British UAVs currently in field—the General Atomics Reaper, Thales-led Hermes 450, Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk and Honeywell T-Hawk—are all off-the-shelf solutions to urgent operational requirements (UOR) for combat. But a future generation is being eyed, honed by a doctrine called Combat Istar, fusing intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (Istar) capabilities with strike elements, either on single platforms or by linking different platforms together in streamlined and efficient systems.

The adapted Hermes derivative, Watchkeeper, is nearing a delayed deployment with the British army, but little detail has been disclosed to date about the two future Royal Air Force (RAF) projects, Scavenger and Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS). In an interview with DTI, two senior Defense Ministry UAV officials have outlined their plans and aspirations.

Scavenger is a requirement for deep and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) with a precision-strike capability, according to Wing Cmdr. Paul Mounsey, the desk officer on the ministry's Air Staff for UAV strategy and ISR. That could theoretically be met with a range of potential options, he says, but it is now accepted that the requirement will be filled by a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV.

“It's got the reach, and it's got the success we've seen with Reaper in Afghanistan,” says Squadron Leader Ben Sargent, a desk officer on the ministry's command, control, communications, computers and ISR (C4ISR) capability group. “The challenges for us include how far we can push the capability. And the solution itself—the platform—is still open to debate. But Scavenger is absolutely an ISR program—it's not just the platform.”

The intention is that Scavenger will not just provide a means of collecting information; it is to be a system that treats the analysis of data and production of intelligence as an integral part of its function. This comes from lessons learned from operating the Reaper in Afghanistan.

“Our simple problem—and this exists with all our ISR platforms—is that we can gather more data than we can process,” says Sargent. “What we're looking at is the idea of 'federated' intelligence, where the system does some of the work. Making some of the systems automatic—as opposed to automation—is very much what we want to do. We'd like the system to federate the data as it's gathering it, to put metadata onto it, then put it back into a wider intelligence space through a common intelligence architecture so it can then be pushed out to people who need it. Some of that technology exists, and it can be refined.”

The Scavenger requirement has not yet been made public, but preliminary draft iterations have been available on request to defense industry companies since March 2010. Version 1.0 has been produced and will be released to industry shortly now that the latest annual defense ministry budgetary process, called Planning Round 12, has been concluded.

A key decision that simplifies the program is that the Scavenger requirement does not necessitate stealth. This opens up the field of proven competitors.

“If you're not careful with UAS you get into the danger of making them cost-prohibitive,” Sargent says. “They need to be cost-effective, and part of that is that the air vehicles are relatively cheap, and also we don't have to put as many people in theater. That is the advantage to us. We may well need self-protection and stealth on UCAS—but for something like an ISR platform, to make them cost-effective, you need to pick and choose where you draw the protection boundary.”

This means that the French-led Neuron UAV will not be a contender for Scavenger's collection platform; nor would be any “productionized” version of BAE Systems' Taranis technology demonstrator—both of which are due to make first flights this year. Aircraft of that type may, however, inform the eventual UCAS requirement.

“Nothing's definitive, but we're looking at around 2030 as our target for UCAS IOC,” Mounsey says of initial operational capability (IOC). “It's significantly further into the future [than Scavenger]. There's still science and technology funding for that, because today's technology was yesterday's science project, and you can't grow that overnight.”

The immediate focus, though, is on Scavenger. Reaper operations have helped inform all elements of the process, and it is a possibility that the U.S. platform may end up meeting the requirement. However, the RAF is adamant that Scavenger will not simply be a new name for an existing capability.

“We bought Reaper to provide full-motion video, and in a short period of time we've armed it and put in all sorts of other sensors,” says Sargent. “If Reaper is selected as the solution for Scavenger, we'd be looking at the growth potential. I think our Scavenger requirement is ambitious, though of course there's a resource issue. We're thinking fairly near-term; we have a lot of infrastructure set up already,” he says, noting reachback to ground support for data processing, as well as satellite communications (satcoms), which become the limiting factors in many cases. “So rather than being too ambitious with the sensors, what we're very much looking at is the airframe and architecture.”

Work is being done to establish electronic architectures that would permit, for example, quick swapping of mission-specific sensor pods, enabling different equipment to be flown at different times on the same aircraft, cutting down lengthy and expensive flight-test procedures.

“Lots of companies are coming up with a 'common pod,'” explains Sargent. “So the pod is aerodynamically cleared, and as long as what's inside it is within weight and center-of-gravity [thresholds], you can put different products in it. That's enticing, because the clearance time and money is often what dissuades us from buying things.”

This concept has also meant that the Scavenger requirement does not tie the RAF to any specific sensor packages. Sargent says they want full-motion video, electro-optical and infrared sensors, and signals intelligence capabilities. “What we haven't done at this point is specified exactly what [sensors] we want. To make it cost-effective we've accepted we're going to go down the off-the-shelf route. And that's also a reflection that all that technology is very mature. Our challenge with Reaper is not really the limitation of the equipment, it's what do we do with the information? So for us with Scavenger, the advantage is in concentrating on some of the other areas —the reachback, the datalinking and the satcoms.”

Minimizing the staffing requirement and associated training burden is also a key factor being examined. To this end, a number of parallel research and development projects are being undertaken.

In one project, the ministry's Defense Science and Technology Laboratory has partnered with an industrial consortium to demonstrate the viability of conducting UAV operations involving multiple aircraft types from a single ground station. The crew would be led by an RAF flight lieutenant, but include Royal Artillery personnel who now operate Hermes 450 and will operate Watchkeeper. The concept of operations means that a fully qualified pilot with weapons training would act as the mission commander alongside operators from other backgrounds. This would allow routine ISR tasks to be met by Watchkeeper, while allowing a seamless platform swap with Scavenger should a strike be required.

Another question that has yet to be answered—but which hovers in the background of all discussions about Scavenger —is the future plan for the RAF's Reaper fleet. The systems were procured under a UOR and funding for their use will end when they are no longer needed in Afghanistan. However, the specific terms of the UOR may permit the ministry to continue operating Reaper as an ISR platform under the post-combat mandate to support the Afghan security services.

It is unlikely to be politically viable to simply dispose of the equipment, particularly as the RAF in October will stand up a second Reaper unit. Under current plans, by 2015, all U.K. Reaper missions over Afghanistan will be flown from Britain. The General Atomics airframe does, therefore, appear to have a key advantage over other systems in competing to win the Scavenger contract. General Atomics, Selex and Cobham have been working in this direction, culminating in a recent test of an “open architecture” Predator B carrying a Selex radar.

“Our gold-plated solution—and I'm not saying we're going to achieve this—would be to make all the ground elements of Watchkeeper, Reaper and Scavenger as common as possible,” says Sargent. “And with the data dissemination, there is the desire to make all that intelligence common, too. That's clearly where we'd like to pitch. The challenge is that it costs money to do that; but also the programs aren't always aligned.”

Adds Sargent, “Industry is getting fairly savvy to the fact that these are financially challenging times. They need to pitch at individual component systems, not just the full solution and big platforms. Open architecture will make this simpler.”