Two conferences on UAS and one on close air support closed out the London autumn conference scene. Europe Editor Dim Jones reports on the three events.

The London military training conference season got into full swing in November and December, with three diverse and interesting events. First up was the 14th annual SMi Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference, which took place on 17th and 18th November. This event, as the name implies, addressed UAS issues in the round, military, civil and governmental; although the emphasis was on operational topics, there was also a fair amount of training content. The Defence IQ UAS Training and Simulation Conference took place between 8th and 10th December, with a workshop on the first day, followed by two days of main conference. And finally, the 12th Annual Omega Close Air Support Conference, the largest of the three, took place on 18th and 19th November in the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

There was acknowledgement of the burgeoning use of UAS for governmental business, such as border and major event surveillance and security, and in commercial and recreational activities, the former witnessed by the fact that Amazon in the US has applied to the FAA for clearance to use UAS, with a view to ‘30-minute delivery- from-order in some areas’, and similar initiatives have come from La Poste and others in Europe. Recreational ‘drones’– micro-UAS – have also attracted much recent publicity in the UK, most of it adverse. Having been identified as the ‘gift of choice’ for the discerning Christmas shopper, there have been safety scares, such as an airprox with an airliner on approach to Heathrow, and outrage over the potential threat to privacy represented by camera-equipped aircraft. A presentation covering insurance, legal, and policy issues recognised the increasing importance of these issues.

Notwithstanding the above, the emphasis was on military operations. UAS being something of a ‘niche’ activity in most armed forces (although the size of the US programmes belies this tag), attendance at both events was relatively modest, but the delegates – a mix of industry, the military and a few academics – were extremely knowledgeable in their fields, and the agenda varied, informative and thought-provoking, sparking some interesting debate. As might be expected, there was considerable focus on lessons learned from operations in theatres such as Afghanistan, and several presentations covered national perspectives on the procurement, introduction to service and employment, in both training and operations, of various types of UAS; these revealed quite significant variations in approach between different armed forces operating the same, or very similar, equipment. As an example, one operator of the RQ11B Raven ‘Mini-UAS’ considered that the low cost of flying the real aircraft rendered the purchase of a simulator non-cost-effective. A near neighbour, using the same equipment, held the opposite view.

Both conferences discussed issues that span the spectrum of UAS operations. The first, and fairly fundamental, is what we call these things in the first place. What’s in a name? – Quite a lot, apparently. The original acronym ‘UAV’ (Vehicle) has given way to UAS (System), but many would like to see this replaced by RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air Systems); as one presenter observed: ‘There’s nothing unmanned about an RPA’! There was unanimous disdain for the pejorative term ‘drone’ so beloved of the uninformed press, but less agreement on what to do about it; the Chair of one conference was of the opinion that: ‘that ship has sailed’, whereas the consensus at the other was that there was still a PR battle to be won; if so, it’s going to be a tough one. Qualification and licensing was another perennial topic of conversation; however, there did not appear to have been any major developments in this area during the past year. Training and training capacity continue to exercise the minds of those tasked with providing qualified personnel to satisfy the demands of maintaining capability worldwide, especially in the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) RPAS typified by the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The USAF experience, admittedly by far the largest, is nevertheless instructive. In the first nine months of operations, the number of CAPs rose from 3 to 9, and the number of personnel required to man them from 30 to 300. There are now 65 manned CAPs, each ideally requiring 13 crews for full manning (actual manning has been down to half this number) and, despite the drawdown in Afghanistan, the requirement is unlikely to drop much. As one presenter observed: ‘All Joint Force Commanders want RPAS’. At the same time: “No A-10 pilot would attempt to lecture on air refuelling, but everyone has an opinion on the employment of UAS”.

In order to satisfy its needs, the USAF now has three main sources of RPAS pilots: qualified manned aircraft pilots permanently converted to RPAS (currently 25%); qualified manned aircraft pilots on temporary assignment to RPAS (39%); and ab-initio trainees in the new 18X career field (36%). In FY14, there were more graduates from RPA training than UPT graduates in both fighters and bombers combined, and this despite a 22% RPA washout rate in flight screening, partly attributable to the absence of prior aptitude testing. The formats of all pilot and systems operator courses are now more or less established, but the pressure on the training system remains intense; a graduate’s first sortie after leaving the 49th Wing at Holloman AFB will be a combat mission, albeit supervised. There is no transitional period of reduced pressure and expectation for an RPAS crew, as for a ‘wingman’ on a manned squadron. An MQ-1/MQ-9 pilot is likely to return at an early stage as an instructor to the 49th Wing, which is perennially undermanned; the two requirements are said to be: a. some combat experience; b. a pulse. The tempo of operations, and its effects upon the crews in terms of fatigue and mental strain is recognised by the presence of psychiatrists and psychologists on the squadrons. The utility of current simulators in initial and continuation training was discussed, and it was generally accepted that UAS simulators, as essentially 2-D devices, were not particularly good at training those not previously experienced in a 3-D aerial environment. Although TDs could represent 95% of the operational tasks, they were also not very good at replicating the complex integration of the various agencies in the air battlespace environment. There was judged to be more of a shortfall in sensor training, in terms of capability, database, and representation of degraded operation. National perspectives on these and other issues associated with setting up and operating RPAS units across the spectrum of capability, and the lively discussion engendered thereby, rounded off two complementary and successful conferences.

Close Air Support

And now for something completely different; the 12th Annual Omega Close Air Support Conference took place on 18th and 19th November in the splendid surroundings of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, specifically in the vaulted cellars below the Painted Hall and the Chapel, which made up in historical environment for any shortcomings as a conventional conference venue. With almost 150 delegates from 14 nations, this was a much bigger event than either of the other two conferences and, although this was the first one I had attended, has clearly become an established feature of the CAS community’s calendar. The audience was a mix of military and industry, and the event included exhibitions and demonstrations from a dozen or so of the equipment companies involved in this specialised field.

The varied and interesting agenda was essentially practical; policy issues were raised and discussed, but very much in terms of how they should be addressed in practice, and were complemented by presentations from industry designed to illustrate how they might assist in this endeavour. The termination of ISAF operations in Afghanistan marks the end of an era, and one in which air-land operations have been refined; there was a general acceptance that the world is too dangerous a place these days for anyone to expect lasting peace, and the focus now needed move away from established expeditionary operations to contingency – ‘a war’ rather than ‘the war’. The trouble is that we’ve never been much good at predicting contingencies. Furthermore, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted in an environment of air supremacy, which cannot be expected everywhere. It is likely that future operations will be conducted in constrained, congested and contested airspace, and appropriate adjustments will need to be made. There seemed to be a consensus, however, that the established procedures themselves should be robust enough to cope with contingency, and the focus ought to be on how to employ them more effectively, and how to train better for them. In the letter regard, there was much discussion of the use of simulation, especially in the training of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), who differ from Forward Air Controllers (FACs) in that they can call down indirect surface-to-surface fire as well as air-to-ground. Increased use of simulation in future JTAC training is effectively mandated by: reductions in live flying training (due to environmental and budgetary considerations), with concomitant difficulty in securing live air support; restrictions on air-ground range usage; and the difficulty, or impossibility, of creating the complex air situations in peacetime which are to be found in theatres of operations. Industry played its part by showcasing improvements in simulator technology, and in the equipment with which the JTAC plies his trade and, again, national perspectives gave insights into how different forces approach essentially the same problem.