The International Paris Airshow (PAS2023) is the world’s largest aerial festival & rightfully so. The event incorporates all aspects of aerial activities. From civilian to military, fixed wing to rotary, manned & remotely piloted (not uncrewed – but that is another issue). It is only fair to say that at an event where billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, for the world’s largest airline fleets, are signed it is perfectly understandable that RPAS will not take the center spotlight as quite a few key players were notably not present. Still, to the writers’ opinion the show did reflect the current status of the industry.
As we hit the halfway mark of 2023 it appears that many OEMs still concentrate, almost in full, on the platform itself, as a vehicle, and not on the bottom-line desired mission gathering & executing capabilities to fully support the mission requirements within the modern operational environment. Although very notable within previous years the current war in Ukraine emphasis this fact to the maximum.
Prior to what we did not see let’s start with what was indeed present at the Paris Airshow this year.
MALE & Attritable Systems:
The most notable system within the MALE category to be displayed was the Aarok by local French firm Turgis & Gaillard. While the system is in its infancy & development phase it can potentially symbolize more of the same, unless it will live up to its proclaimed destiny: A significant low-cost MALE system (in relation to existing systems) while providing a robust & relatively simple system with a wide variety of mission sensors & weapons. While MALE sales are in a general decline (quantity wise) due to value-for-money in relation to modern operational requirements & survivability, with up-and-coming competition from STUAS and attritable systems, a significantly cheaper system serving as a ‘mothership’ of various capabilities can be of relevance. Designing & manufacturing a capable MALE UAS is no easy task, especially with no significant experience, what can potentially shift the system’s price range. The obligation of proof, and actual relevancy is on the manufacturer.
In direct continuation to the relevancy of MALE systems to modern day operational requirements, with emphasis on standoff mission sets, Turkish Aerospace displayed its intended play with the Super Simek air launched UAS. Designated to be carried by the ANKA-3 loyal wingman and the Aksungur the Super Simek obtains a 200 kg MTOW with a top speed of Mach 0.85 coupled with multiple payload options for various missions (up to 50 kg of payload). The concept is similar to GA-ASI’s Eaglet although not necessarily recoverable but employing a jet engine for greater ranges of interest.
Next up, Europe’s Eurodrone (aka EuroMALE) is an impressive RPA to stand next to as its sheer size is mesmerizing. However, back to factual grounds, the program is set back numerous years with the hope of commencing operational activity by the end of the decade. Recent updates of additional partnerships within the project include Hensoldt (detect and avoid), Safran (mission payloads), MBDA (armament), Indra (SATCOM) and Leonardo (Airborne Mission System). While Airbus’ claims of an intended flight performance of 18 hours on station at 500 nautical miles with a 1,750 kg payload is indeed impressive as a standoff platform and / or on-site ISTAR for asymmetrical warfare, this indeed raises the issue of lower cost MALE systems such as the Aarok.
Remaining with Airbus, the displayed Remote Carrier, designated for the FCAS project, is the company’s way forward with attritable systems of high relevance to current and future requirements. The larger Remote Carrier shall be released from an A-400, as testing already commenced, while its smaller version can be carried and released by its ‘big brother’. Airbus’ design for a high-end system yet relatively simple features make it a great contender for loyal wingman operations in contested environments.
It is important to note the advancements of US based attritable & loyal wingman systems in advanced development stages, far past conceptual designs, from platform to AI pilot software, with the most notable project being Kratos’ Valkyrie XQ-58A coupled with Shield AI’s combat-deployed AI pilot.
Additional MALE systems displayed were Leonardo’s Falco Xplorer and Safran’s Patroller. The Falco Xplorer was launched exactly four years ago in the previous Paris Airshow in 2019 (2021 was cancelled due to Covid). With the expansion of US foreign sales, Turkey’s impressive sales to over 30 countries (with the Bayraktar TB2 at the lead), and Israel’s 2022 three billion dollars’ worth of UAS exports, introducing additional MALE systems to an already tight and declining market, extremely similar to current systems, is not a clear strategy. When first launched the company branded the platform as an ITAR-free system designated for the services market. To date, four years since its launch, there is no formal known customer.
Safran’s Patroller, on the other hand, according to recent open-source reports, has obtained its second customer – the Greek Army. The potential contract resembles somewhat Romania’s purchase of Watchkeeper X systems – both systems struggled to obtain a second customer for quite the time in addition to their respected launch customers, the French & British Armies. Might these contracts indicate a very niche market for armed & strike capable tactical-MALE systems, with relative larger armament options available when compared to STUAS, without the need to obtain larger, traditional MALE systems, operated mostly by air-oriented military branches? We believe these events are very singular, but time will tell.
