This month’s Empire Challenge ‘11, being held at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and connected to other participating sites around the world, is providing what planners describe as “a unique opportunity to assess and integrate emerging U.S. and multinational ISR capabilities in an operationally relevant environment before deployment to engaged warfighters.”
Participating equipment and personnel from the United Kingdom offered several examples. Located at “FOB Alma” on Fort Huachuca’s East Range, the approximately 100 members of “Task Force Merlin” used Empire Challenge ’11 to explore potential upgrades and enhancements to a number of combat fielded capabilities.
The Desert Hawk III mini-UAS system was one example. The hand-launched, skid-landing 8-pound aircraft features a modular design that facilitates the rapidly installation of multiple payload types.
According to Bill Daly, UAS business development manager for prime contractor Lockheed Martin MS2, the U.K. has employed Desert Hawk III in Iraq since 2006 and is currently operating the system in Afghanistan, flying approximately 1000 hours per month.
‘We’re out here at Empire Challenge ‘11 because it’s an opportunity for us to take some of our new concepts and new capabilities that have been fed back to us from the U.K. Ministry of Defence as to what is required in theater,’ Daly explained. ‘So we take some of these capabilities in an environment like we have here at Fort Huachuca – which is similar to theater – and integrate with the U.K. forces to see if there is a utility for these new capabilities.’
One of the Empire Challenge ‘11 participants was Staff Sgt. Leighton Davies, 47th Regiment Royal Artillery, Portsmouth, U.K., who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and recently returned from operations in Afghanistan.
‘The DH III is a fantastic bit of kit,’ he observed. ‘It’s a company commander’s asset that he has with him at all times. It’s a quick reaction launch that we can get up in the air with a trained team in 5-7 minutes with a good turnaround time. We conduct both day and night flights with both IR/EO that provides a really good capability.’
‘The kit is constantly improving,’ he noted. ‘And the guys are constantly training to get the best from it. Company commanders and troops are now reluctant to go out on the ground without having something up. This is an ideal asset because it’s constantly there. There are so many things happening that everyone wants a bit of [UAS coverage]. But if you have a permanent asset attached to you and you are integrated you can do pre-determined ops; you can do a quick reaction op; you can gather information; you can do a presentation for an op that’s going to be happening in a few days time by going out and then giving ideas for what’s happening in that area.’
‘A number of times we’ve located something from the air and told our call signs not to go down that route,’ he offered. ‘You would not have been able to see that from the ground where you are moving along at eye level. But this can fly at 15K so you can have a look well in advance.’
Along with the Desert Hawk III, FOB Alma featured Revivor 2, an enhanced design variant of the Revivor 1 force protection package now deployed in Afghanistan.
While few participants would argue with the tactical contributions of the Empire Challenge process, the future of the annual event is not entirely clear. Since 2009, United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) has led the event under the sponsorship of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSD(I)). With the imminent closure of USJFCOM, many specifics regarding future iterations of Empire Challenge remain to be determined.