in Defence / Features

Eye spy in Africa

Posted 25 April 2017 · Add Comment

Increasing terrorist threats have led to a massive increase in special mission aircraft in Africa. Alan Warnes looks at the latest situation.

The need for ‘eyes in the sky’ – or intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft – has never been greater. As one insider recently said: “Africa is the hot market for ISR right now.”
For countries with limited resources and finances for this role, there is no need for an expensive ‘all singing-all dancing system’, that so many western air forces operate. Today, there are several airborne non-traditional ISR (NTISR) options out there, which are relatively cheap, and can do the job.
Many African countries are now looking at how to solve biting issues, not just on terrorism but human and drug trafficking, poaching and smuggling.
There are several ways to fulfil their requirements. The foreign military sales (FMS) route via the US Government – as many central African countries are using – is one. Buying from the European market, which Morocco and sometimes, Algeria, prefers is another. Or governments can contract companies to upgrade existing platforms, as Nigeria has.
Alternatively, governments can rent an aerospace company specialising in ISR, like Luxembourg-based CAE Aviation. The company’s role in this work over Libya was highlighted last October, when its American-registered Merlin crashed on departure from Luqa Airport in Malta, with the loss of all five personnel on board. The aircraft was being used by the French Government, according to one source, to “track illegal human and drug trafficking in Libya”. CAE is just one of many companies carrying out such work over the war-ravaged country.
Having civilian businesses running ISR roles on behalf of a government has many advantages. With three-yearly contracts often on offer, it keeps a tight grip on the budget and, at the same time, the civilian aircraft can blend into the background. Most military aircraft don’t.
Airborne surveillance is a dark art but, to carry it out efficiently, you need good and expensive systems. A high definition camera, full-motion video recorder integrated with a mapping system/datalink is a minimum requirement. With these technologies, aircraft such as a Beech 350ER King Air, Cessna 208 Caravan or Diamond DA42s, can track people and vehicles for hours.
With an infrared capability, you can continue surveillance through the night. Integrate signals intelligence/electronic intelligence (SIGINT/ELINT) systems, then mobile phones and e-mails, and the internet can be monitored.
But, the more you put in, the heavier the load and the bigger the platform. That’s why the Cessna 208 Caravan has been such a popular platform in FMS contracts to central African states.

Horn of Africa
The US military’s African command (AFRICOM) works with partner-nations in Africa to help defeat violent extremist organisations. At the same time, it hopes to increase security and stability throughout the region, which the USA now realises is in its best interests, too.
From the outset, AFRICOM started using US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Pilatus PC-12 Spectres (U-28) in Africa. Civilian registered, they look innocuous. However, once in the air and in the area of ops, a very expensive forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret, mounted on a plinth, is lowered down through a hatch in the floor.
Four have been regularly deployed to AFRICOM’s combined joint task force (CJTF) – Horn of Africa (HOA) main base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti since 2009, although one crashed, with the tragic loss of all four crew on board in February 2012.
The facility is AFRICOM’s primary African base and CJTF-HOA is responsible for a 2.4-million-square-mile combined joint operating area in east Africa. The area of operations includes Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Seychelles, Tanzania and Uganda. It also has an area of interest that takes in Chad, Comoros, Egypt, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen.

Sahel region
As terrorism has spread throughout Africa’s Sahel region, AFRICOM has taken a keener interest in the area, situated between the Sahara to the north and the Sudan’s savanna.
It stretches through northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, northern Nigeria, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, northern South Sudan, Eritrea, Cameroon, Central African Republic and north of Ethiopia.
In recent years, particularly in the wake of the Mali coup d’état in March 2012, the US has been assisting in broader regional security and stability in numerous ways.
Terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), along with many of its affiliates, moved into Mali after rebels displaced the government. Jihadi militia, now concentrated in the vast northern wilderness, carry out deadly attacks against Malian, French and the United Nations multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali (MINUSMA) forces.
A lack of training to the local forces in the southern and central regions of Mali has also led to security problems there too, but AFRICOM, with the French military, is trying to resolve this.
French Harfang and Reaper unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have been fulfilling the bulk of the ISR work since Operation Serval (now Barkhane) was launched in January 2013. They operate from Niamey Airport in Niger, where the French military have a major facility.
In late December, the AFRICOM commander, General Thomas D Waldhauser, paid a visit to Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to discuss the country’s security needs. We still await news of the outcome.

