Operators describe versatility, endurance of unmanned aerial systems
| In late 2008, Sgt. Michael Arons was operating an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) during a routine route scan in Afghanistan. Monitoring live video that the camera on the UAS was providing, Arons spotted three people placing improvised explosive devices. He called in for air support, and an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle soon flew to the area and hit the target.
But the mission didn’t end there. Arons was able to track two of the people using the UAS, and he followed them to a house. He illuminated the house with a laser designator, and soldiers on the ground moved in and secured the house, finding a large weapons cache.
Another UAS operator, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Miller, said he has followed targets for around 20 minutes without them even knowing they are being watched. They are surprised when soldiers come up on them seemingly “out of nowhere.”
According to Col. Christopher B. Carlile, director of the U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence (UASCE), missions like these shows how far UAS use has come not in the Army and the rest of the U.S. military. What was initially thought as a “toy” with a few sensors has grown into an effective system that cannot only be used autonomously but in tandem with manned aircraft and troops on the ground.
Speaking during a press conference at the Association of the United States Army’s aviation symposium Jan. 7, the soldiers described the capabilities of unmanned systems and how their missions have grown over the years.
Miller recalled being given the opportunity to re-enlist after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As an infantry soldier at Fort Drum, N.Y., Miller was looking for a career change, but had also separating from the Army. Nothing from a list of other military occupational specialties interested him until the mention of UAS operator. Although still in its infancy, there was still a wait of more than a year to begin training, and Miller decided to re-enlist and wait for his opportunity.
Today, Miller is at the directorate of evaluation and standardization at Fort Rucker, Ala., and he’s twice deployed as a UAS operator in support of special operations.
Carlile said the Army is about to release “our road map on the future” of UAS use, and enlisted soldiers will remain the backbone of operations.
Staff Sgt. Jason Palm, standardizations NCOIC at the UAS training battalion, said soldiers progress from using smaller hand-launched platforms like the Raven to larger aircraft. It’s not just flying a toy – the training is complex to include understanding aerodynamics, communicating with other air assets and describing target locations.
Miller said unmanned aircraft give 24-hour capability that manned helicopters don’t have. Unmanned aircraft can stay in flight longer, and operators can be relieved “just by a tap on the shoulder.”
He also said that in Afghanistan, ground sensors are enhancing capabilities because if one of those sensors picks up something, it’s sometimes “just a swing of the camera” to monitor that area by a UAS.
Glenn A Rizzi, deputy director and senior technical advisor at the UASCE at Fort Rucker,Ala., said he started to see a change in attitude toward UAS platforms around 2006. By then, some soldiers were on their second tours in combat, and they had seen first-hand the benefits of having the support of a UAS.
Today, there are a variety of UAS platforms, and Carlile said the goal for the future is to have a single operator trained on multiple aircraft, all of them having a common ground operating system. The Army logs more than 20,000 hours in unmanned aircraft flight a month and is approaching 1 million hours since the start of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The difference between science fiction and science is just timing, and the timing is now,” Carlile said.
Special operations looks to partner with conventional force in aviation
Leaders within Army special operations made it clear – they can’t continue to make advances within their own aviation programs without help from the “conventional” side of Army aviation.
“We have to partner with the conventional force,” said Col. Clayton M. Hutmacher, commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. “We don’t have the funding to do it alone.”
And the improvements wouldn’t just be a one-way street to benefit special operations aviators, he said. Both communities would work together and share ideas and development.
Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo, deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, suggested special ops be included in the testing process to “off ramp” new aviation technology.
Hutmacher noted during a Jan. 6 session at the Association of the United States Army’s aviation symposium and exposition that the partnership has already existed to a certain extent. Some modifications that have been made on the special operations variants of the Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters have been adopted for the conventional variants, and vice versa.
One of the biggest hurdles on the special operations side has been the importance of improving aircraft speed and range, something Hutmacher noted must also be a concern for conventional aviation.
Special operations aviators are looking at initiatives including the advance blade concept, silent knight radar, hostile fire indicator systems to detect small arms and rocket-powered grenades, and various programs to improve staff continuity and productivity.
