The Army is leveraging the capabilities of its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and manned systems, finding the coordinated effort a steadily increasing combat capability, soldiers said.

That works very, very well,” Col. Christopher Carlile, director of the Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, at Fort Rucker, Ala., said at a symposium last month. “It works so well it probably gives us increased capability going into the next five-six years that we haven’t had had in the previous seven years of combat.”

Experimenting with UAS and manned aircraft on the fly in combat worked on the problem that, especially in urban areas, AH-64D Apaches couldn’t use their enormous sensor capability at the distances it was designed for because it couldn’t use the sensor at altitude–where the helicopters were at risk.

However, team the helicopter with a UAS, and the UAS becomes the eyes that can either send grid coordinates for action, or use a laser designator to an Apache pilot. That pilot can sit back and “never see the target with his eyes,” and take the appropriate action. And, of course, the UAS may have weapons itself.

In war at the tactical level, Carlile said, “People die every day, and people are under extreme risk every day.”

The UAS are saving soldiers’ lives every day, and at a relatively low cost per system, he said.

“We today have the ability with AH-64D attack helicopter, which is the world’s most powerful attack helicopter, to stand off at ranges that we never had before because we were limited by terrain or we were limited by altitude,” he said. “We no longer have to see the target. The UAS sees it for you.”

Sgt. Michael Arons, a UAS instructor with the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training Battalion at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw that teaming at work. In late 2008, he recounted, flying his UAV down a road in Afghanistan doing route clearance, it came upon three men emplacing an IED. He called in air support, an F-15 dropped a bomb, and then the UAV followed two men who escaped the bomb to a house. The operators used the UAV to illuminate the house, ground soldiers came in and found an enormous weapons cache.

“If we’d not been there, all these weapons would be used against allied forces,” Arons said. “The entire house was full of weapons that could have been used.”

Sgt. First Class Brian Miller, a UAS standardization NCO with the Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization, Fort Rucker, Ala., said UAS ease the burden on manned assets. For example, in Afghanistan, with its multitudes of unmanned ground sensors, if there’s a hit on a sensor, a UAV is likely already in the air and can go see what set off the sensor.

“A lot of stuff for us is checking it out,” he said. The UAVs have the range and endurance, saving time and fuel for manned systems.

On a patrol, he said, the UAV systems can follow people or vehicles over an extended period of time, and even switch off between systems.

Carlile said: “This revolutionized how we fight tactical warfare at the tactical level.”

The ability to watch over time allows the development of information that analysts can use to help commanders decide what action to take. The clearer the situation, the less likely it will be that an action could involve collateral damage, and could result in the capture of personnel as well as a more lethal solution.

Carlile said “upwards of 80 percent” of published reports of UAVs killing targets were Army systems, though for security reasons he couldn’t say more.

Miller said much of the work he does is to guide the mindset for new UAS operators, to ensure they understand they can’t get fixated on what soldiers are doing–say, clearing a house–they must use their system to ensure those soldiers are not blindsided or ambushed.

“It’s an extra set of eyes up there that’s kind of looking out for me,” he said.

Miller, a 10th Mountain Division infantryman, re-enlisted in 2001 after 9/11. Looking for a new challenge, he reenlisted as a UAV operator. With about 10 other people in the room at the time, he asked what a UAV operator was. No one knew. It then took about a year and a half for him to actually get to UAV school.

It was some years later, about 2006, Carlile said, that the Army started putting together better integrated reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition capability and direct attack. At this time as well, many commanders and their top enlisted soldiers were starting second tours.

The next challenge is the way forward, Carlile said, as more and more areas of the Army want the capabilities UAVs can provide: Intelligence units wants more intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, engineers want UAVs to secure roads, signalers want UAVs to be able to build an aerial network.

Soldiers themselves would like to see additional payloads for the systems, to include synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicators, or hyperspectral sensors.

UAV operators don’t sport silk scarves or cocky call signs like “Iceman.”

“Their whole intent is to support the guys they eat dinner with…and the ones that sleep in the same tactical assembly area and because of that they have a tie they would not have if they were in Las Vegas, Nev. You can’t have that tie with the soldier and you can not have the same situational awareness 8,000 miles away,” Carlile said.