Despite the Ministry of Defense’s silence on the actual purpose of its Zephyr purchase, the Strategic Defense and Security Review offered a major hint. “[British Special Forces] will have the information they need, including through our investment in advanced high-altitude surveillance aircraft,” the review stated.
In 2916 British Special Forces were spotted training Syrian rebels. A platform such as Zephyr flying out of Cyprus — where the U-2 currently operates — could provide always-on signals and imagery to commanders back home, as well as provide current intelligence- and data-support to troops on the ground.
Zephyr 8 — or Zephyr S as it will be known for its production run — has an 82-foot wingspan, but it’s also 30-percent lighter despite carrying 50 percent more batteries. This leaves more space for its 11-pound payload.
Zephyr S probably represents the evolution that was necessary for the platform to pick up production contracts. Zephyr S carries high-definition optical/infrared cameras, narrow-band mobile communications with a 100-megabits-per-second broadcast capacity. Its NIIRS 6 camera can produce imagery with a resolution of up to 15 centimenter for objects on the ground.
At the Farnborough Airshow in July 2016, Airbus announced the Zephyr T — a larger, twin-tail design with a wingspan of 108 feet, capable of carrying a 44-pound payload on its larger 136.6-pound air frame. Airbus is planning a full-scale build in 2018 before the aircraft becomes operational the following year.
Zephyr T is a shot across the bow of Northrop Grumman’s Triton — the naval variant of the Global Hawk. It will carry a maritime radar twinned with a synthetic aperture radar to detect surface ships. This positions it as a long-endurance maritime and border-patrol aircraft or anti-piracy surveillance aircraft — both of which would appeal to Britain’s current naval roles at home and abroad.
Zephyr’s biggest test will be convincing other nations that it’s worthy of procurement. The United States clearly has a long-standing interest in the project, so an American order — in either a military or civilian capacity — is not unthinkable. Another option might be Japan, who has been procuring surveillance and patrol aircraft to secure its contested seas with China.