This article appeared first in FlightCom magazine, part of SA Flyer magazine. It has been lightly edited for republication here.
Africa has become the next frontier for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operations in the years following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with militaries from the US and France, as well as those of African countries deploying them in larger numbers and wider missions than ever before.
Of particular interest is that a number of African countries have begun producing their own indigenous UAV designs, kickstarting nascent aerospace industries and raising the possibility of a whole new set of specialised designs optimised for more specific use-cases than standard export UAVs.
In the mid-1970s the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria began work with Kentron on a small light-weight surveillance UAV called the Champion, which first flew in 1977. Four were built, a pre-production model and three production models numbering 101-103 and some or all were deployed to what was then Rhodesia in 1978 for operational trials while providing surveillance assistance in that country’s civil war. The aircraft were subsequently acquired by the South African Air Force and at some point renumbered to serials in the 0XX range. At least two, 018 and 019, served the South African Air Force (SAAF) all the way up until the late 1980s as training aircraft, a remarkable service life for such an early design. Today 019 remains preserved at the SAAF Museum in Pretoria as the first indigenously-produced modern-style UAV in Africa.
Fresh from the experience of operating the Champion and facing a growing war in Angola, the South African Air Force acquired the first five of what would eventually become a fleet of around over a dozen Israeli Aircraft Industries Scout UAVs of various marks and differing engine options in 1980. The aircraft were all given RPV- designations in SAAF service, ranging from RPV-1B for the first five aircraft to RPV-2B for the IAI Scout 800s delivered in 1984 and project names included Gharra, Cobalt and Leghorn. By 1986 the SAAF had re-formed 10 Squadron at AFB Potchefstroom to operate the aircraft, replacing the ad hoc arrangement that had been used up until then. All the variants appear to have been administered as the RC-2/4 Medium Range Battlefield Surveillance System.
These UAVs saw extensive combat duty across the southern African theatre between 1980 and 1987, operating from Mozambique to Angola, and performing vital surveillance and artillery spotting work over hostile airspace too well-defended to risk frequent overflights from the SAAF’s camera-equipped Mirage IIIRZ & IIIR2Z jets. Three were in fact lost to surface-to-air missiles, one of the first five RPV-1B Scouts on 30 March 1983 over Maputo and RPV-1Cs 005 and 006 on 8 October 1987 and 26 September 1987 respectively. Although losing the aircraft was financially painful, the SAAF was ecstatic because it had proven that light and slow surveillance UAVs were still remarkably resilient to enemy surface-to-air missile fire and that, when they were finally shot down it was at no cost in human life.
While this was happening, the CSIR and Kentron continued to research and refine UAV designs as successors to the original Champion, culminating in the operational launch of the Seeker I system in 1987. Confusingly, the actual UAV in the system (which included a Ground Control Station) was the Seeker 2B, not to be confused with the later Seeker II system introduced in the 1990s.
The SAAF’s 10 Squadron saw combat during Operations Modular and Hooper in 1987 and Packer in 1988. The Seekers are known to have been used for both tactical surveillance and artillery spotting missions, operating from Mavinga. One Seeker 2B is said to have survived 16 or 17 SA-8 missiles before finally being shot down during a mission on 21 September 1987 as it overflew a large concentration of Angolan forces.
A Seeker’s flight crew consisted of the following personnel:
- External Pilot – Flight control during take-off and landing only
- Internal Pilot – Flight control during entire mission except for take-off and landing.
- Mission Commander – Mission planning, coordination and control and communication and tracking of the RPV during mission.
- Observer/Mission Payload Operator – Payload control, target acquisition, surveillance and data recording
All except the External Pilot were in the command truck/Ground Control Station for the flight. The External Pilot would stand at the runway’s edge and conduct a visual take-off of the Seeker 2 and then hand over control to the Internal Pilot. On landing the External Pilot would again position himself at the runway edge and assume control of the inbound UAV and land it once visual contact had been established. Typical operational ceiling was between 15 000 and 18 000 feet with short-range missions having an endurance of 9-10 hours and long-range missions out to around 200 km (the maximum line-of-sight range from the ground station) having an endurance of 4-5 hours. A maintenance ground crew of 4-6 personnel supported each system.
The entire system was designed to be easily deployable by a C-130B Hercules and set up within 4 hours. This included the ground station, control dish, purpose-built rapid deployment containers for the air vehicles, starter packs and maintenance and flight preparation tents.
