Military & Aerospace

Military Application of Unmanned Rotary Wing Aircraft
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Issue Vol. 27.4 Oct-Dec 2012 | Date : 14 Dec , 2012

Camcopter S-100

The Vigilante will probably never see operational employment, but will remain active behind the scenes as a platform for testing new sensors, intelligent flight systems and weapons. The Fire Scout, mentioned earlier has a modular mission-payload bay and plans are already advanced for mine warfare and anti-submarine packages. The US Navy also plans to arm the Fire Scout with a laser-guided rocket, an Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) which will enable the fleet to engage hostile threats with the Fire Scout independent of air support from carrier-borne or shore-based aircraft. Thus, there is a large degree of ‘multi-skilling’ that permits aerial reconnaissance UAS to also be used in more aggressive roles.

Lockheed Martin’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratories have emerged with a working prototype of the ‘Samarai’, a tiny surveillance UAS…

Rotary wing UAS are taking on a range of battlefield tasks and have proven critical to intelligence gathering, targeting, and situational awareness while armed ones are being used in attack missions where a persistent presence is required or where manned helicopter operations are deemed unsuitable. Coming to offensive roles, in the 1960s, the US Navy flew the QH-50 DASH which expands to Drone Anti Submarine Helicopter to carry anti-submarine torpedoes. The DASH was tried in several other roles, including tactical reconnaissance in Vietnam, but was not a success. Many of them eventually found ignominious roles like towing targets at missile ranges. Poor training and hasty development plans were blamed for the failure. Some aver that the lobby for manned anti-submarine helicopter programmes may have been responsible for the scuttled DASH project. Since the 1960, thinking has changed and the use of rotary wing UAS for more offensive roles is becoming more prevalent.

India has great use for armed UAS in Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO). The Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System (ARSSA), a new unmanned helicopter with a payload of about 70 kilograms, is an ideal airborne platform for this type of roles. It can fly for six hours on full tank of fuel and can carry a Lapua Magnum .338 rifle or an M249 5.56-mm (small-calibre) machine gun, or an M240 7.62-mm machine gun or a Peak Beam Immobiliser, a Xenon strobe light that stuns targets with ‘psycho-physical’ effects like disorientation and nausea. The Pentagon has been using the UAS for such roles since 2001 and has future plans for improved UAS options to increase the intimidation of terrorists while reducing the risk of collateral damage especially in urban scenarios.

Lessons from the US

The US is definitely the leader in rotary wing UAS technology especially for military purposes. The US Army’s UAS programme matured in 1991 when the Pioneer UAS successfully flew more than 300 combat missions during Operations Desert Shield/Storm. Operational needs and lessons learned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted the Army to increase the number and capabilities of UAS. The US Army has issued a ‘UAS Roadmap’ that outlines how the US Army will develop, organise and employ UAS from 2010 to 2035 across the full spectrum of military operations. The US Army is convinced that its experiences in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom prove that UAS significantly augment mission accomplishment by reducing troop workload and their exposure to direct enemy contact.

Rotary wing UAS are taking on a range of battlefield tasks and have proven critical to intelligence gathering, targeting, and situational awareness…

The Roadmap puts a premium on converting existing fleets into unmanned platforms. Colonel Chris Carlile, Director of the Army’s UAS Centre of Excellence is on record as having stated, “Ideally, we’ll have three switches in the cockpit, zero for unmanned and autonomous flying, one for a single pilot in a two-pilot aircraft and two when there is a co-pilot”. The report contains an interesting prediction, “Improved rotorcraft will close the performance and airworthiness gap with fixed wing systems.” The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is one helicopter that is planned to fly without a pilot very soon while others in the reckoning are the Apache AH-64, Chinook CH-47 and Kiowa OH-58D for the Optionally Piloted Vehicles (OPV) programme. Indeed, by 2025, the US Army estimates half of all its aircraft to be OPVs.

For obvious reasons, the US Air Force (USAF) is trying to become the Pentagon’s leader in future UAS development. It has come out with a document entitled ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047’, a comprehensive look at how the US military can expand the use of UAS going up to the year 2047, the service’s 100th anniversary. Currently, the US Army flies just as many unmanned systems as the USAF. The content of USAF’s plan is a bit surprising, given the fact that it is a pilot-centric service. However, it also goes to show the growing acceptance of UAS with rotary wing UAS displaying exclusive and characteristic advantages over fixed wing ones in military thinking.


