From relatively humble beginnings the proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) through the defence forces of Asia and the broader Pacific region beyond has been widespread and rapid.
Several nations can now boast robust and buoyant UAV manufacturing industries, and others have used them operationally for some time.
Regional powers such as China and India are spending large amounts of money on indigenous UAV programmes and there is a significant potential export mark in the region for these products.
Recent tensions on the Korean peninsula has renewed Japanese and South Korean efforts to acquire a High Altitude Long Range (HALE) UAV capability such as Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk and regional hotspots such as the Kashmir and the North West Tribal Area of Pakistan are two examples where unmanned Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability are in regular operational use.
Of course, the term UAV can be used to describe everything from a kit helicopter fitted with a lightweight camera, to the huge – and hugely complex – Global Hawk. It is therefore very difficult to present a comprehensive overview of all Asia-Pacific UAV programmes in a story of this size and the following is an overview of such capabilities in the region.
Australia has operationally employed a tactical UAV capability in Iraq and, more recently, Afghanistan through the lease of Insitu Pacific/Boeing ScanEagle UAS’. It has since been joined by the more capable IAI Heron Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) system, also acquired via a leasing agreement. The Australian Army also operates the Elbit Skylark I hand-held UAV, albeit not deployed overseas, and is in the process of acquiring the AAI RQ-7B Shadow to fulfil its long-desired Joint Project 129 requirement. Into the future, the RAAF is likely to acquire seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Global Hawks for broad area maritime surveillance, as part of Project AIR 7000.
Reports in the Bangladeshi press tell of a UAV study carried out in by the Air Force in 2006, which decided upon the purchase of a small number of Scientific Industrial Services Remez A-3 sort-range UAVs from the Ukraine. However it is not known if a deal was ever struck or if they ever entered service.
The Commander of the Brunei Royal Air Force was briefed at last year’s Brunei International Defence Exhibition (BRIDEX 2009) by Chinese officials on the capabilities of the Poly Technologies Inc. Chang Hong 3 UAV.
Cambodia was also briefed on the capabilities of the CH-3 at Bridex 2009 but, like Brunei, has yet to announce any firm plans to acquire such a capability.
Visitors to this year’s China Airshow at Zhuhai were rewarded with details of several of China’s shadowy UAV programmes.
Aside from the CH-3 mentioned above, which can reportedly be armed with AR-1 Anti-tank missiles and therefore more correctly termed an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), there were over twenty UAVs displayed - no fewer than 10 from the ASN Technology Group, including the large ASN-229A Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV.
Other ASN UAV projects noted included the ASN-211 ‘flapping wing’ and ASN-213 ‘folding wing’, a prototype of which was displayed at Zhuhai.
CASIC also had a WJ-600 jet UAV in the static park, complete with underwing KD-2 missiles.
China is also developing a HALE UAV known as Xianglon, or Soaring Dragon’, reportedly optimised for maritime surveillance.
The diversity of UAV programmes, most of which would be available for export, marks China as a major player in the Asia-Pacific UAV marketplace in times ahead.
As a major Asian power, the Indian Armed Forces has long understood the value of UAVs for ISR work and has used them operationally for several years, beginning with Israeli Searcher I series and more recently the Heron.
The capability is routinely used in the disputed Kashmir region and along the remote border with China. It also has IAI Harpy radar attack drone, a so-called ‘Kamikaze’ UAV which dives onto its target and explodes.
India is developing a manufacturing industry, under the watchful eye of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which is currently testing two types of UAV. The first is the tactical Nishant, which entered flight test during 2008 and the second programme is the larger RUSTAM I MALE, which made its first flight in October.
The Indian Navy is also reportedly developing a maritime surveillance HALE UAV and a small rotary wing platform for carriage aboard frigates and destroyers..
Although it developed the indigenous PUNA (Pesawat Udara Nir-Awak) UAV some years ago, Indonesia is reportedly aspiring to acquire drones from Israel, via a third party.
The country was linked to the Searcher Mk.II as long ago as 2001, but the proposed sale did not proceed.
Japan has long held a tactical UAV manufacturing capability with a series of platforms made by Fuji Heavy Industries. Most recently it has begun development of air-launched fixed-wing UAV and a rotary wing platform for artillery observation.