The special operations aviation mission has undergone drastic improvements since the failed Desert One mission to attempt to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1980. More than 20 air assaults or movements of equal or greater distance than Desert One have successfully flown since then.
The fleet of the 160th has matured greatly in recent years from 10 different aircraft and variants down to three today – the MH-6 Little Bird, MH-60M Black Hawk and MH-47E Chinook. Foremost on the horizon is a replacement for the Little Bird, which is nearing 30 years of service.
“We can’t buy it alone,” Palumbo said. “We need to go along with the Army for a common platform.”
Class A aviation accidents up, but fatalities down
While the number of fatalities in non-combat Class A aviation accidents decreased from Fiscal Year 2008 to 2009, the actual number of mishaps increased, which is still a cause for concern, according to an Army safety official.
Col. J. Mike Simmons, director of current operations at the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center/Director of Army Safety, said half the Class A mishaps had something to do with power margins or brownouts. Safety mishaps can stem from overconfidence or complacency where soldiers get into a comfort mode dealing with routine missions and tasks. Aircrew coordination and inadequate mission planning also contribute to safety mishaps.
Initiatives that have come about to address aviation safety include aviation task forces that are formed early and train as a team throughout the reset and training cycle. Simmons noted the positive aspects of the directorate of evaluation and standardization that Maj. Gen. James O. Barclay III formed at Fort Rucker, Ala., that gets involved during training.
Message traffic also went out to units two months ago to remind commanders to focus on safety and training programs and ensure they had people on duty who were comfortable handling awareness in power margins.
Overall, Fiscal Year 2009 was a “great year from a safety perspective,” Simmons said. Fatalities in non-combat mishaps decreased from FY 2008, and in most cases, it was because leaders from senior commanders on down to junior NCOs and squad leaders have influenced and enhanced safety practices.
In FY09, 173 soldiers died due to accidents, which is the first time that number has been under 200 in several years, Simmons said. The biggest cause for concern is still off-duty use of personal vehicles – mainly cars and motorcycles – which accounted for 64 percent of those deaths. This is typically due to “indiscipline” – speeding, not wearing seat belts or use of alcohol.
Safety related accidents involving soldiers on duty usually come from the operation of tactical vehicles, mainly rollovers from larger Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, Simmons said Jan. 6 at the Association of the United States Army’s Aviation Symposium and Exposition.
Army aviation logs 3.5 million flight hours in Afghanistan, Iraq
The Army has reached 3.5 million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “we don’t see it going down,” said Maj. Gen. James O. Barclay III, commanding general of the Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, Ala.
Speaking at the opening session of the Association of the United States Army’s aviation symposium Jan. 6, Barclay said that even as the push moves from Iraq to Afghanistan, not as many aviation units will be affected by the drawdown in Iraq in comparison to ground units. With only 19 aviation units combined in the active Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, they still must fill eight requirements for deployed aviation units.
Barclay credits the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) model over the past five years with the framework that has allowed Army aviation to meet these demands. The focus of ARFORGEN has “provided aviation commanders the capabilities they need” in the cycle of training, deployment and reset, while also integrating new equipment in “a very short time period.”
Aviation units only have 12 to 15 months at home before deploying again, which is a shorter cycle than brigade combat teams, Barclay noted. To maximize training opportunities, “we are going out to them and giving them more training venues” as they prepare to deploy.
Reserve, guard and active aviation units also come to Fort Rucker for a training exercise right before they deploy, Barclay said. Because of the diversity between aviation units, the brigade commanders design the exercises so the Aviation Center of Excellence can train them on their specific needs.
Looking toward the future, he wants to improve dwell time to get aviation units more aligned with the cycle of other Army units and what Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. has identified – one year deployed followed by two years at home. A 12th active Army aviation brigade is scheduled to stand up, and, while being “a small step,” it’s hoped that it increases time at home across the board for other aviation units.
Barclay also identified a concern over NCOs in the E-5 and E-6 range and whether or not they are being provided the opportunities to excel in the current deployment cycle. Specifically, to ensure they fulfill not just their required military education but also so they can further their civilian education.
Armor, Infantry to retain branch identity after move from Fort Knox
The commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence said the combination of the Armor and Infantry Centers at Fort Benning, Ga., does not mean that there will be a single maneuver branch.
