Budget Cuts Force Army Unmanned Aviation to Make Do With What It Has

By Stew Magnuson

As defense budgets decline, the Army intends to stand pat with four basic unmanned aerial vehicle models, officials said at a recent conference.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars saw both a UAV buying binge and the rapid adoption of drones into Army operations. So much so,  they are now considered an integral part of the way the service fights.

“It is already woven into the fabric of Army aviation,” said Col. Pat Tierney, director of the service’s aviation directorate.

Aside from completing its fleet of new Gray Eagle medium-altitude, long-endurance drones, there are no new Army unpiloted aircraft under development. Vendors will have to content themselves with helping the Army upgrade its current models, said Lt. Col. Mark Colbrook, G-3 Aviation unmanned aerial systems division chief.

“We are not going to be replacing the vehicles … at least not in the next year or two,” he said at the Army Aviation Association of America unmanned aircraft systems forum in Arlington, Va. The service, however, will be looking to improve the sensors and other payloads that go aboard the aircraft as well as boost their performance in the air.

Army aviation officials at the conference had two basic messages: costs must come down; and the service must retain control of its UAS operations.

The latter is a point that Army officials find themselves having to repeat. A turf battle between it and the Air Force over who should operate unmanned systems in the skies over battlefields had been fought and won in the latter half of the previous decade.

Tierney admitted that the old debate was back, but this time it is being driven by the budget climate. Members of Congress look at the new Gray Eagle, and the Air Force’s Reaper and Predator, see similar aircraft, and wonder if it would be less expensive to let the Air Force do all the flying.

The office of the secretary of defense understands that the Army needs its own UAVs. But lawmakers don’t fully understand this. There are efforts “to limit us,” he added.

“We have got to go back up to the Hill and explain what it is we do with this system,” he said.

UAVs have the potential to sharply decrease the amount of time needed to fly more expensive helicopters, but not all lawmakers understand those potential cost-saving benefits, he said.
The Army wants to control its own UAVs “organically.” In other words, its operators are embedded inside the units they are serving, whether they are divisions for the Gray Eagle, Shadows in brigades, or Ravens and Pumas within battalions.

The Army doesn’t want to have to put in a “request” to another service for a UAV to support its troops. It wants the ability to react quickly as conditions change on the battlefields.

Further, the two services have different missions, senior service leaders at the conference explained. The Air Force is collecting intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance for strategic missions such as the pursuit of Taliban leaders. The Army is doing reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, or RSTA, in more tactical scenarios.

“The Air Force would come to us and say ‘We can probably cover most of those missions with what we’ve got. There is duplicity there.’ I am telling you that is just not true,” Tierney said.

“There are certain things we have got to be able to do for ourselves,” he said.

Assuming that Army unmanned aviation programs are safe, the service intends to spend most of its budget upgrading what it has.

“We have to do the best that we can with what we’ve got,” said Richard Kretzschmar, UAS deputy program manager.

As of December, about 50 Gray Eagles had been delivered to the Army, with two units up and running, one in training, and a fourth being set up. The Army has been authorized to acquire 100 additional aircraft, with the planned buy wrapping up in 2018.

As the fleet is being fielded there is a possibility to greatly improve the Gray Eagle’s endurance, said Don Cattell, director of Army programs at its manufacturer General Atomics.

The company is spending its own research-and-development funding — in consultation with the Army — to expand its fuel capacity. It could ultimately carry 1,200 pounds of fuel allowing it to operate for 46 hours — 20 more than it currently flies.

The Army also wants onboard sense-and-avoid technology so the Gray Eagle can safely fly in U.S. airspace, Kretzschmar said. The Air Force is taking the lead on creating this technology, which forces a plane to correct course when it is about to collide with another object. The Army will need it to train in national airspace.

The Shadow, the Army’s brigade-level UAV, is also in line for some upgrades.

“It doesn’t do everything, but for the cost ... the capability it brings, it is a very effective system,” said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of the unmanned air warfare directorate in the office of the secretary of defense.

As an affordable system, the Army needs to leverage every bit of capability out of the Shadow that it can, he said.

The Shadow is undergoing upgrades to increase its endurance, Colbrook said. That includes fuel efficiency and longer wings, which increases the time in the air.

