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Army Embarks on Ambitious UAV Plan

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Of the five U.S. military services, the Army is embarked on the most ambitious plan to integrate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) into all levels of the force. Based in large part on the Army's five years of experience in fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, UAVs are being integrated into operations from the division down to the platoon level.

This wholesale adoption of UAVs is exacerbating the Army-Air Force controversy over single-service control over UAV procurement and operational control. For the past several years the Army (and to some extent the Marine Corps) has complained about the allocation of Air Force-controlled UAVs, while the Air Force has pointed to the operational and procurement problems that could be solved by single-service control -- under the Air Force.

For example, the Army has great affinity for the MQ-1 Predator, a long-endurance, medium-altitude reconnaissance UAV. The MQ-1 variant can be armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles, and has been used effectively by the CIA as well as the Air Force. Predator wore Army green until 1996, when the Air Force (and CIA) took over that UAV effort. Reportedly, the Army now obtains less than one-half of the Predator time requested.

There are major "cultural" differences between Army and Air Force operation of UAVs. The Army devolves operational control of UAVs to field commanders at various levels, while the Air force operates UAVs through regional air component commanders. And, in general, the Army relies more on software and uses enlisted men as UAV controllers while the Air Force uses rated pilots.

In this environment, the Army is seeking -- and Congress is funding -- the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, a modified Predator variant tailored for Army requirements with the 3,000-pound aircraft carrying 300 pounds of sensors internally and 500 pounds of external sensors and weapons. The Army wants 45 squadrons of Sky Warriors, each with 12 UAVs. Combat divisions will have a Sky Warrior squadron and combat brigades will get detachments of two to four of these UAVs. The Army program is seeking more than 500 Sky Warriors that will carry Hellfire missiles and Viper Strike smart bombs as well as sensors and target designators.

On an interim basis Army divisions now have the RQ-5A Hunter UAV. The General Atomics Predator/Sky Warrior beat out an improved version of the Hunter for Army service.

At the brigade level the RQ-7A Shadow UAV will also be provided, later to be supplemented by an improved RQ-8A Fire Scout. The Fire Scout UAV is a rotary-wing aircraft developed by the Navy for shipboard use. It was originally rejected by the Navy because of shortcomings, but is now in production for the Navy. The Fire Scout, developed by Northrop Grumman/Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, weighs some 2,600-pounds with an array of internal sensors. While it has the advantage of VSTOL operations, its weapons payload will be limited.

Next on the Army's UAV list is the small, four-plus pound RQ-11A Raven. This micro-UAV is being provided at the battalion, company, and platoon level to provide a picture of "what's on the other side of the hill." The Army's Raven requirement is in excess of 3,000 vehicles, with about half that number now in the inventory.

The Air Force has little interest in the short-range, low-flying UAVs being procured by the Army. Rather, it is the Predator/Sky Warrior and Fire scout programs that divide the services. They have agreed to cooperate on supporting Predator and Sky Warrior UAVs, which will save money for both services. But beyond that agreement their respective UAV programs have created contention over the future procurement and operational control of unmanned systems between the Army and Air Force

In discussing the Army's ambitious UAV program, the Association of the U.S. Army in its January 2008 report "U.S. Army Aviation: Balancing Current and Future Demands," explains that UAVs "combine the capabilities of persistent view of an area, precise target designation, instant assessment of attack results, and rapid destruction of fleeting targets. . . . [UAVs] have now become an integral part of the land component commander's ability to conduct reconnaissance, attack and many other critical missions."

The report might have added that those were missions previously carried out primarily by the Air Force.

-- Norman Polmar

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