The Army’s wants a Predator-size unmanned aerial system that can take off and land like a helicopter, untethering its drone operations from runways and airfields, aviation officials said Jan. 14.
Even as the service fields an improved version of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle for reconnaissance and combat missions, aviation officials envision a forward-deployed UAS with similar payload capacity and range that has vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities.
“I don’t want to be on runways anymore, so it needs to be runway…not dependent,” Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, Army Aviation chief and commander of the service’s Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, said Jan. 14. “It needs to have VTOL capability.”
“We have got to be able to push it forward with units,” Lundy added during a speech to a one-day Army aviation forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army outside Washington, D.C. “It can’t be sitting at an airfield that’s four hours away from where the command post is.”
Unmanned systems have become an integral element of the Army’s aviation capabilities from delivery of ordnance to intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, said Col. Paul Cravey, UAS director for Army Training and Doctrine Command.
The RQ-7 Shadow is being teamed with AH-64 Apache helicopters to assume the armed scout role previously performed by the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Apaches also will be teamed with MQ-1C Gray Eagles to perform the armed scout role.
The Gray Eagles are serving on the front lines of Iraq in the fight against Islamic State Militants and is performing reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. The Improved Gray Eagle, which has greater range and payload capacity than the original MQ-1, is being fielded to Army Intelligence and Security Command units worldwide, Cravey said.
With a 56-foot wingspan and maximum takeoff weight of 2,600 pounds, the Gray Eagle is a formidable weapon platform capable of carrying four AGM-114 Hellfire or AIM-92 Stinger missiles or GBU-44 laser guided bombs and a wide array of sensors. But it needs a runway to take off and land.
Cravey said the Army already has engineers working on a UAS that can operate just about anywhere without depending on an airfield. Other modernization priorities include a reduced sound signature, multiple weapons options and survivability in a denied environment.
The Navy and Marine Corps have toyed with unmanned rotorcraft for a variety of applications. Nearest to production and fielding is the Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout, based on a Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] 407 manned aircraft.
Fire Scout in November cleared an operational assessment and awaits a milestone C decision from the Navy this year. It is designed to fly from the decks of Littoral Combat Ships and other vessels to conduct reconnaissance and provide precision targeting support for manned assets on the ground, sea and air.
The Marine Corps for a time operated a pair of optionally manned Kaman [KAMNA] K-MAX helicopters for cargo resupply in Afghanistan. So successful was the initial trial of those rotorcraft that the service kept them ferrying gear to forward operating bases long after the initial test period.
Lundy said the Army is less enthusiastic about an unmanned cargo aircraft because an unmanned aircraft cannot carry soldiers and therefore is unable to perform mobility or casualty evacuation missions.
“The demand is just not there. Are there missions where we could use it? Yes. Would I give up manned aircraft to do it? No, because I get a lot less flexibility…I can’t have an unmanned aircraft moving soldiers. When you have a limited amount of choices, you want to keep the things that give you the most flexibility and that’s manned aircraft with respect to moving cargo and personnel.”