The MQ-1C Gray Eagle can fly for 24 hours, as high as 25,000 feet, and can carry four Hellfire missiles. (U.S. Army)
The Army is planning to give Gray Eagle drones to 15 of its companies, a move that will give divisions new theater-level long-range, high-endurance reconnaissance and extended standoff attack capabilities.
The massive MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone can fly for 24 hours, as high as 25,000 feet, and it can carry four Hellfire missiles. Soldiers in the cockpit of the new Apache AH-64E will have the ability to use the UAV’s sensors to observe the battlefield and fire those missiles — all while safe and far away.
The companies will go to every active-duty division, plus two each for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the military intelligence aerial exploitation battalions. The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., will get one, too.
“When you start talking about division battle space versus brigade battle space, it’s much larger,” said Lt. Col. Mark Colbrook, the chief of unmanned aerial systems for the Army’s office of operations, plans and policy at the Pentagon. “This capability allows us to extend out to the edges of that.”
The Army has been authorized to spend more than $500 million to buy Gray Eagles and $107 million to build hangars and headquarters buildings at five installations around the country for the first five divisions, Army officials said.
The Gray Eagle companies will be assigned to the divisions’ combat aviation brigades, according to Col. Grant Webb, Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for unmanned aerial systems.
Each company is authorized 128 soldiers and will have nine Gray Eagle aircraft, the Army’s largest unmanned aerial system. However, when these units deploy them, they will get an additional platoon for a total of 12 aircraft, Webb said.
The two companies in the 160th will each be fielded with 12 Gray Eagles instead of nine, Webb said. In all, the Army will have 152 Gray Eagle aircraft, he said.
The aircraft will have three modes based on payload — reconnaissance, attack and armed reconnaissance — making it incredibly flexible, Colbrook said. In an armed reconnaissance role, the norm for current operations, the Gray Eagle will carry two Hellfire missiles and its other sensors, Colbrook said.
Based on flying conditions, commanders may have to trade fuel for capability and sacrifice some endurance.
“There’s a tradeoff whenever you add hundreds of pounds of weapons or fuel,” Colbrook said. “When you go to the maximum of four Hellfires, you trade endurance, but it gives us more capability to engage targets.”
This gives soldiers a new kind of standoff attack, which traditionally involves using terrain or a concealed area to go after a target. The Gray Eagle would be 10,000 feet away.
“You’re talking about a completely different method of engagement compared to how we employ our rotary wing assets,” Colbrook said.
The first two companies to incorporate the Gray Eagle have been fielded. As of late January, the stand-alone F Company “Fenix,” of 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, Fort Riley, Kan., was in the process of deploying to Afghanistan.
There are plans to field two to three companies like these per year through fiscal 2018, officials said. The Army is analyzing whether the effort will be part of a permanent force-structure change or these would be task-organized organizations.
The first full-sized unit, the F/227th Aviation Regiment, of the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, has been in Afghanistan since April. It is attached to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.
“For the first unit equipped, there’s been some rocky parts, but they’re supporting the division in an outstanding way, providing four missions per day, long-endurance missions, and I believe the divisions they’re supporting are very, very pleased with their performance,” Webb said.
Although the Gray Eagle is the Army’s version of the Air Force’s Predator, Army officials emphasized that enlisted soldiers operate their Gray Eagles, while rated officers fly them in the Air Force. What’s more, the Gray Eagle operators will deploy into theater with the aircraft and the CAB instead of flying the aircraft from a remote location in the States.
“The Gray Eagle is the most lethal platform in the Department of Defense that is operated solely by enlisted soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Edward Vedder, the 1-1 Attack Recon Battalion’s commander.
The Army also has one full-spectrum combat aviation brigade, the 101st CAB now in Afghanistan. The unit has a Gray Eagle company and a Shadow troop, which is two platoons of soldiers and eight Shadow aircraft.
But, according to Webb, what makes the 101st CAB a full-spectrum CAB isn’t just its added UAS capability. The CAB also has upgraded Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters capable of manned-unmanned teaming, or MUMT, he said.
Webb visited the unit in Afghanistan in December and plans to visit again, likely in April. These visits will help Webb brief aviation leaders on the CAB’s performance before determining whether the Army should increase its number of full-spectrum CABs.
“We’re in the middle of this study,” Webb said. “We’re not providing premature recommendations to the leadership here, but everything we’re seeing is absolutely positive.”
Manned-unmanned teaming promises to be one of the most revolutionary capabilities available to these new units, officials say. A soldier, from the cockpit of an Apache AH-64E Block III aircraft, can fly the Gray Eagle and use its sensors and weapons from more than 70 miles away.
