As UAV technology spreads, Gulf companies bet on upgrades with drone-to-satellite links

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A Shadow 50 drone on display at UMEX 2022. (Photo credit: Agnes Helou)

BEIRUT: As unmanned systems technology proliferates around the world, Gulf-based companies are trying to make their way to market not just with battlefield drones, but with these technologies advanced enough to use high-speed links satellites for longer range missions.

“Even non-state sponsored groups such as Daesh [ISIS] and Mexican drug cartels are now able to manufacture effective battlefield drones. So I expect every state in the region that is interested in small battlefield drones to be able to build their own drones almost any time they want – certainly within the next decade,” David said. Des Roches, associate professor in the Near East. South Asian Center for Security Studies, Breaking Defense told.

Beyond basic battlefield drones, company officials from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia recently described their continued efforts to offer drones with satellite link capabilities for navigation. Marc Rickli, head of global risk and resilience at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, suggested they would find a market in Gulf governments beyond the obvious ISR benefits of long-range operations.

“It’s also less risky for human operators who can operate from a safe distance. This can increase the incentive to use them as the potential political costs of losing the lives of one’s own soldiers are reduced,” Rickli said.

Rickli noted the much-publicized performance of the Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar recently in Ukrainian operations against Russian forces – and how that only scratched the surface.

“For example, the Turkish TB2 drone has a range of around 150 km. Drones relying on satellite communications have a much longer range of operations of several hundred kilometres,” he said. “The MQ-9 Reaper has a range of 1850 km for example.” (The Turkish company that produces the Bayraktar reportedly suggested in 2020 that an upgraded version of its drone would feature satellite linking, but that’s not a feature currently announced by the manufacturer.)

This is a market in which Gulf firms hope to establish themselves.

UAE firm to flight test satellite-linked drones in 2023

In the United Arab Emirates, the defense company Halcon is currently developing several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that use satellite navigation.

The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which combines GPS, GLONASS and other satellite navigation systems, is used on the Shadow 25, Shadow 50-TJ, Shadow 50- P, RW-24 and Reach-S from the company, the company says.

“The Shadow is a family of prowling drone systems that provide defense forces with powerful, long-range, high-velocity munitions. The fixed-wing family provides precision air strike capabilities against stationary targets,” Halcon CEO Saeed Al Mansoori told Breaking Defense. “The Shadow 25 and 50-TJ have a turbojet while the Shadow 50-P has a piston engine. These drones are intended to quickly neutralize stationary enemy targets.

The RW-24 is a smart roving munition that provides autonomous ground strike capabilities against a variety of target types. Equipped with GNSS, accuracy can be improved by upgrading its control system with an optical seeker, he said.

Reach-S, on the other hand, is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV. It is suitable for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions as it is a reusable platform.

Al Mansoori said each of the systems is developed “solely” by Halcon, without using Western IP. He said the company plans to fly the drones in early 2023.

The company claims that all Halcon drones achieve control beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), although their range isn’t much greater than the Bayraktar’s – each between 200km and 300km.

Al Mansoori did not specify which satellite Halcon’s UAVs will be linked to, or how they will be protected from jamming, an additional concern that comes with the satellite upgrade.

“Halcon’s drones are securely linked to satellites so they can communicate with the operator or ground control station via GNSS,” Al Mansoor said. “These systems provide the armed forces with long-range precision air-to-ground strike capability as well as usable ISR. This is made possible by powerful satellite navigation systems.

Saudi Arabia is working on a domestic satellite for drone operations

During the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia in early March, two Saudi companies, Intra Defense Technologies and Taqnia Space signed a memorandum of understanding to develop drones with satellite communication capabilities.

“The integration of capabilities to link our drones to satellites was carried out in cooperation with Taqnia Space, and Haboob UAV test flights after the integration was successful and the drone was able to fly 200 km beyond the line of sight through the satellite link through its antenna,” said Asim Qureshi, director of technology and engineering solutions, Breaking Defense.

The Haboob, is a Saudi unmanned aerial vehicle, and it is a locally built derivative of the Turkish Vestel Karayel-SU drone.

The two Saudi organizations are working on the use of SGS1 Nilesat, a satellite specially designed for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which should support military communications.

During WDS, Intra Defense Technologies unveiled its prototype Samoom drone. The company is working to equip the large UAV – weighing around three tonnes and spanning 24 meters from wingtip to wingtip – with satellite communications to support its targeted 55 flight hours.

With satellite links come (certain) communication risks

While interest in long-range drones may be high, drone manufacturers and the militaries who use them will also have to deal with new threats that come with new technology, especially if drones piggyback on commercial satellites.

“Commercial satellites are not secure for military use. If an army has a high-value target they want to protect from drones, they will use electronic warfare measures – including jamming – against drones and achieve significant success,” Des Roches said.

But while it might be relatively easy for a prepared force to defeat the drones, Des Roches said most regional security forces aren’t currently prepared to deal with them.

“Thus, while GPS disruption, spoofing, jamming and other electronic warfare measures will be successful as part of an integrated layered defense against drones, it is unlikely that such measures are taken by most security forces. Therefore, they will remain vulnerable to drone attacks,” he stressed.

And if Gulf countries buy satellite-equipped drones, Des Roche said he expects drones in general to have an outsized impact on military operations in the region for years to come.

“Drone technology has proliferated extremely rapidly, thanks to the miniaturization of electronics and cheap communications. Middle Eastern states and non-state actors now have the capability to produce functional drones by combining commercial technology, even without reference to Western production engineering expertise,” he said.

Des Roches said unmanned systems are primarily a disruptive technology, providing Middle Eastern countries and non-state actors with credible aerial capability, if limited in range and payload.

“This means that countries that have invested heavily in conventional air forces will find that some of that investment has lost value, as even a relatively small non-state group will have the ability to target its ground forces from the air on a limited basis. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most ground forces in the region are not trained to recognize and respond to unexpected threats,” he said.

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