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Modernized Marine Drone Casts a Large Shadow

A modernized and fully digitized unmanned aerial system could be performing vital missions over the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years. The upgraded Shadow system fielded by the U.S. Marine Corps could potentially play a major role in the region.

A modernized and fully digitized unmanned aerial system could be performing vital missions over the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years. The upgraded Shadow system fielded by the U.S. Marine Corps could potentially play a major role in the region.

The upgraded RQ-7 could play a significant role in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. Marine Corps could potentially begin fielding newly upgraded RQ-7 Shadow systems as early as next year, according to experts. The new version of the combat-proven aircraft is fully digitized, improves interoperability, can be teamed with manned aircraft and provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data to a broader range of warfighters, including manned aircraft crews. The upgraded system is intended to serve as an interim capability until the Marine Corps can field a larger, more capable unmanned aircraft.

The Shadow unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has flown more than 800,000 flight hours with more than 90 percent of those during combat. Both the Marines and the Army use the system. The Army is the lead service, integrating Marine Corps requirements with its own.

Shadow is being modernized with an array of upgraded capabilities, including a Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL); a universal ground control station capable of controlling multiple systems, including Gray Eagle and Shadow; and a Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). It also is being given a longer wingspan to increase time on station from six hours to 10 and more capable engines. Additionally, the military seeks to weaponize the system.

The Marines already have pulled the Shadow from Afghanistan, but the modernized system could play a significant role in the future. “As we look toward the Asia-Pacific region, we need more capable solutions that will allow us to feed data to the warfighter,” says Maj. Nicholas Neimer, USMC, the Marine Corps tactical unmanned aerial system coordinator. “Everything we do as far as improvements is to deliver real-time data to the warfighter and provide knowledge at the point of action.”

Experts say unmanned aircraft operating in the Asia-Pacific face a number of challenges not found in Southwest Asia, including jungle foliage that is hard to penetrate, inclement weather and more sophisticated, better-armed potential adversaries. “Obviously, the Asia Pacific region is much different than what we’ve been dealing with over in Southwest Asia. We are absolutely looking at capabilities allowing us to best get data to the warfighter,” Maj. Neimer says.

A Shadow system consists of four aircraft, one being a spare, ground control stations and other components. “We’re modernizing everything. We’re touching every component of the system to both modernize and bring a technology refresh to it,” says Bill Leonard, director of engineering services for tactical unmanned aircraft systems at AAI Corporation, Hunt Valley, Maryland.

AAI builds the Shadow system and serves as prime contractor for the modernization effort. “All of the upgrades taken together ultimately create an all-digital Shadow system,” Leonard continues. “It brings it into the digital world and opens up the bandwidth so that we can bring in new sensors and new capabilities.” He adds that the upgrades set the stage for additional improvements in the future, should they be necessary.

The modernized system is going through the final qualification and also is preparing for the final test and evaluation prior to fielding. “Right now, the Army is in the process of scheduling that. We do believe it will be this year sometime,” Leonard suggests.

Test and evaluation is the final step before fielding begins. The Army will establish the fielding schedule for the Marine Corps systems that are currently under contract for modernization. The system could begin fielding with the Marines as early as next year. “Development, qualification and acceptance will probably happen this year with fieldings thereafter,” Leonard explains. “My belief is that they will probably get most of the systems they paid for next year.”

The TCDL upgrade, which has been mandated by Congress, is one of the primary enhancements. “TCDL is an encrypted data link. We are currently working that effort, an effort that is ongoing for both the Army and the Marine Corps,” Maj. Neimer reports.

Encryption is important in regions with more sophisticated potential adversaries because it helps prevent video and communications data being intercepted.

Maj. Neimer expresses concerns that budget issues could adversely affect the schedule. “As we move forward with TCDL, we’re looking toward fielding that as quickly as possible. As of right now, we’re looking at the beginning of 2014, but I want to caveat that by saying it is a moving target,” the major states.

