Soldiers launch a Shadow drone in Afghanistan in 2012. A plan to team Shadows with Apache helicopters could be stalled due to funding cuts. (Army)
WASHINGTON — US Army leadership is betting that an 80 percent solution to its aerial scout needs will be good enough in the coming years, as it scraps its OH-58 Kiowa helicopter fleet in favor of a manned-unmanned mixture for peering over the next ridgeline.
But according to internal Army budget documents, this hybrid concept could be running into a budgetary brick wall.
At a Jan. 14 symposium in Washington, Maj. Gen. Kevin Mangum said the service expects the RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial system (UAS) and Apache attack helicopter will meet “about 80 percent” of the aerial scout requirement until the service decides how it will meet that mission full time in the coming years.
But according to a five-year planning document obtained by Defense News, budget cuts have taken away much of the modernization funding for the Shadow fleet. The lack of research and development funding “prevents software modifications needed to enable manned-unmanned teaming with Apache and integration of Shadow into the full spectrum CAB [combat aviation brigade],” the document said.
The documents are part of the annual weapons systems review that all programs must endure when service officials put together the program objective memorandum (POM) budgets that plan out to five years. All of the information contained in the documents is pre-decisional, since they’re concerned with fiscal years 2015-2019.
The Shadow UAS documents reveal that the POM guidance being briefed to Army program managers “deleted approximately $320M” from aircraft procurement overall, and $60 million in research, development, test and evaluation (RDTE) funds that program managers claim is required to complete critical upgrades to the Shadow’s tactical common data link.
That new data link would transform the Shadow into an all-digital aircraft, allowing easier data encryption and increasing the aircraft’s bandwidth to allow it to work with high-definition cameras, radar systems and other cutting-edge electronic warfare payloads.
Army officials did not respond to requests for comment by Friday.
The full-spectrum CAB is a critical part of the Army’s radical restructuring of its aviation assets. Current plans call for an active component CAB comprising an assault battalion and a support battalion.
The real teeth of the operation would come from a 24-aircraft attack battalion of AH-64 Apaches, along with another armed reconnaissance squadron with 24 Apaches teamed with three Shadow platoons — made up of 12 Shadows overall — and an MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV company.
The new Army plan has met with a mixed response, ranging from current and former Kiowa pilots who are skeptical of the ability of UAS to truly fill some of the roles of manned aircraft, to others who see the service making necessary and hard choices.
“I think this is a great example of what folks should be doing with these systems,” said Paul Scharre, project director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.
“The Army is in a tough budget situation, and they’re trying to figure out how to perform operations with a smaller force and a smaller budget,” he added.
Scharre previously worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, leading efforts to establish policies on unmanned and autonomous systems and emerging weapons technologies.
One advantage is that a small, relatively quiet Shadow can be “a force multiplier for the Apache, and you can take more risks with it than you can take with a manned asset,” he said. “They can certainly send a Shadow or Gray Eagle places where you might not want to send a manned aircraft.”
The Apache and Shadow have worked together over the past several years in Afghanistan, with Shadow and Gray Eagle drones teaming with both Kiowas and Apaches. This allows the helicopter pilots to extend their “reach” while staying out of harm’s way.
But taking that to the next level over the next several years could prove more difficult than anticipated, unless the Army is willing and able to move money around to fund the Shadow upgrades.
There’s also concern in the Army’s UAS community that the latest version of the One System Remote Video Transceivers — which allow soldiers to view full-motion video from multiple manned and unmanned systems — is in danger. The Army has already purchased 1,821 of the latest systems, but funding to install them on Shadows has also been eliminated.
As a result, Army program managers fear their Shadows will fail to display high levels of interoperability with helicopters and drones without the latest system.
Supplemental war funding bills for the past decade paid for a good portion of the Army’s modernization programs, and the 2015 request — at the moment — includes $5 million for the support of deployed video transceiversand another $36 million for more general “support” to deployed systems, according to the documents.
The level of funding will be made clear when the president’s budget is submitted to Congress on March 4. ■