Demand grows for tactical unmanned aircraft

Services, industry accelerate deliveries in response to battlefield requests

With pleas from theater for more small and medium-class unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) growing louder, the services and industry are hoping to accelerate deliveries. Small tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are proficient. For that reason, they are great demand by the military services.

As of January, Army unmanned aircraft systems had chalked up 1.45 million total hours, 90 percent in theater — a 6,800 percent growth rate in operational usage since 2001, Cliff Brandt, Army product manager for Small UAS, told Defense Systems.
 
“UAVs provide the only means of real-time situational awareness within 10 or 20 kilometers of operators,” said Steven Gitlin, communications director of AeroVironment, maker of small class leaders Raven, Puma and Wasp. 

As important, they’re tasked for convoy protection, perimeter security, target acquisition and battle damage assessment. Ease of use and size makes them especially attractive, Gitlin said.

“Unmanned aircraft can substitute for expensive, high-performance aircraft, such as fighters, in orbiting missions that do not require great speed or maneuverability, a June 2011 Congressional Budget Office study said. “[They] can reduce flight hours for fighter aircraft and thereby decrease replacement costs over time.”

They’re also much cheaper operationally for the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force.

Most of this range of UAVs by far are small, man-portable, short-range, rail- or soldier-launched types directed by handheld control boxes and joysticks. They are less persistent — they fly lowest over the least range for the shortest duration — than medium-range varieties.

The Raven is 4.2 pounds complete with payload and battery, the Puma is 13 pounds and the Wasp weighs barely a pound, Gitlin said.

The Puma can fly for two hours, Raven 90 minutes and the tiny Wasp, 45 minutes. Range [maximum about 18 miles] and payloads are limited, but each boasts a mini-camera and “color electro optical video sensor and Infrared capability.” So far, they lack larger systems’ heftier hyper spectral sensors or synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

These aircraft launch by hand, use a common controller and land on the ground; there are no rails, catapults, runways, or catch nets. The maker is looking at a sensor upgrade on the Raven, and for Wasp, introducing a hacker-foiling encrypted digital datalink, which already is a Raven feature.

Ardent Champions

Special operations forces (SOF) are among UAVs' most ardent champions. They are very important because for highly mobile special operators, this class deploys rapidly and operates from unimproved sites and [ships], said Ken McGraw, deputy public affairs officer at the Special Operations Command.

SOFs typically "use the service-common RQ-11 Raven and RQ-7 Shadow fielded by the Army, and the Wasp used by Air Force security forces,” McGraw said. Using such systems “ensures we’re interoperable with all forces in Defense Department. Operating [tactical UAS] in a small, joint environment is the acid test as to how well they operate with each other,” he said.

Two premier medium-range UAVs are the Shadow, from AAI/Textron, primarily used by the Army and Marines, and the Fire Scout rotorcraft, from Northrop Grumman with the Navy.

Perhaps the most impressive medium platform is the Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical takeoff UAV (VTUAV) made by prime contractor Northrop Grumman. The Scout sports a now-familiar rotating “eyeball” pod crammed with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gear, advanced electro-optical camera systems with night-vision, thermal infrared capabilities, SAR and associated sensor suites.

Payloads up to 600 pounds can include active and passive electronic warfare and electronic countermeasures gear with eight hours’ persistence and more than a 100-mile range. Jamming, signal-bounce (communications relay) and satellite communications are possible.

The Fire Scout can do precision targeting and battle damage assessment from its base, the Littoral Combat Ship, according to the VTUAV Program Manager Office. Fire Scout was part of the NATO’s successful 2011 operation in Libya and is expected to continue theater deployment through 2012.

As for the future,  Northrop Grumman said in November 2011 that it was working on an advanced laser-guided 70mm rocket, the Advanced Precision-Kill Weapons System.

By arming Fire Scout, “the Navy will have a system that can locate and prosecute targets of interest,” George Vardoulakis, Northrop Grumman vice president for tactical unmanned systems said in a statement. “This capability shortens the kill chain and lessens the need to put our soldiers in harm’s way.”

At press time the Navy still had the FIre Scout on "operational pause" following two crashes that occurred in spring 2012 during overseas deployment. Despite the indefinite grounding of the MQ-8B fleet of unmanned rotorcraft, the Navy awarded a $262 million contract in April to Northrop Grumman to develop the first batch of the new MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is designed to have greater range and other improvements beyond the MQ-8B model, according to Northrop Grumman officials.