The Marines already have awarded two production contracts covering six modernized systems, according to Leonard. Any budgetary concerns, he says, would be for the remaining systems. Other experts, however, say that funding for UAS likely will remain strong despite budgetary cutbacks. “This upgrade for the Shadow is important because it could give it greater potential for weaponization and greater utility. I think it is going to be a priority for the services, especially since the Army and Marine Corps are not doing new procurement of the Shadow,” offers Philip Finnegan, a corporate analyst with the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia, consulting firm. Congress also is not likely to stand in the way of funding Shadow upgrades, according to Finnegan. “Unmanned air vehicles are an easy sell with Congress,” he says.

The modernized system also will be integrated into the Link 16 network, a NATO data exchange system that allows air, ground and maritime forces to exchange data in near real-time. With NATO standard communications, the enhanced Shadow will offer other advantages as well. “Now, we can do manned, unmanned teaming,” Leonard says. “Some of the manned platform crews can receive videos that the Shadow is capturing, or even command it to go work other areas or to conduct other missions. Sometimes, they can take control of the system itself.”

The aircraft is expected at some point to receive JTRS and its accompanying waveform that will speed up data sharing. JTRS will allow Shadow to act as a communications relay, providing communications on all frequencies between Marines on the ground and tactical aircraft, Maj. Neimer indicates. “That was one of our big takeaways from the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the major reports.

The Marines do not yet know when the Army will deliver JTRS, and the Corps is using the Harris AN/PRC-152 in the meantime. Still, the military and industry are making progress on JTRS technology. “We have worked JTRS integration on the aircraft and have actually demonstrated the capability in a ground environment,” Leonard reveals. “We continue working with both the Marines and the Army on different communication relay programs, and JTRS is part of that. We have integrated those capabilities in a lab environment, and we continue to do proof of concept as we wait for those radio technologies to come to fruition.”

The new universal ground station also is a major component of the modernized system. Leonard reports that the ground station currently is being fielded with the Gray Eagle platform.

Although requirements have changed over the years, the military still is interested in weaponizing the system. The Marine Corps initiated the weaponization requirement for Shadow as an urgent operational need when the service still was using the aircraft in combat, and both military and industry sources confirm a classified program still exists. “We have been talking with the Army on that potential capability. The Army is looking at that at this time. I’ll just leave it at that,” Maj. Neimer says.

Leonard agrees. “That program has changed a little bit with the Marine Corps pulling out of Afghanistan with the Shadow systems. The urgent need to field it has changed. There is a program, but it has changed a little bit over time,” he states.

Upgrading Shadow is one step in the Marine Corps’ efforts to modernize its UAS fleet. The service also intends to field the RQ-21 Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS) developed by Insitu Incorporated, Bingen, Washington. STUAS will be a ship-based system used at battalion and below levels, Maj. Neimer says. It will provide persistent maritime and land-based reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition data. The system will consist of aircraft, ground control systems and multimission payloads, including day and night full-motion video cameras, infrared marker, laser range finder and automatic identification system receivers. Both the Navy and Air Force also are expected to purchase the RQ-21.

Moreover, the Marines intend to field a larger UAS, possibly around 2024, Maj. Neimer says. He declines to discuss specific platforms that may be of interest, emphasizing the capabilities over platforms. “With the areas that we’ll be operating in and with us becoming potentially more involved in a contested environment—both digitally and by just raw firepower—the increase in a UAS capability will allow us to be successful. Specifically, synthetic aperture radar, being able to look through jungle for example, that is something we are looking at,” Maj. Neimer offers.

Finnegan says the capabilities provided by Firescout or a marine variant of the Predator/Reaper aircraft probably will be the best fit for the Marine Corps. Global Hawk and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance System, however, likely would be beyond the service’s budget, he suggests.

It remains to be seen whether the Marines can reduce the number of systems once they purchase larger, more capable, aircraft, Maj. Neimer says; however service officials are studying the possibility. Once the larger aircraft are in place, the Shadow system most likely will be honorably discharged from service. “They would be retired at that point. That would be the plan,” Maj. Neimer concludes.