Monday, August 24, 2015

UAVs Compete for Dominance in the Arctic

The Arctic Circle is a complex environment of harsh climate, shifting ice flows, and remote, barren wastelands. Much ado has been made of late of the region's potential for alternative shipping routes, resource extraction, and of course, the expanded military presence usually associated with those activities. The vast distances and unforgiving temperatures of Arctic air and waters make unmanned aerial vehicles ideal for military reconnaissance there. Practically all of the countries which border Arctic seas have some sort of UAV programs underway.


One of the primary goals of Canada's troubled Joint Uninhabited Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) project was to conduct Northern Patrols over the country's Arctic territory. In addition to surveilling the area, the yet to be determined type of JUSTAS UAVs will be required to drop search and rescue kits to distressed mariners.  The program's delays have been largely due to competing requirements between the need for maritime and Arctic patrol and more traditional overland persistent surveillance and targeting mission.  In 2012, a version of Northrop's RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 named "Polar Hawk" was proposed for the mission. The Polar Hawk was to have employed the deicing and engine anti-icing capability from the U.S. Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Program and an enhanced communications package capable of operating within the Arctic's spotty satellite coverage. The system was determined to be too expensive for Canada's requirements. More recently, General Atomics has offered that its jet-powered Predator variant Avenger could meet the JUSTAS requirement.

The U.S. Coast Guard has completed a series of UAV tests from its icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20), but has also yet to settle on a program of record for its drone surveillance requirements. Both Aerovironment's hand-launched PUMA (see above video) and Insitu's longer ranged catapult-launched ScanEagle were demonstrated. Unmanned air systems may be considered by DARPA for its Future Arctic Sensing Technologies (FAST) research. The FAST solicitation, released in February 2015, is intended to develop "low-cost, rapidly-deployable, environmentally friendly, unmanned sensor systems, including deployment and data reach-back from above the Arctic Circle that can detect, track and identify air, surface and subsurface targets."

Russia has staked aggressive claims to the Arctic and conducted a series of military exercises in the region. The country is building a string of 13 airfields and ten air-defense radar stations and 16 deepwater ports on its Arctic territory.  One of the aircraft flying from these sites on reconnaissance missions is the Orlan-10. The catapult launched UAV is deployed from the Eastern Military District and capable of operating for up to 15 hours.

Russian Orlan 10
Scandinavian countries will not be left out of the Arctic drone race.  In 2013, the Danish Defense Ministry updated its military strategies to place a greater importance on the acquisition of extreme climate UAVs to enhance patrol of its vast Arctic claims. Denmark's own Sky-Watch is developing the hybrid Muninn VX1 platform which will operate from ships for cold weather research and surveillance. The Northern Research Institute in Norway (NORUT) flew CryoWing, a UAV especially designed for extreme Arctic temperatures. The Norwegian Coast Guard and Coastal Agency also tested Swedish manufacturer's CybAero Apid 60 unmanned helicopter over the Arctic ocean in 2011-12.