The Heron UAV, the Bundeswehr and the Joint Operator Support Model


2017-12-07 Airbus Defence and Space published a release today which highlighted the Bundeswehr mission in Africa, operating from a French base at Gao.

The Heron has been part of that mission and has completed its first year of operations in Mali.

According to the Press Release:

The Heron 1 UAV system, which is stationed at the Gao air base for the German Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) as part of the UN’s MINUSMA mission, logged its 3,000th flight hour in November 2017.

The system’s maiden flight took place in Mali on 1 November 2016 after the contract was signed in June 2016.

When added to the Heron 1’s operations for the German Armed Forces in Afghanistan, the Air Force’s UAV system has chalked up more than 38,000 flight hours.

Both places of deployment are being managed using a joint operator model between the Bundeswehr and industry.

As with the Heron 1’s operations in Afghanistan, the provision, maintenance and repair of the system in Mali is the responsibility of Airbus Defence and Space in Bremen.

Three Heron 1 aircraft are stationed at the air base in Gao, located in northeastern Mali. Given its reconnaissance depth of up to 800 km, the Heron 1 system has significantly enhanced the German Air Force’s aerial reconnaissance capabilities. The reconnaissance results are then made available to the Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) for the MINUSMA mission, thereby contributing to the increased safety of all partners involved in the UN mission.

Reconnaissance tasks focus on the country’s crisis regions in order to provide the best possible protection for the country’s population as well as for the German troops and the contingents of other mission nations stationed in the country.

The operator model impressively demonstrated its performance capabilities during operations in Afghanistan and Mali, as emphasised by proven high system readiness of well in excess of 90%.

This is in addition to the system’s full compatibility and interoperability with Germany’s allies. The deployments of the Heron system in Afghanistan and Mali also help develop expertise within the Bundeswehr with a view to future MALE UAS.

Manufactured by the Israeli company IAI, Heron 1 is an unarmed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS for the respective theatre of operations.

The aircraft has a wingspan of 17 metres and a maximum mission endurance of over 24 hours. The system’s military tasks include detecting booby traps from the air, accompanying convoys and patrols, assisting forces in combat situations, reconnoitring and surveilling routes, establishing movement profiles and long-term monitoring, supporting situation assessments, and protecting property and military camps.

The UAS is also used to support humanitarian missions.

Deutsche Welle has provided an overview of German participation in the UN mission in Africa which provides a broader strategic look at where German forces fit into an overall approach.

German interests in the broader Sahel region are tied to the fate of Mali. Berlin’s primary interests include supporting its ally France, combating extremist groups and preventing criminal human-trafficking networks from sending migrants north to Libya and on to Europe. 

Fostering political stability and economic opportunity are integral parts of Germany’s broader Sahel strategy….

Around 875 German troops are currently taking part in the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), aimed at stabilizing the country and supporting a peace agreement between the government and rebels…..

Germany joined MINUSMA from the beginning.

But it has increased its role in Mali over time, in part to support France’s broader counterterrorism operations, especially after a series of terror attacks in France over the past two years. 

The importance of the broader Sahel region has also increased as criminal trafficking networks bring African migrants to Libya, using it as a springboard to reach Europe.

More than 600,000 African migrants, most with little chance of receiving asylum, have arrived in Italy over the past three years. 

The Bundestag, or German parliament, therefore approved a stronger MINUSMA mission in January 2016 in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

In January 2017, the German parliament approved an increase in the number of German troops that could be deployed to Mali, upping the number to 1,000.

The 2017 decision came after the Netherlands pulled its own helicopters out and Germany decided to fill the gap by deploying NH-90 transport helicopters and Tiger type combat helicopters. 

The Bundeswehr contingent includes transport aircraft, refueling aircraft, anti-personnel tanks, and unmanned drones. The Bundeswehr’s role is primarily in a support and surveillance capacity.

In addition to the UN mission, Germany has about 350 soldiers based in the southern Mali as part of an EU training mission for the Malian army.

Separately, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – known as the G5 -are setting up a 5,000-strong combined force to combat smuggling and extremist groups in the Sahel region. 

The EU is the main funder of this French-backed African force.

The G5 force is expected to complement France’s Barkhane operation and the MINUSMA mission.

For earlier pieces on the Mali mission, see the following: