Lessons continue to emerge from Canada's unique acquisition and deployment of the Sagem Sperwer UAV to support NATO operations in Afghanistan

Canada's urgent purchase and deployment of the Sagem Sperwer unmanned air vehicle to Afghanistan was less than normal from the outset. "It is quite unheard of – to raise an important operational capability in such a short time, straight from no capabilities to a fielded operational context, as opposed to the normal cycle of going to training and then ramping up to go on an operation," says Maj Jacques Gobin, deputy programme manager for UAVs in the Canadian national defence headquarters.

Canada took over command of NATO's Kabul Multinational Brigade in August 2003 for a year. During an eight-month deployment from that November to July 2004, Sperwer UAVs performed 107 training and mission sorties. Four air vehicles and the ground infrastructure were returned to Canada in August 2004.

Canada's lead

Gobin, who oversaw the acquisition and deployment period, says Canada is now "the second highest user of a Sperwer system" behind the Netherlands because of the deployment, but with an important qualification – Canada is the only nation to have used Sperwer operationally. "No other country has used the system as intensively as Canada has," he says.

From the outset the UAV deployment attracted controversy. Of the initial four air vehicles supplied by Sagem, two experienced airframe cracking problems and two were destroyed in separate incidents. Availability of the launcher system fell to 30% in the first few months of the operation and at one stage caused flying to stop for two weeks while it was returned to France for repairs.

Gobin says the initial capability limits of the Sperwer air vehicle were reached "very fast" operating in the high mountain valley in which the Afghan capital Kabul sits. "You have to remember that before we fielded this thing in Kabul the highest launch that Sperwer had ever attained was just under 1,000m (3,000ft). So we went from 1000m to almost triple that."

By the start of the Afghanistan summer in mid-2004, the combination of altitude and air density had resulted in Sperwer launches being generally restricted to between 2300h and 0600h to comply with Sagem's airworthiness guidelines for the UAV. While the French manufacturer worked to expand the envelope for the Canadians, it publicly acknowleded the deployment had pushed the system near to the limits of the air vehicle's design. Sagem has since standardised Sperwer production on the more capable ‘B'-variant air vehicle.

But Gobin stresses that the more significant issues emerging from the Kabul deployment – the loss of air vehicles – did not reflect any basic problem with Sperwer itself. Given how the deployment came about, he says, it has to be considered "a success. We got excellent mission profiles and timely information."

While the Canadian army has had a tactical UAV requirement on its books since 1975, budget restrictions and limited opportunities for experimentation meant the need was still unfulfilled at the time leadership of the Kabul battalion was accepted by the Canadian government. At that point, acquiring the capability took just 17 weeks, from the issue of a request for tender for a heavy tactical UAV system to the first flight of a Sperwer over Kabul. The $26.75 million acquisition contract was signed in September 2003.

The Canadian Forces raised their first ever UAV troop while the tender process was still underway. The full complement of personnel, drawn from army artillery units, was put through a four-week ground course at a Canadian commercial flight school to provide basic knowledge of flight operations.

Training in France

After the Sperwer UAV was selected, the troop was sent to France for intensive training by Sagem. Two weeks later, in early November, they were in Kabul and flying. "The first week of flying operations was to review what they had learnt in France…and then to adapt themselves to the local conditions," says Gobin. "After that there were some procedural errors – the mission planner putting his cursor over a box, but not pressing enter. It was minor things like that, but in some cases they could prove almost catastrophic."

Gobin describes the training provided by Sagem as "complete", but says its focus on basic operator training "was not enough. That was part of the price we paid for doing it quickly, but we had to do additional training in Kabul before we were confident that the crews were proficient enough to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over populated areas of Kabul.

"The crews were very cautious at first because of the context, but they became bolder with experience. There were more incidents because of that and it drove home the importance of following the checklists very closely. The incident rates followed a classic bell curve; they tapered off at the very end. It was part of the learning process," he says.

Loss of the first air vehicle came on 21 November 2003, during a landing. When the Canadian base had been built, a secure UAV recovery zone was established just outside the compound, but on the flank of a mountain. "The fact that the mountain was so close made the winds variable, so we did maybe three recoveries there," says Gobin. "The third one had a total loss of the air vehicle. Just as the drogue chute deployed…there was a gust of wind that pitched the nose up and of course at that time the engine had cut out so we couldn't recover the aeroplane and the 'chute did not fully extend."

The landing zone was then shifted to a more open area further away from the camp. However, "even though we had a better spot for the wind prediction there were some errors as [the UAV] drifted out of the recovery area," Gobin says.

