Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are proliferating around the world, proving a capable and cost-effective solution for a diverse range of uses. The military sphere is no exception and UAS have been added to the ADF inventory at a steadily increasing rate. There is no question that this trend will continue, and looking well into the future, it is almost certain that UAS will gradually replace manned aviation platforms as their safety and autonomous capability improves.

The intent of the ADF to increase our capability through exploiting opportunities to acquire UAS is presenting some unexpected issues in integrated logistics support. Additionally, questions regarding licencing, regulation, airspace control and safety and risk management have been in a state of flux for a considerable period of time.

One of the key questions that must be answered is how Army should structure maintenance support for UAS into the future. UAS maintenance is much more widely scoped than just the Air Vehicle (AV) – it encompasses the Ground Control Station, launch and recovery equipment including automatic take-off/landing systems, and all communications equipment involved in controlling the receiving data from the AV and its payload(s) during flight.

‘UAS’ can apply to an extremely wide range of systems, from very simple, small, light consumer UAS to extremely complex and expensive strategic UAS. The level of assurance against materiel failure vastly differs across this spectrum – there is no one size fits all solution.

There are three general groups of UAS in terms of complexity of logistics support required: small UAS, medium/large non-certified UAS, and certified UAS. For small UAS, maintenance support need not be considered since it is generally cost-effective to either repair by replacement, or to wholly delegate maintenance to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). For certified UAS, the maintenance support required is significant; however, the structure and requirements are clear since Defence Aviation Safety Regulations (DASR) applies in the same manner as to manned platforms.

It is the middle category which presents the greatest challenge in terms of planning how maintenance support should be structured. For these UAS, their maintenance falls between the Land Technical Regulatory Framework and DASR, with neither applying in full.

It is unlikely for the foreseeable future that it will be cost-effective and tactically sound to achieve maintenance of these UAS using a civilian-only workforce. This leaves four possible options for the maintenance workforce:

Option 1 – RAEME Aeroskills trades (status quo)

Use of the RAEME Aeroskills trades is the easiest means to demonstrate sufficiency in meeting the requirements stipulated by the Defence Aviation Safety Authority (DASA) in order to permit operations of tactical UAS (TUAS). However, RAEME Aeroskills trades are over-qualified for the level of maintenance that they currently are tasked to complete on TUAS and there are multiple associated career management challenges with their employment. Continued use of RAEME Aeroskills trades will remain sufficient to support the capability, but may not represent the best return on investment for the significant cost of training aviation technicians.

Option 2 – Ground maintenance trades

RAEME ground trades undoubtedly possess the trade skills required to achieve all required UAS maintenance; however, the use of ground maintenance trades may undermine attempts to expand the approved airspace in which TUAS are approved to operate.

Additionally, they are not currently trained in, or familiar with, the DASRs and would likely face some issues in integrating into support to aviation operations, which would require tailored training to overcome. This may not represent an efficient use of Defence resources, given that these members would almost certainly return to general trade employment following their posting in TUAS maintenance.

Option 3 – New UAS maintenance stream

This option is the most favourable in terms of being able to finely tailor the maintenance training and continuation of proficiencies to meet the requirements of UAS maintenance. However, this option is only sustainable with a relatively large workforce – the current size of the TUAS maintenance workforce is prohibitively small. This option may become workable in the future, as more UAS are brought into service, and the role of UAS in Army develops beyond its current niche of Surveillance and Target Acquisition into its likely expansion areas of logistics support, Manned-Unmanned Teaming and armed reconnaissance.

Option 4 – Operator/maintainer

The most flexible option of all in terms of tactical employment, scalability and sustainability, is the redesign of the UAS Operator (also known as Remote Pilot) and UAS maintenance streams such that personnel are trained in both. Whilst this is a very attractive option in terms of the capability it produces, it would involve a reduction in the level of training that operators currently receive in other areas. My assessment is that this would not necessitate an unsafe reduction in skills in operating the aircraft or in maintenance execution, but would likely see a reduction in the time available to carry out foundation warfighting training and general soldier skills.

This option should retain a RAEME Aero oversight team at the Officer/Warrant Officer level to safeguard safety and provide specialised technical oversight. If necessary, this option may be blended with any of the other options to tailor levels of maintenance (i.e. operator and deeper level maintenance) within the unit, or otherwise to retain maintenance specialists for advanced fault finding.

New capabilities always present new challenges, and the proliferation of UAS is no different. I look forward to seeing Army’s UAS capabilities grow and mature, in particular the introduction into service of the new TUAS under LAND 129-3 in the near future. Any of the options presented above would be able to be adjusted to support operations; however, decision-makers should seek to shape the future workforce to best utilise the capacity of our soldiers and achieve the best return possible on the cost of training. I would strongly recommend that the operator/maintainer concept is considered as an aspirational goal, as it presents the most compelling capability and an inviting career path for new entrants into Army service.