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Unmanned Aircraft Spread Their Wings

February 2003
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Missions continue to expand for latest military platforms.

Recognizing the power that unmanned aerial vehicles bring to the battlespace, military personnel are calling for more—so much so that the demand is nearly outpacing the supply. The U.S. military is very pleased with the performance of the aircraft in the war on terrorism and continues to investigate new enhancements to current systems. The U.S. Defense Department is working to determine how the vehicles can be integrated into the total force structure most effectively.

Progress in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is seen across all of the services. Predator UAVs equipped with Hellfire missiles have executed precision strikes, and now the U.S. Air Force is exploring how to equip the aircraft with air-to-air missiles. While the U.S. Army continues to use residual Hunter aircraft, it is now moving the Shadow 200 into service. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps are examining tactical UAVs and how they can support maritime missions. Overall, UAVs are transforming concepts of operations by enabling centralized decision making and decentralized execution.

Experts agree that UAVs are following the historical path of aviation. Like airplanes, UAVs were introduced in straightforward missions. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads provided military commanders with persistent eyes in the skies. Operations in the Balkans demonstrated the need for a heartier capability. So in the spring and summer of 2001, the Air Force began testing the weaponization of the Predator, a capability that proved very useful in Afghanistan operations. As people become more comfortable with aircraft flying without a person in the cockpit, applications are likely to increase; however, airspace, standardization and mission-support issues still need to be resolved, military leaders agree.

Today, the evolution continues as industry and the military services explore new aircraft, improvements to current designs and better payload capabilities. Requests from military personnel and a willingness to push the envelope are driving both suppliers and users to take the next step and think in terms that stretch the imagination.

Pioneer and Hunter aircraft are still in service, and many new types of UAVs are in various stages of development. Today’s inventory consists primarily of Predator, Global Hawk and Shadow 200. With the exception of the weaponized Predator, their payloads are similar, but the mission support they provide is quite different.

With a range of 13,500 nautical miles, Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems, El Segundo, California, can reach altitudes of up to 65,000 feet and is a long-endurance reconnaissance system. It provides military field commanders with high-resolution, near-real-time imagery of a large geographic area. Once mission parameters are programmed into Global Hawk, it can autonomously taxi, take off, fly, remain on station, return and land. Ground-based operators can change navigation and sensor plans during flight.

Douglas Fronius, director, target programs, Northrop Grumman, explains that autonomy and long-range communications capabilities are two keys to UAVs. Global Hawk was the first UAV to go to a theater of war by itself. After being preprogrammed, it flew from California to Afghanistan. It has flown more than 50 missions during operation Enduring Freedom.

Global Hawk is being developed using a spiral development approach, and as such, improvements continue. The aircraft, which started as an advanced technology concept demonstration, has transitioned into formal production. Engineering work is ongoing, and upgrades are being examined in terms of payloads and the airframe. Most of the work involves integrating new capabilities that were not available five years ago, Fronius says. While working to improve today’s Global Hawk, the company is examining future capabilities for the 2020 to 2030 timeframe that will include higher altitudes and longer endurance, he states.

The Predator system, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated (GA-ASI), Rancho Bernardo, California, is a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV that supports the air component commander. It can remain on station for more than 24 hours at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet.

When initially developed, it provided only reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. Lt. Col. Ed Barnette, USAF, chief, UAV Special Missions Office, Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, explains that the addition of the Hellfire missiles changed the system from an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset to a find, fix, track, target, execute and assess platform. Senior military leadership called for this added capability after operations in the Balkans. In Bosnia, Predator located targets, but the opportunity to hit them with traditional air assets was lost because of the lag time, Col. Barnette explains.

In addition to providing precision strikes, which minimizes collateral damage, using weaponized Predators frees up other assets so they can be tasked to areas that require manned aircraft, the colonel relates. “We could go into a situation and not use as large a force as before, so this opens up the dynamic of economy of force,” he adds.

Outfitting Predator with Hellfire missiles is just one step in the evolution of the system. Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president and chief executive officer, GA-ASI, says the new Predator B features significant enhancements. For example, the new model’s take-off weight is nearly four times that of Predator A. “As a result, it can carry an 800-pound payload internally with much larger cameras and much more effective synthetic aperture radar [SAR] called Lynx. The SAR has four-inch resolution and a zoom capability that allows you to image the ground through the clouds so you never have to go below the overcast to see, and you can deliver weapons on the ground,” Cassidy says.

