By Ann Roosevelt

The Army yesterday said its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have amassed more than one million hours of flight time, with roughly 88 percent of those hours flown in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The UAS keeps soldiers safe and gives them the tools they need to defeat adversaries, said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for Army UAS, in the Pentagon courtyard, with AAI’s Corp‘s [TXT] Shadow, AeroVironment‘s Raven and the Extended Range Multi-Purpose UAV, produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA ASI), lined up behind him.

“At specific points in history, equipment has been developed that has been revolutionary in nature,” he said. “Such equipment has fundamentally changed the accuracy and lethality of weaponry, increased the safety of our soldiers, improved mobility of our force and even changed the way the soldiers see and understand the terrain and situations they face during conflict.”

Examples would be the move from a smooth bore to a rifled weapon in the Civil War, air power in World War I, and radar in World War II.

The latest revolutionary technology is the UAS, he said.

“Acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles was not immediate,” he said. Skepticism and doubt were eventually supplanted, and now the UAS is viewed as a combat multiplier. Acceptance has changed to a demand for the systems.

The Army achieved the million flight hour milestone quickly.

“In March of 2003, only three Army systems, consisting of 13 aircraft were deployed in support of Army operations,” Gonzalez said. “Today, the Army has deployed 330 Army UAS systems, consisting of 1,113 aircraft in direct support of contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It took the Army 13 years to fly the first 100,000 flight hours. It took less than a year to fly the next 100,000 hours today the U.S. Army flies more than 220,000 UAS hours each year.”

When Gonzalez took over the project management job in 2008, the Army had just flown its 500,000th hour. Just two years later, the total has doubled.

The flight hour milestone also marks “time well spent” on training, conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions for such things as IEDs, and efforts to destroy or track insurgents and their equipment. The time is also spent in support of ground convoys, or direct action against a target.

“Every indication is that reliance on unmanned aircraft will continue to increase,” Gonzalez said. “Every month we upgrade and improve and field additional Raven systems, Shadow systems and One System Remote Terminals.”

This summer a second Quick Reaction platoon into Afghanistan, the QRC-2, will be an armed ERMP.

In FY ’11, the Army will also begin fielding the ERMP program of record systems to each combat aviation brigade.

“As quantities of fielded systems increase and as we improve the capabilities of these aircraft, their ability to support the warfighter will increase,” he said. As the systems move forward, there will be increased interoperability, datalink and full motion video encryption, performance and reliability.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Anne Thrush has seen the change. A combat veteran operator and the first female to receive the Army Master Aviation Badge, she has been with UAS since 1992, then in the only UAS company, and now twice deployed to Iraq with Hunter UAVs.

“Our battlefield commanders incorporate UAS from beginning to end in their operations, often not wanting to conduct critical missions without their UAS support,” she said. “The ability for us to provide those commanders with near real-time information of their battlespace is invaluable.”

One vignette Thrush shared was a mission supporting soldiers moving in an urban setting. The UAV saw a group of enemy combatants on the next block heading toward the soldiers carrying rifles and RPGs. She was able to tell the soldiers what lay ahead. The soldiers made a call for fire, and the threats were removed.

“I can’t impress [enough on you] how important the unmanned systems have become to our combatant commanders,” she said. “They’ve literally changed the way we do business and the way we combat the enemy.”

Staff Sergeant Charles Cannon from Ft. Riley, Kan., has operated the Shadow system for six years. “From an operator’s standpoint, we actually get to see how we’re affecting the mission–directly. We can actually see that we just saved this guy’s life because we provided the information he needed to act prior to being attacked or anything like that.”

Cannon’s company commander, Capt. Alexander Burgos, Special Troop Battalion, 1/1 Infantry Division, saw how the operating environment changed with UAS.

The UAS provides a big piece of the ISR puzzle, he said. And knowing more about the systems as they proliferate on operations expands what can be done.

A former infantry officer, Burgos said of his work with UAS: “I’m loving it.”