While Air Force drones have been pounding targets for more than a decade, the Army has used its unmanned aircraft almost exclusively to gather intelligence. That’s going to change.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that in the future, unmanned systems will have other roles than ISR” — or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said Col. Thomas von Eschenbach at the Association of the United States Army, or AUSA, conference today. “The question is…what’s the path to do that.”
Much work now done by soldiers will eventually be done by robots. “What you have is a lot of different mission sets that want to have an unmanned system do what something that used to be manned,” said von Eschenbach, who is the capabilities director of the integration center at Army Training and Doctrine Command. “My favorite one is electronic warfare. That’s really a resident aviation mission. We currently do not have platforms that do jamming. We think it’s a good idea.”
Of course, the difference between a good idea that gets implemented and one that doesn’t is a function of will, money, and institutional capacity.
“If we had a multi-functional electronic payload, it makes sense to put it on an unmanned system. But what’s the trade? What’s the cost? Do we have the force structure? What’s the doctrine, the organization, the training?” von Eschenbach asked.
He noted that all of these questions need answers before the Army lets jamming drones onto its battlefield.
Von Eschenbach and his colleague, Col. Courtney Cote, have a long wish list: assured position navigation and timing, (beyond GPS); better downlink and uplink encryption; and improvements in size, space, weight, and power, particularly for computer assets.
“Many of you know that the Shadow UAS carries the same transponder as the Chinook.” The later is a big twin-engine helicopter. “I would like something smaller on the Shadow,” said Cote.
Army drone leaders also want a larger variety of munitions for their only armed drone, the Grey Eagle, a version of General Atomics’ Predator drone.
“We would like to look at a more scalable portfolio of munitions that allows the commander to choose what munitions is deployed. Right now, no matter what the target is, the commander only has one choice. That’s the Hellfire.”
The Grey Eagle comes armed with four Hellfire missiles or eight AIM-92 Stinger missiles plus four GBU-44/B Viper Strike bombs.
Another big wish is a common cockpit that allows every soldier, including allied pilots, to train and fly any Army UAV using familiar and universal controls — perhaps even a tablet. The Office of Naval Research, in fact, has had an app steering research program for drones for years. But what sounds simple rarely is. On-the-move control of drones isn’t easy, even if it is soon going to be a very important for expeditionary units.
“Currently, our technology and our system does not allow us to do on-the-move controls. We have some really heavy data links that require them to be in place,” said von Eschenbach.
The United States still dominates armed drone technology, but it’s an advantage that’s thinning fast. And the United States has never faced an opponent with much of a drone force on the battlefield. Unlike both Russia and Ukraine.
Russia, by some accounts, has 16 fixed-wing drone types in use in the disputed areas in the east of Ukraine. Today, those drones aren’t armed. But Russian-backed separatists use them to great effect. “I’ve been with a Ukrainian commander who said, ‘When that [drone] shows up, we’re going to get a rocket strike in ten minutes,’” Phillip A. Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, said yesterday at the conference.
If the Army doesn’t innovate the use tactical drones in the hands of soldiers, some other army will.