After the Air Force took delivery of the initial two Predator Bs, the service decided it wanted a larger weapons capacity with a bring-back capability, Cassidy explains. The landing gear and fuselage were adjusted to meet this requirement. Predator B can carry up to 3,000 pounds of weapons on its wings, reach altitudes of 50,000 feet and fly for more than 32 hours.

Three additional Predator Bs were acquired under the fiscal year 2002 budget, and three more are scheduled to be purchased with fiscal year 2003 monies. Cassidy predicts that the company will be producing nine to 12 aircraft annually beginning with fiscal year 2004.

Even with the new model coming into service, enhancements to the Predator A continue. In August, a mini-UAV was launched successfully from the Predator A. The Flight Inserted Detector Expendable for Reconnaissance, or FINDER, 57-pound UAV conducted a 25-minute preprogrammed mission. Equipped with sensors, the mini-UAVs could be inserted into an area to assess the presence of chemical or biological agents, Cassidy explains.

The first Shadow tactical UAV (TUAV) was fielded last September with the Army’s Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Shadow 200, developed by AAI Corporation, Hunt Valley, Maryland, can fly for five to six hours at a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet.

Penn “Pete” Mullowney, deputy general manager, UAV Systems Development, AAI, explains that the Army was interested in a system that could be used by brigade commanders. “The mantra was 50 kilometers, four hours and keep it simple. They did not want us to build a system that the division commander would take away from the brigade,” Mullowney says. Shadow 200 also meets the Army’s requirement for easy mobility.

The service’s goal was to get the TUAVs into the field quickly because it wanted what Mullowney calls an “organic eye.” AAI was able to meet this requirement with its off-the-shelf technologies, including its work on the Shadow 400 and Shadow 600. The Shadow 200 began initial operations testing and approval just 16 months after contract award. Typically, this process would take between five and six years, he says.

Although AAI met the Army’s immediate requirements, Mullowney relates that the TUAV is a spiral development project, and work is currently underway to enhance the capabilities. Future models will have a range of 200 kilometers and four hours on station, be able to fly a 100-pound payload and feature a new wing design. The enhanced version is scheduled to be available in fiscal year 2004 or 2005.

The Future Combat Systems program may include a stable of TUAVs, but Mullowney notes that UAV systems are complicated. “People look at UAVs and think of them as model airplanes on steroids. They think it’s easy and underestimate the work involved,” he states.

Leaders in the Army’s UAV programs are excited about the capabilities this system brings to the brigade commander. Lt. Col. Kevin Stoleson, USA, military deputy for UAVs, Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, relates that ground maneuver brigade commanders can send Shadow 200 where they cannot or do not want to send soldiers. It handles the dull, dirty and dangerous parts of missions, he explains.

They also are already looking at how the capabilities can be enhanced. Col. John Burke, USA, project manager, UAV Systems, Program Executive Office–Aviation, Huntsville, Alabama, explains that Shadow 200 currently uses the C-band datalink for communications. However, the Army intends to migrate to the tactical communications datalink to meet the service’s operations requirements document and allow for secure digital transmissions of electro-optical imagery.

The colonel relates that his department’s UAV work is driven by two goals. First, be as responsive as possible to commanders, and second, ensure that commanders are logistically supported in the field.

Although there has been some talk about developing a UAV that would be designated to operate with the Comanche helicopter, Col. Burke emphasizes that no single UAV would fulfill this role. Instead, a number of different classes of UAVs could satisfy this requirement.

The Navy and Marine Corps have been flying Pioneer UAVs since the 1980s, and from an acquisition standpoint, the Navy is examining improvements that can be made to that UAV, including upgrading the sensors, says Capt. Dennis Sorensen, USN, program manager, Navy UAVs, Patuxent River, Maryland.

The Navy is purchasing two Global Hawks that are scheduled for delivery in 2005. They will be used for concepts of operations development and as testbeds for new payloads as they become available, Capt. Sorensen says. In addition, the service is developing a broad area maritime surveillance acquisition program that will look at Global Hawk or Predator B class vehicles that can support the carrier battle group directly during the next 10 years.

Work with Fire Scout, a vertical takeoff and landing TUAV developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation Integrated Systems, is nearing completion, the captain says. The aircraft weighs 2,650 pounds with a payload of 200 pounds. It can stay on station for three hours at 110 nautical miles.

The Navy is working on concepts of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures as well as moving the system into training to familiarize the force with UAV capabilities, the captain says. However, at this point the Navy does not plan to field Fire Scout or to procure additional systems. Instead, the service is reviewing the requirements for TUAVs, he adds.

