US Army deputy chief of staff for operations Lt Gen James D. Thurman says the use of unmanned aircraft systems has exploded in recent years, flying time growing from 500 hours flown by only three UAVs a decade ago to more than 180 000 flown hours by more than 1700 UAVs in 2009.
Speaking at the annual Association of the US Army Aviation Symposium and Exhibition he said the aviation branch had trained more than 1800 unmanned operators in 2009 and expects to surpass 2000 by the end of this year. Thurman said the exponential growth in the number of aircraft and trained professionals is coupled with providing more capable systems as their enemy adapts to current operations.
“Our unmanned aircraft systems are forecast to reach the milestone of one million total flight hours flown in the coming year of which 88 percent have been flown in support of combat operations, so it’s huge growth,” Thurman said. He said the Army expects to have all brigade combat teams fielded with Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft systems by 2011.
“We know the integration of unmanned aircraft systems with our maneuver forces into a single, cohesive combat capability is paramount,” he said.
Separately, the Armed Forces Press Service reports Col. Christopher B. Carlile, director of the Army Unmanned Aerial System Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, ays these systems, “operated at the tactical level by troops on the ground, are bringing warfighters unprecedented intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.
“There’s an old saying that science and science fiction is only separated by timing, and that timing is now,” he said during an Association of the US Army aviation forum. “We have it.”
Some considered Army UASs little more than “model airplanes with some sensors hanging from them and a bunch of guys flying around with play toys” when they first entered the scene in the mid-1990s, Carlile conceded. But they’ve proven themselves as force multipliers that save lives on the battlefield, and have come to be embraced by the warfighters who employ them, he said.
Army UASs come in three primary forms. The AeroVironment RQ11 Raven, just under 3 feet long, supports battalions down to the platoon level. The AAI Corporation RQ7 Shadow, 11 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, supports brigade-level operations. The more sophisticated “big daddy” of Army UASs, the General Atomics MQ-1C Warrior extended range multi-purpose system, has a 56-foot wingspan and supports division-level operations.
These systems provide life-saving situational awareness and make soldiers more effective in tracking down enemy targets, Carlile explained.
“This is not the movies,” Carlile said. “There is not an infantryman who can call up and have the National Security Agency turn a satellite so he can see what’s on the back side of a building. That doesn’t happen.”
In the past, infantrymen found out what was behind the building when gunfire came from it, or a rocket-propelled grenade came at them from around the corner. Now, they have the Raven, the smallest UAS. At less than 5 pounds, it is lightweight and portable enough to deliver an aerial reconnaissance capability once limited to higher-echelon elements.
“They can take that and fly it and put it above, and see if there is an ambush on the other side of the street, in real time,” Carlile said. Troops also can determine what the enemy is up to – such as hiding behind civilian shields – to reduce the risk of collateral damage during operations.
Army UASs also have proven their effectiveness in identifying and taking out enemy operatives. A little-known fact, Carlile said, is that Army UASs have launched about 80 percent of the successful drone strikes that have made headlines in the news.
When he commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq as a major general, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, now commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, called the tactical UAV Shadow system “an absolute must” for his brigade commanders in locating, identifying and ultimately defeating high-value targets.
The UAS Center of Excellence leads the Army’s effort to synchronize its UAS program with those of the other services, especially the higher-visibility Air Force remotely piloted vehicle program based at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Recognising the contribution these sister-service aircraft make to the fight, Carlile emphasised the complementary value of unmanned aircraft operated by troops on the ground, directly alongside the soldiers they support.
“Their whole intent is to support the guys they eat dinner with every night, the ones they sleep in the same tactical assembly area with,” he said. “Because of that, they have a tie they would not have if they were in Las Vegas, Nevada,” home of the Air Force UAV center at Creech Air Force Base.
“You cannot have that same tie with the soldier. You cannot have that same situational awareness 8000 miles away,” he said. “It just does not exist.”
Thurman told attendees at the AUSA session yesterday the Army will continue to invest in unmanned as well as manned aircraft to support warfighters. “Unmanned aircraft systems continue to significantly improve our war efforts, and demand for these specialised systems continues to rise,” he said. “The Army will continue to pursue highly capable systems while providing aircraft, highly skilled operators and advanced capabilities to support the war efforts.”
While pointing toward solid growth within the Army UAS program, Carlile isn’t predicting a day when unmanned aircraft will take the place of piloted ones. Army experiments to measure both platforms’ effectiveness in tracking enemy targets in combat found they had the best results when working collaboratively to support the operation, he said.
“When we put the manned and unmanned together into the combat operation, we get an exponential increase in synergy,” he said.
That synergy can be measured in the number of successful target identifications or hits, Carlile said, with equipment providing consistent binary data and humans contributing the ability to think outside of that data field to make logic.
“The two come together very sweetly, and that is what gives us the capability,” he said.