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Scouts in the Sky
Unmanned Aircraft Systems spy on our enemies like never before, save Guard Soldiers’ lives and have transformed the way America fights. A closer look at three of these ultra-advanced vehicles being deployed today.
Years ago on a mission in Iraq, then–Staff Sergeant Todd Patterson and his infantry platoon embarked on a patrol. An insurgent saw the squad coming and set an IED in a paper bag. When the Soldiers emerged on the expected route, the IED detonated, killing one of the men. “I wish we’d been able to surveil that route,” says Patterson of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “We could have used some eyes in the sky.”
Today, what Soldiers are able to see defies the imagination. An IED-laden route is just one of the dangers that have been reduced because of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), the remotely piloted aerial vehicles that have transformed modern warfare. Ranging in size from a traditional plane to something as small as a bug, they allow warfighters to gather intelligence from miles away, with some UASs equipped to fire on enemies.
Because these systems allow the military to collect more intel more efficiently without risking the lives of pilots, their use has risen rapidly. UASs, a label that encompasses what are commonly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) along with their ground control stations, now make up more than 40 percent of the DoD’s aircraft, and their total number in 2010 was 40 times the total in 2002.
The Air Force and Army operate most of the UAS inventory, with the Army having three UAS programs of record: the small RQ-11B Raven, the medium-sized RQ-7B Shadow and the extended-range MQ-1C Gray Eagle. The Army National Guard, which has operated UASs since 2004, uses both the Raven and the Shadow, fielding some 38 percent of the Army’s total inventory. And that percentage is increasing rapidly as more units are fielding UASs—the Minnesota National Guard, for example, launched a $3.9 million UAS facility in May.
The Guard uses the Shadow and Raven for the same missions as the active Army, says the National Guard Bureau’s Aviation and UAS Analyst Harvey Browne. Those missions include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, he adds, supporting “the Soldier and ground commanders with information on what they want, when they want it, in near or real time.”
That information is power, says Patterson, now a sergeant first class, who used an early version of the “hover and stare” RQ-16 T-Hawk while in Iraq. “The better view of the battlefield you have, the better it is for guys on the ground.”
Has the enemy moved? Is a bus blocking an escape route? These questions and others can be answered with the UAS. Here’s a breakdown of three of them: the RQ-7B Shadow, RQ-11B Raven and RQ-16 T-Hawk, the last of which is not officially in use by the Army but is still operated at times by the service and has a history with the Guard.
THE UAS: A BRIEF HISTORY
Both Union and Confederate forces attacked the enemy via balloons filled with explosives. Although the devices did not always work as planned, they were dispatched to descend into enemy depots and trigger large explosions.
Unmanned vehicles used for attack resurfaced in WWI, when, the Army says, gyroscope inventor Elmer Sperry launched an unmanned aircraft and sank a captured German battleship.
Reconnaissance UASs were used extensively in Vietnam, flying thousands of missions to take pictures, drop leaflets or find enemy missiles.
During operations there in the 1990s, enemy troops at first used to wave at the seemingly innocuous NATO UASs. When those flights were followed by airstrikes, the enemy learned to fear the unmanned invaders. The enemy targeted UASs, bringing down most of the 24 vehicles lost there.
UASs truly entered the modern age when, during Desert Storm, Iraqi troops waved T-shirts and bed sheets and surrendered—to a UAS.
EQUIPPED WITH INFRARED EQUIPMENT AND FAR-SEEING HIGH-TECH CAMERAS, THE INFORMATION-GATHERING SHADOW UAS IS AN INVALUABLE DECISION-MAKING TOOL
Length: 11.8 ft.
Wingspan: 20.4 ft.
Payload Capacity: 45–80 lbs.
Maximum Weight: 460 lbs.
Endurance: 5 hours
Maximum Speed: 126 mph
Maximum Altitude: 15,000 ft.
“If an infantry commander wants to see what’s going on in a village or battlefield, the Shadow can provide that information,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Shemenski of the California National Guard. “It sends imagery directly to the commander who is watching it on station. It provides full-motion video feeds.
