Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) detachment

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) detachment


The ADF contingent in Afghanistan has an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) detachments that have been based at Camp Holland and Kandahar AirField,  operating in concert with RAAF AP-3C Orions and Army’s Scan Eagle tactical UAVs. In 2009 a decision was made to bolster the UAV detachment with several new planes of the larger heavy duty model HERON. The new HERON UAVs started operating as of January 2010. The Heron deployment is part of Project Nankeen, under which the UAVs were leased from the Canadian company MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), in cooperation with the Canadian Defense Forces. The Herons deployed in Afghanistan have been fitted with Kestrel electro-optical and infrared s enors capable of detecting changes in small numbers of pixels representing movements in very small or distant objects.

Heron UAV

Heron takes to Afghan skies. Source: Department of Defence, Australia

Government sources

HERON Unmanned Aerial System – Fact sheet, Department of Defence [accessed 18 January 2011]

The Heron UAS includes a number of different elements. The major components are the Air Vehicle (AV), Payloads, the Ground Control Station (GCS), and the Processing and Dissemination Suite. The Heron is a medium altitude long endurance UAS with the ability to conduct operations in excess of 24 hours at altitudes of up to 10,000 metres, with a maximum speed of more than 180 km/h. The AV cannot be seen or heard when it is at normal operating altitudes. The AV has a wingspan of 16.6 metres, a length of 8.5 metres and a maximum take-off weight of more than 1 tonne. The Heron navigates using Global Positioning System (GPS), and also has a backup capability to enable operations in a GPS-denied environment. Payloads: The Heron carries a combination of sensors which communicate with the ground control station in real-time. Multiple sensors can be used simultaneously.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Detachment (UAV),  Force Elements Currently Deployed as part of JTF633, Australian Operations in Afghanistan Fact Sheet, Department of Defence  [accessed 14 August 2010]

Based at Camp Holland, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Detachment (UAV) from 20th Surveillance Targeting Acquisition Regiment operates  the SCANEAGLE UAV. The SCANEAGLE UAV provides tactical aerial reconnaissance support to land forces in Uruzgan Province.

Heron takes to Afghan skies, Department of Defence, 13 January 2010

The first Australian-leased Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) has started initial operations in Afghanistan. The UAV will help deliver high resolution, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information to ADF commanders. Working under a one-year contract with the option to extend…

It is expected to be fully mission capable in the coming months following an initial training period. Heron’s long endurance characteristic enhances the ADF’s operational ISR capabilities in Afghanistan, currently provided by Air Force AP-3C Orions and Army’s Scan Eagle tactical UA.

Air force to begin operating its first unmanned aerial system, John Faulkner, Minister for Defence, Media Release, MIN2509/09, 7 September 2009

Minister for Defence, Senator John Faulkner, today announced that the Royal Australian Air Force has acquired Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in close collaboration with Canadian Defence forces. Under Project NANKEEN, the Defence Materiel Organisation has signed a contract with Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) to lease Heron UAV services which will provide high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. The Australian Defence Force has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Canadian Forces which already operates Heron UAVs in Afghanistan. In July 2009 Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Army personnel undertook Heron training in Canada. These personnel have now been absorbed within the Canadian Heron UAV Detachment at Kandahar airfield conducting combat operations in support of ISAF. This has meant the ADF has rapidly established its Heron capability by drawing on the Canadians’ operational knowledge, experience and facilities.

Air force to begin operating its first unmanned aerial system, Department of Defence, 7 September 2009

The Heron UAV is a one tonne aircraft capable of medium altitude, long endurance flights. Under Project NANKEEN, the Defence Materiel Organisation has signed a contract with… In July 2009 Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Army personnel undertook Heron training in Canada. These personnel have now been absorbed within the Canadian Heron UAV Detachment at Kandahar airfield conducting combat operations in support of ISAF.


Kestrel Supports Project NANKEEN In Afghanistan, SpaceWar.com, November 11, 2010

Sentient has announced that Kestrel Land MTI, its computer vision system for electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) sensors, is actively deployed in support of the Heron Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in Afghanistan. Under Project NANKEEN, Kestrel Land MTI assists Australian Defence Force (ADF) commanders by analysing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) imagery from the Heron. The software processes the imagery in real time, automatically detecting and tracking small, moving targets such as dismounts and vehicles within the sensors’ field of view. WGCDR David Riddel, RAAF Deputy Director – Air Combat Capability and Project Lead for NANKEEN, sees in Kestrel Land MTI a significant ISR capability enhancement, extending the Heron’s ability to provide situational awareness for Australian and Coalition forces on the ground. “Kestrel detects any small movements in the field of view and alerts our operators to targets that are easily missed – camouflaged vehicles in tough terrains, dismounts or squirters leaving houses”, Riddel said. “This gives our commanders a complete understanding of the situation on the ground.” Riddel stresses the benefits of Kestrel Land MTI for long ISR missions, increasing productivity through consistent, reliable detections. “Especially over long periods of observations, Kestrel has been proven to be very valuable. It helps fatigued observers by drawing their attention to targets outside their actual field of vision.” Kestrel’s ability to detect very small moving targets less than a few pixel in size, allows the ADF to operate the Heron at a wider field of view, extending the area of observation. “Kestrel acts as a force multiplier, allowing us to increase our area of coverage”, Riddel pointed out. “As a result, commanders will be aware of potential threats to ADF operations earlier and will be able to respond more quickly and with more effect.”

