Australian Army builds drone air force
“Army is Australia’s biggest and most experienced user of drones,” claimed General Angus Campbell when Chief of Army. The facts support him. Air Force is out of the drone business until next decade when Triton and perhaps an armed drone enter service, although some individuals are embedded in US Air Force ‘Predator’ units. Navy is more advanced with eight ScanEagle systems operational, including on recent frigate deployments to the Middle East, and is trialling the Schiebel Camcopter S-100.
By comparison with the other Services, Army leads the way, with more than a decade of drone flying experience, including in-combat operations. It operates dozens of drones while bringing into service many more, albeit many are tiny.
Army first used drones in 2003 during the Solomon Islands peacekeeping mission when four Australian-made Aerosonde UAVs were trialled.
The next deploment was in 2005 with four Israeli Elbit Skylark small drones as part of the Al Muthanna Task Group in southern Iraq. These hand-launched drones with a two metre wingspan were used for day-time reconnaissance providing real-time information about activities in the local area. Skylarks were also deployed to East Timor and Afghanistan.
A broadly similar system, the Aerovironment RQ-11 Raven was also acquired for the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan. Raven could be operated within line-of-sight day or night out to about 10kms, providing real-time colour or infrared imagery to ground control and remote viewing stations.
Meanwhile, in 2007 Army contracted Brisbane-based Insitu Pacific (a Boeing owned company) to provide UAV services in Iraq using the ScanEagle system.
Based in Camp Terendak, the ScanEagles supported the Overwatch Battle Group (West) and operated across Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces. Insitu Pacific provided a compete service that included the air vehicles, command and control systems, maintenance, logistics and air vehicle operators.
The contract was then extended to Afghanistan with ScanEagles based at Tarin Kot, flying at an impressive average rate of 22 hours every day for almost five years. In Afghanistan, Insitu Pacific provided similar services to that in Iraq except that Army now used its own air vehicle operators drawn from the 20th Surveillance Targeting Acquisition (STA) Regiment in Brisbane.