Afghanistan is the proving ground for UAS capability

Unmanned aircraft address high demand for video feeds to boost situational awareness

More than a decade into the war, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) continue to redefine combat operations in Afghanistan, and also the services operating them. In a war permeated with insurgency, unmanned aircraft have allowed military forces an upper hand in surveillance. The tide has been so sweeping that the Defense Department asked for $24 billion to pay for UAS acquisition from 2010 through 2015. Based on the increase in operations on the ground and growing dependence on video feeds, it’s an investment the troops on the ground say is well spent.

Bumpy Terrain

Afghanistan’s craggy landscape is highly important in the unmanned aircraft world. “Aviation in general in Afghanistan is more than mandatory,” said Todd Smith, deputy product manager for ground maneuver at the Army’s UAS Project Office. “There are no roads, the mountains are impossible to cross, sometimes it takes convoys weeks to get from Point A to Point B. Aircraft can cover this distance in hours.”

The difficult terrain means ground troops on dismounted patrols are hungry for air video feeds to improve their situational awareness. Systems range from small airframes with short endurance, such as the Army’s Raven or Puma or the Marine Corps’ Wasp, to the short-range, tactical Shadow, to the larger airframes of medium-range tactical Hunter and Grey Eagle systems. UAS operations offer surveillance, such as counter mortar rocket interdiction, and also areas of interest and route reconnaissance. Their dwell times mean they can stay airborne from eight to 20 hours, a vast improvement over manned aircraft limited to about two hours.

“Over the last year, we’ve seen a huge request and huge increase for systems into theater,” said Cliff Brandt, deputy product manager for Small UAS at the Army UAS Project Office. A surge effort to increase the smaller systems, such as Raven and Puma, is underway, he said. For example, an infantry brigade would typically get 15 Raven systems consisting of three air vehicles each. However, that fleet grows by an additional 20 systems if they are deployed to Afghanistan, Brandt said.

“We started off a little less than a year ago with a specific request for route clearance mission equipment, which brought on Puma,” Brandt said. “Now we’re taking that beyond the route clearance and issuing them down to units all the way down to the platoon level.”

About 100 Puma systems are in theater, with another 129 headed to Afghanistan over the next several months, Brandt said. More than 300 Raven systems are in theater, with another 180 systems to be added during the next 18 months, he said.

In this fight, size does matter. Afghanistan has proven a challenge for the smaller UAS airframes, according to one program official. Raven and Puma UAS vehicles are hand-launched and battery-operated. “The geography is really tough for us given the high mountains, the cold and the rough terrain in general,” Brandt said. “We don’t use landing strips or catch nets.” The hard landings for the smaller airframes led to cracked sensor brackets, which had to be resolved. Unobstructed communications have become another hurdle. “The high mountains, of course, are a line-of-sight issue, but given that there several of these things dispersed about, they can be spread so that line-of-sight can be carried over from point-to-point,” Brandt said.

However, those line-of-sight issues all but disappear with larger systems, such as Hunter and the Grey Eagle, which operate at significantly higher altitudes. However, their size can present a challenge in competing with other aircraft for runway space to launch the airframes, said Matthew Munster, a former Army officer who served as product manager for UAS Modernization.

Smaller UAS platforms, such as Raven and Puma, focus on the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance range, situational awareness of compounds and forward operating base security, as well as route clearance. Sized up from Raven and Puma systems is Shadow, weighing in at about 400 pounds. The Army has about 100 Shadow systems in Afghanistan, Smith said.

“[The Shadow is] designed to fly 12 hours per day and the soldiers are flying them 24 hours per day,” Smith said. “The op tempo has been incredibly good in that they’re really using our systems and really taking advantage of them,” he said. However, with that comes an increase in wear and tear, meaning more maintenance needs and an uptick in reliability issues from time to time.

“As with most manned platforms, we’ve experienced a lot of our mishaps on landings and takeoffs,” Smith said of the Shadow. A solution came with a six-foot longer wing that sent the endurance time jumping from six hours to nine hours. “It reduced the number of takeoffs and landings, which reduced the number of mishaps,” Smith said.

Flying High

Takeoffs and landings come only about once a day for the Grey Eagle system, which is typically used for division-level high-priority surveillance. The behemoth UAS has a wingspan stretching 57 feet, weighs in at 3,600 pounds fully loaded, and requires launch from a 5,000-foot paved runway. The Army now has 20 Grey Eagle aircraft operating in Afghanistan.

The medium-endurance altitude airframe can fly at altitudes of 20,000 feet. Grey Eagle’s ability to fly in extended range means it can fly over satellite communications, out of line-of-sight. Its synthetic aperture radar -- a radar system able to generate a high-resolution image – enables the ability to discern between metal objects on the ground, and those made of softer material, such as wood, said Army CPT Travis Blaschke, assistant product manager for the Grey Eagle program.

Blaschke said. “We’re able to find vehicles that are in the wood line covered with tarps,” he said. The capability also allows change detection, which can detect minor changes by comparison of images of a target site taken over a period of time. “You can actually tell where people may have been walking, vehicles driving, if holes have been dug, or if things have been covered up,” Blaschke said. “It’s really helpful in uncovering cache sites for weapons, and finding roadside bombs.”

As the Army’s only weaponized UAS program of record, it is capable of delivering a punch. Grey Eagle is able to carry up to four Hellfire missiles, a capability Blaschke said has been used numerous times in Afghanistan. The first Hellfire engagements fired outside of a range with the goal of neutralizing a target occurred in Afghanistan, Blaschke said. “Afghanistan has been the proving grounds for this capability in more of a kinetic-tactical type atmosphere.”

Continuous Evolution

UAS use in Afghanistan is a continuous evolution, said Richard Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for Army UAS. They were first introduced with limited knowledge about the systems and their capabilities. “Then as the operators used them more, we got better information, better tests about how those things were going to operate in that environment,” he said. Consequently, “the use of them has changed quite a bit.”

More changes are coming, according to Army LTC James Kennedy, product manager for common systems integration at the Army’s UAS Project Office. “We focus more on a universal operator because now we’ll have one ground control station that can fly three different types of aircraft,” he said. Focus is also turning to manned/unmanned teaming capability. UAS allow the ability to pass video and data around the battlefield quickly, which leads to increased accuracy during missions, he said. “We’re also passing that capability up into the aircraft so the manned aircraft can facilitate the soldier on the ground with much more information by passing it between the unmanned aircraft and down to the ground,” Kennedy said.

No doubt about it, unmanned systems are proving effective in Afghanistan, said Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution think tank. “It’s a revolutionary technology. It’s creating both possibilities, but also dilemmas we didn’t imagine we’d be facing just a generation ago,” such as the identity of the forces in the future, he said. “Its historic parallel is things like gun powder, the steam engine… it’s that level of change,” Singer added.

"They are providing the kind of situational awareness that wasn’t even imagined a generation ago,” Singer said. “The sea change that’s happened is that they’ve got from being unimagined to an expectation.”

About the Author

Kimberly Johnson is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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