The Army and Marines RQ-7A Shadow 200/600 series Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System produced by AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems reportedly had more than 400 of the rail-launched vehicles in service or on order in 2010. With an extended 20-foot wing and a larger fuel cell, the latest model has greater endurance than its predecessor and hard points on the wings for external stores.

“The configuration is [versatile],” said Steven Reid, AAI vice president and general manager. [Now] the customer [has] all the same benefits and affordability of a tactical-sized system, and all the same equipment and logistics.”

The Army contracted in December 2011 with AAI for a weaponization feasibility study and demonstration for the Marines, a longtime Shadow user. To gain more flexibility, Reid said, “We’ll develop a universal weapons architecture allowing Shadow to carry and deploy weapons up to 25 pounds that also meets size and other criteria.”

Importance of Interoperability

Interoperability is a priority and helps to meld different systems with different service branch requirements, said Marine LtCol Graham Hamill, UAS requirements officer on the staff of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance.

For small tactical UAS, the Marine Corps seeks “increased range, endurance, interoperability, reliability and ‘plug-and-play’ payload modularity [enabling all Marine UAVs] to perform air reconnaissance, offensive air support, anti-air warfare, electronic warfare, assault support, and control of aircraft and missiles,” he said. The intent is to “integrate with and complement the manned aircraft fleet,” he said.

The Marine Corps aims to make UAS capabilities a tailorable aggregate, based on a common ground control station and common operator skill sets, Hamill said.  That will “allow squad through battalion-size units with organic UAS capabilities to maximize UAS performance and commonality.” The Marine Corps signed a contract with AAI Textron to begin RQ-7B Shadow weapons integration work in December 2011.

Marine Shadows have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Hawaii, and training venues throughout the continental United States since 2007. USMC RQ-7Bs currently overfly Afghanistan. Weaponizing the Shadow is under development, with a military user assessment anticipated by fall 2013, Hamill said. The  Defense Department’s  FY2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap called for “greater interoperability among systems controls, communications, data products, data links, and payload/mission equipment packages.” And Hamill calls interoperability critical for unmanned fleets “within existing and planned C2 [command and control] architectures, to include other unmanned systems, manned aircraft, and C2 networks.”

He noted that Naval Air Systems Command and the Army’s Program Manager, UAS, were collaborating to build a common architecture for tactical UAS control that could encompass Ravens, Shadows, and Navy’s Fire Scout helicopters, among other systems.

The Army has conducted manned/unmanned teaming concept of operations  development using AH-64 Apaches helicopters and RQ-7B Shadows – basically identical to Marine Corps Shadows. 

Meanwhile, the Army is funding development of AeroVironment’s promising Switchblade flying bomb. The 18-inch, so-called kamikaze UAV is designed to be carried in a backpack, launched from a tube, and equipped with a camera. After radar lock and a Global Positioning System feed, the ground controller directs it towards, say, an enemy vehicle. Video demo clips on the firm’s website leave little doubt about the disposition of any live occupants. It also does basic ISR including feature and object recognition, is hard to track, and is launchable from a variety of air and ground platforms.

A key challenge is mission-critical data overload: teraflops worth, said Rich Kretzschmar, Army’s deputy project manager for UAS. “We’re actively working on network centric capabilities for all the systems, and establishing data repositories—a program we call ‘fuse,’ so that you can not just cull the current video from different systems, but look at previously recorded video that’s been put into the network.” This isn’t ready for prime time, he said, but when it is, “pushing data around the battlefield will be simplified.”

There’s also the threat of data-hacking by insurgents. But Kretzschmar said that digital datalinks for Raven, Wasp and other systems are encrypted: “We have not had any incidents in that regard.” He could not discuss active-event ECMs, jamming and other forms of EW, although he said that downing of smaller UAVs was always a concern.

The Army successfully mated Shadow with manned Kiowas and Apache helicopters last fall in the Army's Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability demonstration. Kretzschmar said more manned-unmanned tasking validation work is planned in 2013, and his office is working with the Marines Corps on arming its Shadows.

Kretzschmar said a gimbal-stabilized Raven payload will be tested in January and fielded in early fall. AeroVironment's Gitlin anticipated a sensor upgrade on the Raven.

In short, the evidence that future wars will be fought by UAVs is fast accumulating. 

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