It also has a requirement for three HALE UAVs and is believed to be close to selecting the RQ-4 Global Hawk. This requirement has most recently been according a degree of urgency with the unpredictable antics of the regime in North Korea
Although military use of UAVs has been restricted to the use of the indigenous Unmanned Systems Technology/CTRM Aludra Mk.II in East Malaysia (Borneo), Malaysia is home to a healthy UAV industry and has a requirement for five platforms in its current modernization plan.
Aside from the Aludra (Allianced Unmanned Development Research Aircraft) Mks I & II, CTRM has also developed the Fulmar catapult-launched short-range UAV and the Intisar series of small rotary-wing platforms.
The larger Yabhon Aludra Mk.2 is a high performance UAV that is being developed in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates.
On a slightly smaller scale, Sapura has its Cyber-Shark small rotary wing UAV and the larger Cyber-Eye MALE. At LIMA 2009, the company said it was close to a deal with the Australian Government, but would not reveal any details.
The Kahu (Hawk) programme is being run by the New Zealand Army to develop a UAS doctrine and technology utilising its indigenous Skycam hand-launched fixed-wing UAV.
The secretive regime of Kim Jong-Il is reported to have indirectly acquired Russian-built Tupolev DR-3/M-141 Reys jet-powered tactical reconnaissance UAVs but hard details are yet to emerge.
Ongoing tensions with India over the Kashmir region and the desire to keep insurgents under watch in the North-West Tribal Area bordering Afghanistan are key drivers in Pakistan’s UAV programmes.
Having developed a range of smaller drones itself, the country has recently teamed with Italy’s Selex Galileo to manufacture the Falco UAV at its Kamra complex.
It has also been offered the AAI RQ-7B Shadow by the US Government, for operations in the NWTA. Pakistan had reportedly wanted to acquire the armed MQ-1 Predator (much to the consternation of India), but US officials have reportedly declined the request.
Austrian manufacturer Schiebel has recently demonstrated its S-100 Camcopter rotary wing UAV aboard a Pakistani frigate.
Another country which has long-desired a UAV capability, the Philippines has a requirement to keep domestic insurgents under surveillance. It has reportedly developed its own Tactical UAV (TUAV) and in the past has been linked to a programme with Singapore Technologies and Emit Aviation Consultancy for a small, lightweight UAV, called ‘Blue Horizon’.
The Singapore Armed Forces, though small, are some of the most capable and technologically advanced in the world. Accordingly it has a sophisticated UAV capability stretching back to the Tadiran Mastiff of the 1970s and 1980s.
Today the Republic of Singapore Air Force operates the Elbit Hermes 450 MALE and IAI Searcher platform. The Army will begin receiving the Singapore Technologies Skyblade III hand-held UAV from the end of 2010.
Singapore Technologies are responsible for a range of Skyblade UAVs, culminating in the parachute-recovered Skyblade IV. It also manufactures the FanTail 5000 hovering UAV.
With a vibrant aerospace industry, South Korea naturally has an indigenous UAV capability. Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) is responsible for two local tactical UAV designs, in the form of the TRPV-1 Doyosae and KRQ-101 Night Intruder 300. South Korea also uses the IAI Searcher TUAV and has purchased the IAI Harpy attack drone..
Like Japan, concerns about North Korea has intensified a requirement for a HALE UAV and is seen as a potential near-term customer for Global Hawk.
The recent war against the LTTE, the self proclaimed ‘Tamil Tigers’, produced an early requirement for Tactical UAVs within the Sri Lankan Air Force, which now arguably has more operational UAV experience than most countries outside the USA or Israel.
Israel Aircraft Industries supplied a number of its Scout UAVs to the SLAF and unconfirmed reports have suggested that the service also used the AAI RQ-2 Pioneer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its political and geographic location, Taiwan is also developing a TUAV in the form of the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology Chung Shyang II. Local media reports suggest that it should enter service during 2011.
Taiwan also has a requirement for a HALE platform and is considering developing an indigenous solution.
Thailand is a further user of the popular IAI Searcher series of Tactical UAVs and has also purchased Sapura’s Cyber Eye II for training purposes at the RTAF Academy.
Most recently, the Co-operation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise with the US Navy last May included the Aeroenvironment Puma AE Small Unmanned Aerial System (SUAS) in a trial aboard a Thai warship.
Although having no known UAV capability in operational service today, Vietnam did experiment with its own Ministry of Defence Institute of Technology Air Defence M-400 UAVs in the middle of the last decade.