Army unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are well prepared to support President Obama’s planned surge into Afghanistan, program officials said.

“We’re in very good stead, because we received some funding a little over a year ago to really surge unmanned aircraft systems into theater so we’re now at the point where we’re starting to execute,” Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said at a recent roundtable.

For example, the Army just fielded four Hunter aircraft to Afghanistan with an updated Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) and some required payloads. The platoon declared initial operational capability at the end of November, Gonzalez said at the Army Aviation Association of America UAS conference. Northrop Grumman [NOC] produces the Hunter.

In addition, the second Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) platoon of the pre-production Sky Warrior, or Extended Range Multipurpose (ERMP) aircraft, moves into Afghanistan around July 2010. That will be a platoon of four aircraft, with two ground control stations. That should coincide with the rest of the surge troops arriving, he said.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA ASI) won the ERMP effort in 2005.

The QRC will be able to provide 24-hour coverage for much of the country. Each of the aircraft will have Hellfire missiles as well as other payloads.

Plus, all the brigade combat teams that move into Afghanistan, including the Marines who are surging in, have their own organic Shadow aircraft.

Shadow UAS are produced by AAI Corp. [TXT].

Col. Rob Sova, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Capabilities Manager for UAS, just returned from Afghanistan, where he heard UAS listed among priority capabilities for surge plans. Also on the list was the One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT), an AAI effort with L-3 Communications [LLL].

Tim Owings, deputy project manager, UAS, said Hellfire P Plus missile testing for QRC II continues in preparation for certifications. Testing this week included firing at a target moving about 40 mph. Soldiers are already in training for the system.

“What’s significant about that is, to date, the weapons systems are all forward looking,” he said. In other words, the aircraft has to be approaching the target to engage it.

“With the new Hellfire integrated on Warrior, you don’t have to do that any more,” he said. “You can fire under you, fire behind you, and the engagement envelope is much, much wider.”

“The bottom line for us we’ve heard the need for the systems from Afghanistan and continue to see them needed in Iraq and our approach has been to incrementally but very rapidly build on the capability we already have,” Owings said.

The harsh environment of Afghanistan does offer challenges to some of the systems, and the UAS office is addressing them, though not all issues need a technical response.

For example, in the higher altitudes, the lack of a heavy fuel engine can cause issues for the Shadow, but as development moves to the RQ-7C from the current -7B version, the C will have a heavy fuel engine, Sova said.

“Without a heavy fuel engine, we do have challenges with the higher altitudes with icing and vaporization,” he said. However, it is not a factor in all the regions of Afghanistan.

As well, tactics, techniques and procedures address some of the issues, he said, particularly with some of the larger aircraft.

As to materiel solutions being worked, Owings said with the Warrior platform, though, the harsh environment is not a huge issue. “We’re migrating from a 1.7 liter engine to a 2.0 liter engine that will allow us a combination of things. Either improved gross take off weights so we can carry more stuff–more gas, whatever we carry–or it will allow us to fly higher, because you’ll have more power.”

On the Shadow system, there are a series of things being done, including a re-wing effort. “Basically, it extends the wing. That does a couple of things. It allows us to fly higher and it allows us to fly longer,” he said.

Finally, right now a cold weather kit is being fielded to the Shadow systems for better oil distribution across the propulsion system, because “we have run into issues at very high altitudes where it’s very cold, so we’re distributing those as we speak,” he said.

For small units working at high altitudes in Afghanistan’s North and Northeast, the companies, platoons and squads primarily use the small Raven aircraft, Gonzales said. AeroVironment [AVAV] produces Raven. In response to soldier requirements to fly at those altitudes with handheld, hand launched versions, the Army is soon fielding a proof of principle for a small UAS tool kit to help meet different, stressing, conditions.

“The toolkit will include an aircraft [Wasp] smaller than a Raven, a Raven itself and then one that’s a little larger than the Raven, called a Puma,” Gonzalez said. The Puma is still hand launched but it has a higher capability and longer endurance than Raven. The added systems will temporarily bridge the gap in Afghanistan’s Northeast for those smaller units. AeroVironment also produces Wasp and Puma.

“Once we get a requirements document for this toolkit, which is in staffing now, we’ll be able on a much larger scale to get those smaller units, aircrafts, capable of flying at those higher altitudes,” he said.