Army Special Forces Gear Up For Gray Eagle

By Grace V. Jean
As the Army ramps up production of the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, officials at U.S. Army Special Operations Command are developing tactics and plans for operating two companies worth of vehicles slated to come online beginning in 2013.

“We’ve already recognized we will need more personnel to conduct a SOF-specific task,” said Lt. Col. Mark Gladney, UAS branch chief for the command.

The medium-altitude, long-endurance MQ-1C Gray Eagle is part of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper family of remotely piloted aircraft manufactured by General Atomics. It is armed with Hellfire missiles and can carry laser designators, radar and other sensors.

Each Army division will receive a company of Gray Eagles that will be manned by 128 soldiers. The two companies assigned to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky., will each have 165 personnel.

“The reason is the conventional forces intend to employ Gray Eagle companies as companies. We’ll deploy ours as platoons,” explained Gladney. The extra personnel will enable “persistent stare” missions as opposed to the conventional forces’ reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition duties.

A pre-production Gray Eagle system comprising four aircraft is already operating in Afghanistan in support of the combined joint special operations task force-A.

“They’re providing excellent support to that command,” said Gladney. “All of the mission tasks we originally assigned them to do, they are finally up and getting those tasks completed. We’re very happy with the system.”

The Gray Eagle is the first model that is dedicated to special operations forces. Until recently, elite troops had to request support from the Air Force or Army and precious minutes were lost waiting in line. “When it’s organic, you own it. So your response times can be quicker and more responsive to the needs of our SOF operators,” said Gladney.

Similar to any specialty unit that is attached to a combat team, commanders can employ the group when and where they need it.

“The ability for you to make an on-the-spot change and adapt to your environment and adapt to that fluid situation makes it a very good asset to have,” said Gladney. “By having the Gray Eagle within the SOF community, we’ll be able to retask significantly quicker.”

The aircraft may not be limited to supporting Special Forces. Depending on where the unit is deployed and what mission it is executing, commanders could write orders to support other military groups.

It’s important to note that Special Operations Forces do not have specific UAS operators for larger aircraft systems. Gray Eagle operators, like their Shadow UAS peers, are conventional Army soldiers who are assigned to the command for a tour. Once they complete their duty, they will return to a conventional unit. That cross-pollination benefits both groups, Gladney said. The Shadow UAS operators, for example, learn how to cover larger areas that fall under the purview of a Special Forces battalion or group. 

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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