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Gray Eagle UAS Fielding Moves Ahead Against Background of Reliability Questions

Following the recent arrival of the first full company of U.S. Army Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in Afghanistan, service representatives provided a media update on program status, evolving tactical capabilities and recent reliability reports surrounding the growing fleet.

The May 2012 arrival in Afghanistan of the first full Gray Eagle company, designated F/227, adds 12 aircraft to two earlier Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) platoon deployments of four aircraft each.

Service representatives addressed recent government reports and media criticism surrounding readiness rates and reliability for Gray Eagle.

The initial QRC platoon, which was equipped with straight EO/IR capabilities, deployed to Iraq in August 2009 and subsequently redeployed to Afghanistan in December 2011. The second QRC platoon, equipped with weaponized platform capabilities, deployed to Afghanistan in September 2010.

Service representatives addressed recent government reports and media criticism surrounding readiness rates and reliability for Gray Eagle.

Gray Eagle

The U.S. Army is moving forward with fielding and improving its Gray Eagle UAS, accepting a certain level of unreliability in favor of constant updates and improvements for the warfighter. General Atomics photo

“That criticism is not unfounded,” acknowledged U.S. Army Program Executive Officer for Aviation Maj. Gen. William “Tim” Crosby. “We did not achieve – at the level right now that we are at – the objective that was set for us to meet.”

However, Crosby was quick to couch that acknowledgement in the fact that Gray Eagle “is not a traditional acquisition program.”

Gray Eagle “is not a traditional acquisition program.”

“We have been growing this capability in the hands of soldiers since its first inception,” he explained. “We started out with some prototypes that were offspring of the Predator program of years ago – a different variant of that system. And we put some out there in the theater and started learning. So we have continued to learn as this thing has been going.”

“But we have also continued to add to it,” he added, referencing several ongoing enhancement programs like the recent addition of missiles (beginning with the second QRC) and the pending additions of SAR GMTI (Synthetic Aperture Radar/Ground Moving Target Indicator) and air data relay capabilities.

“The point is that we have been so focused on integrating and giving the warfighter a warfighting capability that we haven’t focused as much on the reliability as we should have or could have,” he said. “We couldn’t do everything, so we had to focus on what’s more important. And what’s more important was getting a capability into the hands of warfighters downrange. And the feedback that we’ve gotten from our warfighters downrange is that this system is a game changer. It is really, really enhancing their ability.”

Offering the analogy of “trying to change the engine while driving down the highway,” Crosby reiterated, “That’s awfully hard to do. So we made a conscious decision to focus on the warfighting capability and we will focus on the reliability later.”

Crosby said that he has full confidence in achieving those reliability goals in the future. “The majority of the problems and incidents that we have identified as we have gone through our testing and evolved this thing involve software. So it’s not a technology challenge or a reliability challenge. It is to make the software more stable. Well, that’s pretty easy to do, but we are changing that software every time we add a new sensor. So every time you fix a problem you’re kind of introducing more potential for problems. But the reason we’re not really nervous, upset, or excited about it is that we’re not duplicating the problems we are fixing when we introduce the new stuff. We’re not seeing duplications of those. That gives the team confidence that we are going to be able to resolve this when we quit adding new capability.”

“And the feedback we got was, ‘Hey, we’re at war. We’ve got soldiers down there that need the capability. Capability is faster. You’ve been able to achieve the readiness. You’re not missing missions in theater. So continue with that and we’ll fix the reliability later.’”

In addition, he said that the system is exceeding readiness levels today and meeting all missions in theater, where the two QRC platoons and recently-fielded F/227 company have accumulated approximately 24,000 combat hours to date (41,000 hours including CONUS based testing and training operations).

Posing his own question as to whether desired reliability rates would be achieved next week, Crosby stated, “No. We’re still adding stuff.”

He noted that recent briefings to senior service leadership had included two options: continue with the currently scheduled upgrades; or take a pause to focus on reliability before going back to add new capabilities.

“And the feedback we got was, ‘Hey, we’re at war. We’ve got soldiers down there that need the capability. Capability is faster. You’ve been able to achieve the readiness. You’re not missing missions in theater. So continue with that and we’ll fix the reliability later.’”

In addition to the theater deployments, the Army is also standing up a second full Gray Eagle company that will perform the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) for the program.

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...