Lockheed Martin’s Samari surveillance UAS

The idea of unmanned airplanes also runs contrary to the airman-centric ethos that has defined the USAF since it became an independent military branch in 1947. In 1973, Aviation Week and Space Technology quoted an Air Force official’s derogatory comments on remote-control warplanes, “How can you be a tiger sitting behind a console?” That attitude proved to be short sighted. In 1982, Israel used UAS to spoof Syrian radar in Lebanon, but the thinking in US continued for another decade. The Pentagon started UAS research in the mid-1990s, but even then the funding was inadequate, possibly because manned airplane programmes generate more jobs and were supported by stronger lobbies. Guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan changed all that but by then, the USAF had lost many years’ worth of opportunities to lead US military UAS development. Perhaps there is a lesson in there for India.

In the 1970s, the service experimented with unmanned surveillance craft in Vietnam but dropped all funding after it decided the technology did not offer improvements over traditional airplanes. Continued advances of Soviet warplanes such as the MiG fighter, kept a Cold War premium on air superiority won by high-performance, expertly piloted airplanes.

India has great use for armed UAS in Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO)…

The USAF wants to coordinate UAS development within the Pentagon and has drafted its ambitious Flight Plan to describe how the service would serve as the Pentagon’s chief guide to unmanned airplane development, in concert with the US Army, US Navy and US Marine Corps. According to military analyst and author Jim Dunnigan, “The Flight Plan is part of an Air Force effort to lay claim over everything that flies, whether it has a pilot or not.”


Globally there is a great interest in UAS, including rotary wing ones. Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) has built what it claims to be the fastest UAS on the planet. About 16 feet long with a 23-foot wingspan, the aircraft can cruise at 400kmph. Speed is not its only remarkable feature. It can perform Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) as well. Its VTOL capability comes courtesy dual tilt rotors that provide helicopter style take-offs and fixed-wing speeds once airborne. It joins the US Marines famed V-22 Osprey as the second such aircraft and is the first unmanned aircraft packing VTOL technology. Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is in the final stages of development of a Command, Communication, Surveillance and Strike (C²Strike) integrated system for tactical use. The system is based on its Panther UAS with Automatic Vertical Take Off and Landing (AVTOL) and hovering characteristics and is day/night capable.

The Promise and the Problems

The spectacular advances in military uses of rotary wing UAS have gripped the attention of military thinkers worldwide. However, there have been occasional wobbles. There have been two A 106T Hummingbird crashes during developmental trials, a Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout violated the airspace of Washington DC after controllers lost communication link with the craft and a US RQ-170 Sentinel UAS in Iran’s airspace was ‘hijacked’ when its operations were taken over by Iranian control. It was successfully landed by the Iranian government which is now negotiating with Russia and China over the drone’s technology.

Northrop Grummen’s MQ-8B Fire Scout

India’s interest in UAS was evident at the second International Conference on Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles (IVAUV 2012) held in Bangalore early this year. All the three services were well represented there. Despite huge investments into foreign, mostly Israeli UAS and despite India’s vast governmental investment in defence R&D, the results in the shape of actual UAS are abysmal, especially in the rotary wing regime.


The practical benefits of a rotary wing UAS over a fixed wing one are much the same as those of manned helicopters over airplanes, the ability to take off vertically and not be runway dependent. Their flexibility is immense. There would be something almost poetic about a rotary wing unmanned craft carrying troops or commanders to, from or within the battlefield area. However, the ‘unmanned’ label is considered a misnomer by some who aver that the term ‘Remotely Piloted Vehicles’ would be a more suitable name although, as mentioned earlier, that terminology also militates with the growing degree of autonomy that UAS are being designed for.

Globally there is a great interest in UAS, including rotary wing ones…

Typically, even a small UAS needs a four-person crew to manage each flight, one to handle take-off and recovery, another who is the mission payload specialist/operator, the pilot and a standby pilot. Even autonomous flights require monitoring and damage control personnel. Moreover, the trend towards ‘hybrids’ is dominant. It is thus possible that a mission could be flown with a pilot and yet be remotely controlled or autonomously executed by the hybrid for critical portions of the flight. For example, the selection of a landing site in poor visibility conditions is a task that would probably be done more efficiently by a robot than a pilot.

For the Air Forces and Navies, the rotary wing UAS represents a capability to carry out all classic helicopter roles without risk to the pilot. For the commander in the field, it is a unique tool that broadens battlefield situational awareness and provides the ability to see, target and destroy the enemy by providing actionable intelligence down to the lowest tactical level. It would be quite reasonable to iterate that military applications of emerging rotary wing UAS will, in the foreseeable future, continue to transmute the way military operations are consummated in the tactical battle area.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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