UK battery updates to Desert Hawk III ahead of Iraq mission

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Army confirms near miss between UAV and Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan

The British Army is to field the Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk III unmanned air vehicle in Iraq from next month as part of a transition to the more advanced variant from the existing Desert Hawk 1+.

The service has also confirmed that it experienced a near miss incident involving a Desert Hawk and one of its Boeing CH-47 helicopters on 9 November last year.

The near miss occurred in the Sangan valley region of Afghanistan during a fire fight with Taliban forces, says Maj Paul Tombleson, second in command of 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, which operates all British Army UAV systems.

Speaking at the Bristol Inter­national UAV conference on 16 April, Tombleson said both aircraftwere operating at low altitude with the helicopter pilot failing tofollow instructions on how to transit a designated Desert Hawk operations box. The UAV was able to video the helicopter at close range. Neither aircraft was damaged.

"The Desert Hawk was exactly where it was supposed to beThe Desert Hawk was tasked to the northeast corner of a 10km [6 miles] restricted operating zone and parked up there whilst the Chinook was tasked into a helicopter landing site. He was told to approach from the west. He didn't, he approached from the east and bloody near flew into the Desert Hawk."

The closing speeds of the two air vehicles would have meant that the 3kg (7lb) Desert Hawk would have seriously damaged the helicopter's windscreen if a collision had occurred, Tombleson said. "The lesson was learned, those tapes were played to the aircrew," he added.

The British Army has now re-equipped three former 32 Regiment Royal Artillery BAE Systems Phoenix UAV batteries with Desert Hawk.

"We have one battery in America at the moment we are converting to Desert Hawk III before coming to Iraq next month. We have done two complete operational deployments in Afghanistan....We have supported 16 Brigade, 3 Commando Brigade, we are starting to support 12 Mechanised Brigade. We will be supporting 1 Mechanised Brigade in Iraq by about the middle of June with a new air vehicle capability," said Tombleson.

12 Mechanised Brigade took over the UK's operations in Afghanistan on 12 April and 1 Mechanised Brigade is to deploy to Iraq next month.

More than 1,400 operational Desert Hawk flights have been carried out since the system made its entry into UK service last year, Tombleson said.

The army has also started using Mission Technologies' Buster mini-UAVs acquired under the former Joint UAV Experimentation Programme as training surrogates for Desert Hawk batteries in the UK ahead of operational deployment.