WASHINGTON — A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems-developed unmanned aerial system flew for the first time, launching from another UAS in a demonstration at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah.
The company, which is the manufacturer of the U.S. Army’s Gray Eagle UAS, has named its air-launched effect, or ALE, the Eaglet.
Eaglet launched from a U.S. Army-owned Gray Eagle Extended Range UAS in December as part of a jointly funded effort with the service’s Combat Capabilities Development Army Research Laboratory and Aviation & Missile Center, the unit of General Atomics said in a Jan. 31 statement.
The ALE is “intended to be a low-cost, survivable UAS with the versatility to be launched from a Gray Eagle, rotary-wing aircraft, or ground vehicles,” General Atomics President David Alexander said in the statement. “It enables extended reach of sensors and increased lethality while providing survivability for manned aircraft.”
The Army is pursuing options for both large and small ALEs to bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield, from targeting to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to providing communications connections and data links.
Eaglet fits into the large category, which General Atomics said translates to having the ability to carry a wide variety of more powerful sensors and payloads.
The company said Gray Eagle is capable of carrying Eaglet for thousands of kilometers before launching it.
Eaglet is intended to contribute to advanced teaming command-and-control capabilities and can work with other long-range payloads that Gray Eagles and other Army aircraft carry “to support deep sensing” in operations. The Army’s Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, or PEO IEW&S, has taken a specific interest in ALEs as a means to jam, spoof or spy and fight from greater distance.
The next step for the Eaglet is to participate in other exercises to further determine its potential. The command in charge of Army modernization — Army Futures Command — approved an initial capability refinement document for ALE in the fall of 2019.
ALE is meant to be a part of what the Army calls its Future Vertical Lift “ecosystem,” which will include a manned Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, another manned Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA, a Future Tactical UAS and ALE.
“The plan to acquire ALE is through an incremental approach that allows rapid prototyping and fielding of technology to field available capabilities while continuing [science and technology] efforts to mature and transition emerging technologies to fully realize required capabilities,” according to the Army’s fiscal 2023 budget. “This is accomplished through multiple prototype development activities for the air vehicle, payloads, and mission system architecture through experiments, simulations, and demonstrations conducted in parallel and/or sequential timelines.”
The Army is aiming to develop multiple ALE prototypes to be able to more rapidly move capability into the operational force, the documents note, and future increments will upgrade mission systems, payloads and interface to extend the range of ALE for missions in support of Long-Range Precision Fires, meaning ALEs will help enable targeting for weapons systems such as the Extended-Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, beyond line-of-sight.
The Army has evaluated multiple payloads on large ALEs including a synthetic aperture radar, electronic warfare capability and communications systems at various experimentation efforts over the past several years.
Air-launched tech was tinkered with during Project Convergence 21, a large-scale networking experiment put on by the Army, and at the Edge 21 exercise, where sensors were used to collect and distribute real-time information.
Avenues to Air-Launched Effects
In 2020, the service awarded 10 small contracts worth a total of $29.75 million to mature technologies in the realm of ALE as it works toward designing complex advanced teaming plans for what it anticipates will be needed as part of the aerial tier of the force in 2030 against high-end adversaries.
Raytheon, Alliant TechSystems Operations of Northridge, California, and Area-I of Marietta, Georgia, were awarded contracts to develop air vehicles while others like L3Technologies, Rockwell Collins and Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation were awarded contracts to develop mission systems.
Payloads development contracts went to Raytheon, Leonardo Electronics US Inc., Technology Service Corporation of Huntsville, Alabama, and Alliant.
The efforts were all meant to feed into the Army’s decision-making process as it develops ALE concepts and requirements.
In August, PEO IEW&S boss Mark Kitz said “some tech maturity investments” are expected in 2023. Coordination on ALEs between electronic warfare and aviation camps is in the early stages.
The Gray Eagle has also launched ALEs from other developers such as one built by L3Harris at the Army’s Edge event at Dugway in 2021. The system that flew at the event is capable of flying at more than 200 knots and has a range of more than 300 kilometers. The system had flown just one other time at Yuma, Arizona, in February.
The Army has also heavily tested and evaluated Area-I’s ALTIUS, the Air-Launched Tube-Integrated Unmanned System, over the course of nearly five years, first launching it from a UH-60 Black Hawk from a high altitude in August 2018.
Anduril bought Area-I in April 2021.
At Edge 21, the Army deployed ALTIUS from a C-12 transport aircraft at 18,000 feet and fired them from pneumatic tubes on an all-terrain vehicle on the move.
The Army intends to continue to develop its requirements and strategy for ALE and, according to budget documents, is aiming to release a request for proposals for ALE capability in the final quarter of FY24 and will go into engineering and manufacturing development in the third quarter of FY25.
Colin Demarest contributed to this report.
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.