The Army hopes to know in early 2019 whether it can operate its large unmanned aircraft system like the Air Force and control drones remotely from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The Air Force’s MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, even when flown halfway around the world, are controlled from a remote location within the United States via satellite link. But the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagles — which are division assets used at the tactical and operational levels, and are manufactured by the same company as the Predator and Reaper — are operated locally in theater.
“Since January 2017, the US Army has been in the planning, development, and implementation phases of a pilot program to determine the viability and feasibility of Echelon Above Division (EAD) Gray Eagle (GE) units to perform Remote Split Operations (RSO) on a combined, satellite communications (SATCOM) and terrestrial fiber network, from a Continental United States (CONUS) mission facility,” the Army told C4ISRNET in a statement.
The Army noted that it views remote operations as a “potential operational enhancement capability and potential deployment option to be leveraged as needed by commanders of the Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) and Army Special Operations Aviation Command (ARSOAC), where the EAD GE unit are assigned.” However, these types of operations are not currently planned for Combat Aviation Brigade Gray Eagle units.
The service has successfully conducted these types of remote operations at the National Training Center in California with operators flying the drones via satellite links from Fort Hood, Texas, Col. Paul Cravey, the Army‘s Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for reconnaissance and attack at the Aviation Center of Excellence, said in an interview with C4ISRNET in August.
The Army appears to be examining whether lessons from others could be applicable to their assets.
“To the extent that that has been successful for the other services or Joint Special Operations community, we need to see if that kind of a construct will work for us,” Maj. Gen. Christopher Ballard, the commander at INSCOM, told C4ISRNET in September. “If we can gain some efficiencies without losing capability by doing it, we’re all ears.”
Ballard noted that, given the “demand signals coming from all over,” there is a sense of urgency to take a look at these types of operations.
Combatant commanders have told Department of Defense leaders they are not getting enough ISR capability to meet their needs.
“U.S. geographic combatant commanders have increased their airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements by over 800% during the past 10 years, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military services are meeting only 30% overall of those airborne ISR requirements,” a Nov. 9 press release from the House Armed Services read.
While the Air Force’s Reaper drones provide theater level ISR for combatant commanders, the Army’s armed Gray Eagles are a tactical and operational asset providing intelligence and close air support as prioritized by a division commander.
The Pentagon sought to increase global combat air patrols (CAP) by nearly 50 percent in four years moving to 90 CAPs by 2019, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Under the plan, as reported, the Air Force would continue to operate its 60, contractors would operate 10, the Army would operate up to 16, and Special Operations Command would operate up to four.
The Army told C4ISRNET that its remote split operations limited pilot program will not contribute to any global ISR plans for DoD at this time.
Ballard said this pilot program allows the Army to come to the table with similar constructs and capabilities it can present to the joint force, reducing uncertainty based on what each individual service is providing.
Remote split ops will allow the force to be deployed 24/7, which, as the Air Force’s drone workforce has experienced, has its drawbacks in terms of an overworked force with rampant stress and readiness challenges. However, it also has benefits.
One of the problems with the current Army model is that it is inefficient given it’s a rotational model as compared to the Air Force, said Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and a former Army Ranger who later worked unmanned and autonomous systems policy at the Pentagon.
Whereas the Air Force has operators consisted involved in some facet of drone control, only 33 percent of Army pilot/controller personnel are running Gray Eagles as two-thirds of this force are within the U.S. on leave or doing training.
Having these personnel supplement those deployed in the theater while between other stateside duties would create a hybrid model allowing all operators to stay connected to current operations.
To test remote split operations, the pilot program includes several iterations of ground and flight testing, demonstrations, as well as a six-month proof of concept, the Army said. It will last throughout fiscal year 2018, conclude in early 2019, with the results evaluated and briefed to Army senior leadership in the first quarter of 2019.
Scharre noted that there’s no good reason for the Army not to do this, as it uses personnel more efficiently, allows them to stay connected to current operations, and gets more operational effectiveness.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.