Army, Air Force to Operate Armed Drones in Tandem

By Grace V. Jean
As the Army prepares to deploy a new weapons-capable unmanned aircraft to the Middle East, it is solidifying plans with the Air Force to better coordinate the operation of combat drones. 

The responsibility of flying medium-altitude unmanned aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen largely to the Air Force, whose pilots and sensor operators have been controlling the MQ-1 Predator and its larger and more lethal variant, the MQ-9 Reaper. The systems have helped ground forces track down insurgents and assess battle damage.

The drones have worked so well in the counterinsurgency that the demand from ground forces far exceeds the supply of available aircraft. In an effort to fill the gap, the Army has begun flying several medium-altitude systems from the same manufacturer that produces the Predator.

Commanders in the coming year will begin operating the Army’s newest variant, the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, in earnest.

Built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the Sky Warrior is based on the MQ-1 Predator system. Sitting side by side, the two aircraft look identical, but they have only 15 percent commonality, Army officials say. The Sky Warrior has a longer wingspan and fuselage than the Predator and it weighs in at 3,200 pounds. Driven by a Thielert heavy fuel engine, it flies faster, higher and farther than the Predator and it doubles the precision strike capability of the MQ-1 with four Hellfire missiles.

Though comparable in size and appearance to the Predator, the Sky Warrior system has more in common with the MQ-9 Reaper — the larger Predator version that is armed with bombs and missiles, says Chris Ames, director of business development at General Atomics. Like Reaper, Sky Warrior has triple redundant avionics and flight control systems and dual redundant flight control surfaces — which means it has increased reliability and better survivability in combat — along with an automatic take-off and landing system.

The Army plans to outfit its 11 combat aviation brigades with 12 Sky Warrior aircraft apiece. Twelve additional vehicles would be fielded to a training unit, says Col. Randy Rotte, deputy director of Army aviation.

In April, the Army deployed several Sky Warrior aircraft to Iraq where contractors are flying the system. In the coming year, the service plans to deploy four additional Sky Warriors.
Though the Army and Air Force drones have similar capabilities, each service operates them differently.

The Air Force flies Predators from ground control stations located in the United States. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the aircraft fall under the direction of the joint forces commander, who then allocates the missions that each will execute during flight.

The Army, on the other hand, flies its unmanned systems from ground control stations co-located with brigade commanders in the field. The aircraft are made available at the beck and call of ground troops.

Army officials have complained that the Air Force’s Predators are overtaxed and therefore unable to meet ground commanders’ needs, which is partly why the service is acquiring its own medium-altitude drone. Because the Sky Warrior is capable of performing many of the same functions as the Predator, the Air Force wants the Army to share in the responsibility of executing more joint missions. 

Those differences have pushed the services to develop a joint concept of operations for their armed unmanned aircraft. Under the plan, both services will be able to pool all Predators, Reapers and Sky Warriors in support of air and ground commanders, officials say.

The goal is for Air Force Predators and Army Sky Warriors to be interchangeable for a variety of missions, says Maj. Matt Martin, chief of the Predator and Reaper operations branch on the A-3 staff at the Air Force’s Air Combat Command.

The operation of Predators in the wars has been a point of contention between the two services. The Army complains that ground commanders must request support several days ahead of an operation. Based upon priority of the missions, Predators are assigned to provide a certain amount of coverage. Often, the aircraft are tapped for multiple missions during lengthy sorties. Every day, there are requests that go unfulfilled.

“You cannot peanut butter-spread air power out over the theater, especially a theater that big,” says Tom Ehrhard, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a retired Air Force colonel. “The joint force commander makes those decisions, like he should.”

The Air Force is efficient at supporting multiple commanders during that 20-hour Predator flight, says Maj. Robert Kadavy, an action officer in the aviation directorate at Army headquarters. 

Army officials agree that advanced booking for drone coverage is necessary, but the enemy seldom allows them to follow the set schedule on the day of the mission.

There have been occasions when a Predator was flying over an area as requested, but the ground troops, who may have encountered a roadside bomb or ambush en route to the raid, were delayed. By the time they arrived, the Predator had fulfilled its 30-minute mission and had to move on to another mission, they say.

That commander also expects the Predator to show up when he asked for it. If the previous commander delays it, there’s a domino effect, says Kadavy. Ground commanders prefer to have direct control over the aircraft.

“That’s what our Army commanders really like — the ability to make changes, because they know a plan three days out is never going to be exactly on that timeline,” says Kadavy.

As of October, Predators this year have flown more than 101,000 flight hours and supported 1,230 raids, says Capt. Brooke Brander, spokesperson for the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base. But ground commanders are demanding even more flexibility and more responsiveness from the aircraft to support the way they fight, and that has increased the friction between the two services. 

To resolve the turf battle, the Army and Air Force service chiefs last February tapped the commanders at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Air Force’s Air Combat Command to develop the joint concept of operations. Officials working on the final product say the plan will enable the services to provide more coverage to ground troops.

