DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- North Alabama made a special visit to Utah last week to see some real-time aviation exercises that will not only affect the unmanned aircraft mission of the Program Executive Office for Aviation but will also change how the Army operates on the battlefield.

About 200 employees from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, along with another 400 community, government and business leaders from North Alabama or with interests at Redstone Arsenal, converged Friday on Dugway Proving Ground to see the first demonstration of interoperability between Army helicopters and its fleet of unmanned aircraft systems.

Though the real action at the Manned Unmanned System Integration Capability exercise happened in the sky, it's the ground forces that are the most affected by the improved capabilities of Army aircraft, said Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby, the program executive officer for aviation.

"This is a change in focus. Program managers traditionally focus on their programs and platforms. This isn't about their programs. This is about who are customer is, and our customers are the ground commanders on the battlefield," he said. "We are going across program lines to integrate and make this force interoperable so that the Soldier has the situational awareness needed to make the best decisions."

While unmanned aircraft systems can work alongside manned aircraft to complete missions in support of war fighters, unmanned aircraft also provide information to Soldiers on the ground for better situational awareness, target identification and reconnaissance.

Exclaiming that he had a bounce in his step because of the "huge success" of the day's exercise, Crosby said it demonstrated in real-time through real-world scenarios "how this can work in support of the combat brigade on the ground." He described manned-unmanned teaming as a "force multiplier" on the battlefield.

The day's visitors included several stakeholders in Army aviation and throughout the Army. Crosby said he is hoping they will help get the positive message out about the success of manned-unmanned teaming with aircraft.

"This is not a marketing pitch," he said. "We've built a capability. The challenge now is to integrate the capability across program platforms. I hope that today gave leadership a heightened understanding of what this could mean for the Army and for Soldiers."

Besides what it can do on the battlefield, unmanned aircraft systems should also be able to stretch Army resources by being a force multiplier that is "more effective and more efficient so that you have economy of force," he said. "They are a critical enabler on the battlefield. … Aviation grows because of what Soldiers have done in the field."

Crosby thanked Army leadership who had the vision and who enabled the Program Executive Office for Aviation to make it a reality. He also thanked industry partners for coming together with the Army on unmanned aircraft systems development.

"This is just the beginning of great things that we will continue," he said.

Among those in the audience who were part of that early vision was retired Gen. Dick Cody, whose last assignment was as the Army's 31st vice chief of staff

"This is dynamite," Cody told the audience when asked to say a few words. "My hats off to all the product managers of Unmanned Aircraft Systems …. and to all the industry partners behind the systems who made this work by taking risks with the Army."

The idea for unmanned aircraft systems started well before the Gulf War, he said, when the Army was determined to be the force that can "see first, understand first, act first."

After years of stops and starts with unmanned aircraft, and stovepiping of the systems, "you all took this thing and really gave our war fighters unbelievable capability," Cody said.

He recalled the Iraq war in 2005-05 when helicopters were getting shot down every three days as they searched for improvised explosive devices along travel routes.

Now unmanned aircraft systems can search out the targets and then manned aircraft can go in for the attack once they have been located, he said, introducing an "aircraft survivability quotient" that no words can explain.

The retired general believes further development in manned-unmanned teaming of aircraft "will change command and control relationships. … They will speed up what happens on the battlefield. This is wonderful technology in America made by Americans. … We never envisioned you would go this far and do so much with this capability."

Among the contractor representatives in the audience was Vance King, who has worked with unmanned aircraft systems for several years and is now a vice president with AAI of Maryland.

"Today was phenomenal," King said. "It's historic. It's a culmination of a lot of years of thinking about the Soldiers and how we can help them. This is all about data, all about getting information into the war fighters' hands."

For Soldiers, civilians and contractors involved in the development of unmanned aircraft systems, the Manned Unmanned System Integration Capability exercise showed a lot of promise for the future of unmanned aircraft systems in its support of Soldiers on the battlefield, said Lt. Col. Matthew Munster, product manager for unmanned aircraft systems modernization.

"This is a big milestone in support of UAS," he said. "We've achieved the objectives we wanted and now we have this demonstration to build on."

Page last updated Wed September 21st, 2011 at 15:06