In July and August, the U.S. Army will conduct an initial operational test and evaluation of its MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned plane, an event that follows the Defense Acquisition Board’s June 1 authorization to purchase 29 additional aircraft.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has already delivered 61 Gray Eagles to the Army, with another 44 under contract.
The Gray Eagle has been flying combat missions since its initial deployment to Iraq in 2009, when a four-aircraft platoon of Gray Eagles acted as a quick-reaction force to support the counterinsurgency campaign. Another platoon deployed to Afghanistan in late 2010.
Building on that experience, the first full company of 12 Gray Eagles was deployed to Afghanistan in March and has been flying three to five missions a day since April, giving soldiers on the ground 70 to 90 hours of coverage each day while maintaining an operational availability of about 85 percent, according to Col. Tim Baxter, the Army’s unmanned aerials systems project manager.
The Army company, part of the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, is also handing off visual information to Apache attack helicopters, allowing pilots to access streaming video feeds.
The Gray Eagle program has been criticized for schedule delays after a crash during testing and a litany of software issues. But Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, program executive officer for aviation, told reporters June 27 that while “we did not achieve the goal, the objective that was set for us to meet,” the program is still a success, since it has repeatedly responded to capability requests from battlefield commanders.
Crosby admitted that because the Gray Eagle program has been focused on getting soldiers the latest capability, it hasn’t focused on reliability as much as it might have otherwise.
“We couldn’t do everything, so we had to focus on what’s more important,” he said. “We made a conscious decision to focus on that war-fighting capability, and we’ll focus on the reliability later.”
The majority of problems the Army has identified are software-related, and those issues are primarily due to the constant upgrades of new packages. Each time a new capability is added, it changes the system as a whole, which introduces the potential for more problems.
Rich Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft, backed up his boss, adding, “We’re not seeing those failures again and again for things that we’ve fixed, but new failures are introduced when we put new software in place.”
Baxter said the Gray Eagle effort is “a contingency-based program. We’ve been putting kits in the field while simultaneously in the background developing the system as part of a program of record. We have a laundry list of 15 to 25 things that we have added over the last three or four years.”
The Gray Eagle is a big part of the Army’s future battlefield network, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), which is being deployed to Afghanistan with two brigade combat teams this fall.
WIN-T Increment 3 will begin limited user tests in fiscal 2015, using the Gray Eagle as an aerial node to allow soldiers to forgo satellite communications while taking advantage of the aircraft’s long loiter time.
The Army recently received the network “pod” from General Dynamics that is being used for some initial system integration lab work, according to Jeff Crabb, the Army’s deputy project manager for medium altitude endurance unmanned aircraft.
The whole payload weighs about 150 pounds, Crabb said, adding that the extra weight on the aircraft shouldn’t be difficult to integrate with the other payload systems.
The Army is still trying to decide how best to integrate this capability into Gray Eagle companies, but Crabb said early assessments point to three WIN-T payloads per company. WIN-T would still be able to conduct other missions, he said.
“The idea is that we could do an ISR-type mission at the same time we’re providing relay because most of the time, we’re supporting the brigade combat teams, and those are the same guys we would probably be providing communications relay for,” Crabb said.
This summer’s evaluation will test a small tactical radar/ground moving target indicator payload, as well as continue the manned-unmanned teaming program with Apache attack helicopters. The tests will allow Apache pilots to control the UAS’ electro-optical/infrared payload, see video and control the flight path of the Gray Eagle.
There also will be an air data relay effort, which will give soldiers on the ground the ability to pass information from one platform to another.
The next Gray Eagle company is slated to deploy to Afghanistan early next year and is using this summer’s evaluation to train for the mission, using the new technologies the unit will be bringing to the theater.