Army Unmanned Aircraft Programs: Winners and Losers

By Valerie Insinna
The declining Defense Department budget, combined with the planned drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, has forced the Army to choose some winners and losers when it comes to the service's unmanned aerial systems.
The RQ-5 Hunter, first flown in combat as early as 1999 in Kosovo, was actually canceled years ago, but the Army kept 20 aircraft around as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ramped up. Col. Pat Tierney, director of the Army's aviation directorate, said Dec. 11 at the Army Aviation Association of America unmanned aircraft systems forum, that after troops come home, the Hunter will be divested from the service's inventory.
The Hunter is a long-range UAS originally designed for strategic intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions controlled at the corps level. The Army is now fielding the Gray Eagle, which can carry similar payloads. Meanwhile, the service has moved away from strategic applications for its UAVs in order to concentrate on tactical applications at the division level and below.
The Hunter "was the most successful canceled program in the history of the Army," Col. Tim Baxter, UAS program manager quipped at the conference the following day.
Another loser is the idea of an Army vertical take-off and landing UAV. Talk of the Army acquiring a helicopter-like drone for ISR missions had been ongoing for several years. Army Training and Doctrine Command studied the possibility, but it has now decided that because of budget constraints, the service will have to make do with the fixed-wing unmanned aircraft it already has, Glenn Rizzi, a senior advisor at TRADOC said.
The Army at one time had included two UAVs capable of hovering in its now canceled Future Combat Systems modernization program. One was a large aircraft similar to the Navy's Fire Scout. A second was intended for small units.
Rizzi said the Army sees more potential for an unmanned air cargo helicopter, similar to the one the Marine Corps is flying now in Afghanistan to resupply troops at remote bases. However, there are no forthcoming formal requirements for that concept, he added.
One winner is the Puma, a small hand-launched UAV that small units are using for reconnaissance and surveillance. The Army requested the system under a rapid fielding initiative in 2007 to complement its other small drone, the Raven. Soldiers were demanding an all-weather capable aircraft with longer endurance and a gimbaled camera.
Baxter said the Puma will be transitioning to a program of record.
Attaining such status generally protects programs from budget axes and formally integrates them into the Army. The Hunter never became a program of record.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Robotics

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