Defence has released a tender for a new small unmanned aerial system ‘plus’ (SUAS+) for use by Army battlegroups, Special Forces, and Regional Force Surveillance Units.
The tender sets out requirements for SUAS+ that can fill a capability niche between the existing Wasp and Shadow 200 systems, covertly viewing targets at least 20 kilometres away for at least an hour.
“Army allocates tactical UAS to a level appropriate to the sphere of influence of that call-sign,” Army UAS Program Manager Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce explained to ADM. “An infantry platoon has the ability to influence one or two kilometres, so they get a two-kilometre Black Hornet. A brigade has an AO of 150 by 150 kilometres, which is why they get a Shadow.
“The spot where we have a gap in developing this layered approach to organic ISR is at the battlegroup level (500-800 soldiers).”
Whilst the tender sets out a 20-kilometre range requirement, LTCOL Joyce explained that the SUAS+ is intended to influence a radius equal to the range of Army’s largest guns.
“It’s an interesting one because each battlegroup has a unit called a Joint Fires Effect Coordination Cell, which has a direct line to an artillery battery,” LTCOL Joyce said. “Australian artillery reaches 30 kilometres.
“So this capability is about enabling a battlegroup commander to have organic ISR – a system they can task themselves – out to 30 kilometres.”
According to LTCOL Joyce, this 30 km niche is currently filled by a combination of brigade commanders occasionally down-tasking Shadow 200s and battlegroup commanders pushing the limits of the Wasps.
“For the last couple of years Shadows do occasionally get tasked down to the battlegroup that has priority of effort, but it isn’t a lasting assignment. It’s not a guarantee,” LTCOL Joyce said.
“Some of our battlegroup commanders have been particularly innovative with their entitlement to Wasp and have been pushing that platform right to the forward edge of their area of influence, but its more of an experiment than a permanent capability development.”
Interestingly, the tender sets out a requirement for a system that is available to both mounted and dismounted troops.
“We expect to be looking at largely mounted systems, but we do want to have the ability for a vehicle to pull up in a covert and protected position and then for the aircraft to be carried forward to a launch and recovery zone,” LTCOL Joyce explained. “We need it to be man-portable, but we are expecting that predominantly it will be moved around the battlefield in a vehicle.”
Defence intends to procure 17 SUAS+ for delivery in 2020 and expects the platform to have a life-of-type similar to a Wasp at between five and ten years, with a ‘line in the sand’ drawn at the six-year mark.
“We’ve had a detailed look at what is out there in the market and we are tracking numerous different configurations of systems that could all do most of what we’re asking for,” LTCOL Joyce said. “What we really want to know from industry is what the best configuration is.
"The problem is they’re not all the same, so it’s not an easy decision. The next stage is to get more details on what those differences are.”