The Army’s one millionth Unmanned Aerial System flight hour marks a window in time through which to view a broader trajectory of explosive change and expansion — one in which the advent of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan have added more eyes to the fight, found and destroyed more enemies and saved more lives — all the while altering the way the Army operates on a modern asymmetrical battlefield.
“The ability to have eyes out forward becomes a true combat multiplier,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager, Army UAS.
The growth in UAS since the beginning of OEF and OIF is staggering — the Army inventory jumped from a handful of systems in 2001 to roughly 1,000 aircraft by 2010 and is now logging up to 25,000 of UAV flight hours per month in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Army surpassed the one million unmanned-hour mark in April of 2010.
“Ninety-five percent of what the Army has in its inventory today did not even exist at the beginning of the war,” said Tim Owings, deputy program manager, Army UAS. “A lot of people liken Vietnam to a helicopter war — I liken these two wars as the unmanned systems wars because these are the wars where these systems hit the central axis of the way we fight and became part and parcel to the way the Army prosecutes wars.”
Roughly 900,000 of the one million flight hours have taken place since the current wars began; it took 13 years to put together the first 100,000 hours, Owings said. About 88-percent of these flight hours are from time in combat.
At the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army possessed only a few Shadow and Hunter UAS Systems.
“We had a couple systems at Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Huachuca, Ariz. At that time we were flying minimal hours, we were sort of in the background in terms of big Army. The Army had other missions and other needs,” said Owings.
However, the value of adding electronic “eyes” in the sky to units conducting counterinsurgency missions on the ground quickly proved indispensable to the current war effort — driving a demand to rapidly multiply the amount of UAS systems produced and deployed.
The hand-held Raven UAS, medium-altitude Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP) UAS and the hover-and-stare, two-foot long, vertical take-off gas-powered Micro Air Vehicle (gMAV) are among the new UAVs added to the fleet in the last seven to eight years; the Army now operates 87 Shadow UAS systems, 6 Hunter systems, 9 ERMP variants, 1,300 Raven systems and 16 gMAV systems.
A Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) of four ERMP aircraft were deployed to Iraq last year –and another ERMP QRC is slated for Afghanistan later this year. The ERMPs heading to Afghanistan will be armed with Hellfire missiles under each wing. The idea of the QRC is to field technologies in service of the ongoing war effort as they are available while simultaneously developing a system as a program of record, Gonzalez said.
Since the early days of the war, the Army has worked vigorously to keep pace with a seemingly insatiable demand for more UAVs in theater.
“It has been absolutely amazing, no matter how many we have built there has always been a need for more,” Owings said.
At the same time, while managing the vastly increasing wartime demands for more ISR, the Army worked aggressively to integrate and upgrade its growing fleet of systems.
“We went through some rapid integration efforts to get additional systems a lot of upgrades to improve reliability to the systems we had. We added a lot of improvements to the mission by adding new payloads,” said Gonzalez.
The rapid addition of hundreds of UAVs to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has lead to innovations such as communications relay and the use of manned-unmanned teaming wherein helicopter pilots work in tandem with nearby UAS assets.
“Manned aircraft and scout aircraft are limited by how long the pilots can stay up there. When you start to add a day and night capability [with UAS] that can stay up for extended periods, you can keep an eye on a lot more. Then, you can call in the manned aircraft to take out a target,” said Gonzalez.
“Pilots have not only embraced the concept but they are trying to get more manned/unmanned teaming.”
UAS minimize risk to pilots by flying into “hot” areas ahead of helicopters; they can even function as a communication node on a network connected forces separated by terrain.
“If there are ground units separated by mountain ranges, we can allow two ground units to talk to each other through UAS— pass voice coms and data coms over terrain which would typically cause radio obscurance,” said Owings.
Along these lines, the Army now operates Manned-Unmanned Teaming technology in which gives Apache pilots the ability to view real-time UAV feeds from within the cockpit of the aircraft.
The Army is testing the next-generation of this technology which allows the pilots to not only view the UAV feeds in the cockpit but direct their flight and payloads as well. The Army’s now-in-development next-generation Block III Apache is involved in a pilot program testing this cutting-edge capability.
“The ability of the Apache crew to see the battle space through the eyes of the UAV’s sensor gives the pilots unprecedented perspective and situational awareness – perspective and awareness that can be shared with our Soldiers on the ground.
This capability shortens sensor to shooter timelines and improves the overall integration between the air and ground elements,” said Col. Shane Openshaw, Project Manager, Apache.
The Army plans to expand the manned-unmanned teaming program to include the Kiowa Warrior fleet as well, Owings said. Also, a recently completed Army study called ‘Aviation 2’ calls for Shadow UAS systems to be formally added to Kiowa units as a way to maximize manned-unmanned teaming opportunities, Gonzalez said.
The Army’s future plans for UAS systems are articulated in its recently unveiled UAS roadmap, which suggests that more aircraft missions will contain an unmanned component or capability.
“Aviation brigades don’t want to go to war without unmanned systems. They see these things as the hunting dogs in front of the hunters — the eyes of the Army,” said Owings. “They are out in front looking — allowing them to engage targets that they couldn’t see before, see things at ranges they couldn’t’ see before and attack things they couldn’t attack before.”