Procurement: China Stalks Simulators


December 2, 2020: Thailand recently ordered a Chinese UAV simulator for $3.2 million. Thailand has also asked a Chinese firm to develop a UAV to replace the Israeli Searcher 2 UAVs that have been used by Thailand for about two decades. There have been earlier efforts to replace the Searcher 2s. In 2008 an Israeli Aerostar TUAV (Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), similar to Searcher, was purchased for evaluation. This is a 210 kg (460 pound) aircraft that has a 50 kg (110 pound) payload, and endurance of up to twelve hours. It can operate up to 200 kilometers from the operator, and at altitudes of up to 5,800 meters (18,000 feet). More Aerostars were ordered by Thailand over the next few years.

Thailand was an early adopter of UAVS, buying and operating some early British models in the 1980s. Then Thailand became aware of what pioneering work Israel was doing and has been using Israeli UAVs ever since. Now China seems poised to give Israel some stiff competition. While Israel developed the first practical and widely copied UAV designs in the 1990s, for about two decades the United States was the only other country to successfully copy the Israeli designs. This produced the Predator, Reaper and a lot of smaller UAVs like Raven. Then Chinese firms began developing and producing many new quad-copter UAVs and now dominate that category. Other Chinese firms copied the Predator and Reaper and, unlike the United States, sold them to anyone who could pay. Middle Eastern nations have been big export customers for these UAVs. China will probably offer Thailand replacements for the Israeli Hermes UAVs.

Thai officers observed Chinese progress, but kept buying Israeli. In early 2018 Thailand received four Israeli Hermès 450 UAVs. These were ordered in 2017 as part of a deal that cost $30 million and included training, tech support and some high-end sensors. Thailand has been using Israeli UAVs since the 1990s when Searcher UAVs were ordered specifically for border patrol. These were eventually retired and replaced by Searcher 2 and Aerostar UAVs. Searcher 2s were ordered about a decade after the first Searcher 1s. The new model entered service in the late 1990s and was basically an upgrade of the original Searcher. Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet), and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload.

Thailand currently has all of its larger UAVs in the 21st Aviation Battalion which contains many veteran maintainers and operators. This makes maintenance easier and cheaper, even with new models like the Hermes 450. Thai forces also have a number of smaller UAVs, like the American Raven, which are controlled by army or border guard units that operate them regularly.

The Hermes 450 entered production in 1998 and within a decade became the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces and a popular export item. Twenty or more Hermes 450s were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon. That led to an expansion of the Hermes fleet. The Hermes 450s is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of up to 180 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles and is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) and has an 11.3-meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie, and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). In the last few years, some Hermes 450s have been armed, with two Hellfire missiles along with a laser designator. Most Hermes 450 users prefer the original, unarmed, version because it provides maximum endurance and a larger sensor payload. An individual Hermes 450 costs less than $4 million so the size of the Thailand purchase indicates the Thais ordered some of the advanced sensor payloads that can detect what (or who) is on the ground even when there is a lot of vegetation in the way (from trees that keep their leaves year-round, as is the case in tropical Thailand).

Hermes 450 was one of the first large UAVs to be equipped with automatic takeoff and landing software. Operators are easy to train because Hermes 450 flight controls were designed for ease of use. The navigation system uses GPS and INS backup which has allowed many users to carry out Hermes 450 sorties without any need for operator action. An operator is always in contact, in case something unexpected is spotted or there is a malfunction. The operator can control a Hermes 450 up to 300 kilometers away but the Hermes 450 can operate at longer distances on automatic. The Hermes 450 is so adept at robotic operation that it is common for one operator to control two Hermes 450s at once. Hermes 450 was the first large UAV to use collision avoidance system that enabled it to be used in airspace containing commercial aviation.

China already has a large share of the UAV market and is now trying to do the same in the flight simulator (for manned and unmanned aircraft) market. Currently American and European firms dominate both markets but China has already demonstrated that they can produce world-class full-motion airliner simulations. China is offering equally complete and compelling simulators for mid-size UAVs like Searcher 2 and Hermes.




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