In recent years, the United Arab Emirates has expanded its special operations aviation component considerably, both in terms of numbers and capability.
Established as Aviation Group 18, the unit reports directly to Special Operations Command, rather than to the UAE Air Force or army aviation, although it often operates alongside aircraft and helicopters from both organisations, notably the UAE Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships.
Group 18 is now part of the UAE Presidential Guard that was formally established around four years ago. The unit began operations prior to that with helicopters such as Eurocopter Pumas and AS 550 Fennecs, but has added a large fleet of CH-47F Chinooks and UH-60M Black Hawks as its principal rotarywing types. Fennecs remain in use as sniper platforms and as scouts. The group is also responsible for the helicopters used for VVIP transport, including AgustaWestland AW139s. Most of the unit’s helicopters have been outfitted for their special missions with sensor turrets, countermeasures and armament. Support for the fleet is provisioned through local companies such as Global Aerospace Logistics and the Al Shafar Group.
As well as the large rotary-wing fleet, Group 18 has increasingly begun using fixed-wing types for its missions. A de Havilland Canada Twin Otter has been used for covert transport missions for some time, and was subsequently joined by seven Cessna Caravans. A number of these aircraft have been outfitted with a FLIR Systems BRITE Star sensor turret, and underwing hardpoints for launching Hellfire missiles, of which four can be carried.
Since 2010, the Caravans have been joined in the armed ISR role by up to 24 Air Tractor AT-802i aircraft, intended for counterinsurgency and border patrol duties. An armed and armoured modification of the AT-802 agricultural aircraft, it is equipped with ISR/attack sensors, hard-points for weapons carriage, and a range of defensive countermeasures. The two-seaters were provided by US firm Iomax, which undertook the mission system integration, as distinct from Air Tractor’s own AT-802U armed ISR offering.
Along with a full combat mission system, the AT-802i carries a BRITE Star infrared/ laser turret in Iomax’s flexible pod system. This unit is carried on the aircraft’s centreline, and as well as mounting the sensor ball, can also be configured with self-contained GPS, datalinks and defensive countermeasures. The pod interfaces directly with the aircraft mission system.
In terms of weaponry, the AT-802i can carry a range of gun pods and unguided bombs and rockets, but would principally use precision-guided weapons. The aircraft can carry the GBU-12 Paveway laser-guided bomb, and also the Roketsan Cirit laser-guided rocket. This all-new 70mm rocket was developed in Turkey primarily for that country’s T-129 attack helicopter, but has found its first fixed-wing application – and first export success – in the UAE’s AT-802i. The weapon was initially tested from the Air Tractor in January 2013.
Iomax continues to offer its armed ISR concept, but since supplying the UAE with the AT-802i the company has switched to the broadly similar Thrush 710i airframe. This allows Iomax to make modifications to the aircraft while it is still on the production line, rather than having to modify a completed aircraft. Another change is a switch to the L-3 Wescam MX-15 as the preferred sensor turret. In this form, the aircraft has been christened ArchAngel.
Group 18 was initially concentrated at a large base built on Sas Al Nakhi Island, near Abu Dhabi city, boasting a 2,000m runway. While this remains the main base for the helicopter fleet, at least some of the fixed-wing force – including armed Caravans and Air Tractors – now operate from the 1,050m runway at Falaj Hazzaa camp, located within the city of Al Ain and close to the Omani border east of Abu Dhabi.