Colombian Air Force Ramps Up UAV Program

Colombian Air Force Ramps Up UAV Program

By Yolima Dussán/Diálogo
June 18, 2018

Successful operations against national and transnational threats prompted the Air Force to add new squadrons and manufacture its own equipment.

The Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) brings forth a program designed to increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which provide real-time information to a ground-based team. FAC activated the UAV squadron as an essential component of the Hércules Task Force, a military unit created to cover the department of Nariño, in southwestern Colombia.

The ceremony marking the activation of the UAV squadron and its launch facility took place May 14, 2018, at the Marco Fidel Suárez Military Aviation School of the 7th Air Combat Command in Cali, Colombia. FAC plans to implement UAV bases and squadrons throughout the country by 2030 as part of a project that includes manufacturing the aircraft.

“We stepped up intelligence and reconnaissance maneuvers in the southwestern part of the country with the support of the U.S. government,” FAC Major General Rodrigo Alejandro Valencia Guevara, chief of the Aerial Operations Command, said during the ceremony. “The crews will put all their skills to the test as they work as ScanEagle and NightEagle aircraft operators and as video analysts.”

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance

Colombia entered the UAV era in 2006 with the purchase of ScanEagles from U.S. firm Insitu. With training from U.S. Southern Command, FAC acquired experience and skills in handling and operating the UAV, as well as knowledge of the small aircraft’s capabilities. The ScanEagle is 1-by-3 meters and weighs 19 kilograms.

“Each branch of the Armed Forces has some level of capability. The Army uses it for tactical missions; FAC at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels; the Navy for operations at sea; and the National Police at the tactical and operational levels,” FAC Major Adolfo Salamanca Guzmán, deputy director of modernization for the Department of Capabilities of the Office of Special Operations, told Diálogo.

UAVs proved their efficacy on anti-terrorist, anti-narcotics, and anti-insurgency missions in sensitive areas of Colombia’s interior and along the border. The aircraft can even be used to fight forest fires and prevent natural disasters.

“Having this tool allows us to be more effective in each operation. Having sufficient range and instant information allows for rapid decision-making,” FAC Colonel John Jairo López Oviedo, head of the UAV Department, told Diálogo.

Great autonomy and lower costs

Two hundred specialists organized into teams of five run the operations, each with a mission commander, an operator, an image analyst, and two technicians. “Missions using UAV offer a great deal of autonomy. For tactical, operational, and strategic purposes we have models that can perform well in each theater of operation. We can fly for 25 to 30 hours straight; no manned aircraft could give us that kind of range,” Col. López said.

Their advantage lies in efficiency, coverage, safety, and cost. They can fly day or night at altitudes of 6,000 m. “They can’t be spotted, which makes intelligence work easier. With this tool, we don’t have to put personnel in the air, which always involves some sort of risk. We estimate the cost to be 40 percent less than what would be spent on an operation with manned aircraft,” Col. López added.

“We improved our techniques and procedures, and we are the first military in the world to fly UAV out of international airports,” Col. López told Diálogo. “This means sharing airspace with manned commercial aircraft controlled by the civil aviation authority, made possible through the development of a strong operational safety component. The use of this type of aircraft in our Air Force is a significant experience for aviation. This tool represents the future of world aviation.”

Quimbaya, Atlante, and Coelo

FAC’s fleet of UAV comprises the ScanEagle and Hermes 450 and 900. These aircraft carry out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, as well as advanced air control, emergency and natural disaster monitoring, and protection of critical national infrastructure. The capabilities the fleet acquired led FAC to develop its own models through the Ministry of Defense and in partnership with the Colombian Aerospace Industry Corporation (CIAC, in Spanish), which move the Quimbaya, Atlante, and Coleo projects forward.

“The design and development phase of the Quimbaya project is complete, and the prototype is ready. We will run tests in July [2018] and begin manufacturing the aircraft in 2019,” Retired FAC General Flavio Enrique Ulloa Echeverry, director of CIAC, told Diálogo. “It will be a tactical UAV for the Air Force and the National Police used mostly for surveillance of the country’s critical infrastructure.”

Atlante II is a fiberglass aircraft weighing 750 kg with a flight ceiling of nearly 7,000 m and a flight range of 200 kilometers. FAC and the Spanish Army plan to use it to reinforce their surveillance capabilities in the next 20 years.

Lastly, the Coelo project will serve the Colombian Army, Marines, and Jungle commando units of the National Police. “It is a light UAV weighing approximately 6 kg, so troops can carry it as part of their equipment and launch it by hand. It monitors a 10- to 15-km area during an operation,” Gen. Ulloa said.