Speaking Jan. 6 at the Association of the United States Army aviation symposium and exposition, Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter said, “They will still learn the blocking and tackling” of their branch. Adding, “Things start to happen as a combined armed team at the company level. …We’re thinking we’re catching up with our young officers who know how to fight as a team.”
He said that by 2011, Fort Benning will be offering 92 courses to 144,000 officers and soldiers, and “we will send mobile teams to their home station” as necessary. There is no reason to take them from their homes when they just came back from war” and dwell time is about a year before deploying again.
A slide used during the presentation said the center would operate seven days a week for 50 weeks of the year.
Ferriter said that training is already linked between Benning and Fort Knox, Ky., where the Armor Center is now, and Fort Rucker, Ala., where the Army trains its aviators. The Armor Center’s move will be complete by September 2011 and is part of the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure movements.
Aviation units will begin ‘falling on’ left behind equipment
When the 101st Airborne aviation units deploy to Afghanistan soon, they “will be falling in on the 82nd’s equipment,” a first, the commanding general of the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command told 250 attendees at the Association of the United States Army’s aviation symposium and exposition.
Speaking Jan. 6, Maj. Gen. James Myles said “Army aviation is on the battlefield supporting the ground commander” for missions ranging from convoy escort, medical evacuation to air assault in Afghanisan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, aviation crews are reporting more hostile fire incidents, “similar to Iraq two or three years ago.
He said readiness rates for all aircraft, including the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, remain high despite the high operating tempos in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Only 1 percent of all planes were reported being down [because] parts weren’t in theater.” Adding, Congress, the Army and the Defense Department “gave us the money and we turned it into parts.”
All Army aircraft in theater are operating between 70 to 90 hours per month, aviation officials said. Readiness rates are also running above 70 percent for all aircraft.
The challenge is to keep aviation units synchronized – those in theater, those leaving theater and those preparing for theater. All aircraft leaving theater have to be reset and back to a unit readying to deploy in 180 days.
Ellis Golson, director of capability development and integration director at the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., said that is a challenge. “Manning, equipping and training, we don’t do that well. It’s equipping, training and manning.”
Myles asked for industry “to help us find ways to integrate” the rapid fielding modernization equipment on aircraft. “Most are strap on” and have added weight to the aircraft.
Myles said that Condition Based Maintenance where sensors are identifying parts that are about to fail was paying off. This kind of maintenance “is the EKG that tells us the health of the aircraft.” Col. Ronald Lewis, commander of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade and Col. Jesse Farrington, now assistant G-3 for operations and aviation at Forces Command both praised the change from a rigidly scheduled maintenance program.
“I was a convert,” Farrington said. Lewis said, it was also very helpful in safety investigations “to really look at what failed, why and when.”
At the same time Myles said Deep Cycle Maintenance was proving its value in keeping readiness rates high. This maintenance is not “a full-up reset” but a “fleet management strategy” that gives maintainers the opportunity to remove a panel to check the aircraft’s interior for corrosion and cracks.
Afghan conditions require adaptive soldiers, aviators
The high operating tempo, the vast distances, changing weather and mountainous terrain in Afghanistan is causing aviators and soldiers in their units to become “very adaptive, ” the commander of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade told attendees at a special Association of the United States Army symposium and exposition in suburban Washington.
Col. Ronald Lewis said, “He’s not just a scout. …They’re truly multifunctional.” Speaking Jan. 7, he said that when he deployed he had 170 manned and unmanned aircraft, 4,000 soldiers and civilian contractors operating in seven battalions from four widely dispersed locations.
The dispersed operations also required the aviation brigade be task organized even before deployment. Also in pre-deployment training there was increased emphasis on the differences between Iraqi society and culture and Afghan society and culture.
He said his goal was to provide the division commander an aviation brigade that he could call his own, even operating as a quick reaction force.
Lewis said that it was crucial for the aviators to establish strong relationships with brigade combat team commanders. In executing counterinsurgency “at altitude,” those relationship can avoid incidents where attack helicopters could “undo what ground commanders are doing in protecting a border, protecting the people. It’s a mindset.”
