Warplanes: Will The RAAF Lease Or Buy

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August 21, 2017: On June 23rd 2017 the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) flew its last Heron UAV sortie. Since 2009 RAAF Herons have flown more than 27,000 hours, most of it in a combat zone. These combat operations ceased in 2014 when the RAAF Herons were withdrawn from Afghanistan and two were retained in Australia for training. This was in preparation for the arrival of the first of seven American MQ-4C Triton UAVs followed by more (as yet unselected) Reaper class UAVs to replace the Heron capability. In the meantime Australia will maintain its UAV operator skills by having some of its Heron operators serve with the U.S. Air Force as Reaper operators. This sort of pilot exchange is common, especially among the English speaking nations that use the same type of aircraft. During the eight years the RAAF operated heron it trained about 150 Heron operators (half pilots and half sensor operators). The RAAF never actually owned any Herons, instead it leased them. For the last three years, when the RAAF had only two Herons, each cost about $10 million a year. There was a pressing need to have a lot of large UAVs for Australian troops in Afghanistan. But with no such urgent need now there was still the problem of maintaining UAV skills and planning for the future. This the procurement plans and UAV operators working in the United States.

The Heron lease arrangement began in Afghanistan where Australian troops noted the effectiveness of American Predator and Reaper UAVs. Since these were in short supply for purchase (even for a preferred customer like Australia) the RAAF looked around and found the Israeli firm that made the Heron could arrange leasing and supply as many as were needed and on short notice. Thus by 2012 the RAAF got all the Heron Shoval UAVs it needed for use in Afghanistan, at a time when combat there was intense. The RAAF actually leased the Herons by the hour and in those three years bought 10,000 hours of flight time, using 19 Herons. Total cost per hour in the air for a Heron is over $20,000. That includes the services of ten people per UAV as operators (of the aircraft and equipment onboard) as well as ground support personnel. In those three years, the RAAF Australian military spent over half a billion dollars on UAV operations for all three services.

The Heron Shoval UAV is very similar to the Predator A (or MQ-1) and sold well to foreign customers who could not obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for the Israeli armed forces, foreign customers like India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador, the United States, Canada, and Australia either bought, leased, or licensed manufactures the Heron.

The Heron Shoval weighs about the same (1.2 tons) as the Predator and has the same endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10 kilometers/30,000 feet, versus 8 kilometers) and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land automatically. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Both Predator and Shoval cost about the same ($5 million), although the Israelis are willing to be more flexible on price. The Shoval does have a larger wingspan (16.5 meters/51 feet) than the Predator (13.2 meters/41 feet) and a payload of about 137 kg/300 pounds.

About half the time RAAF Herons were used for surveillance of a village or remote compound to determine if the Taliban were operating there and if the place was worth a visit by ground troops. The rest of the time Herons were directly supporting ground troops. While the Herons were not armed, the UAV operators called in warplanes (with missiles and smart bombs), artillery, or American UAVs that carried missiles.

The RAAF also used Herons to sniff out Taliban using hand-held radios and use that to uncover what the enemy was up to. The Herons carry laser designators, so they can mark a target with the laser and have a missile or smart bomb delivered by a nearby manned aircraft.

As early as 2004 Australia decided it wanted to obtain the larger RQ-4 Global Hawk for maritime reconnaissance. In 2008, an RQ-4A Global Hawk made the first non-stop crossing of the Pacific, flying twelve-thousand kilometers from California to Australia in twenty-three hours. The Global Hawk has previously crossed the Pacific in several hops but it always had the endurance to do it non-stop. That convinced several Pacific nations that the RQ-4 had potential. Meanwhile Australia has already received the first of twelve manned P-8 maritime patrol aircraft but sees UAVs as the future for this sort of work. The U.S. Navy is buying 68 MQ-4C “Triton” BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) models and the first ones entered service in 2016 in one of the two squadrons (one for the Atlantic and one for the Pacific) created for that purpose.

 


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