WASHINGTON — The one-star leading the Army’s modernization efforts for Future Vertical Lift says the service envisions using its future unmanned aircraft systems for the “dull” and the “dangerous” work.
The Army doesn’t just see its UAS teaming with manned aircraft like it does now with AH-64 attack helicopters and Shadow UAS, but envisions more advanced teaming than the current concept of manned-unmanned teaming — or MUM-T — allows, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, told a small group of reporters in a March 20 interview.
Rugen is the leader of the newly formed FVL Cross-Functional Team (CFT), that addresses the third top priority out of six modernization priorities the Army will take on under its new Futures Command. The command is set up to tackle the materiel requirements to modernize the force.
“That advanced teaming concept is just a deeper interoperability between the air and the ground, UAS that can do the dangerous work, that can do the dirty work,” Rugen said, “also do the dull work.” He added that UAS already do a lot of that dull work such as “persistent stare.”
“Dangerous” for example, might be “something that can penetrate contested air space and target for long-range precision fires, provide that seed we need to flow through that where we can dominate a corridor or a window for a moment in time in a very contested environment,” he said.
The unmanned systems would be there to conduct the dangerous breeches and help provide greater standoff for manned aircraft, but bringing weapons like Hellfire or its future replacement the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) closer in to the fight.
The Gray Eagle is already armed with Hellfire missiles but the Army has been hesitant to arm other drones and does not have a requirement to do so.
The Army, according to Rugen, thinks it will need a fleet of “purpose-built UAS,” which means they will be created from conception with specific capabilities like electronic attack or other non-lethal effects or are designed specifically to function as a swarm whether it’s to provide decoys or spoof the enemy.
Also the ability to launch a UAS from a manned aircraft or another UAS platform is another thing the service is looking seriously at, he said. “So you have some of these smaller form factors that present really great capabilities, but they don’t have the legs to get to the tactical edge,” but a UAS launched from a manned platform extends its reach, Rugen said.
The Army anticipates having to fight at great distances across more contested environments.
Another way of looking at the CFTs early plans for UAS, according to Rugen, is the Army wants these aircraft to be air-launched, UAS that are tactical in nature and other UAS with “advanced capability.”
The Army envisions a tactical UAS for its Brigade Combat Teams and advanced UAS for its reconnaissance squadrons. UAS used for reconnaissance, security, target and aquisition (RSTA) capability now are very focused on using full-motion video, but Rugen said the focus in the future will be more focused on electronic warfare capability.
The service is engaged in prototype and demonstration for a Future Tactical UAS (FTUAS).
Defense News broke the news a year ago of the Army’s plans to proceed with a Next-Generation Tactical UAS Technology Demonstration, or NGTUAS-TD program, that will be modeled after how the service is flight testing prototypes for a manned future rotorcraft in a demonstration called the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) program.
The Army definitely knows it does not want its UAS dependent on runways going forward like Shadow and Gray Eagle are today. There’s little doubt the Army will have to operate in places where it can’t rely on protected runways, or runways at all. The service also wants flexible payloads and a more survivable platform in terms of durability and reliability than what exists today in the current systems.
But the technical demonstration is just one piece to the CFT’s approach to figuring out what its future UAS fleet will look like.
“We are looking at doing a technology demonstrator effort, but I will tell you the other thing is, I’ve made trips around [the Pentagon] and the other services, we really need to understand what everybody in the joint force is doing and developing,” Rugen said, in order to ensure there aren’t duplications of effort and to see if there are opportunities to work together on UAS capabilities.
The CFT is considering whether to form a working group that looks at UAS across the board “that just kind of looks at and makes sure we are not spending the same development dollars twice, three times or four times and do we spend it once and do we get solutions that we all want and need.”
The Army is also looking at a UAS “mix analysis study” that is bigger than aviation, which covers everyone from the intelligence, reconnaissance, Fires, ground and even network communities to make sure everyone’s needs and wants are being met through the best possible and most efficient plan.
The CFT isn’t waiting for analyses to wrap up and much of the future procurement planning for UAS is being done in parallel so if the Army discovers a great or truly disruptive capability now, it can move forward.
“We are not waiting and if we see something we like that the Marine Corps is doing or that the Air Force is doing, we are going to ask them to see if we can partner,” Rugen said.
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.