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The Philippine Air Force Is Planning To Build Its Own Drone Fleet

July 16, 2019

The Cobalt on display at the first Naval Defense Philippines exhibition. Via 21AAR.

An annual exhibition for the country’s emerging maritime sector served as the only public event to reveal the military’s new surveillance drones. Shown at the booth of a local startup were two small fixed wing models, a twin-boom and a v-tail, that each had vertical take off capability. These belonged to Safer PH Innovations, a company specializing in collaborative projects with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and its growing catalog of unmanned systems.

Safer PH Innovations were among the exhibitors under Naval Defense Philippines that formed part of the much larger PhilMarine 2019 show taking place between June 18 and 20.

While the Philippine military’s different branches do possess their own UAVs, these are imported models and see limited use. Another drawback is accidents or defects renders them unusable for want of spare parts. What was shown by Safer PH Innovations are competing VTOLs whose acquisition was conceived by the Philippine Air Force (PAF) in a secretive, but not restricted, program whose scope involved the AFPs shift to network-centric operations driven by real time data. A small team of PAF officers conducted feasibility studies on UAV development from late 2018 until early 2019. One approach to a locally based UAV production line was taking a retired trainer jet and copying its design, albeit with smaller dimensions, through additive manufacturing. Dual use parts could then be imported from abroad to complete the aircraft.

But as the program matured the PAF’s research team drew on other offices and government agencies to expedite its work. The result was the PAF Air Logistics Command, the Philippine Navy’s (PN) Naval Air Group, and the Philippine Aerospace Development Corporation (PDAC) all joined in to finalize a timetable for adopting a common model. Two US companies were then invited to supply the necessary VTOLs. These are DroneTech UAV and SpektreWorks, both of whom shared dual use airframes that could be equipped for military applications. The reason why VTOL for drones emerged as the primary characteristic is to match the Philippines’ varied geography. The absence of usable infrastructure as well as remote locations and dense wilderness in places where the military deploys made VTOLs the best choice.

DroneTech UAV’s contribution was its Pelican AV-2 that boasted removable “VTOL pods” under its wings. These pods are the horizontal arms where each of the four small rotors are attached. The propeller-driven Pelican is unique for its two engines–one on its nose and another behind its v-tail. DroneTech’s main partners in the Philippines are PDAC and Safer PH Innovations. It’s expected to be assembled locally where it receives specific upgrades such as C4I avionics and the Hovering Aerial Weapon Kit or HAWK that’s meant for carrying small munitions such as mortar rounds in an offensive role.

Competing with the Pelican is the Cobalt 110 G-VTOL from SpektreWorks (pictured above) whose appearance is closest to the PAF’s original ideation for a universal UAV embraced by the military’s different branches. Like the Pelican, the Cobalt can be armed with small munitions. Its product leaflet revealed an airborne endurance of 10 hours with an impressive ceiling that reached 20,000 feet. The Cobalt’s dimensions are a length of 2.5 meters and a wingspan of 4.7 m. SpektreWorks is working with the PAF and PDAC to shift assembly to a state-owned facility outside Metro Manila.

The selection of a medium altitude VTOL for the Philippine military is a crucial one. Whether or not varied models are assigned to each branch, the army in particular has plans to introduce lightweight and portable drones at the battalion level, meaning it wants hundreds for its own needs. As for the navy, its aggressive modernization and the requirements of the marines calls for UAVs suited for ships tasked with anti-piracy and poaching in territorial waters. The PAF stands to gain the most, however, as it monopolizes the R&D and manufacturing processes for unmanned systems.

UAVs have a major role in the AFP’s pivot to defending the country’s borders rather than face internal threats. Among the least known recent acquisitions that served this doctrine was a huge order for IAI’s Hermes drones placed when President Rodrigo Duterte visited Israel in 2018. But the exorbitant cost involved, estimated to have surpassed $100 million, spurred the military’s determination to pursue limited self-sufficiency. A telling detail of the PAF’s drone research was avoiding any input and reliance from Chinese suppliers or any foreign organizations that charged steep fees. No wonder it was civilian US companies that benefited, eventually.

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