April 01, 2013
Credit: U.S. Army
While the U.S. Air Force was hustling over the past five years to field more Predator and Reaper unmanned air systems to support war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army was developing its Predator-based UAS in relative peace and quiet.
Almost exactly five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned USAF officials by telling students at the Air War College that getting the Air Force to deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance forward to support troops was like “pulling teeth.” The service then became the subject of a years-long—and still lingering—campaign by Gates, his successor and Congress to be more proactive.
Meanwhile, the Army was in the midst of developing its own UAS, called the MQ-1C. Built on the General Atomics Predator platform, the Army improved the design to include more redundancy and added an automated landing system. The so-called Gray Eagle program is projected to cost about $5.3 billion for development and purchase of 152 aircraft, as well as spares and ground stations.
The Army is now preparing to request approval from Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall for full-rate production of the aircraft. That Defense Acquisition Board meeting is set for May, according to Lt. Col. Tony Davila, project manager for the Army's medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS program.
The Pentagon conducted initial operational tests and evaluation of the UAS last summer using 12 aircraft—a full company's worth—and 128 soldiers at Edwards AFB, Calif., Davila says.
Technically, the “aircraft was more robust than we originally thought,” he says. The aircraft supported a Brigade Combat Team conducting routine training at the nearby National Training Center. In all, roughly 1,100 hr. of flight were accomplished in 18 days. Davila says the unit demonstrated an 81% combat availability rate, just over the required 80%. That includes the ability to provide three simultaneous and continuous missions: 24-hr. continuous reconnaissance, 24-hr. armed reconnaissance and two 5-hr. attack missions in a 24-hr. period.
Pentagon testers, who deemed the Gray Eagle “operationally suitable,” completed 223 of 307 missions, a 73% success rate.