Each Gray Eagle is delivered with the Army's Common Sensor Payload—consisting of an electro-optical/infrared video camera; laser-range finder and laser designator; STARLite synthetic aperture radar—four hard points for Hellfire missiles and a tactical signals intelligence payload. The Army system also includes a Theilert heavy-fuel engine, a benefit because brigades did not want to have to manage storing and handling different fuel types for ground vehicles and aircraft.
Because the Army built on the Air Force's original Predator vehicle—designed by General Atomics using company research and development dollars—the service could tailor the UAS to its needs and learn from past mistakes. The Gray Eagle includes an automated takeoff-and-landing system designed to eliminate the hard landings that have bedeviled Air Force pilots. This also allows for the Army to use operators that are not rated pilots.
The Army required triple-redundant flight controls and near all-weather capabilities with the addition of an anti-icing system, as well, allowing transit through weather and clouds en route to operations. One Air Force official remarks that Army Gray Eagles may be able to operate in locations in which Air Force UAS are grounded, as they lack this feature.
Unlike the Air Force, which uses its Predators and Reapers to provide intelligence to an operations center, the Army's Gray Eagles feed information directly to the brigade commander. The aircraft are used for such tasks as reconnaissance in advance of convoy operations or “route clearing,” where suspected improvised explosive devices are engaged prior to friendly forces moving into an area. It can also provide overwatch during specific operations and alert other combat assets—such as the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter—if needed.
Ultimately, Pentagon testers found that the Army is “effective at operating the MQ-1C system and has the potential to provide effective support to combat units, but the Army needs to continue to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures; the training; and the doctrine required to effectively integrate this capability into combat operations.” The 1st Infantry Division's 1st Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), now deployed to Afghanistan, supported the testing.
Unlike the Air Force, which fielded various Predators as fast as they could be developed, the Army effectively sequestered its Gray Eagle program during development from wartime requirements. Three iterations of the UAS—known as Block 0, Block 1 Quick Reaction Capability and Block 1 Program of Record—were fielded by the Army while Gray Eagle was being developed. These were less robust Predator-based aircraft with varying types of sensors and communications systems. Though they provided war support, they also allowed Army operators to begin experimenting with tactics, key to ushering Gray Eagle into the fleet.
The Army's success in initial operational test and evaluation is perhaps partly attributable to its focus in developing the requirements and vehicles. The Air Force Predator fleet grew largely on congressional earmarks; the service never articulated requirements that led to the Predator program. General Atomics developed the system on its own dime and then craftily lobbied Congress for sales. This carried the program throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Now, however, with the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the momentum behind seemingly unfettered defense spending is fizzling. And the company is working to change its approach.
“We need to be in lockstep with the Air Force and Army,” says one General Atomics official, noting that this is a “fairly recent change” in philosophy.
The company will still spend its internal research and development money on improving its products, but it will have to more closely align projects with clearly stated service requirements in order to garner funding. During the war, by contrast, “they just threw money at problems,” the General Atomics official says.