The tactical control system for UAVs is another area that the Navy is exploring. It is being developed as the interoperable ground control station architecture for all UAVs and facilitates the dissemination of collected data. This is a critical component to the Navy, Capt. Sorensen says, because space limitations on ships preclude the installation of numerous control stations.

Uses for UAVs go beyond the military. For example, a team of scientists working with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, employed the Pathfinder-Plus in a remote-sensing applications demonstration. The solar-powered UAV loitered for more than four hours over Hawaii’s largest coffee plantation on Kauai. The team combined preplanned, fixed-flight lines with spontaneous, remotely controlled maneuvers to guide the craft over cloud-free areas. The project demonstrated how a UAV equipped with a ground-controlled aerial imaging system can help coffee growers identify the ripest fields for daily harvest.

According to Stanley R. Herwitz, principal investigator for the project, an Ethernet bridge operating in the 2.4 gigahertz band provided the wireless connection, and 48-megabyte images were available in less than 30 seconds. This capability has applications in other areas such as fighting forest fires, Herwitz explains.

This is the first in a three-part series examining unmanned aerial vehicles. Next month’s segment will look at unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

 

Operations Support UAVs’ Evolution

Unmanned aerial vehicles are hardly secret weapons, but military leaders are still reluctant to discuss how they are being used in current operations. They will reveal, however, that improvements are being examined and lessons have been learned.

In general, the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is getting very high accolades from U.S. Central Command, says Dyke Weatherington, deputy, UAV Planning Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense–Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. The U.S. Defense Department continues to improve that system and is examining other useful combat and sensor capabilities for Predator that may migrate to other systems. For example, a high-definition television capability would allow more precise identification of targets potentially down to the level of identifying people, he says.

“In addition, the task force is evaluating other sensor types such as multi- and hyperspectral sensors that could provide additional identification of more nontraditional targets, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Weatherington allows.

For operation Enduring Freedom, the military called on Global Hawk, which had recently moved out of the advanced concept technology demonstration program. Weatherington notes that working in an operational environment and flying every other day revealed some operational issues, facilitating early fixes. Sustainment and maintenance, communications architectures and bandwidth limitations were among the problems that needed to be resolved.

Warfighters used the Global Hawk’s electro-optical/infrared sensors more than the radar because they provided critical targeting identification; however, the radar was very useful for broad area searches, he allows. All of the sensors in the Global Hawk system will be worked on through the spiral three and spiral four segments of the program, which are heavily weighted toward improved signal intelligence capabilities. The Defense Department believes Global Hawk is an ideal signal intelligence collection platform, Weatherington states.

Although the U.S. Navy has not decided which UAV platform to adopt, Global Hawk appears to meet most if not all of its requirements, he offers.

Weatherington says that the department is excited about providing the U.S. Army with tactical capabilities in relatively large numbers through the Shadow 200 program. “The Army has had Hunter, and Hunter has been a useful system, but the biggest limitation is the low numbers. Shadow offers a much better logistics footprint, so transportation and the ability to stay up with the mobile forces are really significant attributes of Shadow,” he explains.

Although UAVs benefit the warfighter, Weatherington warns that they are not a panacea that will solve every problem the department has from a military force structure perspective. However, UAVs seem ideally suited to support a number of missions and in many cases can accomplish the task better or at a lower cost when compared with manned platforms.

“For example, Global Hawk has about three times the on-station capability of a U-2. While Global Hawk does not have all the sensor capabilities that the U-2 has, we’re certainly building toward that. Predator’s another example of where persistence is of extreme value to the warfighter. We have not had manned systems that could operate in that kind of regimen for long periods of time,” he says.

Weatherington is quick to add that although the benefits of UAVs are many, they will not replace every manned system. However, the uses for the aircraft are likely to increase as the department looks into additional capabilities.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that support suppression of enemy air defenses, strike and electronic combat operations could significantly reduce the risk for aircrews and manned platforms. They also may provide some capabilities that cannot be attained today with manned systems, he says.

Although UAVs have provided significant support in operation Enduring Freedom, Weatherington emphasizes that they are not solely responsible for winning the war. They were integrated into the force structure during the operation, and the Defense Department has a long way to go to integrate UAVs into the total force structure, he adds.

“Today, we still, to a large degree, operate UAVs on an as-exception basis. We’re doing better, certainly better than we did in Desert Storm. But the department is pushing the services to integrate UAVs more closely with manned systems and ground systems to really provide a combined arms capability,” he says.