At some point in the near future, a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopter crew flying in relative safety should be able to engage a hostile target by firing a small missile from a UAV cruising some distance away, without ever having to put the crew in danger.
That’s the idea behind $358 million in upgrades to 45 RQ-7B Shadow UAVs announced July 9 by the aircraft’s maker, AAI, Hunt Valley, Md., a unit of Textron Systems. Forty-three of the UAVs are slated for the Army, while the remaining two are set to head to the Marine Corps in late 2013.
While the upgrades include a larger wingspan, an improved Ku-band tactical common data link and a longer loiter time, the addition that probably raises the most eyebrows is the hard points being installed on each wing that can carry up to 25 pounds.
“We are currently engaged in a weaponization program for Shadow,” Steven Reid, senior vice president and general manager of AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, confirmed.
“We knew that we would have to increase the weight capacity of the aircraft to carry weapons,” he said, so the company increased the wing length from 14 to 20 feet and added the hard points.
But the hard points aren’t only for weapons. The company also has developed a number of payload capabilities that come in a pod configuration that attach to the hard points, so commanders can go with either weapons or intelligence-gathering equipment.
Working with California communications company ViaSat, AAI also has developed what Reid called a “secure 3G or 4G cellular network that can handle up to 100 secure Android phones.” Dubbed Forward Airborne Secure Transmissions and Communications (FASTCOM), the system’s Internet protocol network will act as a cell tower in the sky, allowing soldiers to pass voice, data and imagery among multiple networks.
While the company has not yet exhibited FASTCOM for the Army at the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) event that takes place twice a year at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Reid said, “we’re hoping to be included in an upcoming NIE event.”
FASTCOM, however, was included in the Army’s Empire Challenge 11, a joint and coalition ISR interoperability demonstration that took place in May and June at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
The company also has flown the system on manned aircraft in support of a number of other experiments, and Reid said the Android-based system “is about halfway through” the NSA Type 1 encryption certification process.
The company has demonstrated a signals intelligence payload that is housed in a common mission pod assembly that can be attached to the wing’s hard points.
When it comes to making the Shadow a battlefield killer, the Marine Corps has taken the lead, announcing in 2011 that it was planning to arm a part of its Shadow fleet. The omnibus funding bill the Pentagon sent to Congress in late June provided some details as to the initial size of the effort.
The Navy asked Congress to approve $8 million to procure 215 UAV all-up-round glide weapons “in support of an operational field user and rapid deployment for a weaponized RQ-7B Shadow UAS [unmanned aerial system],” the document said.
During a recent six-month deployment to southern Afghanistan, I Marine Expeditionary Force complained that it lost track of at least 90 insurgents who were emplacing IEDs because the UAS that was tracking them didn’t have a lethal component. Armed Shadows “might have engaged the enemies who were exploiting existing sensor-to-shooter time,” the Navy wrote in the funding request, adding that “no unmanned system provides the Time Sensitive Targeting combination of persistence, sensor and weapon necessary to rapidly engage fleeting targets in order to prevent enemy activity such as IED emplacement.”
New UAV Weapons
While the Marine program is classified, serious competition has been brewing among industry teams jockeying for position in the emerging small UAV missile market.
The Army’s Aviation and Missile Research Development shop on March 28 successfully tested Lockheed Martin’s 11-pound Shadow Hawk small precision-guided weapon using a Shadow UAV. The munition was released at 5,100 feet “and glided successfully to the target” that had been illuminated by a laser spotter on the ground, according to a Lockheed spokeswoman. Shadow Hawk hit the target only eight inches from where the laser was illuminating.
Raytheon has developed its Small Tactical Munition, a 13-pound,
22-inch-long precision-guided, gravity-dropped bomb designed specifically for smaller, tactical unmanned aircraft.
The company completed successful guided flight tests in February, with live warhead testing occurring throughout this summer.
J.R. Smith, business development manager at Raytheon Missile Systems, said that while all of the testing so far has been funded by Raytheon, all of the armed services have expressed interest in the program and have sent representatives to observe the live-fire tests. The blast fragmentation warhead weighs about 7 pounds, and while it is optimized against personnel and light vehicles, its delayed fuze will allow it to go through a building before detonating.
Companies such as MBDA have developed a 10-pound Small Air Bomb Extended Range, and ATK has showed its Hatchet weapon. General Dynamics has worked to develop and test an 81mm Air-Dropped Guided Mortar against stationary targets, but the program has been quiet since 2010.
While the Army is only beginning to ramp up its Shadow UAV weaponization program, given the June omnibus reprogramming it appears the Marines will be the service that gets this new capability in the field first.