Between 1987 and 1991 10 Squadron operated five different variants of the Seeker, ranging from the original Seeker 2B through to the Seeker 2C, 2CL, 2D and the final Seeker 2E, with changing engine options providing better performance and large improvements in the quality of the on-board cameras.
In 1991, with the end of the Angolan War, 10 Squadron was disbanded and the SAAF’s remaining Seekers were transferred to Kentron which began operating the system and its successors on contract for the SAAF.
Although the SAAF ceased to own and operate UAVs with 10 Squadron’s disbandment, private development continued. The late 1980s and early 1990s were something of a golden era for the local industry with development occurring at breakneck pace.
One of the most interesting developments during this period was the foray into stealth, as a response to the SAAF’s High-speed Reconnaissance Drone (HRD) Technology Demonstrator Programme. The first experiments were with the Flowchart series of technology demonstrators (a Flowchart 2 is on display at the SAAF Museum, AFB Swartkop) before the Seraph design was finalised between 1996 and 1998. The system’s statistics were impressive for the time, able to fly 1 300 km at a speed of Mach 0.83 at 40 000 ft, carrying an 80 kg payload of either optical cameras, a synthetic aperture radar or electronic surveillance sensors. Development was well-advanced by 1997 but severe South African defence budget cuts killed the SAAF’s HRD programme and with it the Seraph’s prospects of final development. Foreign interest did not translate into sales.
The concept was briefly resurrected in the mid-2000s as the Seraph II Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) design armed with Mokopa missiles, but it never went beyond the initial design study stage.
The Seeker I system was more successful, evolving into the Seeker II with a vastly-improved high-tech Ground Control Station and antenna setup, making deployment simpler than before and allowing for additional mobile ground stations that could be placed closer to the patrol area and receive control handed over from the main ground station to extend effective range beyond line of sight. Additional payloads, such as the Avitronics (now part of Saab) Electronic Surveillance Package (E.S.P.) nose-mounted sensor array capable of identifying and categorising a broad spectrum of radio and radar emissions in a wide area, were integrated. The Seeker II system proved to be a hit for Kentron (by then part of Denel) with sales to Algeria and the United Arab Emirates amongst others.
In the 1990s a new company, Advanced Technologies and Engineering (ATE) emerged on the scene. While UAVs were not its main focus, it soon developed an impressive capability in their production and design and eventually won the South African Army tender to provide an unmanned artillery observation system with their Vulture system. What made the Vulture so attractive was its innovative zero-length launching and recovery systems which used a vacuum tube launcher and a large net lander to allow the UAVs to be operated deep in the bush without any need for a runway. ATE has since become Paramount Advanced Technologies, part of the Paramount Group, and continues to offer a wide range of UAVs for sale from micro-UAVs like the 3.5 kg Kiwit (sold to an unnamed Asian country for use by their special forces) through to the larger Sentinel and Mwari.
Not to stand still, Denel unveiled a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV at the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition in 2004, offering range and performance at such a level that it was at one stage even proposed as an option for the SAAF to patrol out to the far reaches of its extended economic zone (EEZ). But as with the Seraph, South African state funding was not forthcoming and no foreign partners were willing to join the company in its development, so the project was stillborn.
Using company money, Denel then took a long, hard look at the Seeker II and improved nearly every aspect of it to create the new Seeker 200 and a 30% larger version called the Seeker 400.
The latter is the most interesting, extending endurance to 16 hours to allow over 10 hours loiter time, featuring automated flight operations including take-off and landing, having a 100 kg payload capability and – a Denel first – being equipped with underwing hard points for air-to-surface missiles like the Denel Dynamics Mokopa or Denel Dynamics Impi. The armed variant is designated the Snyper, to differentiate it from the unarmed Seeker 400 for those customers skittish about the association.
The Seeker 400 may also bring about another chapter in the South African Air Force’s long association with UAVs, as there have been reports that the SAAF has approved the acquisition of a number of Seeker 400 systems and the re-establishment of 10 Squadron to operate them.
The acquisition is on hold for the time being as a result of contractual issues, but there’s the real possibility that for the first time in 24 years the SAAF will once again operate its own UAVs.
It must be hoped that the South African defence industry can continue to remain strong contender in UAV and UCAV systems, despite the vast increase in competition from all corners of the globe. There’s an opportunity to get in on the ground-floor of what may prove to be an explosion in the use of UAVs by Africa’s armed forces.