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U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Changing Modern Warfare

July 16, 2010

The complex operations that seem to define today’s conflicts place a premium on flexibility and adaptability. Operations span the entire spectrum of conflict, and warfare in the Information Age requires not only unprecedented levels of information but delivery of that information to decisionmakers when they need it. In response, the U.S. Army has made dramatic changes in the way it fights. The integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has been a critical part of that change.

The Army UAS fleet has grown tremendously in recent years. In March 2003, the Army deployed three UAS, with 13 aircraft, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Seven years later, some 337 systems and 1,013 aircraft are in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the Army owns 61 percent of the total military UAS fleet. The Army has flown more than one million hours, 88 percent of which were executed in combat. Army UAS—“the eyes of the Army”—have proved to be invaluable in combat at the tactical and operational levels of war. The Army is in the process of integrating UAS into combat aviation brigades by combining RQ-7 Shadows and OH-58D Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters in the armed reconnaissance squadron to maximize combat potential and build a full-spectrum team.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)—the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) every-four-year assessment of the U.S. national defense plans, programs and policies—placed particular emphasis on providing the men and women in the U.S. armed forces with the tools they need to prevail in today’s wars. Drawing on lessons learned in combat, the review highlighted enhancements to several capabilities that have been “in high demand and have proven to be key enablers of tactical and operational success.”2 Among the recommendations was a commitment to “[e]xpand manned and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).”3 The Army is aggressively implementing the QDR guidance.

The Army uses UAS at the operational and tactical levels of war, bringing benefits to units at all echelons. The roles and missions for which UAS are used have evolved in response to the needs Warrior (reconnaissance). Also included is a suite of UAS already organic to all Army brigade combat teams (BCTs). UAS consist of dual components— unmanned aerial vehicles and ground control stations (with support equipment) that provide tactical commanders near-real time, accurate reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) data. This mission includes weapons, communications relay, specialty payloads and linkage to manned aircraft.

Unmanned aircraft are radically altering many facets of warfare, improving situational awareness, extending command and control and speeding decision cycles. Modern battlefield commanders need to be able to respond faster than their increasingly nimble adversaries. Increasingly, UAS are allowing U.S. commanders to turn inside their opponents’ decision cycles and gain the advantage. UAS technology has evolved rapidly; no longer are they seen as little more than high-tech “toys.” Rather, they now seem to be part of a momentous change in the way the Army operates, perhaps representing a revolution in military affairs.