An Apache helicopter takes off at Dugway's Michael Army Airfield as the Shadow unmanned aircraft is readied for its flight onto the battlefield. The two aircraft were involved in a manned-unmanned teaming demonstration known as the Manned Unmanned System Integration Capability exercise. (Army)
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As the Army teams drones and helicopters, the most promising area for development is the link between those aviation assets and troops on the ground, a senior acquisitions official told Army Times.
"It's the manned-unmanned teaming and then it's the air-ground integration," said Col. Frank Muth, director of materiel, for the office of the G-8. "The linkage that occurs in all those assets is to ensure the commander has the most information available in a timely manner to make accurate decisions."
At the center of this idea is the full-spectrum combat aviation brigade. The 101st CAB now in Afghanistan has a Gray Eagle company, a Shadow troop and upgraded Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters capable of manned and unmanned teaming.
The Army is expected to make a decision in the spring about whether it should increase the number of full-spectrum CABs.
"The teaming is now you work closely with the ground commander also. You're working with him, the aviation and the unmanned side," Muth said. "They're all working together to accomplish the mission more efficiently and a broader scope [than] we're traditionally able to."
Muth is an aviator who commanded an air cavalry troop in Desert Storm, an air cavalry squadron and later a combat aviation brigade in Iraq. As director of materiel, Muth oversees several hardware divisions: ground vehicles, intelligence, aviation, artillery and air defense artillery, logistics and force protection.
Though he declined to discuss specifics of the budget, Muth said Army's three main acquisition priorities are the network, combat vehicles and aviation. Modernization starts with the soldier and squad and works its way out, he said, and future systems must be tailorable, scalable, versatile and affordable.
The Army's use of unmanned systems shows no signs of slowing down. Compared with 2002, when the Army had 76 unmanned aerial systems, it now has 7,567 and has spent $5.23 billion on them. UASs have logged more than 1 million flight hours in Iraq and more than 500,000 in Afghanistan, Muth said.
"Soldiers on the ground like to hear two voices, especially when its troops are in contact: They want to hear Kiowa Warriors, Apaches, but they also want to hear their UAS operator," Muth said. "There's a comfort in that because you know you have an all-seeing eye that can also deliver fires in a tight situation."
The key systems in the future will be the Gray Eagle at the strategic level for divisions, the Shadow at the operational level, and the Raven and Puma systems at the platoon or tactical level.
The intent is to field 18 Gray Eagles between two (military intelligence) aerial exploitation battalions, 12 Gray Eagles to two companies that each works for the division commander to support operational maneuvers. The Shadow platoons will be part of the full-spectrum combat aviation brigades.
So far, two such units have been fielded, one with 1st CAB and the other at Fort Riley, Kan., which deployed two weeks ago to Afghanistan.
The stand-alone F Company "Fenix," of 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment, Fort Riley, Kan., was deployed to Afghanistan until late January.
There are plans to field two to three companies like these per year through fiscal 2018, according to Army officials. The Army is analyzing whether the effort will be part of a permanent force-structure change or these would be task-oriented organizations.
The first full-sized unit, the F/227th Combat Aviation Brigade, of the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, has been in Afghanistan since April. It is attached to the 101st CAB.
When Muth was in Iraq in 2004-05, Shadows would conduct reconnaissance to spot objectives for ground troops, and they would deliver air support once the ground troops were at the objective.