Army makes new plans for UAS assets in Afghanistan

Army COL Tim Baxter on deployment of a company of Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles to Afghanistan, the use of universal systems and interoperability, and the weaponization of the Shadow UAV.

Army COL Tim Baxter is project manager for the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Office. He spoke to Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about deployment of a company of Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Afghanistan, the use of universal systems and interoperability, and the weaponization of the Shadow UAV. Also participating in the interview was Deputy Project Manager Rich Kretzschmar, who was assigned to the position just a few days before the interview.

DS: What’s at the top of your to-do list?

Baxter: I will give you my top five UAS priorities, and you will see how they work together. The number-one priority here is supporting overseas contingency operations. Our focus every day is to better support the folks that are on the ground in Afghanistan. And so we have got a number of systems deployed forward with our Shadows, our Hunters, a couple different variants of our Gray Eagles, and then our smaller Pumas and Ravens. And there is an associated [logistics and support] tail associated with that.

We have got a number of other activities going on in the background that are supporting our operations in Afghanistan. We had a number of additional requirements that have hit the office over the last 12 to 18 months in the area of small UAS. We have a couple of Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement (JUONS) for Pumas primarily supporting road clearance. We have fully fielded one of those JUONS, and are in the process of filling the second one. Along with that we also stood up a training program at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., that helps us to train the route clearance operators before they head downrange.

DS: Are you leaving any UAS assets in Iraq?

Baxter: We are not. Our UAS assets are all out of Iraq. The last ones came out in December. Some of those assets are in Kuwait now and getting ready to redeploy either into Afghanistan or back to the States for some type of recapitalization. Number two is our Gray Eagle program. I’ll call it our road to our initial operational test and evaluation ( IOT&E) that’s going to occur next August. So there [are] a number of things that are going on in the background as we prepare for IOT&E. We’ve got a full Gray Eagle company that consists of 12 aircraft. We call it our first unit deployed, and it is deploying forward to Afghanistan some time in second quarter of this year…we think mid-March to early April right now.

DS: There are already a number of Gray Eagles already in Afghanistan, aren’t there?

Baxter: We already had Gray Eagle deployed through several quick reaction capabilities (QRCs). This is adding additional capabilities for the commander on the ground forward. With the QRC, we’ve had the equivalent of a Gray Eagle platoon -- four birds in each of them. So this is really our opportunity to exercise an entire company of 12 Gray Eagles fully manned by Army green suiters, if you will. It’s our opportunity to do that. We are going to learn a lot from it and certainly that will assist in supporting us as we go into to our IOT&E in August.

DS: OK, third priority?

Baxter: Number three within the project offices is implementing defense acquisition executive’s [the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics] better buying power initiatives. There are a number of different areas there to include improving efficiencies across the programs.

DS: For example?

Baxter: We’ve got some programs that are post-Milestone C already fielded, and other systems we’re already fielding so you have got opportunities in each of those to take a look at your programs and determine where you can gain cost savings. The Gray Eagle [program is] one of the pilot programs for the Army under Better Buying Power initiatives. So those types of programs have more scrutiny than some of our smaller Raven programs, but again if it’s a post-Milestone C program you are really limited to taking a look at what are the operations and support cost associated with my system, or what are the planned improvements associated with my system and how we can gain efficiencies or reduce the cost of those.

So we focused initially in the office on our two big programs, which are Gray Eagle and Shadow, and now we are starting to look at some of our smaller programs where we can gain some efficiencies.

DS: I understand that number four is interoperability and the Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) exercise.

Baxter: MUSIC was in the works for several years here, so really the focus across our product lines is to make sure that we are incorporating interoperability in everything we do. We are in the planning stage right now for MUSIC 2. The original intent was to have two-year cycles and align those cycles with how we do capability sets within the Army. What we have introduced in the MUSIC 2 also is more a joint flavor, if you will. The number one comment I think I heard across the board from the MUSIC 1 exercise was "This is great, but this is only the Army so what about the other services?" So we are going through an exercise now and we have gone back to the services just to get their input in terms of what they think they could provide that they would like to see for MUSIC.

DS: Okay, your fifth priority.

Baxter: We talk about the term “universal.” It started with we talked about the universal ground control station and the universal operator. Now we are extending it to our portable ground control station so that we’ve got the same equipment supporting Gray Eagle, Shadow and potentially Hunter. Right now they are not the same, and it’s our intent to make them the same.

Another piece in terms of universal is payloads. There are a lot of folks out there that are in the payload business right now. Again using the term universal interfaces, we want pods that are already airworthy qualified so when someone shows up with a new signals intelligence payload and wants to be incorporated on either on the Shadow or Gray it is a matter of plug and play. Ideally you get to a situation where you plug the payload into the aircraft, drop an app on the ground control station, and take her out and test.

I also use the term "universal" when I talk about armaments on systems. The Marines have put us under contract to weaponize the Shadow.

DS: Is the Army interested in weaponizing the Shadow?

Baxter: The Marine Corps has got the requirement; the Army currently does not have a requirement to weaponize the Shadow.

DS: Weaponize it with what armament?

Baxter: It’s a small payload; in fact that is classified. What I will say is that we’re on contract to weaponize the Shadow for the Marine Corps, but in the background we are making sure as we develop the interfaces and do the weaponization that we’ve got the ability to add additional payloads in the future. So we want to develop that interface control document, if you will, that we can share with industry.

My opinion is it’s only a matter of time before the Army comes onboard and says, “we need to weaponize our Shadows at some point.” We will go out with a full and open competition. There are plenty of original equipment manufacturers out there that make small bombs and weapons.

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