“Technology matters” in Afghan operations. Lewis said that he was fortunate to have the latest CH-47s and UH-60s and the time to train with the improved aircraft before deploying.
Unlike Lewis, Col. Jesse Farrington, now assistant G-3 for operations and aviation at Forces Command, “took command two months before it deployed to Iraq” to operate in “an area about the size of Pennsylvania.”
He too operated from a number of different locations, and that has its good points and not so good points. “One thing [the combat aviation brigade] allows the division commander to do is to look bigger than he was,” particularly in air assaults.
Farrington also saw the benefits of technology – precision weapons, sensors, etc. -- in counterinsurgency. “We started out in a very kinetic fight – going against IED emplacers,” but over time “we adapted our organization to be less kinetic.”
Col. Erik Peterson, transitioning to his new position as chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division, succeeded Farrington’s brigade in Iraq. Although the training regimen that was established before the deployment included two rotations at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and two more at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., “unfortunately, we did not train with any brigade combat team we were going to be working with.”
Because of the close cooperation with Farrington, the aviation training exercise was very productive. “The scenarios were relevant and current,” he said.
Adding, “I wanted to hit the ground running.”
"In a relatively short period of time ... the role of the brigade commander, whether it's a BCT (brigade combat team) commander or an aviation brigade commander or other, has become incredibly more complex," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schlosser, director of Army aviation said
"We are asking them (brigade commanders) to have skills sets that, to be truthful, I don't believe we are training them to get to at this point in time."
Adding, "We talk about being able to put the iron on the tire, etc... but we have to be a part of the counterinsurgency efforts and not just part of the enabling efforts," he said. "So the challenge of the brigade commander is to figure out 'how can I help in counterinsurgency, how can I do both.'"
Army astronaut describes shuttle launch as ‘just incredible’
“The launch was just incredible” was the way that one of four Army astronauts described the lift-off of shuttle Endeavour on his way to his first mission in space.
Lt. Col. R. Shane Kimbrough, speaking Jan. 6 as the guest of honor at the dinner during the Association of the United States Army’s aviation symposium and exposition, added to laughter, “Once you’re taking off you know you are going someplace fast. You get to space in eight minutes.”
The 2008 mission that took place over Thanksgiving was to work on the space station. As the commander of the mission told his crew. “We’re going to take home improvement to a whole new level” as they took up new bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen.
Two days from launch, Endeavour , after “doing a back flip” to check for any damage from lift-off, rendezvoused with the space station. “Once we dock it takes about two hours to equalize the pressure” between the shuttle and the station.
“We did four space walks” to fix and clean 250-foot long solar array panels on the station. “The grease didn’t work the way we expected,” Kimbrough said. The walks are not short. One lasted seven hours. And there are dangers from space debris. “The margin for error is very slim.”
“The coolest thing about space is everything floats; worse thing in space is everything floats.” To exercise in space, “most of the crew used recumbent bikes.
Because the American portion of the station has only one window, the shuttle crew used the Russian and Japanese sections to take more than 15,000 images. Although the official language on the station is English, Kimbrough said, again to laughter, “The Russians don’t play by the rules.”
The 16-day mission ended with a successful landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
In the future, American astronauts will be taken into space aboard Russian or Chinese launch vehicles. “That may help us get motivated like in the 1960s.” Adding, “The U.S. will not have access to space [in its own vehicles] for six to 10 years.
In addition to the four Army officers in the program, there is one in candidate status. “A typical astronaut’s career is 10 years with about a month in space.” He has been with NASA since 2000.
Army to add aviation brigade, increase number of aircraft in medical evacuation companies
The Army's top operations officer said Jan. 6 that not only will the Army add a combat aviation brigade to the warfight, it will also increase the number of aircraft in medical evacuation companies.
Speaking at the annual Association of the United States Army Aviation symposium and exposition, Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, G-3/5/7, told the 250 attendees that no force-wide transformational change to the aviation force was more important or consequential than the decision to increase aircraft in medevac companies from 12 to 15.
"We've got to get our men and women off the battlefield - that's non-negotiable," Thurman said. "This demonstrates the Army's resolve and commitment to troops in combat operations as well as their families and loved ones."
