The Army’s recent cancellation of the Fire Scout remotely piloted helicopter has left some wondering whether there is a future for unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft in the service.
Possibly, said Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Army unmanned aircraft systems, but only for niche missions.
“When I talk about niche missions — a very special capability — that’s where I think the vertical-lift component will have added value,” he told National Defense. “But the vast majority of our [unmanned] needs are still on the fixed-wing side.”
The Army had planned to develop two unmanned vertical-lift aircraft as part of its long-term modernization program, the Future Combat Systems. The service terminated the Class IV UAV, also known as the Fire Scout, in January. Army officials decided that the UAV no longer met mission requirements, said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army’s program executive office integration.
That leaves the Army with only one surviving unmanned VTOL aircraft, the Class I UAV, which has survived the post-FCS cutbacks.
Class I is a micro-air vehicle intended to provide situational awareness for small units. Mehney said the Army is considering building an enhanced Class I UAV that could take on some of the missions that had been intended for the Fire Scout. The Class I UAV will be fielded to nine combat brigades from 2011 to 2013, Mehney said. The brigades will test the 51-pound aircraft, which the Army plans to put in the hands of all brigade combat teams by 2025.
Owings said small vertical-lift UAVs fill an important role because of their ability to “drop down, look at roadside bombs and look inside of vehicles at check points.”
“We don’t look at fixed wing or rotary wing,” he added. “We look at missions, and we look at solutions to mission needs.”
In the long term, it’s also possible the Army’s replacement for another cancelled program, the armed reconnaissance helicopter, will be at least in part an unmanned platform, Owings said. The Army has been trying for years to develop a new reconnaissance helicopter, but previous plans have crumbled because of cost overruns.
Col. Ronald F. Lewis, commander of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, said the service now expects its existing fleet of Kiowa helicopters to continue operating until at least 2025. Army officials are currently sending information requests to industry that seek proposals for a replacement to the Kiowa, a single-engine helicopter that has been used by the Army since the Gulf War in 1991.
Owings said he expects officials to ultimately choose a design that supports both manned and unmanned platforms.
“I think you’re going to find certain elements of the mission that can be very efficiently done unmanned, and there are going to be some elements that absolutely must be manned,” he said. “You potentially could have the exact same helicopter be flown manned or unmanned, which is what we call optionally piloted.”
Owings maintained that fixed-wing drones will remain the UAVs of choice for the Army.
Col. Robert Sova, Army Training and Doctrine Command’s capability manager for unmanned aerial systems, said that there were no validated requirement documents for unmanned rotary-wing aircraft. That’s not to say that there isn’t interest, he told reporters several weeks before the news broke that the Army was cancelling the Class IV aircraft. The Marine Corps has been testing the aircraft for cargo resupply missions in remote bases in Afghanistan. The Army is watching the service’s progress.
“We’re looking into that as the technology increases and capability is proven. Certainly it has potential,” Sova said.
Officials at the Army’s Special Operations Command, meanwhile, voiced enthusiasm for unmanned helicopters.
Troops in Afghanistan need unmanned aerial vehicles that can take off and land vertically, Army Special Operations leaders said at an Association for the United States Army conference in January.
Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo, deputy commander of Army Special Operations Command, when asked if troops could use vertical-lift UAVs, responded: “Unequivocally, yes. I can think of 100 different scenarios.”
But for Palumbo, it comes down to cost.
“The reality is that they’re expensive,” he said during a panel discussion. The Army Special Operations Command “is not going to be able to do this alone. But we, as an aviation community, can push it forward and get it in the hands of our soldiers.”
“There are UAVs out there right now that can hover, that can land,” he added. “Can conventional forces use them? Absolutely.”
Vertical-lift UAVs fill a number of mission needs. For example, they can drop into Afghanistan’s many valleys and can move across the high-altitude terrain at the slow speeds necessary for certain surveillance radars, officials said.
Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird, a high-endurance rotary-wing UAV that can carry a 1,000-pound payload, has been under development for more than a decade, said Owings. Currently, only Special Operations Command is using that aircraft.
“We would like to carry some pretty sophisticated ground target indicators to be able to locate individuals moving across open terrain,” Owings said. “That requires you to fly fairly slowly in order for these large radar systems to be most effective, and we believe the A160, having the ability to carry the large payload over the extended duration that we need, offers that advantage.”
Army Maj. Kent Guffy, program executive officer for rotary-wing aircraft at the special operations research, development and acquisitions center, said the Hummingbird has set records for endurance at 18.7 hours. Its ability to hover and stare makes it particularly useful for foliage penetrating radar. Such sensors work best when they are stationary, he said at an Army Aviation Association of American conference. The aircraft is also being considered for psychological operations missions, such as leaflet drops, he added.
The Boeing A160 Hummingbird was originally a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program. Special Operations Command acquired seven prototypes for testing, at a cost of about $3.6 million per aircraft.
Owings said the Hummingbird could deliver food and munitions to troops camped out in areas that fixed-wing aircraft can’t reach, such as hillsides and valleys. “We want to be able to deliver supplies to dismounted groups and small bands of soldiers, and to do that we need to be able to land in rough terrain.”
He added that Army aviation officials have been examining ways to use teams of manned and unmanned vehicles to supply troops on the front lines. For example, a manned Blackhawk attack helicopter might provide cover for five or more unmanned resupply aircraft.
The Navy has also acquired Honeywell’s gasoline micro-air vehicle, or GMAV, for explosive ordnance disposal units. The vertical lift aircraft weighs about 18 pounds and can stay in flight for nearly 50 minutes. The teams use the UAV to get a closer look at roadside bombs. “It’s a small vertical-lift platform, about the size of a trashcan, that is intended for those missions,” Owings said.
Meanwhile, the Fire Scout will continue as a Navy program. The service has been developing the UAVs for its littoral combat ship. Manufacturer Northrop Grumman has begun low rate initial production and delivered three aircraft as of November, according to a company statement. The Coast Guard is also considering the Fire Scout as a UAV that can fly off its National Security Cutter.
Mehney said the Army had budgeted $44 million for its Fire Scout program in fiscal year 2010. Some of that money has already been spent, and some of it will be used to cover termination liabilities under an agreement with FCS prime contractor Boeing.
Stew Magnuson contributed to this report.