Only a handful of countries have long-term experience of operating UAVs. Singapore is one of them

Stewart Penney/MELBOURNE

Unmanned air vehicles are the technology of the moment, offering the world's armed forces a way to improve capabilities against a background of reduced manpower levels, uncertain budgets and greater demands for peacekeeping and other deployed missions.

While UAVs may be relatively new to some armies and air forces, Singapore has been quietly building its level of knowledge since 1980 when it ordered the Mastiff system from Israel's Tadiran. The Israel Aircraft Industries Scout superseded the Mastiff and today the country operates the same company's Searcher.

Singapore is almost alone in the Asia-Pacific region as a UAV operator. Thailand is the only other regional user - it has systems for artillery spotting and border patrol. Brunei and Malaysia have either experimented with UAVs or expressed an interest, but neither is thought to have procured systems.

Col Martin Battist, head of the UAV division, Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), says because the Mastiff was acquired to provide land forces with tactical intelligence, the system was operated by the army's intelligence personnel. The army's lack of air vehicle operating experience; the cramped operating environment in Singapore, with its restricted airspace; and the technology level of early UAVs resulted in a high attrition rate and low serviceability, says Battist. "The army was not getting what it paid for," he adds. High attrition coupled with low serviceability leads to a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" attitude to flying, he says. Each UAV crash led to a major inquiry while low flying rates drew criticism from those requiring the UAV-supplied intelligence.

In 1985 the Scout 700 entered service with "some optimism" as the UAV was already in Israeli service where it was "revolutionary, providing real-time intelligence 100km (55nm) behind the forward edge of battle," says Battist. The Singapore army continued as operator but serviceability remained low and the accident rate was poor compared with Israel's track record of one loss in 500 flights, he says.

Battist says UAV operations were handed to the RSAF in November 1988. The UAVs were then integrated into the air force's command and control system as well as its logistics chain. As a result of the changes, the mean time between crashes improved to around 800h. "The army is getting its money worth," says Battist.

To ensure that the change over from Scout to Searcher was smooth, the RSAF drew on its experience of replacing the BAC Bloodhound surface-to-air missile with the Raytheon I-Hawk. The former, he says, was maintained and supported in a manner similar to manned aircraft, while the I-Hawk requires minimal support. As a result of the successful swap of UAV systems, all unmanned aircraft are now the RSAF's responsibility, including the Northrop Grumman BGM-74 Chukar III target drone used by the navy.

Singapore is a small island with limited airspace, Battist points out. The air force UAV squadrons therefore deploy to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Thailand to conduct most of their flying. Seventy percent of its UAV flying is done overseas. Infringing a neighbouring country's airspace could restrict UAV use, says Battist, adding that the only way to maintain proficiency is to "fly a lot".

Battist says a key lesson was to regard the UAV as an aircraft with camera rather than a camera with wings: "They are too expensive to operate as the latter". As with its manned aircraft, the RSAF has invested in UAV simulators. "You must have a simulator or it will be costly", says Battist. The simulator is used to train internal and external pilots. Around 33% of the training for external pilots - which control the UAV during take-off and landing - and 20% of internal pilot training is performed in the simulator.

It will be possible to exceed 1,000h mean time between crashes, he adds. To do this, the RSAF has "integrated the operators and maintainers". Operators are first line maintainers.

Manpower savings continue to be hotly debated by UAV operators. Battist says that over the target "we see manpower savings" but, for take-off and landing, UAV operations are manpower intensive. Two men are required to control the UAV during these phases. It is a relative cost, he notes, as UAV crashes usually occur during take-off and landing, and even a small UAV and its sensors can cost around $2 million. Autoland systems have yet to reach maturity, he says, but he adds that the RSAF is considering such systems.

Source: Flight International