As the Marine Corps moves ahead with field tests of unmanned helicopters that can resupply remote bases in Afghanistan, the Army is taking a cautious approach to the concept.
The service is watching the marines closely, said Col. Rob. Sova, capability manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at the Army Training and Doctrine Command. Meanwhile, TRADOC is conducting its own studies on whether a vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) drone would provide safety and efficiencies for the Army, he added.
So far, the Army is cool to the idea, officers speaking at the Association of the United States Army aviation conference indicated.
“The force structure it takes to maintain a rotary-wing [unmanned aerial system] is going to be significantly higher than the force structure of just a fixed-wing aircraft,” said Col. William H. Morris, director of Army aviation in the office of the deputy chief of staff, G-3.
The Naval Air Systems Command awarded in December two contracts totaling $75 million to acquire two competing helicopters: the A160 Hummingbird produced by Boeing; and the K-Max manufactured by a Lockheed Martin-Kaman Aerospace team.
There will be four remotely piloted helicopters — two from each team — tasked with delivering supplies to hard-to-reach areas. The aircraft are being acquired under an urgent needs requirement. They will undergo tests in the United States this summer, then in the fall, one model will be selected for operations in Afghanistan, where it would be required to deliver supplies to remote forward operating bases. After six months in the field, the command will determine if the program should continue, a statement said.
The deployment is expected to be a milestone in the military’s use of unmanned aircraft. To date, the aircraft have mostly been used for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, with a handful of models equipped with missiles. An unmanned systems roadmap, which was produced by the office of the secretary of defense, called for the services to expand the roles of drones beyond the traditional ISR role. One of the applications mentioned is cargo resupply.
“It’s a vision,” said Lt. Col. David A. George, deputy chief of aviation and logistics. These roadmaps are not set in stone, he added.
Morris said: “There is a lot of discussion on VTOL and all the goodness it would buy, and we recognize that, and we are going to closely monitor the marine test.”
The Army is concerned about manpower issues, he added.
“This vertical UAS will have to have more professionally trained UAS operators. And we already have a huge demand for operators for other fleets,” Morris said.
Along with the increased need for pilots, rotary-wing aircraft have high maintenance costs, he added. All the moving parts translate to more hours spent ensuring they are able to fly.
George said the Army must carefully consider the business case for unmanned rotary-wing resupply aircraft.
“We have a relatively cheap solution: a truck,” he said.
The Marine Corps must be able to move from ship to shore, including its entire logistics tail. The Army doesn’t have the same requirement to move its cargo, he noted.
The prevalence of roadside bombs has made moving supplies by air more attractive during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts because flying reduces troops’ exposure to potential blasts. In that light, there is a case to be made for an unmanned system, said Col. Randolph R. Rotte, Army Aviation division chief at the office of the deputy chief of staff for force development.
The service has to look at all the tradeoffs, he said.
“What have I saved? I’ve saved putting the guy in harm’s way. That’s important. But back to that calculus: How much is that worth? And I don’t mean dollars-wise.”
As the Army keeps an eye on the Marine Corps’ progress, it will be deploying the Boeing-built A160 Hummingbird to provide battlefield intelligence in Afghanistan.
Tim Owings, deputy program manager at the unnamed aircraft systems project office, said the Army will field a Hummingbird this year. It will answer an immediate need for slow moving aerial platforms that can hover and stare at targets. The Army’s intelligence community is driving the push to field the aircraft, he said. There are certain sensors that perform better when not mounted aboard faster moving fixed-wing unmanned systems, he said.
The Hummingbird can fly up to 20 hours with a range of 2,250 nautical miles and carry a 2,500-pound payload.
The Army has not settled on the Hummingbird, or even a rotary-wing aircraft as its long-term solution, he cautioned. There will be a competition in which other aircraft will vie with the Hummingbird. They may be ducted-fan aircraft or other types of helicopters. The data collected from the Hummingbird operations will help the service write requirement documents.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which initially developed the A160, is supplying the first aircraft. U.S. Special Operations Command, which has also been interested in using the drone as a sensor platform, will provide two additional Hummingbirds next year.
The Army, therefore, will not have to purchase an unmanned VTOL until 2012, Owings said.
Sova said TRADOC is looking at the Hummingbird’s potential as a cargo aircraft.
“Being the proponents for UAS, we would not exclude the possibility the capability set of doing cargo with a VTOL — just because it fits into that hole nicely,” he said.