By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — Milestones seem to be all in a day’s work for the employees who develop and sustain the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet.
First, there was a celebration last spring with Army and congressional officials at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate reaching 1 million flight hours of unmanned aerial vehicles. Of those hours, about 89 percent were combat flight hours.
Then, in October, the 400-plus employees of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, which is part of the Program Executive Office for Aviation, and its contractors and subcontractors topped that milestone by providing the development, technical, acquisition and maintenance support needed to reach 1 million combat flight hours for the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet. Of those 1 million hours, 900,000 were flown in the last three years.
“These systems continue to be in demand and reach worthwhile milestones. It won’t be long and we will be averaging 25,000 hours a month of combat flight hours,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Since 9/11, that unmanned aerial fleet – including the Shadow, which was flown for about 505,000 combat flight hours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn (Iraq) – has provided big dividends for the Amy’s troops, reducing risk and increasing lethality.
“Before 9/11 there were very few systems,” said Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “This milestone signifies for the unmanned aircraft systems industry that for the first time we are seeing complete acceptance of these systems.”
“Vietnam and Korea were the helicopter wars,” Owings explained. “The Middle East has largely been the unmanned system wars. We’ve gone from eight to 10 systems, to thousands of systems, and we’ve reached an unprecedented level of understanding of what these systems can do.”
But when unmanned aerial vehicles were first introduced to the war fighter “there was a lack of confidence in unmanned aircraft, a lack of enthusiasm,” Gonzalez said. “Today, there is a huge demand for the aircraft and what they can do.”
“Unmanned aircraft systems have changed the way we fight and we won’t ever fight without them again,” he continued. “We are developing and providing what the warfighter needs. The demand for unmanned systems is created by the warfighter.”
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, headquartered at the Sparkman Center, is responsible for development, acquisition, production, fielding, training, product improvements and sustainment of the Army’s Shadow, Raven, Hunter, Gray Eagle and other unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Reaching 1 million combat flying hours is not just a significant milestone for this project office, it’s also a significant milestone for the Army. The significance of combat flight hours is not in the numbers, it’s in what those numbers represent,” Gonzalez said.
“Army forces have confidence in unmanned aircraft systems. They demand the use of these systems. They use them and they fly them to save lives and to overcome the enemy.”
The Army has deployed 337 unmanned aircraft systems that have included more than 1,000 unmanned aircraft. Unmanned aircraft are used to provide Soldiers with a tactical view of the battlefield, allowing for visual contact of objects hidden by buildings, landscape features and other obstacles.
They are used for route reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. They help Soldiers search for improvised explosive devices, enhance situational awareness of enemy positions, identify and laser designate targets for a variety of weapons, provide knowledge of specific areas of combat and track the enemy.
The mission for unmanned aerial vehicles is growing to include weaponization, communications relay, specialty payloads and the linkage to manned aircraft.
“There are a number of ways unmanned systems protect and defend our Soldiers. They provide direct support to Soldiers on the ground and they can command where, when and how they want to use that support,” Gonzalez said.
The colonel, who began his Army career in the light infantry, said Soldiers on route reconnaissance often face serious disadvantages that can be overcome with unmanned systems.
“First, they are put in great danger. Second, the information they do gather is dated by the time they come back. And, third, the words and sketches they use to describe what they’ve seen” might not reflect what is there once troops arrive, Gonzalez said.
“Now, at the brigade level, you can take the Ranger or Shadow, and at the division level the Gray Eagle, and they will give you up-to-the-minute pictures of the area,” Gonzalez said. “They will stay on station, and they will be there during the attack and afterward. It’s a night and day difference on how you operate and the effectiveness you have.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles range from the small Raven to the Gray Eagle, and everything in between. The Raven is 4.2 pounds in weight, battery operated and hand launched and “can fly up to 90 minutes and provides capabilities to Soldiers at the lowest tactical level,” Gonzalez said. The Gray Eagle weights 3,600 pounds and has a wing span of 60 feet “can fly for 30 hours at a time, and has numerous sensors, communications relay and four Hellfire missiles.”
In addition, the Hunter, which is used heavily for intelligence gathering, is 1,950 pounds with a wing span of 34.5 feet. It has a flight time of 25 hours and can land on unimproved runways.
But the star of the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet is the Shadow, a 380-pound aircraft with a wing span of 14 feet, which can fly for five hours at a time. It has an automatic landing and takeoff system. Currently, there are about 100 Shadows fielded in brigade platoons, representing 90 percent of the requirement.