“It’s very precise,” he adds. “If the commander wants to see down a road, or over a ridgeline, the Shadow can do that.”
The Shadow also provides post-combat damage assessment and can identify ground-based vehicles from up to 8,000 feet.
In use with the National Guard since 2003—there are 32 Shadow sets in the Army Guard, with four Shadows per set—this UAS has seen service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other places throughout the world. The system is used for surveillance only and is not fitted with weapons.
“It’s not a strike platform,” Shemenski says. “It helps decision-makers control the assets. It provides specific and near real-time information. It’s pretty quick.”
An entire Shadow system—including four unmanned systems, a launcher, a 27-member crew and assorted equipment—normally deploys aboard three C-130 Hercules aircraft. For short operations, the kit requires only one plane. If a unit is on the move in the field, the system can be packed into cases and transported via Humvee.
A product of the AAI Corporation of Hunt Valley, MD, the deployed Shadow remains in a tent hangar until called into action.
When needed for a mission, the Shadow is loaded onto its launcher and catapulted into the air. Each vehicle is propelled via a gas-powered rotary engine that is linked to a two-bladed propeller and can remain aloft for five hours. The wings are equipped with fire- and explosion-resistant fuel cells.
The Shadow lands on its wheels on a runway and is recovered via arresting gear.
“It’s similar to what you see with jets on an aircraft carrier,” says First Lieutenant Ryan O’Leary of the Pennsylvania Guard’s 104th Cavalry, who in 2003 was the platoon leader for the first National Guard unit to use the Shadow. “It has a hook-and-cable configuration.”
Toward the end of each flight cycle, operators launch an additional unit to provide overlap video coverage. Operators configure the feeds to provide identical imagery. “We swap out the aircraft and switch out the feeds,” Shemenski says. “Watching the feed, you don’t even notice. It’s faster than the blink of an eye.”
In that way, Shemenski says, the Shadow can provide up to 24-hour coverage. “For the end-user, we can be on station almost indefinitely.”
Meanwhile, at the surveilled site, the Shadow’s presence will remain unnoticed. Made of composite materials, the small craft is not easily spotted by eye and has very low radar and infrared signatures. Even when in a holding pattern on station, the Shadow has a long standoff capacity that makes it nearly undetectable.
“It can loiter a couple miles off target and no one will even know it’s there,” O’Leary says.
RESEMBLING AN OVERGROWN VERSION OF A CHILD'S GLIDER, THE SUPER-LIGHTWEIGHT RQ-11B RAVEN CLEARLY ISN'T A TOY
Length: 3 ft.
Wingspan: 4.5 ft.
Weight: 4.2 lbs.
Range: 6.2 miles
Endurance: 60–90 mins.
Maximum Speed: 50 mph
At just over 4 pounds, the Raven is used by platoonand company-sized units to support immediate tactical needs. The Raven is issued to Soldiers as an additional piece of equipment and is used in a wide variety of units including infantry, cavalry and field artillery.
As with the larger Shadow, the hand-held, hand-thrown Raven UAS is not armed. “It has no bombs; just a camera,” says Chief Warrant Officer 3 David Bogle of the Pennsylvania National Guard. The camera sends a near real-time feed back to its operators and provides commanders with the ability to see beyond the line of sight.
“If you need to see over a hill, or behind a set of buildings, those are examples of when you would use the Raven,” says O’Leary. Unlike the Shadow, which can loiter off target, the Raven does not have the ability to stand off. “It’s for when you want a shorter-term use,” he says.
The Guard has some 700 Ravens across 53 states and territories. By 2016, the Guard expects to have about 1,000 systems in use.
A single Soldier can carry a disassembled Raven into the field in a backpack, says Browne. A second Soldier carries the control system, and a third packs the support equipment.
When the Raven is called to action, it can be quickly assembled. One Soldier launches the Raven by throwing it into the air, while another controls the aircraft via a laptop-type device on a tray suspended around the operator’s neck.
The system runs on battery and flies for up to 90 minutes per mission. It can be used in daylight or darkness.
