General Atomics Eyes Gray Eagle Endurance Boost


This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

While the U.S. Air Force was hustling over the past five years to field more Predator and Reaper unmanned air systems to support war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army was developing its Predator-based UAS in relative peace and quiet.

Almost exactly five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned USAF officials by telling students at the Air War College that getting the Air Force to deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance forward to support troops was like "pulling teeth." The service then became the subject of a years-long—and still lingering—campaign by Gates, his successor and Congress to be more proactive.

Meanwhile, the Army was in the midst of developing its own UAS, called the MQ-1C. Built on the General Atomics Predator platform, the Army improved the design to include more redundancy and added an automated landing system. The so-called Gray Eagle program is projected to cost about $5.3 billion for development and purchase of 152 aircraft, as well as spares and ground stations.

The Army is now preparing to request approval from Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall for full-rate production of the aircraft. That Defense Acquisition Board meeting is set for May, according to Lt. Col. Tony Davila, project manager for the Army's medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS program.

The Pentagon conducted initial operational tests and evaluation of the UAS last summer using 12 aircraft—a full company's worth—and 128 soldiers at Edwards AFB, Calif., Davila says.

Technically, the "aircraft was more robust than we originally thought," he says. The aircraft supported a Brigade Combat Team conducting routine training at the nearby National Training Center. In all, roughly 1,100 hr. of flight were accomplished in 18 days. Davila says the unit demonstrated an 81% combat availability rate, just over the required 80%. That includes the ability to provide three simultaneous and continuous missions: 24-hr. continuous reconnaissance, 24-hr. armed reconnaissance and two 5-hr. attack missions in a 24-hr. period.

Pentagon testers, who deemed the Gray Eagle "operationally suitable," completed 223 of 307 missions, a 73% success rate.

Each Gray Eagle is delivered with the Army's Common Sensor Payload—consisting of an electro-optical/infrared video camera; laser-range finder and laser designator; STARLite synthetic aperture radar—four hard points for Hellfire missiles and a tactical signals intelligence payload. The Army system also includes a Theilert heavy-fuel engine, a benefit because brigades did not want to have to manage storing and handling different fuel types for ground vehicles and aircraft.

Because the Army built on the Air Force's original Predator vehicle -- designed by General Atomics using company research and development dollars -- the service could tailor the UAS to its needs and learn from past mistakes. The Gray Eagle includes an automated takeoff-and-landing system designed to eliminate the hard landings that have bedeviled Air Force pilots. This also allows for the Army to use operators that are not rated pilots.

The Army required triple-redundant flight controls and near all-weather capabilities with the addition of an anti-icing system, as well, allowing transit through weather and clouds en route to operations. One Air Force official remarks that Army Gray Eagles may be able to operate in locations in which Air Force UAS are grounded, as they lack this feature.

Unlike the Air Force, which uses its Predators and Reapers to provide intelligence to an operations center, the Army's Gray Eagles feed information directly to the brigade commander. The aircraft are used for such tasks as reconnaissance in advance of convoy operations or "route clearing," where suspected improvised explosive devices are engaged prior to friendly forces moving into an area. It can also provide overwatch during specific operations and alert other combat assets -- such as the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter -- if needed.

Ultimately, Pentagon testers found that the Army is "effective at operating the MQ-1C system and has the potential to provide effective support to combat units, but the Army needs to continue to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures; the training; and the doctrine required to effectively integrate this capability into combat operations." The 1st Infantry Division's 1st Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), now deployed to Afghanistan, supported the testing.

Unlike the Air Force, which fielded various Predators as fast as they could be developed, the Army effectively sequestered its Gray Eagle program during development from wartime requirements. Three iterations of the UAS -- known as Block 0, Block 1 Quick Reaction Capability and Block 1 Program of Record -- were fielded by the Army while Gray Eagle was being developed. These were less robust Predator-based aircraft with varying types of sensors and communications systems. Though they provided war support, they also allowed Army operators to begin experimenting with tactics, key to ushering Gray Eagle into the fleet.

The Army's success in initial operational test and evaluation is perhaps partly attributable to its focus in developing the requirements and vehicles. The Air Force Predator fleet grew largely on congressional earmarks; the service never articulated requirements that led to the Predator program. General Atomics developed the system on its own dime and then craftily lobbied Congress for sales. This carried the program throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Now, however, with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the momentum behind seemingly unfettered defense spending is fizzling. And the company is working to change its approach.

"We need to be in lockstep with the Air Force and Army," says one General Atomics official, noting that this is a "fairly recent change" in philosophy.

The company will still spend its internal research and development money on improving its products, but it will have to more closely align projects with clearly stated service requirements in order to garner funding. During the war, by contrast, "they just threw money at problems," the General Atomics official says.

General Atomics sidelined its project to develop an improved Gray Eagle at the Army's request last summer to focus on supporting operational testing. Now, however, the company is hard at work to nearly double the endurance to 45 from 24 hr. The upgrade will include a centerline fuel tank, the company official says. First flight is now expected in the summer.

General Atomics produces 3.5 MQ-9 Reapers per month for the Air Force; production of the Gray Eagle is about half as robust, the company official says. The program is still technically in low-rate, initial production, but the Army has 103 of 152 vehicles on contract through three separate buys, Davila says. Production is scheduled to continue through fiscal 2015 and the Army is slated to field two units each year.

"Fifteen years ago, we had a surf-shop mentality" about production, the company official adds. Now, however, the operation has become more regular and repeatable. General Atomics is maintaining a reputation for savvy in determining what parts need to be produced in house, versus those that can be outsourced, after encountering challenges with the latter.

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