“That is a significant game changer, and we’ve just begun to scratch the potential of that now,” Vedder said. “It’s giving a ballistic solution, and I don’t have to be anywhere near the target area.”
The Apache aircrew does not stick-fly the Gray Eagle. A soldier in the cockpit uses “intuitive controls” to direct its altitude and drop waypoints on an electronic map, Vedder said.
The concept underwent initial test and evaluation at the National Training Center last year when the 1-1 Attack Recon Battalion, which has 80 Apache AH-64Es, used an Apache to engage several tanks operated by the center’s red team.
Troops connected to a Gray Eagle 40 miles away, and before they took off, they had the coordinates of the tanks and a fire-distribution plan, Vedder said. They sneaked up on the tanks and launched their Hellfire missiles.
“Every vehicle they were aiming for was ‘destroyed,’ and they were never seen and never heard,” Vedder said.
To be clear, the Apaches did not engage the tanks using the Gray Eagle’s missiles. Colbrook, though he saw the Gray Eagle as a force multiplier for combat aviation brigades, did not envision Apaches regularly engaging targets using the armament on Gray Eagles. Rather, it would employ more sensor payload control, “to see from a target from another angle without an Apache exposing itself,” he said.
A Gray Eagle offers more powerful sensors than an Apache, a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator. It can fuse infrared imagery, and it uses the SAR to scan and detect changes in the terrain, like tire tracks to footprints during a second scan.
“It’s quite significant and quite good intel for soldiers on the ground, particularly when you’re looking for [improvised explosive devices],” Vedder said.
The only catch is that flight controllers have to take the second image roughly 30 feet from the same position to make a proper comparison, Vedder said. Changes in winds from one pass to the next can pose a challenge.
Pilots of the Apache AH-64D MUMT-2 and Kiowa Warrior OH-58D L2MUM are able to receive and retransmit full-motion video from the Gray Eagles and Shadows. In addition, the helicopter pilots also can get full-motion video from other platforms, including Air Force A-10 and F-15 jets, Webb said.
“Anything that’s transmitting full-motion video, if the Apache or Kiowa Warrior pilots can get the [Internet protocol] address, they can receive it,” Webb said.
The manned-unmanned teaming concept provides troops with more than increased situational awareness, Webb said.
“It’s really a greater understanding of what’s taking place [in] real time and being able to anticipate what’s going on in the battle space where these CABs are operating, which is resulting in saving soldiers’ lives,” he said.
Incorporating the Gray Eagle into Army tactical units is likely to involve some growing pains. Indeed, the F/227th has had challenges in spite of its positive performance in theater, officials admit.
“There’s nobody in Army aviation leadership that can look at that company commander and say, ‘Hey, I understand what you’re going through,’ because he’s the first one,” Webb said. “He has overcome developing everything from organizational charts to [standard operating procedures], all those things that we take for granted in other units that have been in existence for many, many years.”
The Gray Eagle in-service evaluation at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the National Training Center last summer concluded with the recommendation that the Army continue to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures; the training; and the doctrine required to effectively integrate this capability into combat operations.
Director, Operational Test & Evaluation Michael Gilmore, said in his 2012 report that the Gray Eagle in testing had a 73 percent success rate and was “operationally suitable.”
Also, the unit achieved combat availability requirements, at 81 percent, in spite of problems with the platform’s reliability. The report recommended several steps aimed at helping Gray Eagle operators, such as improving the Ground Control Shelter, where air conditioning forces the operators had to wear hats and gloves, and automating operator tasks to forgo the two-hour, 191-step checklist required to start the Ground Control Station.
The Army’s plans to purchase the Gray Eagle in the face of reliability issues have been well publicized. The majority of the technical problems the Army has identified are software-related, and those issues are primarily due to the constant upgrades of new packages.
Maj. Gen. William Crosby, program executive officer for Army aviation, said last year the plan was to press ahead with the capability and work on reliability of the aircraft’s sensors and electronics later.
The system also has a push-button automated takeoff and landing system that some operators deem too sensitive to tailwinds, and it frequently aborts takeoffs if conditions are not ideal, Vedder said.
“We had it abort in California seven or eight times,” he said.
Aside from the technical problems, receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aerial vehicles at home station may be a thorny matter. Both Fort Hood and Fort Riley have a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA; Fort Hood was expected to begin flights in late January. The payoff is the ability to train locally, which means troops will have more time in a single location.
At Fort Riley, it took two years to forge an agreement that ultimately allows the drones a single lane on and off the runway at Marshall Army Airfield and a flight path that takes it around residential areas and into the post’s restricted airspace.