By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Jan. 11, 2010) -- Soldiers need the tactical advantages their unmanned aircraft systems provide to be integrated into their units, so they aren't forced to endure lengthy approval chains that can cost lives, according to UAS experts.
"Most of the living and dying is going on in squad, platoon and company level in this fight. So you have to give those Soldiers what they need, when they need it. And they need it all the time," said Glenn A. Rizzi, deputy director and senior technical advisor of the United States Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Rizzi spoke during the Association of the United States Army's Institute of Land Warfare Army Aviation Symposium and Exposition, Jan. 5-7 in Arlington, Va. He said approval chains for unmanned aerial vehicle support can be lengthy, taking time that tactical units on the ground and in the fight cannot afford.
"They don't have time, when they need UAS support, to ... carry it up to the Joint Force Air Component Commander, ask for a Predator, and then have it go through that decision loop and then have it repositioned," Rizzi said. "They need it there, and they need it there 24/7."
What Soldiers need, Rizzi said, is UAS support that is built into their combat units -- unmanned aerial systems owned by the Army, flown by the Army, to provide support to the Army's ground units -- who are actually in the fight -- when they need it.
"You need organic systems," he said.
Sgt. Michael Arons serves as an instructor with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training Battalion at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. He served with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, with the Shadow platoon in Iraq from 2005-2006. He also served in Afghanistan in 2008. His experience there with a then non-weaponized MQ-1C Warrior illustrates the need for the Army to keep control of UAS aviation close to where the Soldiers are.
"We were flying down (main supply route) 1, Ohio, in Afghanistan, just doing a route scan, and we see three guys emplacing IEDs," Arons said. "Had we not been there, who would have know what could have happened -- an MRAP (could have) run by there and get blown up. People's lives are at stake."
Arons' team called in air support -- an F-15 Eagle dropped a bomb there -- but two of the three enemy escaped and Arons was able to follow them -- track them -- using the MQ-1C.
"We followed those two guys," he said. "And we have two different lasers on our payload. We have a designator -- we illuminated the house these guys ran to."
Ultimately, Soldiers were able to enter that house and find what was there -- a large weapons cache.
"Had we not been there, all these weapons would have been used against U.S. forces -- against allied forces," Arons said.
Col. Christopher Carlile, director, United States Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, said Army UASs have flown some 1 million combat hours during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Army is now training some 2,000 UAS operators, maintainers and instructor pilots a year. He said similar UAS success stories reported in the news, like that of Arons, are often the result of Army unmanned aviation.
"When you see an article that's written, that says X, Y and Z were executed by drones ... understand that you are more than likely, in upwards of 80 percent of those cases, dealing with Army UAS doing those," Carlile said.
The colonel said Army UAS aviation is changing the war the Army does business.
"The way that infantryman, up until now, found out what was on the back side of that building was when he had fire coming from it," Carlile said. Now, systems like the Raven give Soldiers the ability to see where they couldn't see before.
"They could take that and fly it and put it up above and see if there was an ambush on the other side of the street, in real time," he said. "This has truly revolutionized the way we fight warfare at the tactical level."
Sgt. 1st Class Brian Miller now serves with the Directorate of Evaluation and Standardization, at Fort Rucker, Ala. He's deployed as an infantryman in Afghanistan, to Kosovo, and twice with unmanned aircraft systems in support of special operations forces.
Miller says he sees the need for organic Army UAS because it can save time for Soldiers and because UAS support can work round-the-clock, without tiring. In Afghanistan, for instance, Soldiers are placing ground sensors to cover areas where they can't patrol on foot -- because the landscape is larger than the number of boots-on-ground can support. Response time to a sensor hit can be shortened with a UAS.
"If I get a hit on the sensor, it's a lot for me to spin up an aircraft crew and get them to go out there and fly their Blackhawk or Chinook or Apache out there and see what's going on," Miller said. "But I've already got a UAS up -- some for 24 hours. A lot of stuff for us is what we call a swing of the camera. I can see about a 10 kilometer range in all areas. I don't have a perfect view at 10 kilometers, but I have enough that I can see what it is and start working my way over to that area of operations."
Providing quick UAS support to Soldiers, with both weaponized and un-weaponized systems, is critical, Carlile said, because organic UAS is about supporting the Soldier.
"Their whole intent is to support the guys they eat dinner with every night," Carlile said. "The ones they sleep in the same tactical assembly area with."
While UAS support can come from outside -- sometimes from the other side of the world -- having in-house, organic UAS support, flown by Soldiers actually involved in the fight, is best, said Rizzi.
"Through planning, through after action review, they know the commander's intent, they fly that ground every day," Rizzi said. "They understand the subtle intricacies of daily life, they know how the fight changes over time very subtly, and so they are most effective."