The Army is pushing hard to meet the ever-increasing demand for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) of all sizes and payloads as combat flight hours mount for the smallest systems to the largest, service officials said.

“There’s some slowdown in Iraq, but we more than make up for it in Afghanistan,” said Tim Owings, acting project manager and deputy project manager UAS, in a recent teleconference from the annual UAS Warfighter Forum in Tucson, Ariz.

Cliff Brandt, product manager, Small UAS, said: “In Afghanistan we are actually doing a surge push of an additional 180 Raven systems.”

Spc. Dean Dawes, UAS Operator, Raven and Puma, 4th Infantry Division, Ft. Carson, Colo., recently returned from Afghanistan, where both small UAS were used. At the time, the Army was looking at Puma, and based on the feedback, the service decided to go ahead and procure the systems.

“The puma was…our bread and butter,” Dawes said. The small UAS allowed the battalion commander to operate with “a generic ISR asset they didn’t otherwise have. We were also able to accurately adjust for fire, or call for fire with one adjustment and accurately hit a target.”

The current distribution of 15 Raven systems per brigade combat team will rise to 35 systems, Brandt said. Personnel are already on the ground preparing the effort that kicks off in July.

Additionally, Brandt said, his office has started issuing Puma UAS to route clearance patrols. There are 72 systems on the ground now. By August, there will be 84 and training is about half complete.

The Army vice chief of staff directed the Puma surge “to the tune of 129 systems” that will go down to the company level, Brandt said.

Both the Raven and Puma systems are produced by AeroVironment (AVAV).

Army UAS have racked up 1.2 million flight hours, 90 percent of them in combat operations, Owings said. The annual warfighter forum brings together the UAS manufacturers, warfighters, and acquisition officials to work toward increased effectiveness, efficiency and employment of the systems

Donna Hightower, deputy product manager, UAS Modernization said there are two Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) system efforts. One, is a quick reaction capability. The plan would be for the Army-owned A160 and two other upgraded aircraft to go to theater, likely Afghanistan.

“We have completed the integration and ground testing and we’ll be going into flight testing within the next two months,” Hightower said. Then a contractor logistics support contract will be executed and then the unit will go in country in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2012.

The second VTOL effort centers around the program of record. The preliminary stages of the acquisition strategy is being vetted through the Defense Department as well as the Army, she said. A request for information will be released to industry so the product office can understand the systems that are out there. That information will help as the acquisition strategy is finalized. That will be followed by a competition.

Lt. Col. Andrew Hamilton, product manager, UAS Ground Maneuver (RQ-7B Shadow), said the Shadow, produced by AAI Corp. [TXT], has just surpassed 630,000 flying hours, and 91 percent of those hours have been in combat, Hamilton said. The 95th system has just been fielded to the Army, and another 13 systems fielded to the Marines.

This is a new iteration of Shadow, he said. “We’re now fielding an aircraft that has a new wing on it, that’s an extended wing that goes from five to six hours endurance to nine hours and we’re also fielding a new payload that gives us laser designation capability, so we’re moving away from that simpler [electro-optical infrared] EO-IR ball.

The program office is also developing, testing and fielding a Tactical Common Data Link that satisfies a series of architectural mandates and offers some encryption capabilities, Hamilton said. Additionally, the office is in the midst of integrating the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) on Shadow.

JTRS will be fielded in the future, which will be the first time any unit has had that capability with a Shadow.

We’re going to field the first full spectrum combat aviation brigade with two Shadow units. It’s a first. It’s never been done before. It’s a whole new concept,” Hamilton said. Additionally, a couple of systems will be fielded to Australia under foreign military sales program.

Lt. Col. Kevin Messer, product manager Medium Altitude Endurance (MQ-1C Gray Eagle), produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), said the second Quick Reaction QRC has been fielded and is operating in Afghanistan. “We’ve had our first Hellfire engagement in support with direct fire on the enemy, as well as support with the Air Force,” Messer said.

The turbulence of Afghanistan’s mountains raised a turbo charger issue that hadn’t come up in testing in the United States, but it was fixed in about two months, he said.

Recently, the program went through a milestone decision “to purchase as many as 15 at a clip and that’s on contract,” Messer said.

“We expect to have a deployment this next calendar year, either first or second quarter, that depends on the Army, but we’ll have this unit prepared and ready to go sometime after November,” Messer said. In July 2012, the program moves to an Initial Operational Test and Evaluation.

All the systems are tied together by a common architecture, Owings said, and operate off the universal ground control station or the mini-universal ground control station and provide open protocols for communication between the manned and unmanned fleet as well. “So it’s not stand alone systems, it’s a collection of capabilities.”

Owings said the UAS “demand is continuing to increase, whether you’re talking traditional ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] or attack.”

The increasing uses for UAS span the spectrum, Owing said. As well, the technology for the next generation is starting to come to fruition.