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Portugal’s military drone program takes flight

Portugal’s first sustained combat operations in decades has resulted in the acquisition and deployment of a new unmanned aerial system capability.

“It has proved a really demanding theater of operations and we have received a lot of requirements that are forced in the field need and we are providing them,” said Richard Camilo, a staff officer with the Portuguese Army Force Planning Division. Camilo spoke exclusively to The Defense Post at the SMi-organized UAV Technology conference in London on October 1.

One of those acquisitions is AeroVironment’s Raven, a mini UAV that is hand deployable by Portuguese soldiers operating in the field. Last year, Portugal purchased 12 Raven systems through a $5,962,494 NATO Support and Procurement Agency contract. The first RQ-11B Raven drones were received by the Portuguese Army in June.

AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven drone launch
A soldier launches an AeroVironment RQ-11B Raven drone during training, July 28, 2015. Image: US Air Force/Senior Airman Diana M. Cossaboom

The drone is lightweight, man-portable, hand-launched and meant to be operated by two people. The system is designed to be unpacked and launched within five minutes. The American-built drone is now used by 18 of NATO’s 29 militaries and operators on all six inhabited continents. A 10-day training course is needed to deploy the system.

The drone will give Portuguese forces ISTAR capabilities and improve C4ISR.

Helmet camera footage of Portuguese forces involved in combat operations against militias in Central African Republic shows confused gunfights – and that’s where the new Portuguese drone capability could prove helpful as Portuguese forces are often called onto to perform missions on short notice in the CAR.

Portugal has deployed roughly 200 personnel, mainly paratroopers, to the United Nations’ ongoing MINUSCA peacekeeping operations in Central African Republic. A special company operates from the capital Bangui as a Rapid Reaction Force.

Soldiers from the 1st Parachute Infantry Battalion, which deployed to Central African Republic in September, were among the first trained on the use of the RQ-11B Raven unmanned aerial system.

In January, Portuguese paratroopers engaged in a five-hour gun battle with the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), an ex-Seleka militia group, for control of the town of Bambari in the heart of the country. The paratroopers clashed with “pockets of fighters” for several days after the battle.

While many militaries grapple with limited defense budgets as they look to expand their ISTAR capabilities via drones, Portugal’s current involvement in combat operations makes it a special case.

“We are also seeking to acquire new radios, communications, and battlefield management systems and for all this the priority is for this to deployed with them,” Camilo said, referring to the Portuguese MINUSCA contingent. Portugal is the only NATO member state presently involved in the mission.

While Portugal may be latecomer to unmanned aerial systems, it has a front-row seat to the development of maritime drones.

In September the waters off Portugal’s Sesimbra and Troia peninsulas hosted Exercise REP (MUS) 19 designed to test the interoperability of robot ships and maritime drones in support of NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative.

A large contingent of the Portuguese Navy was joined by representatives from other NATO allies including Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The exercise included dozens of unmanned underwater, surface and air vehicles as NATO nations work to counter Russia’s growing prowess in maritime drones by developing more capabilities to monitor the oceans.

These experiences will certainly influence the crafting of Portugal’s own drone doctrine. Like other speakers at the UAV Technology conference, Camilo made clear that future military systems that are deployed by Portugal will not be fully autonomous and will be centered on their human operators.

“Drones maybe one of the most visible examples of the work the NATO Support and Procurement Agency has done to boast the capabilities of the Portuguese armed forces. It is a further testament to Portugal’s commitment to NATO and vice-versa,” said Manuel Matos Dos Santos, the President of the youth wing of the Atlantic Treaty Association of Portugal (YATA).

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