Army HQ flooded with requests for more drones

Tight budgets force hard decisions on upgrades

Requests from Army units in Afghanistan for unmanned aircraft systems are at an all-time high, and in response, officials are hammering out a set of principles for how the systems will be acquired and fielded, reports Kate Brannen at Defense News.

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The Army’s approach is that for any new system to receive funding, it must offer better capability or save manpower, said Lt. Col. James Cutting, chief of the UAS Division in the Army's Aviation Directorate.

Budget constraints will have a strong influence on UAS development decisions by all the military services, said Col. Grant Webb, deputy commander of the Joint UAS Center of Excellence. Tight budgets might compel the services to protect their own systems or drive them to pursue synergies that would achieve savings, he said at a recent conference on unmanned aircraft in Arlington, Va.

Army officials are already making tough decisions. They decided earlier this year to delay upgrading the service's Shadow RQ-7B aircraft to a new RQ-7C model, said Col. Robert Sova, UAS capabilities manager at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. For now, the Army plans to make smaller improvements to the current platform, he said.

“Army leadership to this date has made the decision that we are not pursuing to weaponize systems below our Gray Eagle platform that is Hellfire-capable right now,” Sova said. “Could we? The answer is yes, and if leadership determines we need that weaponization capability, then we'll explore it.”

In contrast, the Marine Corps is moving forward with arming its Shadows as a way to meet an urgent operational needs statement from Afghanistan, said Marine Lt. Col. Brad Beach, UAS coordinator in the Marines' Aviation Weapons Requirements Branch. The work will take 12 to 18 months, he added.

The Marines are also looking into using unmanned aerial vehicles to resupply troops in the field, which would reduce the number of trucks sent on convoys through Afghanistan. The Marines awarded contracts this month to assess the ability of Boeing's A160 Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin's K-MAX to perform the mission.

The Army is watching the Marine Corps’ effort closely, Sova said. If a new UAS can provide additional capability, the Army will “certainly get more involved,” he said. “There are a lot of great things that unmanned aircraft systems will deliver. Can we afford all of that? We have to look at that.”

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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