Electronic Weapons: Smaller Is Stealthier

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August 15, 2018: The Norwegian Army has ordered over a hundred new UAVS (RQ-12A Wasps and RQ-20B Pumas) for its infantry. The new UAVs, like the two existing models Norwegian troops have, use digitally encrypted communications to make it very difficult to interfere with (eavesdrop or take over) the electronic link between operator and UAV.

Norwegian troops already have the two kilogram (4.4 pound) American RQ-11B Raven and the locally developed Black Hornet PD-100s and these are also receiving updated electronic protection. The enhanced electronic defenses not only protects against the data link being interfered with but provides defense against other forms of electronic attack.

These electronic protections are particularly important for the low flying and smaller UAVs. The largest of these used by Norway is the RQ-20 Puma, which first entered service in 2008. The current model, the RQ-20B, appeared in 2014 and is now the standard. This is a 5.9 kg (13 pound) UAV with a 2.8 meter (9.2 feet) wingspan and a range of 15 kilometers from the operator. Top speed for Puma is 83 kilometers an hour and cruising speed is 37-50 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) and endurance is 120 minutes. Puma has a better vidcam (providing tilt, pan, and zoom) than the smaller Raven and that provides steadier and more detailed pictures. Because it is larger than Raven, and three times as heavy, Puma is much steadier in bad weather. Puma is battery powered and designed to handle extreme weather conditions. Eventually, the U.S. Army began using Puma as well as situations where something larger than RQ-11 Raven, but carried by infantry, UAV was needed. RQ-2oB costs about $65,000 each

The much smaller RQ-12 Wasp entered service in 2007 and the current RQ-12A in 2012. The RQ-12A is a 545 gram (one pound), battery-powered aircraft that has a 74 cm (29 inch) wingspan and can stay in the air for 45 minutes at a time. It uses forward and side looking cameras and can fly up to five kilometers from the operator. Max altitude is 170 meters. The Wasp uses the same ground controller as the RQ-11B Raven. Like the Raven, Wasp is launched by being thrown and lands by stopping the motor and allowing it to glide to the ground (or water, it is waterproof and floats). RQ-12A costs about $45,000 each.

The lightweight, hand-launched RQ-11 Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time. The two kilogram (4.4 pound) RQ-11 Raven UAV aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. This is the oldest (introduced in 2003) UAV the Norwegians have. The RQ-11B, RQ-12A and RQ-20B are from the same manufacturer and share many common characteristics (all are launched by hand and crash land). Coming from the same manufacturer makes it easier for Norway to get upgrades and support.

Once the Raven entered wide service in 2006 combat troops found these small UAVs excellent for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops came to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of a Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away or make him move to where he can be more easily spotted.

The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced in 2007, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. The RQ-11 inexpensive ($35,000 each) and battery powered. That means it is largely silent to the enemy unless flown very close to the ground. It carries a color day vidcam or a two-color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator and a gimbaled camera. The cameras broadcast real-time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is on the ground). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50 kilometers an hour. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller and usually flies a pre-programmed route, using GPS for navigation.

The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, a Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range or behind something that interrupts the signal) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost in training or the battlefield.

While you can think of Wasp as “Raven Light” and Puma as “Raven Heavy” the Norwegian designed Black Hornet is in a class by itself when it comes to size. The PD-100 Black Hornet is a very tiny (10x2.5 cm/4x1 inch) and lightweight (16 g, less than half an ounce) helicopter UAV. The rotor diameter is 12 cm (4.8 inches). Developed by a Norwegian firm and first used in action by British commandos in Afghanistan during 2013, it was noticed by other special operations troops there, especially from U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and by 2014 American troops were testing Black Hornet, suggested some new features and by 2015 were using it in combat. By then the British had bought over 300 Black Hornets. Despite the high cost, in the hands of well-trained troops, it increased combat capabilities considerably and saved the lives of the troops using it. By 2017 over 4,000 Black Hornets had been purchased by military and police forces in more than 20 countries, most of them NATO members.

What makes Black Hornet so useful is that is virtually undetectable at night because it is battery powered (for up to 25 minutes per sortie) can operate autonomously and transmit pictures and video back to the operator via an encrypted datalink or store them onboard for viewing when the UAV returns. A cellphone size controller enables the user to view images and the UAV is stored in a small box that can be attached to the troops like ammo or other gear already is. When recharged the UAV is launched from that box and can be controlled up to 1,600 meters from the operator, who can guide the UAV and zoom the camera. The PD-100 also carries GPS, a thermometer, compass and altitude sensor. Max speed is 10 meters a second (36 kilometers/22.5 miles an hour) and max altitude is about 500 meters. In Afghanistan, British and American special operations troops found the PD-100 ideal for reconnaissance and spotting snipers as well as searching inside buildings or cave entrances. Even though the commandos had night vision gear they can’t normally see around corners or on the other side of walls or other obstacles. Since the enemy could not see or hear the PD-100 at night they were often taken by surprise because they thought they were well hidden in the dark.

The PD-100 can stay in the air for 20-25 minutes per sortie depending on how much time it spends hovering (low battery use) or moving high and fast (uses a lot more battery power). The PD-100 is made of hard plastic and one can be ready for action in less than a minute. A complete system (two UAVs and the controller) weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds). The body of the PD-100 is designed to handle winds well, making it quite stable for its size. It is the ultimate infantry UAV. The PD-100 is ideal in urban areas or forests.

Because of its carefully managed oil wealth, Norway can afford to equip its small armed forces (22,000 active duty, 45,000 reserves) with the best weapons and equipment available. Most Norwegians serve in the army and military service is a shared experience because of conscription. Thus Norway can seriously consider equipping each infantry company with PD-100s, as well as Raven and Wasp. Puma is seen as something for battalion and brigade staffs although the way the Norwegian military is organized most combat would be with small units against invaders using airborne or amphibious invasion or small groups of special operations troops coming across the short land border with Russia. As a practical matter, Norwegian troops are more likely to see action in peacekeeping operations facing irregulars (most recently in Afghanistan). For these operations, the current UAV inventory (Black Hornet, Wasp, Raven and Puma) is well suited.

 


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