The Army soon will begin deploying larger quantities of remotely piloted surveillance aircraft — the high-tech kind that so far only have been operated by the U.S. Air Force.
The scope and pace of the Army’s unmanned aircraft buildup has been described by one official as a “California gold rush.”
The centerpieces of the Army’s unmanned warplane fleet will be the Shadow and Sky Warrior aircraft. It plans to acquire more than 300 of these two variants during the next five years. Nearly a hundred aircraft already are in the inventory.
In addition to purchasing new planes, the Army will equip them with advanced sensors, networking systems and weapons, which effectively gives the Army capabilities to conduct aerial warfare that up until now were predominantly only available to the Air Force.
The introduction of new systems gradually has accelerated during the past two years, as Army commanders vehemently have argued that the Air Force’s Predator UAVs are good enough for “theater level” surveillance but not sufficient to support ground forces’ needs for real-time video of their immediate surroundings.
The Army’s frustration about having limited access to UAV imagery reached a boiling point in Afghanistan, where commanders claimed that some smaller units were fighting blind because they didn’t have UAVs tracking enemy positions.
Troops in hostile areas cannot afford to wait for the UAVs to be rerouted; they need support 24/7, said Timothy Muchmore, director of the Army Quadrennial Defense Review at the office of the deputy chief of staff for programs. Units have experienced great disappointments in the way UAVs have been used in Afghanistan over the past couple of years, Muchmore said at a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by Aviation Week.
“The air power provided by our sister services has dominated the third dimension, but the Army is unable to leverage that third dimension,” Muchmore said. During the past year, “We’ve had two combat outposts overrun by superior forces. Those are losses that we consider unacceptable, because we couldn’t see what was going on around the outposts.”
Because the UAVs are not always available to small units, these troops end up getting ambushed, Muchmore lamented.
In a statement to National Defense, Muchmore said his comments were a call to the Army to look more closely at its requirements for "tactical situational awareness in a counterinsurgency environment."
Although the U.S. Air Force has secured the airspace, the Army has still been "unable to adequately leverage it to achieve the needed degree of situational awareness on the ground," Muchmore said. "We need a 24/7 persistent stare capability for remote combat outposts and dismounted forces conducting operations. Reconnaissance helicopters and UAVs may be part of the solution, but by themselves do not seem to provide 24/7 persistent stare."
The issue of how to improve aerial surveillance has been the subject of contentious discussions at the
Pentagon. Air Force officials insist that its Predators work exclusively
in support of ground units.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., pressed Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey to explain why his service wasn’t working more closely with the Air Force to address these issues, and duplicating capabilities that blue-suiters already have.
“I’ve been working, frankly, directly with the Air Force chief for almost two years on the UAV issue,” Casey told Nelson. “I can’t look you in the eye and tell you we’ve eliminated all the redundancies, senator. But we will continue to work closely with the Air Force to avoid that.”
Turf warfare aside, the Army has been able to secure financial support from the Defense Department to embark on a massive buildup of its UAV fleet.
The Army is requesting $507 million in fiscal year 2011 to buy 29 MQ-1 Sky Warriors. Nelson cited $2.9 billion requested between 2011 and 2015 for 158 additional aircraft. The Air Force, meanwhile, requested $1.1 billion in 2011 to purchase 48 MQ-9 Reapers — a much larger aircraft than the Predator. It plans to spend $7.3 billion on 341 Reapers by 2015.
Air Force officials have criticized the Army (National Defense, January 2010, page 20) for buying essentially the same aircraft that the Air Force already is acquiring, which creates an inefficient production line and adds administrative costs.
So far, the Army has deployed four Sky Warriors in Iraq and is expected to ship four others to Afghanistan in July, said Tim Owings, the Army’s deputy project manager of unmanned aircraft. The latter will be armed with Hellfire missiles, Owings said in an interview.
Many more are coming. The Pentagon has approved the purchase of the equivalent of two Sky Warrior squadrons, each consisting of 12 aircraft, five ground control stations, satellite communications systems and sensor payloads. These, as well as eight additional aircraft for testing, will be purchased during the next 18 months, Owings said. The Sky Warrior is now considered a major defense acquisition program, under the so-called ACAT-1D category.
Beyond these immediate purchases, during the next five years, the Army will buy 24 Sky Warriors annually. Each costs between $7 million and $8 million. Once production rates go up, the price could drop to $5 million to $6 million, said Owings.
The other major piece of the UAV fleet is the Shadow, a brigade-level aircraft that has been in the fleet for several years. The Army already owns 78 systems of four aircraft each. The plan is to possibly double the size of the inventory in the coming years, to 148 systems or more, said Owings. Studies are under way now to determine the exact number.
The current Shadow is the “B” variant. It is being upgraded with electronic fuel injection, improved avionics, automatic takeoff and landing, Owings said. “We’re extending the length of the wings to give us three hours’ additional endurance and more payload capacity.” Other new features include laser designators to target weapons, and encryption for all the communications links. “The laser designator is the single most requested upgrade,” he said.
