Army Rushes to Deploy Small Drones to Afghanistan, But Needs Better Trained Operators
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The demand for small unmanned aircraft continues to grow. Hundreds of new systems are being shipped to Afghanistan, officials said, but training enough operators before they deploy remains a challenge.
“We’ve had a tremendous request from theater to increase the number of small UAS that are going to brigade combat teams, particularly in the southern part of Afghanistan,” Col. Greg Gonzalez, project manager for Army UAS, said April 19 at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual forum. “That terrain, that mission down there lends itself to these.”
The Army provides every brigade combat team with 15 Raven systems, each of which includes three of the hand-launched, remote-controlled aircraft. There are nine BCTs, mostly in southern Afghanistan, that want to increase their number of systems to 35 each.
“That gives them a tremendous capability to saturate and look for the bad guy,” Gonzalez said.
U.S. Central Command also has been requesting the rapid fielding of additional Puma systems. The demand has been so great that the Army had depleted its own supply and had to use a Special Operations Command contract to fulfill the request. Earlier this year, the Army sent 64 Puma systems into Afghanistan primarily for reconnaissance patrols, Gonzalez said. There still is a request for 20 more.
But some Army officials have noted a messy training situation with small UAS, particularly the Raven. Because troops often lack access to the national air space to practice flying the aircraft and because of the costs associated with crashing them, little training is conducted before troops deploy to theater. This means that some operators lack adequate pre-combat preparation to fly the UAVs and must learn on the job, officials said.
In response to the training shortfall, the Army has instituted a new program in which skilled operators are responsible for schooling other soldiers. The Army soon will be launching an internal website that will allow units to better track their Raven operators. Often they move from one brigade to another and can become lost in the shuffle, Gonzalez said. The site will track the operator by name and the number of hours he or she has flown.
The service also is working on a ground-based sense-and-avoid system that may help expedite obtaining U.S. government approval to fly in the national air space for training purposes. The military must apply for a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration before using the national air space to fly UAS. It can take months to get the thumbs-up, which severely hampers training schedules, Army officials said.
The Joint UAS Center of Excellence also is working on the air space integration problem. Officials there have written a document that outlines the challenges they face operating UAS in the national air space. As part of the report, the center of excellence asked the services and U.S. Special Operations Command to provide their UAS training wish lists.
There are currently 108 locations in 40 states where the services keep unmanned aircraft, said Col. Grant Webb, deputy commander of the joint UAS center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
The air space report should be completed by the end of April, Webb said.