Offering ever greater endurance, flexibility and aircrew safety, Unmanned Aerial Systems will leave nowhere for the enemy to hide in future maritime operations
Maritime operations have always been information gathering contests; seeking out an opponent and measuring their strength without giving away your own.
Naval aviation in the 20th Century represented a step change in providing intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) to surface units, but it was limited by human factors, endurance and danger to life – until now.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are increasingly seen as the key to providing maritime commanders the information superiority they seek over their opponents in a wide range of naval operations, from maritime interdiction to Naval Fire support (NFS) to Force Protection and full scale warfighting, while the aircrew can remain in relative safety on board ship.
The nature of naval operations requires large areas of ocean or coastline to be monitored for protracted periods – not measured in hours but days, weeks and months. In the past, this would have required dedicated, multi-engined maritime patrol aircraft or a flights of helicopters operating within a complicated, overlapping and hazardous flying programme.
Now, UAS are being adapted and their sensors optimised to perform a range of surveillance tasks across the entire spectrum of maritime environments. They can seamlessly switch from land to coastal (brown water) tracking for amphibious or anti-smuggling operations, to open seas (blue water) operations.
Thales’s Watchkeeper UAS was initially developed for the British Army with a range of land optimised sensors, including electro-optical, infra-red, radar and laser. In 2015, a study was commissioned by DSTL to examine what WK could offer in the Maritime Environment.
Nick Miller, Sales Lead for Watchkeeper at Thales UK said: “Through its persistence, automation, multi-payload and multi-vehicle tasking, the UAS represents a step change in information awareness for the naval commander.”
A combination of the low observable profile, radar cross-section and infra-red signature characteristics of a UAS allows it to operate much closer to a threat without being detected and in the event that the air vehicle is detected and engaged then there is no risk to life.
In blue water operations, a UAS can detect, identify and track a vast array of contacts and target types turning otherwise anonymous “blips” on the radar into a coherent and accurate maritime picture to give the naval commander enhanced situational understanding. This is essential to the efficient, safe and successful conduct of naval operations, allowing threats to be identified and neutralised at range before the foe can bring his own weapons to bear.
A UAS targeting capability gives the maritime commander the freedom to use over-the-horizon weapons whilst still meeting humanitarian obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict to confirm visually that a contact represents a valid target.
Thales is investing in an export version, Watchkeeper X (WK X), which lays out a clear roadmap for providing a multi-role, multi-environmental solution for Watchkeeper to offer genuine capability in the maritime as well as land environments.
Sensors are optimised for both environments and modular sensor payloads offer greater flexibility. Progress has been made developing simple integration solutions between UAS and ship-based combat mission systems based on the WK X virtualised Ground Control System.
The value of its capabilities is to be demonstrated to the Royal Navy on Exercise Unmanned Warrior later this year in a range of maritime scenarios.
As surface and air fleets become leaner there is a greater need to develop innovative ways to generate the capability demanded to individual ships and task groups. Against a backdrop of increasingly complex threats, a congested and contested environment, 24/7 scrutiny of military operations and real terms reduction on military spending, the importance and value that a UAS offers in the maritime environment will continue to grow as a force multiplier.