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Middle East addicted to Game of Drones

Posted 9 February 2018 · Add Comment

The Middle East is a keen acquirer of sophisticated military technology, so it is no wonder the region has taken an interest in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) procurement. Beth Stevenson reports.

The stand-off range and surveillance capability of a UAV makes it a key asset to be operated in the Middle East, as the systems can provide over-watch of neighbours with whom there are tensions, while maintaining a distance from the target at hand.
There is a relatively small indigenous development of UAVs in the Middle East, so technology import is the way many countries acquire these systems.
While neighbouring Israel is one the top producers of UAVs internationally, its systems are off limits to most of the region. So, despite the attempt at indigenous development, the Middle East largely relies on the US and Europe for its unmanned systems.
The most prolific military UAV on the market is the General Atomics Aeronautical Predator family of systems, which has been exported to the United Arab Emirates, albeit in a modified form.
The UAE acquired the RQ-1E Predator XP in 2013 through domestic prime International Golden Group, under a $197 million deal for an undisclosed number of UAVs. The type has a reduced payload capacity in accordance with the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), ultimately meaning it cannot be armed.
MTCR is a voluntary multilateral agreement that aims to reduce the proliferation of missile-related technology by restricting export of systems that can carry a 500kg payload over a 300km range.
To this end, the UAE – not a signatory to the regime – acquired the XP remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) with a reduced capability but with a long endurance.
While the exact payload capacity is unknown, General Atomics says that the XP has an endurance of 35 hours and can operate at altitudes of 25,000ft, although previous testing conducted in 2015 demonstrated a 40-hour endurance for the UAV.
Comparatively, the company’s MQ-9 Reaper can only operate for some 27 hours, but at some 50,000ft.
“The RPA includes a state-of-the-art sensor system optimised for missions over land and sea, and has proved its long endurance capability by flying beyond-line-of-sight missions in excess of 35 hours,” a company spokesperson said.
Deliveries of an undisclosed number of the examples have now been completed, and the spokesperson confirmed that the company is in discussions with the UAE regarding the potential purchase of additional systems with new capabilities.
In May 2017, it was announced that Canadian manufacturer, CAE, had been awarded C$56 million ($45.3m) by the General Headquarters of the UAE to deliver training for UAVs over a five-year period, notably including training for the Predator.
To include academic, simulator and live flying training, the contract is to be delivered by the company’s CAE Maritime Middle East division, based in Abu Dhabi.
The success of the XP in the UAE has undoubtedly piqued the interest of other nations in the region.
“The delivery and subsequent operation of the Predator RPA by the UAE armed forces has led to high interest in the system by other countries, and not just for military roles,” the General Atomics spokesperson said.
He noted that the role of a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV, such as the Predator, extended past a siloed military mission, demonstrated by the use of the family of systems by US Customs and Border Patrol in addition to US forces.
“The Predator XP is uniquely situated to help perform very similar mission sets for border security, law enforcement, wildlife conservation, oil and gas infrastructure management, event security (such as Dubai 2020), maritime sea-lane patrol, as well as a host of other non-military applications over the coming years,” the spokesperson added.
One avenue that could be appealing to the region is the offer of the XP on a services basis.
Rather than purchasing the UAV outright, General Atomics is offering for customers to contract intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) hours from the company, which would be suited to their various needs.
“New payloads are being integrated into the product line specifically to support this expansion to provide our customers with the timely and relevant intelligence data they require to perform their missions,” the spokesperson said.
“Coupled with Predator XP’s long endurance and ability to fly in the national airspace, a new data link to create digital interoperability across the customers’ inventory, sensors such as wide area motion imagery (WAMI) to create larger situational awareness over a cityscape, as well as advances in the C4I capabilities, [these] are all going to be seen coming on line in support of our valued MENA customers in the near future.”
The UAE has also committed to acquiring the Piaggio Aerospace P.1HH Hammerhead, having signed a deal for eight examples in March 2016.
Hammerhead is derived from the company’s manned P180 Avanti II twin-pusher, configured with Leonardo-developed mission systems, and is being acquired by the UAE under a $316 million deal signed between the government and Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments. Abu Dhabi-based investment firm Mubadala Development Company owns Piaggio.
All of the aircraft will be delivered with electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) cameras, radar and communications systems, Piaggio said, while logistic support and training are also included.
“This important contract recognises Piaggio Aerospace’s efforts in establishing a world-class military programme and state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities that position the business for long-term sustainable success,” said Carlo Logli, then-CEO of Piaggio, at the time of the signing.
While the Italian Government has backed the development of Hammerhead, it has skirted around an actual contract signing to date, making the UAE the launch customer for the type.
After the crash of one of the prototypes near Sicily in May 2016, little was reported on the status of the development until the company announced, on July 5, that flight-testing had resumed at Birgi military airport in Trapani, Italy, following ground-testing runs.
