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US, UK deploy manned unmanned aircraft to save bandwidth

Backseaters still tolerating pilots for now

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Bandwidth-starved military spyplane chiefs are resorting to the use of humans as airborne data-processing nodes, according to reports. Difficulties in deployment of unmanned robot surveillance craft have led to the purchase of basic civilian planes for use in intelligence work above Iraq and Afghanistan.

For years now, ground commanders fighting elusive enemies in Southwest Asia have been begging for more and more long-endurance overhead surveillance, particularly that provided by the well-known Predator and Predator-B/Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).

An earlier Beechcraft modified for knob-turner special missions

Yes, that one is pretty funny looking

Initially, problems in delivering more video and groundscan radar imagery were seen as following from foot-dragging by the air force. Generals were reluctant to draft jet jockeys into hated shift duties on the ground, piloting roboplanes by remote over satellite hookups from America. That logjam was resolved at least in part by sacking the boss of the US air force - his replacement has pledged to send pilots into drone duties straight from training if that's what it takes.

After that, continued slow ramp-up of the drone fleets was blamed on demand outstripping supply - there are other customers for UAVs than the military, including the CIA* and homeland-security authorities - and failures by one of the main roboplane makers, General Atomics, to scale up its manufacturing base swiftly enough.

In any case, more and more talk has been heard this year on the stateside spyplane beat of "Project Liberty" - a cheap-and-cheerful push to get more surveillance birds into the Southwest Asian skies in a hurry. The plan is to buy ordinary civilian twin-engine planes and fit them out with the lightweight sensors used by UAVs. They would of course need pilots, but in fact so do the current Predator and Reaper. The only difference is that these pilots would need to be physically in the aircraft.

This Tuesday, indeed, saw an order for 23 Beechcraft King Air 350 extended-range models for the US air force 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, aka "Big Safari", a famous secretive spyplane and electronic-trickery unit. King Airs are a very popular plane for clandestine spy work, oft-used by shadowy American and allied spy/intel and spec-ops projects and units over the years with a variety of mad equipment fitted.

Indeed, the King Air is so popular for this kind of job that there's a generic term for a spyplane-modded one. It is Funny Looking King Air (FLKA), as used by the doyen of secret-plane journalism, Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week.

For its part, the British Army ordered some King Airs last year, to be specially fitted out for Afghan spy work. The British forces have long used homegrown Islanders for this sort of thing in Northern Ireland and Iraq - and lately above certain parts of the mainland UK - but the hot-and-high conditions of Afghanistan call for a more powerful plane. The RAF ordered some Canadian-made Twin Stars this year, but the Army Air Corps favours the King Air for what it calls "Manned Airborne Surveillance".

It might seem odd that Army pilots will be flying FLKAs as well as air force people, but it's primarily the ground and special-ops forces who want these planes. The whole idea of using cheap, relatively low-performance airframes to do any task is quite unpopular among air forces. Airmen tend to describe such planes as not being "survivable" - meaning that if there were some enemy air forces or serious air defences about they'd often get shot down. Soldiers, however, who get killed frequently even when there's no enemy air threat at all, are sanguine about this.

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