"We've also added nine additional medevac companies to the reserve component," said Thurman, who also formerly served as director of the Army Aviation Task Force.
"The Army will aggressively grow this strategic capability in order to improve air medical evacuation in combat," he said. "The priority will be Afghanistan with the first transformed 15-ship company arriving late spring 2010."
In an earlier AUSA session, the commander of the Aviation Center of Excellence, Maj. Gen. James O. Barclay III, told attendees about the stand-up of a new combat aviation brigade, though Army and Defense Department leaders had yet to decide where the brigade would be headquartered.
Thurman elaborated on the new CAB, saying it would be designated as the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade in honor of the 16th Aviation Group whose heritage dates back to the Vietnam War.
"The brigade will be formed by recognition of current assets from within the active component," Thurman said, "and while all aircraft and crews required to establish the 16th... are already in the force, the Army must add approximately 700 Soldiers to the force to stand up the assault helicopter battalion and aviation support battalion structures."
He added the next major structural change in Army aviation under consideration by Army leadership involves a potential restructuring of four remaining active-component heavy combat aviation brigades and one light combat aviation brigade to full-spectrum design.
"This decision is being considered along with a decision to restructure the armed reconnaissance squadron to a design featuring three troops of OH-58 Kiowa Warriors and two platoons in Shadow tactical unmanned systems," Thurman added.
"The manned/unmanned teaming concept will serve to provide real-time ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) support within the CAB and fully maximize the capabilities for both systems so we meet the ground commanders' needs," he said.
Thurman also addressed the 400-percent growth of unmanned aircraft systems flight hours, noting those hours to have increased from 500 hours flown by only three UAVs a decade ago to more than 180,000 flown hours by more than 1,700 UAVs in 2009.
Additionally, the aviation branch trained more than 1,800 unmanned operators in 2009 and expects to surpass 2,000 by the end of this year. Thurman said the exponential growth in the number of aircraft and trained professionals is coupled with providing more capable systems as the enemy adapts to current operations.
"Our unmanned aircraft systems are forecast to reach the milestone of 1 million total flight hours flown in the coming year of which 88 percent have been flown in support of combat operations, so it's huge growth," Thurman said. He said the Army expects to have all brigade combat teams fielded with Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft systems by 2011.
"We know the integration of unmanned aircraft systems with our maneuver forces into a single, cohesive combat capability is paramount," he said.
(Article is based on an Army News Service story).
Apache, Chinook readiness rates remain high despite high operating tempo
The Army’s Apache helicopter fleet is flying 70 to 90 combat hours each month in Afghanistan, its program manager said. Col. Shane Openshaw, speaking at a media roundtable sponsored by Boeing Jan. 5, said, “That’s five to six times its peace time rates.
Boeing’s Tommy Filler said readiness rates are above 80 percent for Apaches in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The significant driver is scheduled maintenance” in taking an aircraft off line.
Ground commanders find the Apache “capable and it is their weapon of choice,” Openshaw said.
Adding, the focus now is “sustaining the aircraft for its life cycle” that is expected to continue into sometime between 2030 and 2040. Openshaw said the Block III Apache modernization program was on track with Low Rate Initial Production scheduled for October 2011.
Filer said the Block II production line would remain open to 2013. Boeing delivered 57 Apaches to the Army last year and is to deliver 56 in 2010.
“As soon as we train them, we’re fielding them,” Col. Newman Shufflebarger, program manager for Chinook, said about the new F models.
Two-hundred and ninety have been delivered or are under contract. The Army’s requirement is 452.
“Readiness rates for the F models is between 80 to 90 percent and in the 70s on D models,” which have been in the fleet since the 1980s.
Boeing’s Mark Ballew said that expanding production lines at the company’s Philadelphia facility will double delivery rates from three to six F models per month. “The demand continues to grow.”
Boeing is continuing its work on a new light attack reconnaissance helicopter, based on its Little Bird used by special forces. Boeing’s Mike Burke said the aircraft is smaller than the Apache Block III but will use 83 percent of its software.
The AH-6 will have a crashworthy seat; be capable of firing Hellfire missiles, laser-guided rocks, mini-guns and machine guns; and can stream videos to sites on the ground and other aircraft