The first fully equipped unit–F/227–of the Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system (UAS) in Afghanistan is a game changer and the capability keeps growing–despite some reliability issues, the program executive officer (PEO) for Aviation said.

It’s “really a game changer,” Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby said at a media roundtable. The Gray Eagle provides F/227 with continuous reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, precision attack with its missiles and communications relay.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA ASI) produces the unmanned aerial vehicle. It has delivered 61 of the air vehicles to the Army with another 44 on order.

On May 1, the F/227 company of 12 air vehicles and associated equipment went operational in Afghanistan, said Col. Tim Baxter, project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, at the  roundtable. The F/227 and two Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) units, with four air vehicles each, have racked up some 24,000 combat hours or a total of 41,000 hours if testing and training activities in the United States are added in.

Capt. Travis Blaschke, assistant product manager for Medium Altitude Endurance UAS (or Gray Eagle) and former commander of QRC1, said he helped set up F/227, which is now flying three to four flights a day accumulating 70-90 hours on the aircraft. Soldiers are not only flying the equipment, but also maintaining it–the first unit trained to do maintenance.  

“We have been growing this capability in the hands of soldiers since its first inception,” Crobsy said. “We’ve also continued to add to it consistently.”

But it’s almost by design that the UAS has not been meeting its reliability goals. “We have been so focused on integrating and giving the warfighter a capability we haven’t focused as much on the reliability,” he said.

PEO Aviation couldn’t do everything, Crosby said. Was it more important to get capability to the warfighter or achieve reliability rates.

All the feedback from the Gray Eagle company is positive, he said. “It’s meeting all the missions in theater.” And that’s the word from the company commander, not him, Crosby said.

“We’ll focus on the reliability later,” he said. He’s confident the office will be able to solve the reliability concerns because the majority of issues they’ve had moving forward were with software. Changes are needed every time a new piece of equipment, such as a sensor, is added.  “We’re not seeing duplication (of issues), so he’s confident the software can be stabilized when the program moves back to resolving reliability issues.

Additionally, the issues aren’t costing money. The Gray Eagle unit is costing less to maintain than PEO Aviation projected for the lifecycle per flight hour.

Army leadership agreed with Crosby that since the Gray Eagle is not missing missions in theater, then it should continue to focus on delivering capability as scheduled, and fix reliability later.

Rich Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said it would be expensive to both add capability and improve readiness. “We have to balance resources available with improvements and the software improvement process.

Baxter said in April Gray Eagle completed supporting the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) for the Apache Block III helicopter, produced by Boeing [BA]. The UAV and helicopter worked on manned-unmanned teaming, which will allow forward deployed warfighters to put video from a UAV in the cockpit for Apache pilots, to support operations. Forward-deployed units will work out tactics, techniques and procedures.

Meanwhile, new Gray Eagle capability improvements keep rolling, with 15-20 things added to the system over four or five years, Baxter said. 

GA ASI and Textron’s [TXT] AAI demonstrated a new capability–Synthetic Aperture Radar-Ground Moving Target Indicator (SAR GMTI), he said. Also demonstrated was an Air Data Relay capability–a communications link between aircraft that passes data back and forth between aircraft without going down to a ground station and back up to the other aircraft.

Back in 2009, the initial QRC1 Gray Eagle had an electro-optical-infrared (EOIR) payload among its capabilities. An upgrade the same year added the ability to disseminate video from the aircraft to One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT) system users on the ground.  The unit first went to Iraq, then Afghanistan in 2011. QRC2 was fielded to Afghanistan  in 2010 with Hellfire missiles, and QRC 1 was upgraded with the missiles.

On June 1 the Defense Acquisition Board has given permission to buy 29 more aircraft and associated equipment, with an IOT&E in August. That’s essentially two units, with spares and ground equipment, in line with the aviation modernization plan for two units a year.

In August, as the IOT&E gets under way, there will be two full up Gray Eagle companies and two QRC platoons, Baxter said.