The programme for acquiring two Astore MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAV systems, developed and produced by Leonardo, is about to be launched, following the publication in mid-December 2023 of the relevant document by the Italian Government
The Astore UAVs will act as gap fillers, as the Predator Alpha Plus MQ-1C UAVs that entered service in 2004 and saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan was phased out in late 2022 while the new MQ-9A Reapers Block 5 should become operational in late 2025. The first Italian Air Force MQ-9A Block 5 flight took place in the United States in early November 2023.
The contract will be worth 76 million Euro, the main financing taking place in 2023. 2024 and 2025, respectively with 21, 25 and 25 million, one million per year being assigned to the programme in the following five years. These figures might vary depending on the programme
Each one of the two systems will include two Astore air vehicles and one Ground Control Station. Within the contract the Italian Air Force will also receive the relevant auxiliary ground equipment, spares for 1,000 flight hours, logistic and maintenance support for the initial phase while the Air Force will aim to reach full autonomy. The contract will also include training for 40 Air Force personnel, including pilots and maintainers. Laser guided missiles will also be part of the package, to be used in an experimentation and evaluation phase, as the Italian Air Force intends to use those UAVs also for kinetic missions, beside the typical Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance mission.
A derivative of the Falco Evo, according to information provided by Leonardo the Astore has a 12.5 metres wingspan, a maximum take-off weight of 650 kg, 210 kg representing the payload including 90 kg of fuel. Each wing can carry up to 35 kg payload, which means the UAV can carry two lightweight missiles or guided rockets such as Roketsan Cirit 70 mm ones, leaving 50 kg for other payloads, among them an electro-optical surveillance and tracking system. The UAV should be fitted with a Leonardo EOST-46 gimballed sensor suite which features a thermal channel based on the company Medium Wave Infrared Erica Plus cooled thermal imager, a colour TV with a x20 zoom being used for daylight operations, while a black and white camera ensures target acquisition. To ensure laser weapons guidance a laser designator should also be fitted. Safety critical systems are installed to ensure maximum safety of weapons firing systems, a man-in-the-loop being of course ensuring target positive identification as well as firing clearance.
The Astore has a maximum endurance of up to 14 hours with weapons installed, 16 hours in clean configuration, with an operational ceiling of 23,000 ft and a line-of-sight range of over 200 km. Powered by a turbo heavy-fuel engine, its operational speed varies between 60 and 105 knots. When flying at 2,000 ft above ground level the noise is less than 32 dB.
Beside their military use under the Ministry of Defence authority, Astore UAVs will also be available for supporting other State entities in homeland security and civil missions.
Photos courtesy Leonardo