Ironically, the first UAV loss came just after the Canadian Forces had decided to exercise an option for two additional air vehicles. Gobin says an initial wave of minor incidents drove the decision to acquire the additional Sperwers, "if only to keep them in the pipeline".

The second complete air vehicle loss occurred on 21 January 2004, again while landing, when the UAV crashed on a mountain ridgeline bisecting Kabul and separating the air vehicle's operating area from the Canadian base. Sagem's investigation of the accident found that, during approach, the ground control station (GCS) crew took manual control of the UAV and put it into a heavy descent before it cleared the ridge. Ground proximity alarms in the GCS sounded for 30s before the air vehicle crashed, but the crew did not respond.

The crash, Gobin says, brought home the need to look afresh at crew resource management within the UAV troop. There were four personnel in the GCS at the time of second UAV loss, one of whom was a certificated manned aircraft pilot. "We recognised the importance of following checklists, and of training. It was human. It wasn't a systemic thing. It was purely human, purely for human reasons," he says.

One key tool used to overcome the ack­nowledged skill shortfalls was simulation. The standard Sperwer system includes two simulators; an embedded suite in the GCS that is mainly used to train air-vehicle operators; and a plug-in suite that stimulates the full CGS system to enable training of all crewmembers, including the payload operators.


One application was in helping GCS crews prepare for air vehicle recoveries. "They had to adapt the existing [UAV] recovery flight patterns – where you have to fly for a couple of minutes to judge the wind – to the local conditions for the local geography with the mountains," says Gobin. These rehearsals were carried out using the simulators to show the potential effects of different wind patterns, and became standard before the second air vehicle loss. That helped strengthen the case for addressing crew resource management practices after the second crash. "Even though they had done it in simulation and done it several times [in simulation], they flew the thing into the side of a mountain," he says.

The simulators also found a practical operational role in supporting mission planning. "The mission planning kit lets you plan all the flight paths and all the racetrack patterns, but you still want to go through simulation to look at the different specific areas," says Gobin. "What is the best flight profile?

Planning patterns

"You run that through a simulation to see how it shows up for the payload operator because the [standard mission planning] patterns are how the air vehicle will operate, but they don't take into account what the payload can see."

Preparing the payload operators and imagery analysts to work with the UAV proved critical early on. A key part of the training shortfall recognised on arrival in Kabul stemmed from "taking a field gunner who has always been used to operating from the ground, and putting him in the air, albeit with a pilot or an air navigator", says Gobin.

Part of the risk mitigation process adopted for the UAV acquisition was an arrangement with the Royal Netherlands Army to deploy personnel from its Sperwer units to Kabul to provide operational expertise. Gobin says the Dutch advisers provided "a lot of insight on how…to be a payload operator, how to be an air vehicle operator. What, if you want to look at a target, was the best way? What was the best approach so that you always kept that target in view as the air vehicle was flying around?"

The handling of raw imagery also posed problems. The initial arrangement was for an imagery analyst to be located at a separate all-source processing cell at the Kabul brigade headquarters with a direct imagery feed from the GCS located at the Canadian battalion camp. Communications between the all-source centre and the UAV GCS were via secure telephone. This arrangement soon proved time-consuming and failed to support dynamic re-tasking of the UAV while in flight.

Later analysis

As a result, the analyst was relocated into the GCS, meaning re-tasking was immediately achievable, but with the effect that pre-processing of imagery could not be carried out. Each mission ended up being recorded in full at both the GCS and the all-source centre for later analysis.

As part of future planning, Gobin says, decisions need to be made on whether the imagery analyst needs to remain in the GCS and be provided with a pre-processing capability, or whether the payload operator can be trained to perform initial analysis to enable decisions on re-tasking to continue to be made in the GCS.

A closely related issue is determining the importance of particular types of imagery. Gobin says the Sperwer would record movements of people in various compounds around Kabul at night, but imagery alone would not explain what the movement actually means and whether it was significant. "You probably need some kind of cueing from other intelligence sources as to what is going on", says Gobin, but without the UAV imagery "land reconnaissance would not be able to pick out what is happening inside the compound".

At a wider level this is a transformation issue for the Canadian Forces: "What is described as an asymmetric threat is now the probable threat, and what was once the conventional threat is now less likely," says Gobin. "This changes the target list for the central combat function, [and] the things that the Canadian Forces need to go and look for." One major lesson, he says, is that "with the new threat we have to the Canadian Forces we need information…on human patterns of life" to enable operators to make effective real-time decisions on future UAV deployments.


Source: Flight International