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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. [1]

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). [2]  A less obvious problem for any runway-bound UAV is its increased  transit  times between airport and  the operational area.

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 locals. [3]

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 VehiclesA Predator Overview and  TUAVs  or Alternatives

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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