
cooperate (especially with the lives of Canadian soldiers on the line) but the nature of the organizations will win in the end. Army operations will skew their choice towards the small and
portable. Air Force preferences will lean towards packing the maximum number of sophisticated systems into the most capable airframe. The basic institutional interests are at odds and it may
seem that a UAV dichotomy has formed between the Army and Air Force.
Thinking Big? The Manley Report and "high-performance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles"
The Manley Report reference to UAVs is brief but clear. Sperwer proved inadequate to requirements and a more capable UAV is needed in Afghanistan. The Manley Report was
alluding to the Predator, a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV
which can carry missiles and laser-guided bombs. Purchasing the US-made Predator has been rejected before by Mr. Harper's cabinet. This time might be different. With the backing
of the Manley Report, a quick UAV procurement now has political favour.
So that's it? Problem solved, time for mega-ecstacy bliss? Not quite. Like any system, the Predator has its share of trade-offs. The Sperwer Tactical UAV needs a
direct replacement or at least an interim replacement. And control of UAVs within the CF needs to be decided.
Next in Unattainable Aerial Vehicles: A Predator Overview and TUAVs or
 Beyond the obvious limitation of reduced operational radius (due to greater transit time), there are also mechanical and conceptual drawbacks. For Sperwer and its ilk, inflatable bags and
a parachute are all that's required to land. More sophisticated UAVs have conventional landing gears (often a retractable gear) adding weight and complexity to this UAV's design.
 Even with their A300 on approach with landing gear down, the Airbus pilots did not see the German drone. The airliner passed within 50m of the Luna, wake turbulance causing the UAV to
crash. For sake of comparision, that A300B4 spanned 44.85m, the EMT Luna 4.17m.
 The unarmed Sperwer has been criticized for not being able to engage Taliban fighters before they hid their weapons and blend in. In the case of emplacing
IEDs, this may result in the task left partially completed or at least the GPS position of the emplacement noted for future disposal. The armaments question becomes trickier still when leased
UAVs are used.