TYSON’S CORNER, VA: With the wars that spawned the drone revolution subsiding, if not entirely ending, the U.S. armed services are taking stock of what they’ve learned and sorting out what to do next to bolster or better the fleets of unmanned aircraft they’ve accumulated since 2001. One thing is clear: war or peace, the technology is here to stay.
A dozen years ago, a drone was still just a bee with a lousy work ethic. Today, the word isn’t just the colloquial expression for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as most experts call them, or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft), as the Air Force prefers. Drones are now a military necessity – especially for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
“They’ve changed the way we fight,” declared Col. Frank Muth, director of materiel for the Army, speaking at an Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference Feb. 13. In 2002, a few months into the war in Afghanistan and a few months prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Army had a grand total of 76 UAS, Muth noted. Today, he said, the Army has 7,567 and has spent $5.23 billion on unmanned aviation over the past decade.
“Soldiers on the ground like to hear two voices on the (radio), especially troops in contact,” he said. One is the voice of either an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout or AH-64D Apache attack helicopter pilot. The other is a UAS operator, who provides “an ability to see where they cannot, and that makes a huge difference,” Muth said.
Muth was one of four military speakers who gave the annual AUVSI event an overview of their service’s drone programs. The briefings revealed an interesting difference in perspectives – the two services that put the most boots on the ground are the ones keenest to get more drones in the air – but a common dilemma: a budget outlook that’s gone from murky to opaque.
Muth offered no timelines or budget details, but he noted that the Army plans to equip each of its two Aerial Exploitation Battalions with nine General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. MQ-1C Gray Eagles, an Army derivative of the Air Force MQ-1B Predator that carries an advanced version of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. Over time, the Army also plans to put a company of nine Gray Eagles in each of its 12 Combat Aviation Brigades (CAB) and two in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. CABs will take three more Gray Eagles with them when they deploy, as the second CAB to receive Gray Eagles did when it deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 1st Infantry Division in early February.
The Army is also creating what it calls “Full Spectrum” CABs that have fewer manned Kiowa Warrior and Apache helicopters but also have small AAI Textron Systems RQ-7 Shadow UAS whose video can be seen in the cockpits of the manned aircraft, a technique known as Manned-Unmanned Teaming, or MUM.
“How do we pay for it? That’s the big question,” Muth said of the Army’s UAS plans.
Maj. Dave Funkhouser, unmanned aviation capabilities integration officer for the Marines, described his service as going all-in on drones. Last year, the Marine Corps created a new “unmanned aircraft commander” MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) for officers, he noted. Funkhouser added that while his service is being reduced from 202,000 members at its most recent peak to 182,600, the Corps plans to take its UAS fleet in the opposite direction.
The Marine Corps now has four UAS squadrons — three active, one reserve — and will create a second reserve UAS squadron in 2016. The aircraft these “VMU” squadrons fly are small but numerous. The Marines have more than 450 hand-launched AeroVironment RQ-11B Ravens and have fielded four other small UAS types as “urgent requirements” in Afghanistan. The Corps has also been leasing ISR services by the hour from Boeing UAS subsidiary Insitu, which flies its ScanEagle for the Corps and Navy. The Marines plan to replace that service with their own RQ-21A Small Tactical UAS, or STUAS, a program in development. The Marines also fly the small Shadow UAS used by the Army..
Funkhouser added that the Corps has been extremely pleased with an experimental full-size UAS cargo helicopter developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Kaman Corp. It is used to take food, water, ammunition and other supplies to marines in remote outposts in Afghanistan since December 2011.
“It’s kind of the rock star of Marine Corps unmanned aviation in the past year,” Funkhouser said of the K-MAX cargo helicopter, two of which have logged more than 1,200 flight hours and moved more than 2.7 million pounds of cargo in Afghanistan. The K-MAX will continue to fly there until the marines come home, he added. The Corps, meanwhile, is studying whether to develop a multimission UAS helicopter of the sort in the future.
“Despite the drawdown in the Marine Corps and across DoD, it’s fairly telling that our unmanned aviation community continues to grow,” Funkhouser said.
Col. Bill “Sweet” Tart, director of the Air Force’s RPA Capabilities Division, counseled industry not to waste time trolling the halls of the Pentagon trying to figure out what UAS products the Air Force may buy in the foreseeable future, because for now, the future isn’t foreseeable.
“All the people I know are in the ‘I can’t do anything right now’ mode,” Tart said. The paralysis stems both from the threat of sequestration and the loss of OCO (overseas contingency operations) funding for items that will now have to fit into the base defense budget to get funded. “It would be unproductive for you to come in and look for guidance,” Tart said. “People just aren’t going to be able to give it to you for a while.”
RPAs, though, are firmly rooted in the Air Force, Tart said. At Creech Air Force Base alone, the Air Force has more than 1,800 pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence coordinators flying armed MQ-1B Predators and MQ-9 Reapers on missions in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe via satellite. The Air Force also flies the Northrop Grumman Corp. RQ-4 Global Hawk.
“In our Air Force, we are developing a whole tribe of people who understand RPA,” Tart told the conference. Budget uncertainty aside, Tart offered this list of items industry might want to focus on:
Automating RPA communications – “I do not tell my iPhone to go look for WiFi; it just does it,” he said.
Ensuring “link surety and advanced encryption,” features he described as “gotta have.”
Airborne and ground-based sense and avoid systems, which the Federal Aviation Administration has said will be required for opening the National Airspace System to unmanned aircraft, something the military dearly wants for training and other purposes.
“Enhanced optics,” meaning better UAS cameras.
Partly because its aircraft mainly fly from ships, the Navy has been slower than other services to incorporate UAS into its force structure but it has big plans for the future. Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons at the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair), said the Navy’s UAS plans include:
- Continuing development of the MQ-4 Triton, a derivative of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk and the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D), but an aircraft whose internal systems, Winter said, were newly designed for “maritime warfare capability.” The Triton’s first flight is scheduled for April in Palmdale, CA, he reported.
- Developing an armed “C” version of the MC-8B Fire Scout unmanned ISR helicopter, another Northrop Grumman program. The Navy is replacing the existing system’s Schweizer Aircraft 330 helicopter air vehicle with a Bell 407 commercial helicopter rigged for unmanned flight and arming it with rockets.
- Taking Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS (unmanned combat air system) demonstrator to the deck of the nuclear carrier USS George H.W. Bush in April or May for the first UAS carrier launch and recovery at sea. The Navy conducted handling trials of the X-47B last year on the deck of the USS Harry S Truman.
Though an unmanned fighter plane in size and designated a combat air system, the X-47B is a demonstrator only and “will never carry a weapon,” Winter noted. The Navy’s next big UAS program, though, is to be an armed, carrier-based ISR platform called UCLASS, for Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike. The Pentagon approved the Navy’s requirements just before Christmas and the service plans to issue a request for proposals to industry this year or next, Winter said.
Despite all that, Winter said one of his goals for 2013 was to get UAS “inculcated into the (Navy) culture. Some people would say we’re there. I say we’ve still got a long way to go.” As if to reassure those within his service wary of UAS, Winter stipulated that, “It’s a complementary capability with manned systems. We’re not out here to divest ourselves of all manned systems so that UASes can rule the world.”
But over the past dozen years, just think of how far drones have come.