Attrition: Turkey Runs Low On Robot Wranglers


June 25, 2012: Turkey has ten Israeli Heron UAVs in service and is having a difficult tome obtaining enough operators. The Herons have proved quite sturdy and ground commanders have called on them heavily. Unfortunately, this puts a big strain on the UAV and sensor operators. There are not enough of these operators and training new ones cannot be done fast enough.

Many Turks blame Israel for all this but the problems are closer to home. Two years ago Israeli UAV technicians and instructors were recalled from Turkey, where they were training Turkish troops on how to operate and maintain five Israeli Heron UAVs. The Israeli personnel were withdrawn because it was believed they might be attacked. Over the previous six years the Turkish government had become increasingly anti-Israel. The Islamic politicians, who were elected in 2002, adopted an anti-Israel, anti-West attitude and strove to increase their stature in the Islamic world. Until 1924, the Sultan of the Turks was the Caliph (technically, the leader of all Moslems). But in the 1920s, Turkey turned itself into a secular state. Although Turkey became a major economic power in the Middle East, with one of the best educated populations, it was still hobbled by corruption and mismanagement. The Islamic politicians promised to attack the corruption (which they have) and return religion to a central place in Turkish culture (in progress). This has upset a lot of secular Turks. But it's fashionable to hate Israel these days, mainly because of Israeli efforts to defend themselves from Palestinian terrorism.

The Turks had ordered ten Herons six years earlier, but delivery was delayed because of problems with the Turkish made sensor package. Meanwhile, the Turks are still fighting Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq and really needed those UAVs. Five years ago the Israeli manufacturer made an interim deal to supply Israeli (without the Turkish sensors) Herons, along with support personnel, on a $10 million lease. Eventually the Turks and Israel settled most of their differences over the Heron contract.

The Heron Shoval UAVs are very similar to the American Predator A (or MQ-1). The Shoval weighs about the same (1.2 tons) and has the same endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10,000 versus 8,100 meters) 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 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.

Meanwhile, the Turks could have gotten ahead of their operator shortage if only they had paid attention to the American situation. For example, last year the U.S. Air Force trained more UAV operators than fighter and bomber pilots. Soon, most "pilots" trained will be UAV operators. For the air force this is essential because UAVs are much more in demand than any other type of aircraft. That's because UAVs like Reaper and Predator can spend more time in the air searching for the enemy and then launching a missile or smart bomb to destroy the foe. Fighters and bombers can also do this but at a much greater (5-10 times more) cost. Moreover, the UAVs are harder for the enemy to spot, especially at night. In short, the ground forces want more air force support as long as it's in the form of armed UAVs.

Over the last few years the U.S. Air Force has been hustling to double the number of UAV CAPs (Combat Air Patrols) in combat zones. Three years ago there were 30-35 CAPs. Since then there has been a mighty effort to double that. But the air force cannot recruit and train new operators fast enough.

Each CAP requires 3-4 Predators or Reapers (one doing the CAP, one or two in transit to the CAP area, and one on the ground undergoing maintenance and repairs). Each UAV has a ground crew to take care of maintenance and repairs, as well as landings and take offs, while a smaller number are back in the United States actually operating the UAVs.

To do this round the clock each five CAP UAVs requires two ground control stations (GCS). One GCS is overseas to handle takeoffs and landings. The other ground stations are back in the United States, where 30 members of the squadron operate the UAVs in shifts as it patrols. The Turks have the same need for UAV and sensor operators and are learning that if these operators don't get sufficient rest between shifts, they wear out real fast.

A typical Predator/Heron crew consists of a pilot and one or two sensor operators. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long more than one crew is used for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before their fuel is used up. There is also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of "automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors) that are now capable of doing practically all the flying for commercial aircraft. So it was no big jump to install these systems in UAVs and let them go on automatic. Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the oceans on automatic (including take-offs and landings). Using more of these systems for Predator and Reaper eliminates a lot of the human error problems. This solution has been a trend in aircraft and automobile design for over two decades. The boredom of watching video for hours is being alleviated by the use of pattern matching software that can detect movement that is in need of human attention.

Predators, Herons, and Reapers fly sorties that last, on average, about 18 hours. Each American sortie results in finding about two targets. About 15 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground troops under fire and about 20 percent were in support of ground troops engaged in raids. For the ground troops the UAVs are the most important aircraft up there. The army has its own GPS guided rockets and artillery shells but it does not have enough UAVs constantly monitoring the battlefield. The Turks are having similar experience using their Herons against the PKK (Kurdish separatist rebels). The Turks apparently ignored the experience of those who went before them and are paying the price. Blaming it all on Israel is not a solution.


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