Contract Extended for Israel Aerospace Industries UAVs Serving Australian Air Force in Afghanistan, Rob Vogelaar, Aviation News, August 13, 2010

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), part of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, will continue to utilize Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as part of Australia’s Project NANKEEN, in cooperation with the Canadian Defense Forces. Experts believe the contract could reach tens of millions of dollars. Almost a year into the project, the Australian Defense Forces (ADF) have announced that they will continue to benefit from the essential operational capabilities the Heron UAV offers in Afghanistan for another year, starting in January 2011. P?roject NANKEEN was made possible with the cooperation of the Canadian MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA).

In August 2008 IAI and MDA were awarded a contract worth approximately $81 million USD by the Canadian Ministry of Defense to provide Heron UAVs as part of the Canadian NOCTUA project. Within only 5 months of the contract signing, Canadian forces were flying the Heron in Afghanistan’s skies. IAI’s UAVs have logged approximately 750,000 operational flight hours to date, over 15,000 of which were in Afghanistan.

CF  Leased UAV  —  McDonald Dettwiler / IAI Malat CU-170  Heron, Canadian-American Strategic Review, (update 17 July 2010)

Deadly Persistence: Integrating Armed UAV’s and Ground Forces in Kandahar, Colonel Grey Turner and Major Jay Adair, 16 October 2009, [PowerPoint]

Australia to Lease Heron UAVs from McDonald Dettwiler – Is Oz Following CF Lead or  did the ADF inspire DND’s Project Noctua? Canadian Defence Cooperation  –  Australian UAV Lease, Canadian-American Strategic Review, 7 September 2009

Australian Army  and  RAAF personnel  have been quietly training  in  Canada on the IAI Malat Heron UAV. [1]  Once proficient,  the Australian personnel were “absorbed within the Canadian Heron UAV Detachment at Kandahar airfield conducting combat operations in support of  ISAF”. Now Australia’s Minister for Defence has announced that his country will follow Canada’s example of the CU-170 Heron and Project Noctua. As with the Canadian example, Australia’s lease of these Israeli UAVs will be arranged by  MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of  Richmond, BC.  This arrangement – and an MOU signed  for cooperation between the Australian Defence Forces and  the Canadian Forces  –  reinforces the apparent success of  this contractor-assisted  UAV lease concept. Like the CF,  the ADF  have experimented  with UAVs for some time  as well as using  smaller, tactical  UAVs operationally. This has included lease arrangements – indeed, DND’s mid-2008  lease deal with Boeing-Insitu for ScanEagle SUAVs (Small UAVs)  for Afghanistan may have been inspired by a similar 2007 arrangement between the ADF and Boeing Australia for ScanEagle mini UAVs deployed with the Australian Army to Iraq.

Expanded military role for drones no risk to pilot jobs, Mark Dodd, The Australian, 25 September 2009

Air Marshal Mark Binskin told The Australian the newly acquired Heron UAV now being operated out of Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan…

The step-up to bigger UAVs follows an agreement this month for the Australian Defence Force to jointly operate the Heron alongside the Canadian military, which has already been using the system in Afghanistan.

Air Marshal Mark Binkskin:

“What we’re looking for in Afghanistan at the moment is something that can support the commander but also, if there is spare capacity, can move around the theatre to provide the coalition with ISR. And when you start doing that, you start going into bigger platforms.

When you’re into the bigger platforms, you start requiring air-base support and infrastructure, as it (Heron) becomes more of a theatre asset, integrates with other air assets, and when you start getting into that area you start getting into an air force capability.”

Heron on the wing to guide Diggers, Patrick Walters, The Australian, 08 September 2009

The Rudd government has rushed through the multi-million-dollar lease of the one-tonne aircraft to provide troops on the ground with far greater situational awareness thanks to its superior infra-red cameras and other high-tech sensors.

A joint RAAF and army team is operating two Herons from Kandahar airfield in partnership with a Canadian Heron UAV team. The unarmed Heron can stay aloft for more than 40 hours at an altitude of up to 10,000m and offers wide-area real-time video to commanders on the ground, as well as to command headquarters in Australia. The hope is that the all-round day-night capability of the Heron will reduce the incidence of roadside bomb attacks by insurgents, given the aircraft’s endurance and ability to scout out patrol routes used by ground forces.

Australian troops operating in Oruzgan have used smaller hand-launched tactical UAVs for some time but the Heron will be the first high-performance, long-endurance UAV to enter service with the RAAF.

10 Israel-made UAVs headed for Afghanistan, Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, 10 December 2009

Under the $91-million lease, the RAAF will receive 10 Heron UAVs, mission payloads, Automatic Ground Control Stations as well as spare parts. The first UAV was delivered to the RAAF during a ceremony at the Ein Shemer landing strip in the North attended by the Canadian military attaché, Col. Geordie Elms, the Australian military attaché, Col. Wayne Fleming, and representatives from the Ministry of Defense, MDA and Israel Aerospace Industries. The RAAF chose the Heron from among a number of competitors after it successfully completed a series of tests of its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Under the deal, the Heron will begin operations in early 2010 for one year, with an option for an additional two years. 

See also

 Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Additional research: Arabella Imhoff
Updated: 18 January 2011