A larger version, the Shadow C, could be approved in the near future. Army officials have yet to unveil the technical requirements for this aircraft. Owings said it will be significantly more advanced than the B model. The Shadow C would replace the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter that the Army had planned to buy but decided not to, earlier this year.
While the Shadow typically supports a brigade, platoons and companies have small hand-launched Raven UAVs. There is a need, too, for a battalion level UAV, said Owings. But the Army does not plan to buy a new aircraft to fill that gap. It will most likely “piggyback” on a Navy-Marine Corps small tactical UAV program that is now getting under way. “The Marines and Navy are spending money to develop similar capability,” he said.
The bulk of Army’s high-tech UAV upgrades will go on the Sky Warrior. The aircraft, for the first time, will have de-icing systems. Its four Hellfire missiles will be a new variant that can engage targets off axis, as opposed to the earlier model than aims strictly off the nose of the aircraft. These are the first aviation munitions that were designed specifically for UAVs, Owings said. “They can engage targets behind you, depending on altitude and orientation.”
The Hellfire, however, is too large and expensive for many of the low-intensity battles the Army fights today. It is considering buying a lighter 2.75-inch diameter laser-guided rocket that would be launched from Shadows or Sky Warriors.
Speaking at the Aviation Week conference, Owings said there are plans to add “signals intelligence” and “electronic attack” packages, first in the Shadow and later the Sky Warrior. The Army also is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to improve the survivability of UAVs. “In early testing we blew 40 percent of the span of a wing and still were able to recover the aircraft. We’re in the process of doing that same test with a real Shadow, not a scale model,” said Owings.
One of the recurring themes in all UAV programs is greater automation. In Afghanistan, the Army operates 228 UAV ground control stations, and the demand for personnel is growing. The Army does not have enough soldiers to assign to UAV operations unless they are taken off other duties, so automation is critical, said Owings. “We’re very dependent on automated takeoff and landing systems. We don’t train our pilots to land with sticks and rudders, and we probably never will. We’re very trusting of the technology. It is extraordinarily reliable.”
Another piece of technology the Army is studying for future use in UAVs is a tri-ball sensor pod that would give each aircraft three different stare points that could be controlled by three separate operators. The Army needs to stretch the capability of each aircraft. “There are too many UAVs in a congested area,” Owings said.
The concept for the tri-ball sensor could take two years to develop.
The idea is to be able to track multiple targets in one engagement. The ground commander, for example, would hand the command and control of the UAV to Apache helicopter pilots. The Army today employs a “one system remote video terminal,” which is like a cable TV box on the ground that allows operators to keep track of the UAVs in flight. That box is being upgraded so that ground operators can control the sensor payload. Hypothetically, one aircraft could perform three missions simultaneously. The primary payload operator in the ground control station could be flying a mission for a division or brigade commander who wants a broader view of the battlefield. A soldier on the ground could take control of one of the other payloads to track insurgents. At the same time, an Apache may be closing in, so an aviator could take control of the third payload to hunt down enemies elsewhere.
The Air Force is working on a similar “wide area surveillance” sensor pod that would be directed to 12 different aim points. That system does not suit many of the Army’s needs, although it is “complementary,” said Owings.
“It’s much too heavy to use on tactical UAVs,” he said. The Air Force system is better for broad area surveillance, he said. For the guerilla-style fighting that ground forces are more likely to be engaged in, the smaller three-ball pod makes more sense, Owings said.
Aircraft and sensors alone are of no use if the information they collect can’t be disseminated quickly.
Various communications systems are being deployed so that every soldier can tap into the network, Owings said. A digital data link is being added to the Sky Warrior that would give operators of small Raven UAVs access to the larger system. “Putting the DDL in Warrior immediately multiplies the number of soldiers on the ground who can see that image,” he said. Besides the DDL, there are two other channels to tap into the network. “In Warrior you’ll be able to cross band into any of those … If there’s something available on Raven or on Shadow, you’ll be able to access it,” said Owings. “Imagery products will be much more widely available than they are today.” The digital data link also will be added to the Ravens, which will allow up to 16 to fly in the same area safely.
The Sky Warrior is envisioned as the “hunting dog in front of the hunters,” he said. The UAVs will spot the targets so the Apaches can strike them from standoff ranges. Under some scenarios, it will be desirable for the Sky Warriors to be able to fire their own weapons, for instance, if the target is moving rapidly.
How the aerial combat duties will be split between UAVs and piloted helicopters is a “debate we are having right now,” Owings said. The thinking is that most of the firepower will reside with manned aircraft. “Frankly we have a lot more ways to kill things than we have ways to find things,” he said. The current teaming between UAVs and Apache is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Owings. An often-heard joke is that “we’re turning Apache into a really cool ground control station,” he said. The next one is likely to be the Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter. The medevac units also want access to UAV video in their utility helicopters. “Eventually you’ll be hard pressed to find any helicopter that doesn’t receive the UAV feed,” he said.
The earlier skepticism about unmanned aviation is behind us, said Owings. “Now it’s basically a California gold rush to get more stuff quicker.”