Army deploys more small drones in ISR surge

UAS feature universal ground controls, open protocols for communications

The Army is getting ready to deploy additional numbers of unmanned aircraft systems in Southwest Asia. Ranging from large, long-duration platforms to small, hand-launched tactical platforms, these new systems will support warfighters with enhanced sensors, communications and operating times.

Speaking at a media briefing June 23, Army officers outlined some of the progress they have made with their respective UAS projects. All of the aircraft are tied together through a common operational architecture and use a universal ground control station and a miniature, universal ground control station, said Tim Owings, acting project manager and deputy project manager for Army UAS. These aircraft also use open protocols for communication between the manned and unmanned platforms in the service. “It’s not just stand-alone systems; it’s really a collection of capabilities,” he said.

The increased operational tempo in Afghanistan is seeing a surge deployment of an additional 180 Raven tactical UAS systems. This surge will increase the existing level of 15 Ravens per brigade combat team up to 35 systems, said Cliff Brandt, product manager for Army Small UAS. This effort is now under way with a formal launch time sometime next month, he said.

Brand’s other program responsibility is the Puma, a small UAS that is already being issued to Army units conducting route clearance patrols. He said that his in-theater staff is training Army personnel in the route clearance teams to operate the UASs. There are 22 systems in the theater being used for route clearance with a total of 84 units planned for deployment by August.

The small UAS program is halfway through the training and fielding the Army route clearance teams. However, the challenge of training warfighters in theater who are in combat operations has slowed the process slightly. “Having to pull guys out of the fight to try and get them trained is a little more difficult task than what it seems,” he said.

The program also will provide 129 more Pumas for use in Afghanistan. These systems will be issued to the brigade combat teams, and they will operate at the company level. “We’ve been real busy, and that’s on top of continuing to do our upgrades, moving from an analog to a digital system,” he said.

Another UAS making progress is the Shadow, which is the Army’s primary reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition system for brigade-level units. The Shadow aircraft have logged in slightly more than 630,000 flying hours, 90 percent of which have been in combat, said Lt. Col. Andrew Hamilton, product manager for UAS Ground Maneuver.

The program has fielded 90 systems to the Army and 13 to the Marine Corps. The older Shadow UAS has an operational endurance of five to six hours, and a simpler electro-optical/infrared payload in a sensor ball. The latest version has a new extended wing design and an improved endurance of nine hours. It also is equipped with a new payload that allows the aircraft to mark ground targets with an onboard laser.

Hamilton said the program also is working on developing, fielding and testing a common tactical data link that provides some encryption capabilities. The program is also in the process of integrating the Joint Tactical Radio System on the platform, which is a first for a UAS, he said.

The program also will field the first full-spectrum combat aviation brigade with two Shadow units. “It’s a whole new concept,” Hamilton said.

The MQ-1C Grey Eagle is the largest of the Army’s UAS platforms. Based on the General Atomic’s Predator, the Grey Eagle is intended to provide the Army with a long-duration platform capable of spotting and attacking targets with its Hellfire missiles.

The program consists of 12 aircraft, six ground control stations and support elements, said Lt. Col. Kevin Messer, product manager for Medium-Altitude Endurance systems. The aircraft allows the Army to fly missions running between 20 and 30 hours. It can carry multiple payloads, including an electro-optical/infrared ball, a laser designator, a synthetic aperture radar, a ground moving target indicator and a communications relay package that allows soldiers on the ground and helicopters to speak directly to UAS operators.

Over the past six months, the program has just deployed its second team of four aircraft to Afghanistan. The aircraft have also provided direct fire support, Hamilton said.

There were some challenges that appeared in Afghanistan that did not appear during testing in the United States. These included turbulence flying over the mountains in the region and problems with the aircraft’s turbo charger that have been fixed, Hamilton said.

The program has also passed a milestone decision to purchase a fifth Gray Eagle equipped unit. Hamilton said he expects the new unit to be deployed early next year. The program will then go into an initial operational test evaluation next year.

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