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Bandwith, ATC and Manning Issues Constrain Use of UAVs

Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) is a key military capability and is fundamental to Network Enabled Capability (NEC). Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have emerged as an important means of collecting ISTAR information.

The capabilities of UAVs have increased significantly in recent years and the pace of change is likely to increase in line with technological advances. The United States has made substantial investment in UAV technology. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was perhaps slow to appreciate the potential of UAVs, but now recognises the important contribution they can make.

The MoD has acquired UAVs for current operations as Urgent Operational Requirements.

The acquisition of UAVs such as Reaper and Hermes 450 are providing our Armed Forces with “battle winning capabilities”, and are proving effective in the counter-insurgency style of operations which they face in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to collecting ISTAR information, a UK Reaper UAV has fired its weapon system in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The MoD is acquiring the Watchkeeper UAV system which should provide significant capability improvements. The programme is currently forecast to be delivered within the approved cost and to the planned in-service date of 2010.

There are a wide range of challenges, some of which are international or cross-departmental, which have to be addressed in order to exploit fully the benefits offered by UAVs. Key challenges include bandwidth—which is under increased pressure from the increasing amounts of ISTAR information being collected and disseminated—and issues relating to airspace and air traffic control. The MoD is seeking to identify solutions to these challenges, but must ensure that the impetus is maintained.

At the start of 2008 the Army had a 48% deficit in UAV operators, although the MoD says that the deficit has had no impact on operational theatres. UAVs are collecting increasing amounts of imagery, in particular through the use of Full Motion Video. To optimise the value of the imagery collected the MoD requires imagery analysts. There is currently an 18% deficit in imagery analysts in the RAF. The MoD must address the manning deficits in these areas in order to gain the maximum value from its current and future UAV systems.

The MoD has acquired a range of UAVs which collect ISTAR information. However, improvements are required in how the information collected is processed and disseminated. Two major programmes—Defence Information Infrastructure and DABINETT—are expected to deliver these improvements. It is vital that they are delivered to the planned timetable so that the ISTAR information collected can be fully exploited.

The Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) of December 2005 and the Defence Technology Strategy of October 2006 both acknowledged the importance of capabilities and technologies relating to ISTAR and UAVs. UK industry is considered to be world class in a number of areas relating to UAVs, such as some sensor technologies. It is crucial that the MoD ensures that the updated version of the DIS is published without further delay so that those parts of industry working in high technology areas, such as those relating to ISTAR, are provided with the clarity they require about future work and where they need to invest.

UAVs are only one approach to collecting ISTAR information and only one element of ISTAR capability. Given the importance of ISTAR, the Defence Committee plans to undertake further inquiries into this key military capability.


Click here for the full report (149 pages in PDF format) on the House of Commons website.
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The Contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR Capability: Summary