Combining Drones And Armed Aircraft In U.S. Army Combat Aviation Brigades
What is the U.S. Army doing with their aging reconnaissance helicopters?
As the U.S. Army deals with budget cuts and sequestration, the service pushes to further integrate unmanned technology and had started efforts to equip aviation brigades with drones to replace the ageing surveillance choppers.
Swapping Of Armed Aerial Scout With Unmanned Aerial Systems
Efforts are underway to replace OH-58 Kiowa Warrior armed aerial scout (AAS) helicopters for RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and the combat aviation brigades in Texas (Fort Bliss), and in Colorado (Fort Carson) are expecting to wrap up the swap later this year. Col. Thomas von Eschenbach said that there are a total of 10 or so brigades which are slated to complete the transition over the next three to four years.
Aviation Restructuring Initiative
This effort is part of the U.S. Army’s controversial plan of cutting costs while at the same time retaining newer technology by a total overhaul of the aviation units. Dubbed as the Aviation Restructuring Initiative, the effort calls for the:
- retirement of the Kiowas and TH-67 trainers
- transfer of the National Guard’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the active component
- movement of some utility choppers (UH-60 Black Hawk) to Guard units from active units
- purchase of new UH-72 Lakota rotorcraft
Full Integration Of Unmanned Aircraft Operations With Manned Systems Operations
The think-tank in Washington, DC – the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments explained that the Army has long wanted to replace the aging Kiowa and the Army may be on the verge of breaking new ground in how it plans to fully integrate unmanned aircraft operations with manned systems operations and ground units.
The Apaches would be paired with drones under the concept called “manned-unmanned teaming”, and this includes the low-altitude Shadow and the high-altitude MQ-1 Gray Eagle to perform armed reconnaissance as well as attack missions.
Recapitalize And Reinvest Assets
Rather than divesting the UAS assets in a smaller Army, the restructuring plan has allowed the US Army to recapitalize and reinvest the assets and use them in aviation formations. According to a Pentagon report, from December 2013, UAS assets included about 500 Shadows and about 240 Gray Eagles and Predators.
Incorporating UAS Technology Into Combat Aviation Brigades
Infantry soldiers in brigade combat teams had used drones such as Shadows over the past decade of war with Iraq and Afghanistan in tracking insurgents planting roadside bombs and in real-time monitoring of the battlefield. This time, the Army is looking at formally reorganizing combat aviation brigades by incorporating the technology.
A combat aviation brigade consists of 3 Apache troops in an attack reconnaissance squadron for a total of 24 Apache choppers and three Shadow platoons for a total of 12 drones. Four air vehicles and two ground control stations mounted in the Humvees make up a platoon, to provide round-the-clock surveillance for a mission, according to von Eschenbach.
Advantage Of AAS and UAS
The combination of manned and unmanned aircraft allows the helicopter pilots to see the battlefield and they can strike targets from a much greater distance by delivering video from the camera-equipped drone, directly into the cockpit, instead of just relying on messages on the radio handsets. There’s a lot of flexibility for the pilot in terms of making decisions. Pilots are able to spread their assets and cover a wider area.
UAS Providing Complementary Capability For The AAS
But while the Army is eager to incorporate drones into its organizational structure, it doesn’t mean that the unmanned systems will take the place of a new AAS helicopter. The Army still wants the AAS where Shadow drones may be more of just a support system or complementary capability for the AAS.
Does it look like the aging reconnaissance helicopters are retiring anytime soon?