Col. Tim Baxter, the Army’s UAS program manager, said his office is in the process of down selecting candidates to replace the Shadow’s engines. The Army wanted both improved efficiency and something quieter, and therefore, stealthier.  

Weaponizing the Shadow is also on the table. Missiles are becoming smaller, which expands the number of UAV models that can carry them.

“There is no reason why we can’t continue with that theme and weaponize our smaller platforms, and increase their capability in the mission areas,” Kretzschmar said.

New engines, adding improved sensors and weapons will all be open for competition, Baxter and the other Army officials added. That should drive down costs, they asserted.

Gray Eagle and Shadow, as the two larger UAVs in the Army inventory, have much more “real estate” aboard for new sensors and other payloads such as weapons or communication links.
The knock on UAVs electro-optical/infrared sensors is the so-called “soda straw effect,” where operators see a narrow field of view. Wide area surveillance and synthetic aperture radar sensors are getting smaller and becoming lower in price, opening up more possibilities, Kretzschmar said.

“We don’t always have to have the 99 percent solution,” Kretzschmar said. It isn’t necessary to spend more money to have the highest fidelity sensor. There will be a mix of “top-of-the-line” and “good enough” payloads, he added.

Meanwhile, vendors who want to compete to place their products aboard these aircraft are going to have to live within their bounds, Tierney said.

“We are not going to reconfigure the aircraft” to accommodate new payloads, he vowed.

As for the service’s two smaller UAVs — the Raven and the Puma — there may be more frequent technology refreshes. A Gray Eagle airframe may last 20 years. The two hand-launched aircraft are designed to be rugged, but they still take a beating in the field. A typical Raven lifespan may be closer to three years, said Baxter. Technology associated with small UAVs is improving rapidly. There will be more frequent opportunities for vendors to compete, Baxter added.

The Puma, a longer-endurance UAV with a gimbaled camera, was rushed into battle under a rapid fielding initiative to augment the Raven. It will move from being an “urgent need” to a program of record, meaning it will be more or less a permanent part of the Army’s inventory.
At the same time, the Raven’s static camera is being replaced with a gimbaled one.

The Army does have one other UAV at its disposal, the Hunter, but its days are numbered. It first saw service during the Kosovo conflict when the Army was experimenting with unmanned aircraft. It was never a program of record, and was heading for mothballs when the wars got under way in 2001. The Army kept 20 Hunters in service because they offered a higher payload capacity than the Shadow.

Once troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, it will mark the end of the pioneering aircraft.
It “was the most successful canceled program in the history of the Army,” Baxter said.

Also a casualty of tighter budgets is the idea of fielding a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) unmanned aircraft similar to a helicopter. The Army studied the concept, but no requirements for a platform that could hover and stare at a target were forthcoming, Glenn Rizzi, a senior advisor at the Training and Doctrine Command, said.

The Army’s canceled Future Combat Systems modernization program had two VTOL aircraft in its long-term plans — a large helicopter-like one similar to the Navy’s Fire Scout and a tactical ducted-fan aircraft intended for small units such as platoons. There were once plans for allowing them to survive the FCS termination, but that never came to fruition.

There are still questions the Army needs to work out as far as how to operate the aircraft. It was a technology that grew up during counter-insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kretzschmar said no one believes that this mission will be going away. However, a new emphasis on so-called “near-peer” competitors, or anti-access/area denial operations, brings up questions of survivability. Unpiloted aircraft have operated free of robust anti-aircraft systems in airspaces over today’s battlefields. That may not always be the case.

“How survivable are our systems? And if they are not as survivable as we want them to be, what can we do to reconstitute the force?” he asked.

If a Shadow is lost, maybe a smaller Puma could be brought into the fight.

Another question is how manned-unmanned teaming will be applied and what effects it will have on acquisitions. Baxter said the Army is of two minds.

There are “zealots” in the ranks who think unmanned systems could completely replace armed aerial scout (AAS) helicopters. Others believe a solider in a manned aircraft must always be in the loop.

“I think the answer is somewhere in between,” Kretzschmar said. “There certainly is an argument to be made for augmenting the AAS mission.”

Evidence shows that manned-unmanned teaming is beneficial and potentially a game-changing tactic. That could result in decreased buys for armed aerial scout helicopters, he said.

Photo Credit: Army

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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