“The Shadow is our workhorse. It’s the first program of record to be fielded to a brigade command and used 24 hours a day,” Gonzalez said. “Every time an infantry brigade deploys, they take a Shadow platoon. At any one time, we probably have in excess of 25 Shadow systems in theater.”
The Army assigns unmanned aircraft directly to tactical commanders at the squad, platoon, company, brigade and division levels. The systems are at the control of ground commanders and enlisted Soldiers who undergo about 25 weeks of training “to be the best in the world to operate unmanned systems,” Owings said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are also used to augment manned aviation systems. Currently, Apache helicopters can receive direct feedback of video taken by unmanned aircraft, Gonzalez said.
The systems are used to fly ahead of Apaches and provide video that helps to identify targets. That capability will be added to Kiowa helicopters in 2011.
“The video feeds into the cockpit and can be used to see the battle area while the helicopter stays out of range of enemy eyes,” Gonzalez said. “It gives our aviators a huge advantage and is one of a number of ways we are learning to work together to be more effective.”
In the future, unmanned aerial vehicles will be used to provide supplies, ammunition and food by air to ground troops. New technologies will include wide area surveillance.
New platforms call for unmanned rotary wing systems and a Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle that will guide other unmanned systems from the air. Plans call for being able to network several unmanned systems together in support of ground troops and aviators on the battlefield.
“We don’t just develop systems referred to as ‘stove piped’ because they work in one specific area,” Gonzalez said.
“We are developing an unmanned aircraft systems architecture that is completely interoperable and that limits the number of ground stations needed,” he continued. “We want to be able to fly all the unmanned aircraft, Shadow, Hunter, and Gray Eagle, from one system. And we want to have a system that allows us to train our Soldiers to use one type of equipment to fly all these unmanned aircraft. We have an overarching and holistic view of building architecture.”
The Army is also focused on improving the performance of its unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We will continue to make improvements to make them more reliable and to identify problems in flight that allow crews to return them and fix them before they crash so they can get them back up flying,” Gonzalez said.
The popularity of unmanned aircraft systems has presented a few challenges. The demand for using the systems has required additional support from the project office and from the hardware itself.
“They have stretched our limit, and required us to sustain and provide maintenance to ensure availability 24 hours a day,” Gonzalez said.
In addition, securing the manpower to operate the systems has been a challenge, Owings said.
“The single biggest factor limiting even more use of the systems is the lack of availability of Soldiers,” Owings said. “We want to make the individual systems more efficient and the operators more efficient, and do more with fewer people with the next generation. We want a system where one operator can monitor missions of multiple aircraft.”
The different conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to adaptations in the missions of unmanned aerial vehicles, Gonzalez said.
“Afghanistan is more of a challenge, particularly for smaller aircraft, because of the elevation they have to fly at. The payloads that work well in desert and open areas differ from the payloads that can be flown in triple canopy jungle. We want to develop systems that can work in every environment, or that we know how to adjust for different environments,” he said.
Through the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles, the Army has worked closely with its industry partners to push new technologies.
“The relationship with government and industry is really unique. We set the vision for what the Army needs to be successful. We gather information, integrate technology, keep the architecture open and we find the best of the breed to bring to our Soldiers,” Owings said. “We want to make our systems more effective, more efficient, more lethal and, most importantly, more survivable.”
Besides the Army’s demand for unmanned aircraft systems, relationships with other government agencies interested in using unmanned aerial systems, such as the FBI and the U.S. Border Patrol, as well as allied nations will grow demand.
Owings said unmanned aircraft systems have been an Army success story that is continually evolving to address the threat and to continue the U.S. tradition of providing the best equipped and best trained Soldiers in the world.
“We will continue to see flight hours build based on what we’re doing,” Owings said. “The first generation of unmanned aircraft systems was focused on building the core of the program and increasing reliability. The second generation was focused on mission acceptance and expansion.”
“The third generation is about autonomy and smart machines, and network capabilities where machines provide the information and humans make the life and death decisions on what to do,” he said.
Though flight milestones are impressive, both Gonzalez and Owings see the value of unmanned aerial systems in the untold number of Soldier lives they have protected and saved.
“It’s countless. You can’t put a price on any life,” Owings said. “But there are stories of manned pilot systems that have depended on our unmanned systems, of Soldiers on the ground warned of improvised explosive devices by an unmanned aerial vehicle, of Soldiers who averted an ambush because of what an unmanned aerial vehicle saw.
“It’s unbelievably rewarding to be a part of that. But, at the same time, we wish there was even more we could do.”