Raven sUAS
By Kate Brannen – Staff writer

Posted : Thursday Dec 16, 2010 17:27:34 EST

The Army is working to meet its troops’ huge demand for unmanned aircraft systems, but the expected budget cuts will force the service to prioritize what they really need, officials said.

Among the organizing principles, said Lt. Col. James Cutting, Aviation UAS director in the Army’s G-3 office: The Army does not want unmanned systems for unmanned’s sake. A proposed new system must offer better capability or save manpower, Cutting said.

Budget constraints may lead the services to try to protect their own systems, or to seek synergies and savings together, said Col. Grant Webb, deputy commander of the Joint UAS Center of Excellence. It remains to be seen which direction they’ll take, he said, speaking at an unmanned aircraft conference in Arlington, Va.

Either way, the Army has to separate its needs from its wants, said Col. Robert Sova, capability manager for UAS at Army Training and Doctrine Command.

The service did so earlier this year when it decided to hold off on upgrading its Shadow RQ-7B aircraft to a new RQ-7C model, Sova said. Instead, smaller improvements will be made to the current platform and the Army will revisit its decision at some point.

“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.”

But the Marine Corps is moving ahead to arm its Shadows, filling an urgent operational needs statement from Afghanistan. The work will take 12 to 18 months, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brad Beach said.

The Marine Corps are looking into using unmanned aerial vehicles to resupply troops in the field, which would reduce the number of trucks sent on convoys through Afghanistan. On Dec. 2, the Marines awarded contracts 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 “with keen interest,” Sova said.

“If it is determined that an unmanned aircraft system has the added capability and we need to pursue a UAS, then we will certainly get more involved,” Sova 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.”

Other requests coming in Afghanistan concern full-motion video and signals intelligence, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, special assistant to the commanding general of Army Special Operations.

Overall, Mangum said, the demand for UAVs is “insatiable.”

The Army fielded its first Gray Eagle system, formerly known as Sky Warrior, as part of a quick reaction capability for Iraq in 2009. As commanders learn about its capability, the demand for it climbs, said Mangum, a commander in Iraq with the Gray Eagle’s first deployment.

“It’s like crack, and everyone wants more,” he said.

Ground forces rely on UAVs to do everything from hunting human targets to protecting forces to watching warehouses holding electoral ballots, Mangum said.

He said U.S. troops had used UAVs to spy on the forces they were training to confirm whether missions were being completed. Sometimes, after the trainees had reported missions as having gone well, UAV feeds showed that the forces had not even attempted it, Mangum said.

MORE SMALL UAVS

The Army’s G-3 office wants to increase the number of Raven unmanned aircraft in brigade combat teams from 15 to 35, said Max Mitchell, deputy program manager for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. That will probably mean shifting Ravens from non-deployed units to Afghanistan, Mitchell said.

The service is working to fill another urgent needs statement by sending Pumas, another hand-launched UAV, to Afghanistan by April. So far, 29 have been delivered; 43 more are slated to arrive by April. Training is to start Dec. 20.

The 13-pound aircraft has a flight endurance of two hours and features a gimbaled payload. It also uses the same remote video terminal as the Raven.

The Rapid Equipping Force has fielded some Pumas and the Army has fielded a small number of Pumas as part of the concept of a “family” of three aircraft: Raven, Puma and Wasp.

By Gary Mortimer

Founder and Editor of sUAS News | Gary Mortimer has been a commercial balloon pilot for 25 years and also flies full-size helicopters. Prior to that, he made tea and coffee in air traffic control towers across the UK as a member of the Royal Air Force.