The Army will build a new air strip at Fort Bliss, Texas, but pilots won't have to set foot anywhere near it.
The $33 million facility will be the first Army runway dedicated solely to the MQ-1 Gray Eagle, the Army's medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system.
The Army intends to field 15 Gray Eagle companies at 11 locations. Five locations have already had companies of Gray Eagles fielded.
Still, the project in the New Mexican desert about 20 miles to 25 miles north of Fort Bliss proper represents a unique piece of the drone master plan. While all the locations will construct, or already have constructed, new hangars, only Fort Bliss gets a new dedicated runway.
The other locations will use existing runways for launching the unmanned aircraft.
The Fort Bliss facility's location inside the restricted area and proximity to the White Sands Missile Range offer unique opportunities for training, Army spokesman Matthew Bourke told Army Times.
"One of the benefits of having them here: Fort Bliss is the premier training installation in the U.S. Army," base spokesman Lt. Col. Lee Peters said. "It allows our soldiers to train with the Gray Eagle. When you deploy, it's not like you will be using them for the first time."
Peters said the facility will house nine Gray Eagles (a company's worth) and a little more than 100 personnel.
The Army awarded SGS the contract on Dec. 5, according to the government contract website FedBizOpps.
Peters said construction will begin in early 2015, with an estimated completion date of mid- to late 2016. The Gray Eagle aircraft will be organic to the 1st Armored Division, and available for deployment.
The 150-acre launch-and-recovery complex will be fenced and secured, and include a 5,000-foot runway as well as a multi-purpose hangar that will provide storage and maintenance for the Gray Eagles, the Army's recent UAV upgrade from Predators. There will also be administrative space.
The Army Corps of Engineers Fort Worth district designed the complex before putting out a request for bids, according to corps program manager Phil Barrick.
A 2013 environmental assessment for the complex included plans for a 1,000-foot runway for the smaller RQ-7 Shadow UAS. Barrick said the complex will not include that runway or system. The Shadow, at 11 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, is a much smaller aircraft than the Gray Eagle, which measures 28 feet long and 56 feet wide, and can carry four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or eight AIM-92 Stinger missiles.
The Army's plan is to give each echelon of command its own unmanned aerial systems, from rucksack-portable systems such as the Raven and the Puma for companies and battalions, to Shadows for brigades and the Gray Eagle at division.
The plan for now is that each division will have at least one Gray Eagle company.
Hangars have been completed for Gray Eagle companies at Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Stewart, Georgia.
The first Gray Eagle company was fielded at Robert Gray Army Airfield at Fort Hood, Bourke said. Including that one, six companies have been fielded, also distributed among Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Stewart; Fort Irwin, California; and Fort Drum, New York.
The Army plans to field two to three per year until all are fielded by fiscal 2018, Bourke said.