Feeds

US, UK deploy manned unmanned aircraft to save bandwidth

Backseaters still tolerating pilots for now

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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.

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Next page: Bootnotes

More from The Register

next story
Adam Afriyie MP: Smart meters are NOT so smart
Mega-costly gas 'n' 'leccy totting-up tech not worth it - Tory MP
'Blow it up': Plods pop round for chat with Commonwealth Games tweeter
You'd better not be talking about the council's housing plans
Arrr: Freetard-bothering Digital Economy Act tied up, thrown in the hold
Ministry of Fun confirms: Yes, we're busy doing nothing
ONE EMAIL costs mining company $300 MEEELION
Environmental activist walks free after hoax sent share price over a cliff
Help yourself to anyone's photos FOR FREE, suggests UK.gov
Copyright law reforms will keep m'learned friends busy
Apple smacked with privacy sueball over Location Services
Class action launched on behalf of 100 million iPhone owners
Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees
'Greenhouse effect is real, but as for the rest of it ...'
UK government officially adopts Open Document Format
Microsoft insurgency fails, earns snarky remark from UK digital services head
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.