Patrick Durrant | Sydney
The announcement last week that Army had selected the Aerovironment Wasp AE for its Small UAS (SUAS) requirement under Project Land 129 Phase 4 has propelled SME XTEK Limited into the major league of local defence contractors, with the Commonwealth’s $101 million investment by far the largest in the company’s 40 year history.
The contract will be signed in coming weeks with XTEK managing director Philippe Odouard confirming more details would be available at that time. He did however provide some clarity on the figures, and said the acquisition component of the investment had totalled $42 million. An additional $10 million had been spent during the last year on the first 14 systems used in trials; this also covered their maintenance, spare parts and tools.
It shows that we can do things that are rather complex in an area of phenomenal growth
“This was to set us up in terms of providing support for the long term maintenance of the system,” Odouard told ADM.
Much of the balance of around $50 million will go towards sustainment of the Wasp AEs over the life of the program according to Odouard. The number of units to be acquired has not been confirmed to date however the Request for Tender originally stipulated 78.
Despite the rugged design and durability of the system, which is also waterproof, Odouard said the maintenance costs of such systems were always a significant factor.
“Army is normally working in tough conditions, and being able to land the ‘birds’ on water is certainly an advantage, but too many trees in the vicinity can make recovery difficult,” he said. “So a fair degree of maintenance is just the reality.”
Odouard said the contract will be transformational for Army, but also for XTEK.
“It is an industrial deployment of the capability across Army from regular to Special Forces units so it really puts us on the map in terms of prime contractor status, but also in terms of our credibility as a UAS supplier – it shows that we can do things that are rather complex in an area of phenomenal growth so it’s really good for us.”
Army's program manager for UAS Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce told ADM the Wasp AE had been selected because it was the only contender that met Army's requirement for waterborne operations.
“The one system had to accommodate both regular and Special Forces needs – Special Forces units have a high proportion of waterborne and water interfaced operations, so in order to meet their requirements and also those of our amphibious support battalion 2RAR, we were driven towards this solution.”
Other factors mentioned by LTCOL Joyce were its robust design, which had benefitted from over ten years of user feedback, and its meeting of Army's tactical requirements for datalink encryption and security. It has a Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM) GPS which allows for decryption of precision GPS observations.
“It takes quite a beating but is also easy to repair in the field and components can be easily changed out,” he said. “It's also very easy to use - the soldiers love its user friendliness.”
Odouard confirmed the first delivery (beyond those already delivered for trials and training) would occur in July 2018. This would amount to a quarter of the total, with double that due the following year and the remaining balance delivered in 2020.
As far as training was concerned, LTCOL Joyce said it would basically take the form of centralised instruction and decentralised operation.
“Once or twice a year, down at the School of Artillery in Puckapunyal, we will instruct a core pool of NCOs at the UAV Training Centre. On completion of that training they’ll return to their home garrison locations and we’ll run exported training so they can then train up all of the operators in their units.”