WASHINGTON — Army aviation special operators want new unmanned aircraft systems that can carry multiple sensors to collect vital intelligence from the battlefield and they're working with the Army to achieve the capability, Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson, the Army Special Operations Aviation Command commander, said Thursday.
Peterson, speaking at the Association of the US Army's aviation symposium in Arlington, Virginia, described the state of the fleet of special operations UAS as a "dog breakfast" of more than 300 air vehicles beyond the standard Army UAS.
Organic to the command is one company of MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAS platoons. Gray Eagle is the largest Army unmanned system in the fleet. These special operations platoons of four UAS each are and will be continuously deployed until at least Fiscal Year 2017.
Then special operations has smaller UAS such as the Raven, which is an Army program of record, but it also has several non-programs of record systems quickly procured in response to joint urgent operational needs statements and other various requests.
Listed on a slide shown during Peterson's presentation, Army special operations has oversight of 12 Gray Eagles, 32 Shadows, 224 Ravens, seven Pumas, 15 Arrowlites, 40 Instant Eyes, two Silver Foxes and one Maveric. The last four UAS are not Army programs of record.
The UAS are "very valuable," Peterson said, "but obviously present challenges when they are not programs of record."
Given the petting zoo of UAS that Army special operators are using, a multi-intelligence UAS would be ideal in the future; one UAS carrying multiple kinds of sensors with different capabilities.
Special operators "need a true multi-int capability in group IV systems and we are working with both the Army and Special Operations Command to achieve that capability," Peterson said. Group IV UAS consist of larger UAS like the Gray Eagle. On another presentation slide, the desire for multi-intelligence UAS extends to the smaller Group III category in which Shadow UAS fit as well.
But with a multi-intelligence unmanned system, the challenge of taking all the information gathered from the sensors, processing the data, deciphering key information and sending it out to decision makers -- a process called PED -- only grows.
Peterson noted that already a key challenge in larger UAS is PED, having the ability to collect coherent information for commanders to make decisions to support the special operations maneuver force.
"With respect to PED, this one remains unresolved," Peterson said. "We have an interim [overseas contingency operations-funded] capability but we do not have an enduring solution organic to our formations."
Special operations is also in step with the Army for a future group III UAS that would not require runways to take off and land. That inherently calls for a vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aircraft, something the Army has struggled to develop in the past.
Peterson added a UAS that is much lighter, has a more "expeditionary footprint," presents less of an acoustic signature when flying and connectivity from beyond line-of-sight are crucial for special operations forces in the future. Procuring a future UAS that meets these needs would be included in the fiscal year 2019 to 2023 five-year plan submission, according to a slide.
"We are working aggressively" to make those improvements in UAS, Peterson said. "Sadly a lot of our groups are leaving their Shadows behind right now" in favor of non-program of record gap-fillers.
The Army is working to replace the Shadow's engine. The original engine was derived from the same family as lawn mower engines and the motor can be heard easily when it is flying in an area.
Special Operations is also gearing up to receive Improved Gray Eagles in the Fiscal Year 2019 time frame. "We are very encouraged by the intended fielding of the Improved Gray Eagle in the next few years," Peterson said. The Improved Gray Eagle (IGE) will have increased range, for one.
"We'd deploy it right now if we had it," Peterson said, pointing to a recent Gray Eagle flight that pushed the aircraft to its limits.
"Within the past 30 days, we had a mission involving an MQ-1C that required a 695-mile one-way transit, multi-power operational mission in the objective area and return flight," Peterson said. "We were able to accomplish that mission, but it was absolutely a stretch from that platform. We believe that is as far as a Gray Eagle has operationally deployed."
Peterson also acknowledged that special operations is somewhat behind the Army in its manned-unmanned teaming development because special operations UAS are nearly constantly deployed and in a manner that is not optimized by teaming with a manned aircraft. "We absolutely, unequivocally have room to grow in our MUM-T employment in our community and in our tactics, techniques and procedures," he said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.