Caravan sales
The US has been very active over the past three years assisting its African allies with NTISR assets, with the focus being on the slow-moving Cessna 208 Caravan.
It’s a relatively cheap and stable platform, which means the operator in the back can move the plinth-mounted camera turrets without too much air turbulence, and its high wings provide an uncluttered view of the ground. However, as one source recently told me: “It has one engine and, while that may be okay for African or Middle East nations, it wouldn’t be okay for a western company or air force.” He added: “The US is holding these countries to ransom – use what they supply and get the training or have nothing.”
In September 2014, Kenya, Mauritania, and Niger were the subjects of a $13.7 million FMS contract for three ISR Cessna 208B Grand Caravan EXs. At the same time, a $31 million FMS contract was awarded to L3 Systems to produce, modify and integrate them with ISR capabilities. A total of $45 million seems a lot of money for three aircraft, which have a $4-4.5 million price tag each, including the ISR upgrade. It seems there were more aircraft in the deal than the three announced.
The Cessna Grand Caravan EX is a relatively new variation on the Cessna Caravan, having received certification in January 2013. It has a more powerful PT6 engine, delivering 867shp instead of the basic 675shp, and features more modern avionics.
The Mauritanian Air Force aircraft had been delivered by September 1, 2015 when it was shown off at an event to promote the aircraft’s capabilities.
Two Grand Caravan EXs were handed over to the Uganda Peoples Defence Air Force on March 16, 2015, in a deal reportedly worth $15 million. Both were delivered through Las Palmas, Grand Canaries on delivery on February 18, 2015 and purchased to support the Ugandan contingent battling al Shabaab militants in Somalia.
Meanwhile, another pair, this time for the Niger Air Force, routed through Las Palmas on August 28, 2015 on delivery. A local news release on October 28, 2015, covering the first female Niger Air Force pilot, revealed that Lieutenant Ouma Laouali would ‘fly the Cessna 208 ISR Combat Caravan’. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which made the report, the two aircraft and training package was part of a $24 million security cooperation deal.
Two years earlier, in July 2013, the Niger Air Force at Niamey officially took delivery of two new Cessna 208 Caravans (and 10 Toyota trucks). The $11 million package covered the initial costs of the aircraft and related expenses, including maintenance and pilot training. According to the US, “the aircraft enhance the cargo movement capabilities for Nigerien forces”. There was no mention that these were being used as ISR aircraft.
In May 2016, two contracts were awarded by the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, based at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, for the conversion of Cessna 208B Grand Caravan EX aircraft into ISR for four FMS customers. The countries involved are Cameroon (2), Chad (2), Niger (probably 2) and the Philippines (probably 2).
L-3 Communications Corporation in Salt Lake City, Utah, produces the ISR equipment and spares. The deal, worth $14 million, should be completed by September 30, 2017.
The same date applies to the second contract, worth nearly $40 million, awarded to North American Surveillance Systems (NASS) of Titusville, Florida. It covers modification of the aircraft’s body and integration of the ISR capabilities, together with training and field service representative support.

Caravan ISR systems
Northern Florida-based NASS claims to be the global leader in surveillance system integration. After successfully installing an ISR package on a Cessna 208 Caravan, the company was issued a supplemental type certificate (STC) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in May 2010. Most of the Caravan ISR work goes through the company, which, according to its website, also trains personnel of the military customer. Custom designed for military clients, each system is believed to include a Wescam MX-15 electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, NASS side mount, moving map, digital video recorder, microwave downlink system and NASS mission console and liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors. NASS also completed a night vision imaging system (NVIS) cockpit conversion.
“In addition to the using the latest surveillance technology, what makes this system unique is the rapid reconfiguration design,” said NASS president Richard McCourt at the time. “This gives the client the ability to remove the surveillance system and convert the aircraft to passenger status within 30 minutes. Reinstallation is equally quick.”
All the ISR Cessna 208s appear to be linked into an L3 Scorpion ground stations operator console (GSOC), which is part of AFRICOM’s baseline ISR configuration.
The US Government sought to justify the sale of the Cessna 208 ISR to Chad with a data-link back in May 2016. It claimed it would “strengthen the capacity of Chad’s military forces to control its borders and continue the interdiction of smugglers aiding Al Qaeda from trafficking arms and contraband across Chad’s northern desert”.

North Africa’s military
Most of the major countries in the north are now equipping themselves with ISR platforms for various requirements.
In July 2016, Leonardo announced it had been selected to supply two Beechcraft King Air 350ERs with the airborne tactical observation system (ATOS) to an “African country”. Speculation is that these are for Algeria. Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) had already upgraded one of their aircraft to a maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) variant in 2012.
The Algerian Air Force is thought to operate six reconnaissance-configured Beech King Air 350ERs that were delivered a couple of years ago. They all wear civilian markings and are devoid of any national emblems.
It also has six Beech 1900s, which were delivered with the HISAR system, but weight restricted the performance. However, during 2014, the aircraft were upgraded with a lighter system, and fitted with the L3 Wescam MX-15.
In Tunisia, AFRICOM is supporting counterterrorism training and increasing the country’s aerial support capability, enabling improved counterterrorism, intelligence and border security capabilities. It is also assisting Tunisia in installing an electronic surveillance system along key portions of the border with Libya to help stem the illegal flow of people, arms, and contraband.
As part of a $20 million FMS package, the US delivered 12 Maule MX-7-180Bs to the Tunisian Air Force, which were handed over at El Aouina Air Base in May 2016. US aerospace company, Integrated Surveillance and Defense (ISD), fitted the equipment at the Maule factory in Moultrie, Georgia.
The system includes a UTC Tase400 FLIR turret, a Viewpoint map system and a Harris radio downlink capability.
ISD is also set to upgrade 10 Tunisian Air Force AB205s with a FLIR Systems Star Safire III and Vislink ISR system. Work on the helicopters is expected to take place in March and continue through to August.
In Libya, most of the work in the troubled state is being carved up by US companies, although Bournemouth-based DO Systems has been seen operating with Diamond DA42MPPs out of Luqa, Malta. Local enthusiasts have noted them flying out on 10-hour missions.
Undoubtedly all the companies are operating with the blessing of their respective governments. Some of the aircraft are military, but operated by contractors.
Morocco, with its own domestic issues in the south west of the country, is believed to be looking to acquire ISR-equipped King Airs, via its own French-based supplier. To date it hasn’t suffered at the hands of jihadi terrorists in the same way as its neighbours. That is likely to be because of its very impressive border surveillance systems.
It seems the days of the traditional military spy plane are over. The wolves are now in sheep’s clothing.

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