For example, imagine a Predator is flying and tracking a moving vehicle with four occupants. The vehicle stops, and two people get out and jump into another car that takes off in the opposite direction. Under the current rules, the Predator team would have to decide which target to follow.

Under the new procedures, the services would have the connectivity, communications, tactics and procedures in place to hand off one of those targets to another drone. The Sky Warrior could track one, the Predator could continue tracking the other and all of the commander’s requirements would be met, says Martin.

“Our focus always starts with that commander and how he gets that information,” says Rotte. “Making it quick and actionable is of paramount importance to us.”

There are several technology impediments in the way, however. The lack of comprehensive battlespace information between Army and Air Force units is one of them. When the Air Force’s Predators are tasked to support an Army commander, operators are able to tap into blue force tracker to see the location of units and enemies on the ground. However, the systems are not able to consolidate that information with the data they receive from other aircraft. “One of the things we would like to do is to integrate those two pictures into a true common operating picture, and then make sure that the operators of those weapons systems are also fully integrated into that,” says Martin.

In the Army, there are efforts underway to ensure that target information spotted by other types of unmanned systems, such as the Raven or Shadow, can be transferred to the Sky Warrior. The Air Force also would like that connectivity to attain data from other systems, Martin says.

“Regardless of who’s flying it, everyone ought to have access to the data,” Gen. William Wallace, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, tells reporters in Washington.

Distributing that vast amount of information into the cockpits of manned aircraft, in a process similar to cable television, is something that the Army also would like to do.

“That’s where this joint conops has eventually got to be so you can leverage everybody’s system,” says a recently retired senior Army aviation official. The most important thing, he says, is to be able to have visibility of all the unmanned systems and information in the battlespace. The next priority would be to be able to pass from one person to another the control and operation of a drone so they can pick up other missions. “That kind of flexibility is desirable,” he says. 

On any given day in the skies over Iraq, there may be airplanes stacked up from 2,000 feet all the way up to 22,000 feet in 500 or 1,000-foot increments, says Martin. The Air Force had previously set up restricted zones for operating unmanned aircraft. They now are treated the same as manned aircraft and share the same airspace. But because the unmanned systems were not intended for employment in that manner, the services have had to reconfigure networks and data links to accommodate them.

“One of the things we’re hoping to do with the conops is to establish requirements so that we can go out and buy the material solutions so that we have a more integrated, more seamless approach to the control of these assets,” says Martin.

The joint plan may eventually guide the services to more commonality in hardware and systems, which means the government may begin to buy intellectual property rights instead of proprietary systems. “Industry will have to re-look at some of the things they sell,” says the retired Army official.

The new guidelines will not dictate to the services how to organize, train or equip their forces, says Martin. “We’re just going to try to get them to the same level of effects that they can produce.”

The two services follow different paradigms of organizing and training their unmanned systems operators.

In the Air Force, officers who previously have flown other types of aircraft are trained to fly the Predators. They control the systems with enlisted airmen who take on the role of sensor operators.

In the Army, enlisted personnel learn how to fly drones and control their sensors. The intent down the road is to go to one common UAS operator who will be proficient in all of the service’s unmanned systems, says Maj. Hilton Nunez, the unmanned aerial systems division chief in the Army’s aviation directorate.

There has been debate about whether flying drones — and especially armed medium-altitude drones like Predator and Sky Warrior — requires a pilot who has had experience in the cockpit of other types of aircraft.

“That’s one of the big issues, which is not specific to the requirement in the operation of the UAV, but it does have something to do with the policy of flying, which is beyond the conops. It becomes a policy issue,” says Wallace.

The Army flies all of its unmanned aircraft with the One System Ground Control Station, a technology that can command different vehicles with a common data link. Being able to fly any of the unmanned aircraft systems using the same interface reduces the training time for operators, says Kadavy.

In October, the Sky Warrior demonstrated the ability to take off and land autonomously via the One System. Though the drone will have the ability to operate beyond line of sight using satellite communications, the Army plans to continue flying the system with the operators in the field with their respective units, says Nunez. Despite its weapons capacity, Sky Warrior will conduct mostly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in addition to performing communications relay and network extensions for the ground forces.

As the Air Force begins to investigate a Reaper replacement, there is some concern that the service may ditch the Predator program in favor of that new system. Doing so may put the Sky Warrior program — and the future of joint unmanned aircraft operations — in jeopardy.

“As long as we’re both in that program, we’re forced to work the joint conops. If you go away from that and you start flying bigger platforms, with longer loiter times, higher altitudes, greater ranges, and the rest, what I fear is that we could come back into being mutually supporting, but not truly joint,” says the retired Army official.

For now, the focus remains on completing the joint concept.

“The Army and Air Force are working together,” says Martin. “We have a plan to provide the most flexibility to the joint force commander to support any contingency, and we’re on track to do that.” 

Topics: Robotics, Armed Robots, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Air Force News, Army News

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