Piaggio confirmed that first deliveries are expected in 2018, and training will begin in 2018 ahead of the first delivery.
Elsewhere, it was announced during the 2016 Farnborough International Air Show that two Gulf/Middle Eastern nations had become the launch customers for Leonardo’s Falco Evo UAV.
This has a 20-hour endurance and can carry a 100kg payload. Deliveries to these two customers are now pending.
While the nations remain undisclosed, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are customers for the baseline Falco system, and it was claimed by Leonardo at the time of the contract announcements that the new Evo customers would be operators of the older model.
The Evo has a longer wing and additional tail booms, and the baseline system can be retrofitted to convert it to the newer model to provide it with the ability to fly at 6,000 metres at ranges of 200km line-of-sight.
The Falco Evo can carry the company’s newest Osprey multi-antenna active electronically scanned array radar, as well as its Sage electronic support measures system that allows an operator to geolocate ground-based radars. However, it is unclear what payload configuration the launch customers have opted for.
Aside from western manufacturers, Chinese industry is also a key exporter of technology to the region, with the Iraqi Air Force beginning operations of the CH-4B Rainbow UAV from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) in 2015.
The CH-4B is the armed version of the type, and the UAV has similarities to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. It is being used by the army aviation division of the Iraqi military in the fight against Islamic State militants in the region.
Saudi Arabia also operates the CH-4B variant and, in March 2017, CASC was contracted by Riyadh to establish a manufacturing site for the type in the kingdom to domestically develop the UAV.
Iran has also developed a reputation as a keen UAV developer, although the designs it produces are often reverse-engineered western systems, given the sanctions on selling this type of system to Tehran.
One system known to have been reverse-engineered by the nation is a US-operated Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, while an Israel-owned Elbit Systems Hermes 450 was also shot down in 2014.
In September 2017, footage of an undisclosed UAV base in Iran was revealed, showing a number of different systems parked up on a flight line.
The Iranian press reported that Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili, head of the Khatam al-Anbiya Air Defense Base – a branch of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army – was seen in the video claiming that the UAVs and aerial targets demonstrate the nation’s military power, which was interpreted as a warning to Iran’s opponents.
However, given that the nation has been siloed in its development over recent years, the level of sophistication of the aircraft and the payloads they can carry remains to be seen.
In July 2017, Iranian news site, Press TV, reported that Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of aerospace with the Iranian Army, claimed that the nation is entirely self-sufficient in its development of a number of military technologies, including UAVs.
He claimed that the array of technology it has developed “correctly proves that we can overcome all problems by relying on domestic capabilities”, although he added that the military systems Iran has pose no threats to other countries, and are simply a deterrent.
Aside from the defence applications being seen in the region, there is also movement in the civil sector, particularly from Dubai.
The Emirate state is trying to pioneer the introduction and development of UAVs for civil applications, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, being responsible for launching the ‘Drones for Good’ award.
This sees teams compete to develop technology that can improve living standards in the areas of the environment, education, logistics, transportation, construction, infrastructure, healthcare, civil defence, tourism, and humanitarian aid.
“The Drones for Good award and other innovative initiatives have reinforced the UAE’s position as an international destination for advanced technological innovations,” said Mohammed Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs and chairman of the organising committee for the awards.
Now in its second guise, the award has gained “considerable momentum” in this iteration, drawing attention at an international level, Gergawi added.
“The award has given a new dimension to the concept of drone technology, and contributed to shaping an active economic sector that will have a major role in the global economy.”
Dubai is also seriously exploring the introduction of unmanned taxis, under its initiative to target 25% of autonomous passenger travel by 2030.
Its Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has claimed that testing of a prototype may be carried out this year, and Chinese manufacturer, Ehang, is believed to have completed some preliminary testing of its 184 model in Dubai.
Additionally, German company, Volocopter, is also in talks with the RTA regarding testing of a 16-rotor system in Dubai by the end of 2017.
While the Middle East is not known for its UAV manufacturing capabilities, it is clearly a keen importer of this technology. However, this is not always as straight forward as the nations mighty like it to be.
Given that there are limits on the level of technology that can be exported from the west, nations such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia – typically buyers of western technology – have turned to China to import armed UAVs to bolster their offensive capabilities.
The UAE, on the other hand, has demonstrated loyalty to its western suppliers, and is importing a variant of the most ubiquitous armed UAV in the world, the Predator – albeit an unarmed version – and is investing in European capability in the form of the developmental Hammerhead.
Many of these acquisitions and investments are relatively embryonic, so whether or not nations in the region have purchased wisely – and if they can keep ahead in funding developments in this area – only time will tell. But, for now, the unmanned industry would be wise to keep an eye on the activities and considerations of these Middle Eastern countries.

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