I’m still grinding away, slow progress with the air weapons pack. Motivation is a bit of a problem this month as I’ve been working some really odd hours and completely lost my regular sleep pattern. And if I am being honest I an really sick of configs and texturing endless missiles and bombs. So, I’ve returned to my first love, modelling. 3D modelling not the catalogue kind. The Rockape swimsuit edition would be truly terrifying. Nobody needs to see that.
This week I’m still working on the RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air Systems) aka UAVs. The Reaper is almost done. The first round of testing has brought up some new issues, I have some config tweaks and resolution lods to do before it can be unleashed. Not to mention the issue surrounding the weapons, which brings us back to the dreaded air-weapons pack thats holding almost everything back. So, I’ve jumped onto the unarmed RPAS while I await more feedback from the Test Monkeys.
Watchkeeper series of Tactical UAVs
These are the Watchkeeper series of Tactical UAVs. Larger than the man portable systems but still smaller than the larger MALE (medium Altitude Long Endurance) systems the TUAV call is typically designed for Artillery spotting and local recce.
There are actually two airframes that carry the Watchkeeper programme name:
- The first was an almost stock model of the Elbit Hermes 450 (H450). Operated by the Royal Artillery, the main differences from the stock model were internal, mostly navigation and targeting system related. Which for the purposes of ArmA make no difference at all. So we get a two-for-one. A British Army Version as well as a RES/OPFOR version too.
- The second was the Watchkeeper 450 (WK450). This was a redesigned platform made to the UK’s specific requirements. Visually the Watchkeeper differs from the Hermes by having a lower wing and a Synthetic Aperture Radar turret mounted in the front of the airframe and the Optical turret located at the rear behind the main landing gear. There is also a small difference in fuselage diameter and shape.
These are actually renders of the older model. The wingbox has since been replaced with a better and more accurate one.
Watchkeeper 450 flanked by two H450
The Watchkeeper programme was intended to replace the much older and less capable Phoenix Drone system. Officially the Phoenix was said to perform well but its crews christened it the “Bugger off drone” or something more, colourful depending on the mood of the operators.
Pheonix and a sometimes a ball of flames
In 2006 some of the UKF guys and I went to a British Army Open day at the now demolished Chelsea Barracks. We spent the day geeking out on all the kit. One bit of which was a Phoenix. The crew of which were really helpful and a damn good laugh. They were happy to share stories of driving all over the place looking for missing drones or of irate land owners demanding, “they come and get their toy plane out of his field”. And explaining the unusual recovery methods and situations. eg, 20ft up a tree, in a pond, broken into a thousand pieces etc.
It was a bloody good day out. Even if Messiah did lose his camera in the pub after.
Launched from the back of a specially adpated truck, the Pheonix had the advantage of operating from unprepared areas close to the battlefront but this was a necessity rather than by design. It simply did not have the range and endurance of modern RPAS. Nor could it land and be turned around quickly.
The typical Pheonix operating group was 12-16 men. A launcher, generator trailer, Antenna/Datalink trailer, Command/Operator Shelter Vehicle and at least one or more 110 GS Landrovers or a similar recovery vehicle.
'Landing' was by parachute, which flipped the vehicle upside down to protect the sensor pod. Utilising a frangible hump on the back to protect the airframe on impact. And typically trashing the tail on contact with the ground. In the lucky event of the chute opening properly.
Once "landed" the recovery team would have to find the drone, man handle it onto the cradle and partially dis assemble it before returning to the launcher and in very rare circumstances "refurbing" it in the field for its next flight. I've been assured this did not happen very often if at all.
You can really see why the Royal Artillery wanted a reliable and modern replacement so badly.
The Watchkeeper and the Hermes can operate from semi-prepared strips, roads and flat areas quite easily and unlike the Pheonix can operate for extended periods of time with a range of 300km and endurance of 20+ hours.
The amount of deployed equiment is also reduced. Operating typically from airfields or prepared Forward Operating bases both the H450 and WK450 benefit from a simplified supply chain. Each system can be operated from the same command and control shelter. More than one airframe can also operated from the same hub. Maintenance including Spares and repairs are largely modular making in theatre maintenance much easier.
The shelters etc will make an appearence in game with the drones themselves. including the other supporting equiment such as the MAGIC ATOL landing system and datalink antennas.
The shelters are all modelled and are in the paint shop. I have modelled in the interiors but I need to work out how to make them more of a practical option rather than just set dressing. I may stop short of making the full transit containers for them but the idea is that you will have assets that can be destroyed by opfor that will affect your ability to operate UAVs in your missions.
H450 came into limited service in 2007
Watchkeeper, in the guise of the H450 came into limited service in 2007 ending the service life of the Phoenix. During operation in Afghanistan eight British Hermes 450s were lost for various reasons. And as with any new system, the programme has had more than a few bumps along the way. Cost increases, technical problems, Politics, Pilot shortages, poor weather you name it. It caused problems. The cost has grown significantly over time too. A prototype WK450 was also lost at a key point in the project schedule during a very hard landing at Parc Aberporth causing a lot of embarressment and red faces as well as a further delay to an already over running programme.
Originally the French government was keen to buy the Watchkeeper, indicating that they would share some of the development costs at the start of the project. This evaporated much like their interest in the HMS Queen Elizabeth variant, PA2 with the UK MoD fronting 100% of the development. Unlike the PA2, they approached the UK MoD again in 2014 with an RFI (Request For Information) only to later select the solely French made SAGEM Patroller. Arguably a more expensive and less capable system.
In August of the same year the WK450 became operational and was deployed in Afghanistan for the first time to operate alongside the existing H450 platforms, providing force protection and target cueing for the RAF MQ-9 Reapers as well as mortar and ground based Force Protection units.
The Watchkeeper 450 is likely to continue in service for the next 20 years at least.
Lesson over for today. Tune in next week for something completely different.