At the end of each mission, the operator uses the laptop device to bring the Raven home, Browne says. The aircraft then comes to a slow rate of flight and crashes to the ground. There, it is programmed to break apart. “It disassembles itself into four pieces,” Browne says. “It’s supposed to happen.”
The broken-up Raven can be packed away for the next use, or reassembled with a fresh battery. What happens if operators lose contact with the Raven while it is in flight? As with the Shadow, the Raven comes with a “lost link” procedure.
“You can pre-program a rally point, and it loiters until it runs out of power,” says Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dustin Williams, the UAS standardization officer for the Army National Guard. The “lost link” Raven flies to the rally point, glides to a stall and crashes. The Soldiers also proceed to the rally site and recover the device.
THE T-HAWK IS NOT AN OFFICIAL PROGRAM FOR THE ARMY OR GUARD, BUT IT STILL SEES ACTION AT TIMES AND IS USED AROUND THE WORLD FOR MILITARY AND RESCUE NEEDS
Weight: 17 lbs. (without fuel)
Climb Rate: 25 ft. per second
Maximum Speed: 46 mph
Maximum Altitude: 10,000 ft.
Endurance: 50 mins.
In 2011, for example, T-Hawks fitted with radiation detectors inspected the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.
It first saw combat four years ago with Guard Soldiers. The prototype version of the Honeywell T-Hawk micro air vehicle was tested in Iraq by members of the Pennsylvania Guard’s 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in 2009.
Now known as the T-Hawk, the backpack-sized vehicle runs off a gas-powered motor similar to what is used on a lawn mower, and takes off and lands vertically, somewhat like a helicopter.
“It can go high, low, fast and slow. It can stop on a dime,” says Patterson. “It’s sort of mind-boggling to use.”
Equipped with daylight and thermal cameras, the T-Hawk is airworthy in most weather. It flies autonomously, along a programmed path, or according to direction from an operator.
In its first flight outside the wire, the Gas Micro Air Vehicle (GMAV), as it then was known, was dispatched to reconnoiter a factory where Soldiers were headed. Outside the factory, the GMAV saw a man with an AK-47. The man was a security guard, and the ground operator was able to let the Soldiers know that an armed “friendly” was on-site.
The T-Hawk also had much success spotting unfriendlies.“We found a lot of IEDs with them in Iraq,” Patterson says.
When buried, both homemade and artillerybased IEDs cool off at a different rate from the surrounding sand. The T-Hawk’s infrared camera could pick up the IED’s heat signature. The deadly explosive device, though hidden from view on the street, showed up clearly on the T-Hawk’s video feed.
When a unit would get a hit, personnel would take a picture, Patterson says. Then they would zoom in, get a 10-digit grid location and send the picture to the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit with the locale, a date and a time stamp.
The T-Hawk also helped to excavate found IEDs. The vehicle flies via ducted airflow from its fan. Soldiers used the airflow as a leaf blower, to clear dirt and debris from around an implanted IED.
The vehicle played a deterrent role, too. The enemy knew what the noisy T-Hawk could do. When the vehicle routinely was flown along certain routes, the number of IEDs diminished.
“This kind of technology freaked them out,” Patterson says of the enemy. “They didn’t know exactly how it worked, but they knew someone was watching them.”
Designers envision systems that can be launched from guns or helicopters; that can better detect IEDs or chemical/biological weapons; that can fit in the palm of a hand; or that can fly at speeds of up to Mach 20.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) aims to overcome limitations on launching sites and flight times. Instead of launching off an aircraft carrier or from a mile-plus land runway, the long-endurance TERN would embark from a smaller ship. Instead of being locked into returning to its home roost, the TERN could land on any ship equipped to receive it.
Another UAS in development resembles something from decades ago. Northrop Grumman’s prototype MQ-8C Fire Scout could pass for a familiar Huey-based helicopter. Its job will include ferrying medical personnel and equipment over longer distances due to its increased fuel capacity.–Story by Susan Katz Keating, Illustrations by Wes Ware