Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pakistan using UAVs in 'drone war' against terrorist elements

Robert Hewson Air-Launched Weapons Editor - London

Key Points

Pakistan has been using Falco UAVs to help combat militants in the country's remote tribal areas

The Falco has been deployed on surveillance and target 'hunting' missions

Pakistan has quietly been conducting its own 'drone war' against militant forces and terrorist elements using Selex-Galileo Falco tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has learned.

According to a number of industry officials who have been in Pakistan and experienced UAV operations there, the Pakistani military is using unarmed Falcos for traditional surveillance tasks but also in a 'hunter' role - targeting air strikes, providing real-time coverage of attacks and then delivering battle damage assessments. 

Selex-Galileo has declined to identify the single nation currently flying the Falco in front-line operations but that customer is known to be Pakistan, with Pakistan Air Force (PAF) chief Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed having told in November that the PAF would begin using the Falco in live operations by the start of 2009.

Pakistan has ordered five Falco systems, each comprising four air vehicles plus one spare and a ground control system (GCS). Two complete systems are now in service, two more are working up to deployment and one has just been delivered.

The Falcos are flying intensively, as noted by one source who told : "The customer is using more than one system every single day." 

The Falcos have operated in several regions of concern to the Pakistan government, including the mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. This was alluded to by an official who noted that the Falco's hot-and-high capabilities had been proven in operations "from airfields at 1,000 m altitude in circumstances identical to Afghanistan".

"The Falcos have two basic missions," said one programme source: "surveillance of critical areas - and there are a lot of them - and operations as part of a manned and unmanned mixed fleet, in combat.

"Surveillance means identifying and tracking critical targets like convoys or 'terrorist establishments'. In hunter operations the Falco goes out looking for targets, identifies them and relays their position to the command and control centre, where priority-one targets are allocated for attack by fast jets.

"The sensor system is world-beating and can easily ID an individual person from the appropriate altitude. The target handover is done through the GCS to the military's C4I system, and it's done quickly - sometimes less than 20 minutes, sometimes less than 10. 

"When the attack is inbound the Falco will climb and loiter at a higher altitude. It can provide a real-time view of the attack, although that's over in seconds, and then do an immediate damage assessment. I have witnessed several of these operations. It's not being done on paper; these are real missions." 

Selex-Galileo says that, despite customer interest, it has no ambitions to develop an armed Falco for export. An armed variant could materialise if a requirement emerged in its domestic markets (Italy and the UK) but the company believes that having a weapon capability would exclude the Falco from several potential markets elsewhere. "You start to encounter Missile Technology Control Regime regulations and other limitations," said one official.

The current air vehicle has a limited payload and would be restricted to two 30 kg-class weapons - although this would double in planned growth versions of the Falco. Selex-Galileo notes an interest in the Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) as a theoretical future weapon option.

The Falco XN - the variant currently in service - has a 420 kg maximum take-off weight (MTOW) with a 70 kg sensor payload. Endurance lasts from eight to 14 hours and the UAV has a datalinked range of 200 km.

Selex-Galileo has now developed the Falco Evo (Evolution) upgrade, which can be retrofitted to existing Falcos. The Evo adds longer wings and tailbooms, increasing MTOW to 750 kg with a 120 kg payload. Endurance is increased to a maximum of 18 hours and the Evo can exceed the XN's 6000 m altitude limit.

Selex-Galileo is building four Falco Evo prototypes, with first flight scheduled for the second quarter of 2010. The company believes that its existing customer is a strong sales prospect for the Evo and it hopes to double or even triple the installed Falco fleet there.source

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