U.S. Army representatives have announced that the service’s unmanned aircraft fleet surpassed the milestone of “one million combat flight hours” on Oct. 27, 2010.
Earlier in 2010, the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet achieved a historic milestone of ‘one million [total] flight hours.’ At that point, roughly 89 percent of those hours flown – approximately 884,000 – had been classified as “combat flight hours.” Service representatives note that since that date the Army’s unmanned aircraft have continued to provide “unwavering support” to the warfighter in theater.
The primary systems supporting warfighters include the RQ-11 series Raven, the RQ-7B Shadow, MQ-5B Hunter, and MQ-1C ER/MP [extended range/multi purpose] “Gray Eagle” [See “Army Gray Eagle Quick Reaction Capability Package Deploys to Afghanistan” – posted Oct. 29, 2010].
According to the recent announcement, the most notable of all Army unmanned aircraft is the RQ-7B Shadow, which has accounted for approximately 505,000 combat flight hours in direct support of Operation Enduring Freedom / Operation Iraqi Freedom / Operation New Dawn.
The Shadow system is a brigade-level asset first fielded in 2001. According to the U.S. Army Roadmap for Unmanned Aerial Systems 2010 – 2035, the initial variant was the RQ-7A, which was capable of carrying a 40-pound modular mission payload with four hour flight endurance. In 2004, the Army began fielding the RQ-7B, capable of carrying a 60-pound modular mission payload with more than five hours of endurance at altitudes up to 15,000 feet.
“The RQ-7B aircraft has evolved through numerous incremental improvements to increase capability and improve reliability,” the roadmap states. “Recent capability upgrades include the addition of a communications relay payload, laser designator payload, larger wing, UGCS [universal ground control station], universal ground data terminal (UGDT), bi-direction RVT [remote video transceiver] (BDRVT), and a TCDL [tactical common data link]. Recent reliability improvements include a lithium-ion battery, larger parachute, electronic fuel injection, improved cold weather performance, and a new aviation grade fuel-system. Near-term improvements include the implementation and fielding of the TCDL system, including the larger wing, UGCS, UGDT and BDRVT. These upgrades provide significant advancements in interoperability and [unmanned aircraft] security as well as increases in payload capacity and endurance.”
Increasing payload capacity and endurance opens the possibility for another Shadow capability not addressed in the Army UAS Roadmap: The potential “weaponization” of the RQ-7B platform.
During the recent Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in Washington, D.C., service representatives addressed the concept of providing Shadow with a lethal delivery option during a UAS program update briefing.
According to Col. Ron Sova, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Capabilities Manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, “The short answer for the weaponization of any [Army] UAS right now, from a requirements standpoint, is that we are weaponizing only at the Gray Eagle level. That’s where there is a requirement. Now, is there an interest to weaponize below the Gray Eagle level? Yes, certainly. We are looking at that…”
Noting the additional training and cost implications that would be associated with expanded weaponization, he added, “There are lots of things we would like to have, but once we determine that it is feasible then we will look at it from an affordability standpoint of what we put in our toolkit.”
“You may hear rumblings about the Army weaponizing Shadow and I want to set it straight,” echoed Col. Gregory Gonzalez, U.S. Army Project Manager for UAS (PM UAS) in the Program Executive Office for Aviation. “As Col. Sova rightly said, we have no requirement in the Army to weaponize Shadow or any other system at that size or below. However, the Marine Corps has significant interest in that. And, because of our close relationship with the Marine Corps, we have the lead on the Shadows. We ‘own’; the program of record and we like to maintain configuration control. So we have agreed with the Marine Corps to work with them and to do some of the technical work. Once they get their requirement and they get over some hurdles – some treaty hurdles and some other things that they have to work through – if they get approval to weaponize the Shadow, our office, PM UAS in the Army, would do much of the technical integration. So if you hear about it, it’s because we are doing it on the Marine Corps’ behalf.”