The Army continues to move ahead fielding its largest unmanned aerial system (UAS), the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and refining its doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) and training, officials said.

With units in Afghanistan, the Army is now fielding the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI)-produced Gray Eagles–used primarily for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and acquisition–to the 3rd Infantry Div. at Ft. Stewart, Ga., and plans to field to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) in the fall, Col. Timothy Baxter, Project Manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said during a teleconference yesterday.

Federal budget concerns and sequestration “have no effect right now on what we’re currently fielding,” Baxter said. The program is moving toward a full-rate production decision review in April or May, which would likely be followed by a contract award in June, which would require fiscal year 2013 funds.

The first Gray Eagle company, Company F, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, from Fort Riley, Kan., deployed to Afghanistan and achieved initial operational capability in May 2012, with four companies and 12 air vehicles. The Gray Eagle has been called an evolving game-changer by the top Army aviation official (Defense Daily, July 2).

Working up to deploy is Company F, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, also from Ft. Riley, Kan. Additionally, there are two Quick Reaction Capability units deployed in Afghanistan.

The Army plans to buy 152 aircraft, said Rich Kretzschmar, deputy project manager for UAS. The Army has directed Gray Eagle fielding to all divisions, with another fielded unit to be based at the National Training Center, and more fielded to the Aerial Exploitation program. Every Combat Aviation Brigade will have Gray Eagle companies with nine aircraft, while two companies slated for special operations command will have 12 aircraft each.

Last summer, Gray Eagle completed its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E), and the Defense Department testing office is completing its Beyond Low-Rate Initial Production (BLRIP) report that supports the spring Gray Eagle full-rate production decision. 

The DOT&E FY 2012 Annual Report “deemed us effective” and operationally suitable, though there were some recommendations for improvement, Baxter said. Most recommendations were associated with maturing TTPs, improving training and doctrine, and maturing the manned-unmanned teaming capability.

The program office is standardizing procedures for Gray Eagle, for example, in standardizing the procedures for distributing Gray Eagle video, said Lt. Col. James Kennedy, product manager, Common Systems Integration.

Baxter said the office is also ensuring that “everyone is operating off the same baseline software.”

At the same time, he said, the office is taking a “hard look” at the doctrine and concepts of operation with UAS in general to see how UAS can better fit into an expeditionary Army.

The UAS program office continues to work to encourage competition, contain costs and achieve the “better buying power” that DoD acquisition officials are pushing toward.

For example, opening up competition, the office has broken out the engine replacement effort for the AAI Corp. [TXT] Shadow. Baxter said the service chose five companies from 12 respondents to demonstrate initial performance and endurance. The Army will then neck down that group to two companies, integrate the potential new engines on Shadow and then pick the supplier.

Additionally, the program office recently awarded an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity effort to five companies–AeroVironment, Elbit Systems of America, Lockheed Martin [LMT], Altavian and Innovative Automation Technologies to compete for future small unmanned aircraft system requirements.