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Army approaches million unmanned flying hours

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 05, 2010) -- The Army is fast approaching one million hours of unmanned aviation flight with its unmanned aerial systems.

"Right now it looks like we'll hit probably 1 million total hours sometime next month," said Col. Christopher B. Carlile, director, U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence. "But it'll take us to around September or October before we'll hit one million hours in support of combat operations."

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The colonel said about 90 percent of the Army's unmanned flying hours are in support of combat. The Army aviation community will recognize the milestone in late May with displays at the Pentagon and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Speaking to an audience of Soldiers and defense-industry professionals last week during the 2010 Association of the United States Army's Institute of Land Warfare Winter Symposium and Exposition in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Carlile said the Army is prepared for growth in use of unmanned aerial systems and for broadening their mission sets.

"Today we are probably 99 percent-plus for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles for UAS," he said. "Though in the future, there will be new roles."

The colonel said those new roles could include communications relays, sustainment and cargo, for instance.

Training is ramping up for more UAS support as well. Out at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the Army runs a joint training installation for UAS operators and maintainers. There, they train Soldiers, Sailors and Marines. Carlile said the Army is expected to see an increase in Soldiers that need to be trained at the facility.

"Today we will train, in Fiscal Year 2010, about 800," he said. "By 2018, our requirement is over 3,000 operators."

Unlike other services, the Army finds placing enlisted servicemembers at the controls of a UAS to be most effective, and Carlile said that is not likely to change.

"Army enlisted UAS operators are fully capable and well trained to do anything you give them to do, and it'll shock you when you hear how many hours of operation they have," he said.

Carlile said the Army puts aircraft like the RQ-7 Shadow and the Raven in the lowest units, keeping their ISR capability close to the commanders who will need it.

"One of the greatest things we did was place the Shadow platoon in the brigade combat team in the early days," he said. "It allowed our infantry and our armor officers to realize the potential and know they owned it and know they were going to get it when they asked for it."

Aviation is a complex business, prone to mishap, Carlile said, and the Army has found ways to minimize that by allowing technology in the UAS to do "what it does best."

"What we found is that when the Army adapted that methodology to go toward an automated method to let the equipment do what it does best -- let it come up with automated take off and landing strategy -- what we have seen, it would shock you."

The colonel said that human error accidents and incidents are now nearing the single- digit mark now.

Despite successes of UAS in Iraq and Afghanistan, late in 2009 it was reported in the press that the Defense Department had confirmed that insurgents could intercept unencrypted video feeds from UAS.

On Capitol Hill, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh was queried about UAS security by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. McHugh said he felt confident about the current status of Army systems.

"The Army greatly values, and commanders feel very strongly, about the Army's need to have these capabilities particularly at a strategic level," the secretary said. "All the services recognized that potential vulnerability early on and have reacted aggressively to it, and we feel comfortable with the systems in place."

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