The South African Air Force is currently conducting a project study to determine its choice for a next-generation medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system.
SAAF chief Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano says work is already underway under the programme name Project Itambo.
“We don`t know [the type of UAS we will order] yet … but we plan to kick-start the project by 2012. The work is already going on.
A project study is the second step in the SA National Defence force`s acquisition process and follows a “required operational capability, where it must be shown that a service has a definite requirement for a certain type of operational capability – in this case a MALE UAS – before a purchase can be contemplated.
Following the acceptance of the project study, the project team will then draft a staff target.
The SAAF was an early user of UAS, deploying the Denel Seeker from the mid-1980s to conduct dangerous reconnaissance missions over heavily defended portions of southern Angola.
The SAAF was also reputedly the first air force to deploy UAS in air-traffic controlled airspace during the early 1990s.
The Seeker was later withdrawn due to age. At present only the SA Army`s artillery corps operates a UAS, in the shape of two Project Klooster ATE Vulture systems.
State arsenal Denel some years ago displayed mock-ups of a design that might match the emerging SAAF requirement.
Denel officials at a 2004 defence exhibition were confident the system, named the Bateleur (snake eagle), would be in SAAF service by 2006. To date nothing has come of that ambition and the Bateleur remains a mock up.
More recently, Denel Dynamics has brought to market a more up-to-date and larger version of the Seeker, named the Seeker 400. This was on prominent display at the Africa Aerospace and Defence show in Cape Town this September.
UAS are not only ideal for high-risk missions, but also for tedious and routine task such as maritime and border patrol, electronic warfare and general surveillance.
Tasks can include real-time day and night electro-optical and infrared surveillance, ELINT and COMINT, airborne communications relay, photo reconnaissance, target location and target designation, maritime and coastal patrol, border patrol, search and rescue, battlefield surveillance, artillery fire support and (battle) damage assessment.
UAS are also, increasingly, being used as weapons platforms.