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UAVs set to step into CAB role

Dec. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Under a proposal, each combat aviation brigade would receive nine MQ-1 Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles, above, alongside 12 Shadows. The UAVs would replace the soon-to-be-scrapped OH-58D Kiowa.
Under a proposal, each combat aviation brigade would receive nine MQ-1 Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles, above, alongside 12 Shadows. The UAVs would replace the soon-to-be-scrapped OH-58D Kiowa. (Marty Shelton)
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A proposed restructuring of the Army’s combat aviation brigade trades the OH-58D Kiowa for unmanned drones and a fuller embrace of manned-unmanned teaming, according to Army officials.

The proposal, as the Army faces stiff budget cuts and the loss of the OH-58D Kiowa, is being pitched as a way to meet the armed reconnaissance mission and cut costs. The proposal would add RQ-7 Shadow drones to Combat Aviation Brigades.

“The Kiowa Scout’s going away, and it did an invaluable mission, so how do we cover the gap that it creates when you remove it from the inventory,” Unmanned Aerial Systems Chief Lt. Col. Glenn Lapoint, with the Army’s office of operations, plans and policy, told Army Times. “Shadow is part of that solution set.”

Under the proposal, each combat aviation brigade would receive 12 Shadows alongside nine MQ-1 Gray Eagles. The Shadows would become part of an Apache reconnaissance squadron.

Each ground combat brigade gets one platoon that includes four Shadows for a total of 12. To fulfill the scouting role, the attack reconnaissance squadron would have four Shadows per troop, working alongside Apaches.

The Army had been studying a “full-spectum CAB” concept in Afghanistan last year with 12 Gray Eagles and two platoons of four Shadows each. That “proof-of-concept” full-spectrum CAB, the 101st, was characterized by its upgraded Apache and Kiowa helicopters, capable of manned-unmanned teaming with Shadows and Gray Eagles.

“They collaborated to find, fix and finish enemies,” Lapoint said of the CAB’s manned and unmanned assets. “Together, they were stronger than either of the assets alone. It became part of the daily drill, so if they had scouts out, they were pushing Shadows to join them.”

Soldiers in the cockpit of the new Apache AH-64E — and older Apaches, to a lesser degree — have the ability to use the drone’s sensors to observe the battlefield and attack from a safe standoff distance. A soldier, from the cockpit of an Apache AH-64E Block III aircraft, can fly the Gray Eagle and use its sensors and weapons from more than 70 miles away.

“Now I have this Gray Eagle as far forward as possible, doing the hunting and the looking, and once it’s zeroed in what the target is, I’m not wasting time with that reconnaissance mission for the AH-64. I’ve done that,” said Col. John Lindsay, director of Army aviation at the Army’s office of operations, plans and policy.

The proof-of-concept full-spectrum CAB paired Shadows and Kiowas in Afghanistan, but the new proposal trades Kiowas for Apaches and four more Shadows than were used in Afghanistan.

“By leveraging the capabilities of Shadow and pairing it with the standoff capabilities of the Apache, you basically cover the same capability the scouts used to carry,” Lapoint said.

Soldiers would have a new kind of standoff attack, which traditionally involves using terrain or a concealed area to go after a target.

“A Kiowa Warrior pilot that’s out far forward, if he rolls up on the enemy unexpected, he’s vulnerable, he’s right there,” Lapoint said. “By using the UAV, you minimize risk to your crews and maximize standoff if you choose to engage the enemy.”

Defense industry newsletter Inside the Army reported that a 2012 analysis of alternatives identified the affordable option as a pairing of Kiowas and Shadows. The most capable option, however, was the Apache.

The Army’s plan to field 15 Gray Eagle companies is proceeding nearly as envisioned, Lapoint said. The Army is giving one company to each division, two to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and one to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Three Hunter companies will become Gray Eagle companies, and each will have six Gray Eagles.

The Army has begun training on its fourth Gray Eagle company, and it is one-third of the way through its plan. The Army has completed hangars for the Gray Eagle companies at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Stewart, Ga.

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, and Shadows for brigades and the Gray Eagle at division.

Due to budget cuts, each company will have nine of the drones instead of the 12 originally planned, Army officials said. While deployed, the units will still have 12, but they will fall in on three of those instead of bringing all 12.

The 3rd Infantry Division’s fielding was nearly complete, and the 160th SOAR was in training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., while construction of its Fort Campbell, Ky., facility is underway, Lapoint said. The 10th Mountain Division is expected to receive training next.

The plan for now is that each division will have at least one Gray Eagle company. Each attack reconnaissance squadron would have three Shadow platoons, one per troop.

The proof-of-concept CAB last year went with two Shadow platoons, and the unit’s recommendation was that CAB deploy with 12 Shadows, one per reconnaissance troop in the current proposal.

Such a move would be the most significant “paradigm shift” for Army aviation in years, Lapoint said.

“I think the 1990s was the last time we saw something like this, when we brought the Kiowas into the inventory, and they replaced plain Kiowas and Cobras,” Lapoint said.

The Shadow is a better fit for the armed reconnaissance mission than the Apache, Lapoint said, because with four times the ordnance and its high-powered engine, it is bigger, louder and, thereby, less stealthy.

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