Small Tactical Systems (STUAS):
Unfortunately, the ‘me-too’ trend of VTOL capable systems based on legacy fixed wing RPAS coupled with a VTOL kit was extremely visible as PAS2023. One too many systems with compromised flight performances for the sake of vertical takeoffs and landings. The need to lower the logistic trail is highly notable but to what extent when put against mission relevancy (payload & endurance)? On the contrary, Insitu’s FLARES solution is a worthy ‘out-of-the-box’ approach in bringing forth VTOL capabilities all the while maintaining the Integrator’s leading flight performance as a fixed wing platform.
Nevertheless, two small tactical systems displayed at PAS2023 with notable features are Aeronautics’ Orbiter 5 and Airbus’ CAPA-X.
The Orbiter 5, launched at the exhibition, is a fixed wing platform with a claimed 25-hour endurance with 25 kg of payload and 600W of electrical power. This enables an impressive mission sensor suite with multiple payloads (EOIR, SAR / MPR, SIGINT / COMINT & others) providing a long endurance capability bringing forth longer time on station deployments and / or at great distances all the while reducing overall mission costs with fewer AVs required for mission continuity and reducing MTBF caused by the recovery (i.e., payload / airframe damage) via less recovery cycles. In essence, Aeronautics traded a VTOL capability, with all its deployment and logistic footprint advantages, to fully focus on high-end flight performance capabilities. With a 25 hour / 25 kg flight and payload capability it is possible that VTOL advantages are less relevant as the system can be employed from higher echelons from a rear post. However, maritime operations in this configuration, while very much possible as proven with the Orbiter 3 & 4, do require a logistic footprint affecting continuous operations aboard maritime vessels.
Airbus’ CAPA-X, although at first appearance looked more of the same, does show an updated concept of design. The RPAS is developed with modularity and open architecture as a key capability. The ‘plug & play’ capability enables high-end versatility in both flight performance and mission sensors. Whether the ability to ‘click’ on various pairs of wings, choose between VTOL or runway based fixed wing by an embedded bottom-up design (as opposed to a kit added later to the platform) and / or insert payloads of different sizes and shapes.
Following the war in Ukraine loitering munitions are the current ‘hot potato’, rightfully so. The ability to strike with pin-point accuracy with a platform capable of loitering above the area of interest, waiting for the perfect time, enabling a strike from any direction / point of entry all the while providing additional real time ISR capabilities from a stand-in position with minimum exposure.
In addition to the air launched Super Simek mentioned above an additional platform launched at the PAS2023 is BlueBird’s SpyX loitering munition. The system’s key feature that has caught attention is its modular warhead configuration enabling too a ‘plug and play’ feature in quickly preparing the platform to different mission sets. Currently the system is dependent on a standard launcher, as opposed to a launch container, affecting the logistic footprint and on-the-go operations within areas of activity. Adjusting the system to a container launcher, with its current payload interoperability, will no doubt enhance the SpyX’s influence on the battlefield.
So, what did we not see at the latest Paris Airshow with regards to RPAS?
A non-platform centric approach. While the platform will always obtain an extremely key role, as it is the payload carrier and the component at the edge, current operational requirements require a system-of-systems approach including:
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities for mission payloads ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ of current ISR methods for modern operational environments composed of time critical targets within contested environments. Read more on AI/ML for maintaining relevancy for UAS platforms.
- Connectivity between platforms for immediate mission versatility, transfer of targets and positive overlaps for a true wide area persistence / monitoring, all the while bringing forth real time intel via different means and payload options.
- Survivability in contested environments which, unfortunately, incorporates most hot spots to date – whether near-peer or asymmetrical. As we come to know, survivability is not only with regards to traditional kinetic means but also non-kinetic means such as navigation jamming & spoofing, cyber attacks on datalinks and protection of ground elements. Various system types were employed throughout the war in Ukraine, from the Bayraktar TB2 via the Jump 20 to the smaller Vector system. When confronted with modern forms of disruption the result was not positive. Modern survivability comes in many forms from advanced forms of navigation, via datalink assurance, to advanced manufacturing methods utilizing battle proven components.
As written at the beginning of the article, the International Paris Airshow does not represent the RPAS industry as a whole but does reflect the general vector. This is important to state as there are excellent developments with regards to the stated requirements above but, unfortunately, are relevant to a few OEMs only recognizing the importance of the aerial platform as part of a system-of-systems.
Companies who fail to recognize this simple fact will be deemed irrelevant or, at best, more of the same.
Alon Ben-Gal – Founder & CEO of ABG-SC and the Unmanned Network.
Chen Lustig – Lead analyst at ABG-SC and the Unmanned Network.
ABG-SC is a UAS focused research and consulting firm fully dedicated to the aerial unmanned industry continuously monitoring operational, technological & market trends.
The Unmanned Network is a newly formed disruptive online platform designed to connect unmanned stakeholders via direct actionable leads from whole systems via sub-systems & components to services and open positions.