By Ann Roosevelt

Army unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are answering Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ call for an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) surge, according to the top Army UAS manager.

“We believe we have capabilities that have helped turn the tide in the global war on terrorism, specifically with the ISR surge that has taken place,” Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager, Unmanned Aerial Systems (PM UAS), told reporters at a media roundtable at the Army Aviation Association of America Unmanned Aircraft Systems Symposium on Tuesday. “A lot of credit has been given to the five brigades going into theater and turning the tide, and we also believe that the addition of many aircraft systems have also helped in turning that tide.”

By the end of this fiscal year, Gonzalez said, there will be about 1,291 UAS systems fielded to operational units. Of those, 267 will be fielded in this fiscal year alone.

“The big surge in unmanned aircraft systems started in 2003 and, since that time, we’ve flown approximately 600,000 hours in support both of OIF and OEF and the interesting point there is over 86 percent of all the fleet hours have been flown since 1990.”

While many no doubt consider the majority of flights would be flown by the Air Force, Gonzalez said, “in fact the Army unmanned aircraft systems have flown about 60 percent of all the unmanned system flight hours in theater and that’s something we’re real proud of and it’s done in direct support of all of our combat operations.”

In addition to the normal fielding process, in which funds flow to programs of record that are then fielded to specific units, the project office also has the mission to play a part in Gates’ priority ISR surge, and received more than $300 million in August to support some of the ISR surge initiatives.

“PM UAS was the only organization within PEO Aviation in 2008 to push systems into theater to help offset the return of soldiers and to get eyes in the theater and that directly supports the secretary’s ISR surge,” Gonzalez said. Activities are pointed at getting capabilities on contract and fielded as soon as possible.

Number one, is for more government owned contractor operated Hunter UAS with the Greendart signals intelligence payload, which has been very successful for units in theater. Northrop Grumman [NOC] produces Hunter.

“We’ll have three new systems altogether and then 12 refurbished systems. Out of those aircraft, we’ll be fielding two new Hunter organizations operated by contracted,” he said.

Improvements to the Shadow system are coming, also based on the funding received. Shadow is produced by AAI Corp. [TXT]

“One of those efforts is the re-wing, to make the larger wing which gives longer endurance and more payload capacity, up to about, I believe, 100 pounds of payload with those new wings,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll have funding of a re-wing of at least 25 Shadow systems.”

In conjunction with the re-wing work, PM UAS has received funds to provide laser designation kits on the sensors in the Shadow system. Aircraft can then fly in direct support of the brigade commander and designate actual targets for other weapons systems. Not just illuminate targets, but designate them.

“We did testing at Eglin Air Force Base on that laser designator in 2008. We were successful in three of three laser designation shots with Hellfire missiles, and we’ll begin fielding the first two laser designators this summer,” he said. “Followed by again, a total of 25 Shadow systems receiving that designator. In addition to that, to surge more Shadows into theater, we’re going to fund two shadow government owned, contractor operated platoons–additional Shadows going in operated strictly by contractors to augment the platoons we already have in theater at each of the brigade combat teams.”

The Army’s small UAS (SUAS), Raven, will be upgraded with a digital data link, to provide greater command and control flexibility in the aircraft. Raven is produced by AeroVironment (AVAV).

The new data link will fix some of the problems with frequencies in theater the Army has for a variety of reasons. “We are going to procure 256 of these new digitally commmanded Ravens,” he said.

The office also received funding to provide 1,200 One System Remote Video Terminals (OSVRTs) in 2009. Additionally, the Army is procuring 200 Mobile Directional Antenna Systems (MDAS) that extend the range of the OSRVT.

“These OSRVTs have really been one of the greatest inventions to hit the battlefield to bridge the gap between what we collect on board the aircraft so that it gets down directly to the soldier,” Gonzalez said. The terminal allows soldiers to select the frequencies of aircraft in range, so they can see the actual live streaming video that supports their direct operations.