Smaller Army aviation fleet will stress sensors, drones

A smaller but upgraded U.S. Army aviation fleet will seek to leverage combinations of sensors and unmanned aircraft to continue fulfilling its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission, program officials said.

Responding to budgets cuts and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, Army officials are beginning the process of restructuring the aviation branch. Much of the focus is on the Army's Aerial ISR Strategy for 2020.

The strategy "basically allows us to take advantage of those best platforms and sensors that have been bought at great expense," Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, told an Army aviation conference on Jan. 15. "But it does allow us to reduce in a logical and coherent way" the size of the Army aviation force.

Legere and other senior officials also stressed "manned-unmanned teaming," adding that the Army is transitioning to unmanned aircraft like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle as a future sensor platform. Legere said the next step would be integrating Gray Eagle into the Army's expanding reconnaissance, infrared surveillance and target acquisition role.

The $1.1 trillion budget deal unveiled by Congress in early January includes a provision allowing the Army to "retain responsibility and operational control" of the Gray Eagle UAS fleet. The budget deal also allows the Army to retain funding and program authority for "current tactical unmanned aerial vehicles."

Under the aviation plan, Legere said the Army wants will retain aircraft that can be upgraded to "take advantage of multimode sensors." The streamlined force needs a "combination of sensors on the same platform" that are networked, able to interoperate with other joint sensors and are "platform-agnostic."

"In the next few months we'll begin to consolidate [Army aerial ISR fleet] into one central location [with] a distributed approach for SIGINT," or signal intelligence, she added. "That's going to allow us to save money on brick and mortar and invest more in the sensors and the platforms that we want to retain."

Among the sensor upgrades will be ability to deliver full-motion video, Legere said.

Army planners also stressed the emerging doctrine of "expeditionary maneuver warfare" as the service seeks to become more agile. Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army's deputy chief of staff, stressed that the service must find ways to integrate multimode ISR capabilities into its maneuver operations. 

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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