Strategic Fixed Wing Aircraft vs Tactical VTOL UAVs
Ewen Stockbridge Sime


Strategic and complementary roles of unmanned aerial platforms point the way to surveillance and interdiction of maritime threats, explains former RAF Squadron Leader Ewen Stockbridge Syme.

The maritime domain for defence, security and civilian applications has a wide range of challenges to contend with and one area that encompasses all three of these is Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) capabilities.

Navy commanders have a range of options in their tactical portfolio to increase and enhance their BLOS capability. Two of the most popular choices are fixed wing aircraft (manned and unmanned) and VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). A rapidly maturing UAV VTOL industrial base is pushing its platforms into contention for naval test and procurement programmes, whereby previously, fixed wing platforms were considered to be the suitable choice. Both choices have several advantages and disadvantages for seaborne missions, and it’s important to highlight what these are.

Fixed wing aircrafts will generally take off from an airfield and will not be able to take off from most seaborne assets, this is due to their much larger size, and requiring the use of a runway. VTOL UAVs are much smaller in size, with UMS SKELDAR’s V-200 platform having an airframe length of 4 m (13 ft), a height of 1.3 m (4.2 ft) and a width of 1.2 m (4 ft).

Fixed wing aircrafts have much longer endurance and are able to stay in the air for more than 20 hours, whereas VTOL UAVs can’t match this extended duration. This means that fixed wing assets can report back on long distance ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions, whereas SKELDAR’s V-200 platform is able to provide Navy Commanders control from a seaborne asset. Fixed wing providers will continue to have the extended endurance and increased line of sight, but these platforms are not owned by end users; navy commanders relinquish a great deal of control and flexibility over launch and recovery time, as this has to be planned in advance. Putting this in the context of the fifth-generation environment, where agility is critical, it could be argued that the long range, remotely operated Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is only of use to the most strategic of Navies. A ship borne VTOL, under the tactical control of the Naval Commander, offers real time response capability to emerging situations: ultimately, agility is key.



There are two fundamental attributes for a system to be used at sea: operational relevance and technical interoperability. UMS SKELDAR’s V-200 platform has these two elements at the very core of the system.  The V-200 benefits from the use of Hirth’s purpose designed aviation grade heavy fuel engine. The Hirth-developed engine, with heavy fuel licensed technology from Australia’s Orbital Corporation, was the first medium maritime UAV engine to be heavy fuel capable, able to operate on Jet A-1, JP-5 and JP-8 fuels. The major difference between the SKELDAR V-200 engine and those of its competitors is that the engine is more tolerant of the JP-5 quality and that is a big advantage. Maintenance schedules (TBO – Time Between Overhaul) and ease of access to engine compartments allow it to outperform and stay longer in the air before any need for overhaul. These are non-negotiable advantages for operational commanders, who regard 4586 STANAG compliance as essential and provides assets that are immediately deployable from maritime platforms (including vessels, oil rigs and other maritime installations). Most, if not all fixed wing aircrafts are powered by conventional petrol engines, which are unable to be deployed from a seaborne asset. There’s also the simplicity of operation and maintenance, as UAVs share many characteristics with helicopters, and they’re able to be assembled and configured on board a ship in a short space of time.


Operational relevance stems from the ability for the ISR UAS to deliver Information dominance to the decision makers. The asymmetric war, often considered to be a technological battle, is now the asymmetry of intelligence and the ability to use that intelligence to create decision dominance.   Intelligence dominance comes from many different contributing factors: from commanders to analysts from sensors to exploitation and dissemination tools. The V-200 offers the ability to add to this intelligence high ground by directly supporting naval commanders and their decision-making process. Able to carry multiple payloads and sophisticated sensors such as Synthetic Aperture Radar, LiDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging), Hyper Spectral Imagery, Wide Area Motion Imagery and the more traditional EO/IR (Electro-Optical/Infrared) enable the V-200 to provide greater real-time intelligence for defence, security and civilian applications. This capability facilitates decision makers to make assured decisions far more quickly.  In a mission space that changes on a minute by minute basis, the ability to make a decision quicker than the enemy can react is, and always has been, critical.



Multi source intelligence is key, but simplicity of use is critical. If a system is simple, it reduces the training and support burden to operate it and it ensures efficient use. Additionally, one should consider the psyche of the naval operator and their long standing concept of operations (CONOP). If an unmanned system can conform to this CONOP, whilst offering advantages, it will succeed in improving the operational ability of the user. The V-200, in an ISR role, does exactly this: conforms to the existing CONOP, adds value and improves operational capability.

When deciding to acquire a new ISR airborne asset, cost is critical, or to be more precise, value for money is critical. Cost can be measured in many ways: financial, operational and human are but some. A manned system offers a great deal but brings with it increased costs with much larger logistical footprints and the requirement for pilots and crew to man the system who are at risk every time they take to the sky. These key factors combined will require significantly more expenditure. Unmanned systems offer savings in some areas of cost in terms of the actual purchase price, logistical support, training and manpower. But even so, costs are still high, and in an ever-changing technological world, is buying still the answer? As the technology is constantly improving, leasing options become more financially viable for organisations.

The key point is that manned, unmanned, fixed wing and rotary aerial platforms all have valid roles, with the magic formula based on how to integrate the best assets for the job, whilst removing humans from harm’s way and containing costs wherever practicable. This is the continuing task that military decision makers, procurement agencies and governments contend with day in, day out.

This becomes especially important for maritime defence and security use cases such as anti-piracy and coastal security. Drug smugglers and pirates pose a different threat to naval vessels in comparison with traditional enemy forces. As a result, the increased need for security in littoral zones (near to coastlines and land) has seen smaller, faster and more agile UAVs gain traction and popularity.


Current UAVs are able to replicate most of the capabilities of manned helicopters. By mimicking them, our whole understanding of how helicopters are used doesn’t have to change. Added value will come from UAVs teaming with other systems such as the SKELDAR V-200 teaming with the SAAB Globaleye, an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system or Swordfish maritime patrol aircraft, to enable effective find and fix of a potential area or item of interest. This all allows for a fully integrated and optimised solution providing both capability and cost-efficient tactical deployment.

In summary, this highly advanced technology which is operationally simple to use makes modern-day UAVs such as the SKELDAR V-200 a highly appealing solution for navy commanders and security professionals/agencies across the world.