ATLANTA — US Army Special Operations has a big appetite for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and is just scratching the surface on what is possible, according to Maj. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher, its deputy commander.
"ISR and, really, unmanned aerial systems are relatively new for Army special operations aviation," Hutmacher said at the Army Aviation Association of America Mission Solutions Summit.
The 160th, known for high-profile missions, provided cover for the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May 2011 and, more recently, in July 2014, dropped in operators in northern Syria to try to recover American journalist James Foley and other US hostages. The hostages were not found and one American was wounded in the attempt.
Maj. Gen. Clayton M. Hutmacher
Photo Credit: US Army
At a higher level, the Army Special Operations Aviation Command also has oversight over Shadow "group 3" UAS — bigger than a Raven and smaller than a Gray Eagle.
While Army Special Operations has brought into the fold both Gray Eagle and Shadow, "I believe [ISR] is a growth industry for all of us," Hutmacher said.
Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas, the new leader of US Special Operations Command, who replaced Gen. Joseph Votel, the new US Central Command commander, provided his guidance to the special operations force "a few weeks ago," Hutmacher said, "and his number one priority was increasing our ISR capacity and capability, so we have to pay attention to that."
Under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson, the Army Special Operations Aviation Command commander, Gray Eagles are "doing very, very well in combat and proving themselves over and over again and are highly sought after by the commanders forward," Hutmacher noted.
Yet the Army's special operations force would really like its UAS to be runway independent, according to Hutmacher
"Right now our Shadow fleet, we are dependent on a runway to recover that aircraft, so if you think about it from a special operations perspective, that is a problem set for us," Hutmacher said. "One of our key tenets is to operate in denied territory for extended periods of time. If you are tied to a linear terrain feature only, one, you become very predictable for the enemy, it narrows where they are going to look for you. Two, it presents a tactical dilemma to a small ground force to provide security over a linear terrain feature."
Having to use a runway either for takeoff or landing is "obviously unacceptable," Hutmacher added.
Yet, like the Army has said, runway independence isn't necessarily a rotary-wing aircraft, according to Hutmacher. "What you want to have is an unmanned system that is not dependent on a runway for recovery." That form of recovery could be with a rope, a net or something like a parachute.
"We've got to be able to launch it from a small footprint and we have to be able to recover it," he said.
When it comes to rotary-wing UAS, "the only thing I'm worried about," Hutmacher said, "is you've got a lot of dynamic components up there in the head and so there's more maintenance, there's more cost, there's more weight. So if we can do it with a fixed airplane with less complexity and less cost let's do it that way."
Army Special Operations also wants to get away from the "dog breakfast" of more than 300 air vehicles beyond the standard Army UAS it has acquired, ARSOAC commander Peterson said earlier this year. Special operations wants new UAS that can carry multiple sensors to collect vital intelligence from the battlefield and is working with the Army to achieve this capability, he said.
Special Operations is also using manned-unmanned teaming in its own way, Hutmacher said. While it isn't deploying the helicopters and UAS in the same way the conventional Army is — filling the gap in the service's armed scout capability by teaming Apaches and Shadows — "we are doing MUM-T every single night," he said. "A lot of the formations over a target, there is no one in that cockpit."
Hutmacher also envisions using a lot more class 3 Shadow-like capability in the future when it isn't going to use a Gray Eagle. For one, they are cheaper to operate.
One area Special Operations is less interested in is optionally piloted aircraft. "It's hard, to me, to envision why we would want that if it's in direct support of a ground force," Hutmacher said. "Someone could say, 'Well, it's too dangerous, we don't want to put a person in there,' but if we are putting people on the ground then it's a hard argument."
Overall, Hutmacher said, "we've got to be open to all those capabilities and look at them from the tactical lens and what do they bring to the fight for the ground force."
Special operators are gaining intellectual understanding of how much value UAS add, and Hutmacher said, "my opinion is we are only scratching the surface on different mission equipment packages we can strap on those airplanes from deception to kinetic strike to signals intelligence or imagery intelligence. … We've got a long way to on those and I think it's a very bright future."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.