FORT A.P. HILL, Va. -- More than 250 miles north of its typical hunting grounds, an AH-64D Apache swoops over the trees at this Virginia training base.
The helicopter rises, then freezes in the air. A minute later, a 30mm machine gun on the underside of the aircraft drops into position and a barrage of bullets barrel to a target more than a mile away.
Then, the first of several 2.75-inch rockets follow the rounds to their intended target.
As part of a routine aerial gunnery exercise, soldiers of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade's 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion are honing their skills amid the pines and rolling hills of Fort A.P. Hill.
Aviators are working through increasingly complex scenarios aimed at preparing them for combat.
And soldiers left on the ground, including maintainers, fuelers and armament troops, are running through the motions of a potential high-tempo deployment, providing more than 50,000 gallons of fuel, more than 16,300 rounds of 30 mm ammunition and 2,000 rockets.
But the battalion, training to assume part of the Global Response Force mission, also is taking the opportunity to break new ground for the 82nd Airborne Division.
For the first time, the unit's gunnery exercise is incorporating unmanned aerial systems.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team's Shadow platoon has been training with the Apache battalion, testing new tactics and procedures that are expected to help conserve resources and keep pilots safer on a battlefield with a near-peer threat.
The efforts are meant to tie the Apache more closely to the RQ-7Bv2 Shadow, an unmanned aircraft that weights about 450 pounds and can fly for up to nine hours at a time, reaching heights of 18,000 feet.
The smaller Shadow effectively extends the reach of the Apache helicopter by miles, said Lt. Col. Shane Finison, commander of the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion.
That keeps the pilots out of harm's way and helps conserve fuel on the battlefield, he said.
And their use is not the only change the battalion is adapting to.
One of the biggest changes the battalion is making to its operations comes with height, as aviators adjust to flying closer to the ground.
The changes in tactics are driven by the potential for near-peer adversaries, or more advanced militaries that can close the technological gap the U.S. military has over most of its potential enemies.
"We've got a generation of leaders, pilots and maintainers that have grown up fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan," Finison said.
In those countries, the biggest threat to a helicopter came in the form of a machine gun mounted on a pickup truck, or a rocket-propelled grenade.
Crews could overcome those by flying higher, out of the weapons' range.
But those tactics against a more advanced military could be deadly for Apache crews.
The higher the helicopter flies, the bigger the target it is, Finison said.
"They're going to eat your lunch if you do that," he said. "We're not effective if we're shot down."
Instead, air crews are flying lower, blending with the trees and staying out of sight of enemy defenses.
"It's all about utilizing terrain to fly low," Finison said.
So far, in training exercises, those tactics have been a success.
In two rotations to the Joint Readiness Training Center, Finison said the battalion has yet to have an aircraft shot down by opposing forces.
On average, he said most battalions lose about five aircraft on training rotations.
The training in Virginia with the Apache crews and Shadow platoon is the next step in a cooperative process that began earlier this year at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, officials said.
Warrant Officer Sherman Stover, officer in charge of the unmanned aerial systems platoon, part of the 3rd Brigade's 307th Brigade Engineer Battalion, said his soldiers were getting invaluable experience working closely with the Apache crews.
The 82nd Airborne has used the Shadow for years, including during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, but only recently received the newest version of the unmanned system.
(c)2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)