WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is heading into a culminating event used to evaluate four different unmanned aircraft systems capable of replacing the service’s current tactical UAS — the Textron-made Shadow.

The service will hold a “rodeo” at Fort Benning, Georgia, the last week of February through the first week of March where all five of the Brigade Combat Teams which spent the last year evaluating Future Tactical UAS systems will be represented, Brig. Gen. Wally Rugen, who is in charge of Army aviation modernization, told Defense News in a recent interview.

The Army selected four UAS in 2019 as candidates to replace the Shadow. Each candidate would undergo soldier assessments to help inform requirements for a FTUAS capability that would fit into a future vertical lift ecosystem, including new helicopters and other air-launched platforms.

The service first selected two teams to provide systems for the soldier-led evaluation in March 2019: Martin UAV and Textron’s AAI Corporation. Martin UAV teamed with Northrop Grumman to provide its V-Bat UAS. Textron offered its Aerosonde HQ.

But shortly after, the Army added two more aircraft to the mix: the Arcturus-UAV Jump 20 system and L-3 Harris’ FVR-90. Aerovironment purchased Arcturus this month.

Each of these systems have already been through a rodeo of sorts, participating in a rigorous fly-off from December 2018 through January 2019 at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The competition helped the service select the system for the soldier-assessment phase.

The Army will brief senior leaders attending the event on the data it has been able to garner through the work the BCTs did in 2020 to evaluate the systems, Rugen said. The 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division was the last to wrap up its evaluation at the end of the year.

Each unit was provided just one of the candidate systems, so the rodeo will bring each of the aircraft back on one playing field.

“We are probably 90 percent done on the requirement document,” Rugen said, but the service is waiting for the last bit of data to come in from the 82nd. The requirements document should be complete by the time the rodeo begins.

“It’s an agile process, that as different data comes in, well, we’re still open to change,” he added.

Once the rodeo is over, the Army will tee all of the information up for an Army decision. Rugen said an Army Requirements Oversight Council deliberation could come as early as next quarter.

“I’m very optimistic as to how it will be received,” Rugen said, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. “But I tell you, soldiers are demanding this. They all wanted to keep it.”

Coming out of the year-long evaluation period, Rugen said that he was hopeful that the Army would get a revolutionary, not evolutionary, new tactical UAS capability that isn’t tied to a runway, that has a lower acoustic signature and that has far lower equipment requirements in order to transport the system organically within a unit.

Rugen said a unit at the National Training Center was already able to use the system far more frequently in a 10-day period than Shadow, showing the ease of deploying the capability. “We’re seeing a far more agile capability,” he said, “and a far more effective capability at a much lower price point, both on cost, but also on personnel in the unit.”

If Army leadership delivers a positive AROC decision, the service can then move the program into a full and open competition.

And the Army plans to move quickly.

“With all these innovative approaches, what we’re not going to be wed to is what we would have traditionally done, which is we’d get a [capabilities development document] and we’d wait some period of time while we went through a bunch of machinations,” Brig. Gen. Robert Barrie, the program executive officer for Army Aviation, said in the same interview. “We’re going to look for the most innovative approach and it will be dependent on how that requirement, how close that requirement is to something that we can readily get and that we’re demonstrating already.”

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.

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