Warplanes: Bad UAVs Will Not Go Away Quietly


September 9,2008:  Canada's decision, to replace its French Sperwer UAVs with Israeli Herons and Skylarks, has upset many Canadian politicians. That's because the military is apparently going to withdraw the Sperwer from service. Canada has spent over a quarter billion dollars on Sperwer in the past five years, and politicians are upset over wasted money.

The new 1.1 ton Herons can stay in the air for over 40 hours at a time and carry some 500 pounds of cameras and other sensors. According to the military, the Herons will give Canadian troops in Afghanistan better support than the Sperwer UAVs they had been using.

Canada had earlier bought 21 of the Sperwers, including ten second hand ones obtained from Denmark two years ago (the Danes were unhappy with Sperwer, which should have told the Canadians something.). France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, Greece and Canada had all used the French built Sperwer UAV, which got its first heavy use during Balkan peacekeeping missions in the 1990s. Afghanistan was another story.

The Canadians used their Sperwers heavily in Afghanistan, and have paid to improve the Sperwer flight control software, to make the UAV more stable when landing under windy conditions. It's often windy in Afghanistan. Still, troops were envious of superior UAV types they saw in use by other nations.

The $2.6 million Sperwer LE (Long Endurance) weighs 772 pounds, carries a 110 pound payload, is 12 feet long and has an endurance of 12 hours. Sperwer can operate up to 200 kilometers from its ground control unit. But the Sperwer uses a noisy engine (think lawnmower) and flies low enough to be heard. This has not proved to be a problem, as the people below, if they are Taliban, either start shooting at the UAV, or try to run away. The Canadian troops have come to depend on their Sperwers, and many would rather have more of them, than another, newer, UAV. The troops have learned that operator experience is a major factor in UAV success, and much of that would be lost if they switched a new model. But the brass believe that the higher flying (out of range of small arms) Heron is easier to operate, and more reliable.

The Sperwer has suffered from the heat, dust and wind that is so abundant in Afghanistan, and there have been several attempts to get an improved UAV to the troops. For a while, Canada was going to buy some Predators, not just because these one ton UAVs are more capable than Sperwer, but because Predator can carry Hellfire missiles. But this became a political issue in Canada, where many politicians did not like the idea of an unmanned aircraft carrying, and using, missiles, even if the actual firing was done by a human operator on the ground.

Everyone agreed that a larger UAV would be better, especially one that could carry a laser designator, and be more stable in the wind. While the politicians fussed, the troops fumed, and now the government has acted. The Israeli built Heron has a good track record. Israel uses them extensively in hot and dusty condition (in Israel), and India has bought fifty of them and used them successfully along their border with Pakistan. This terrain and weather is similar to what is found in Afghanistan.

The smaller Skylark will be used by army troops, while the Herons will be operated by the air force. Some believe that the air force prefers the Heron because it lands and takes off like an aircraft, while the Sperwer is catapulted, and lands via parachute. But the main issue appears to be reliability, and suitability for the task.




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