By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone August 8, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- No matter how the Army's restructuring program evolves in the years to come, there is one aviation program that is sure to continue its upward climb among Army combatant commanders and their Soldiers.
And Col. Courtney Cote is humbled to be the new leader at the helm of its program management.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, which made a name for itself during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan and which continues its large-scale support of Soldiers in contingency operations throughout the world, offers the Army one of the most capable, least expensive and most expeditionary group of aviation systems available by today's technology standards.
And with manned/unmanned teaming now becoming the main aviation focus, the future will mean growth in programs that combine the capabilities of the Army's helicopter fleet with such unmanned systems as the Gray Eagle and Shadow for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
"I'm glad I came in to Unmanned Aircraft Systems at this time, when the Army is making such huge decisions regarding force restructuring," Cote said.
"The Army is committed to manned/unmanned teaming of aircraft systems. Our capabilities and platforms will evolve with the threat. We have been designing, developing and fielding unmanned aircraft systems for years now. They have been constantly in theater and they are battle tested, both the people who support them and the systems themselves. They are systems that are able to evolve to meet strategies as the Army transitions from a deployed force to a continental U.S.-based expeditionary force."
Even with force restructuring and downsizing the mission -- to provide ready and resilient troops to defend the U.S. and its allies -- will not change and neither will the UAS role in support of that mission, he said.
"The Army made a decision to commit to manned/unmanned systems in its force structure," Cote said. '
The mission is always the same. How we are going to accomplish the mission is what's evolving. We have a lot to learn about what manned/unmanned teaming can do for us."
Cote took over command of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, Program Executive Office for Aviation, in early July. The assignment brings this senior Army aviator turned acquisition officer back to his home roots.
"It's great to be home. It's outstanding to be back and part of the PEO Aviation community once again," said Cote of this third assignment with the PEO.
"I left here two years ago (after serving as a PEO Aviation product manager) and there was no hesitation whatsoever when presented with the opportunity to be responsible for this organization. I believe there is very little distinction between me and others who could have been selected to do this job. So, I am very grateful this opportunity was bestowed upon me. I recognize that I wouldn't have this opportunity if not for a lot of people who made an investment in me."
While Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal are not new to Cote, UAS is. He has spent his fist few weeks as the UAS project manager taking a "crash course" in the project office's fleet of unmanned aircraft systems, which includes Gray Eagle, Hunter, Shadow, Raven and Puma, and their operating systems as well as the Ground Based Sense and Avoid system.
"All of these systems have been overseas and tested in combat," he said. "Now, they are coming back stateside, but our units still have to train. They will have to be flown in the national air space. We will have to continue to address unmanned flight in the national airspace and make sure that our installations and units have the systems such as Ground Based Sense and Avoid where needed."
He plans to meet with the various contractors contributing to the Army's UAS fleet, and with Soldier units operating the systems.
"I want to learn from Soldiers how to operate these systems," Cote said.
"I want to see Soldiers using the systems and I want to understand what Soldiers have to do to operate the systems. I want to gain their insight. There is no more valuable insight than that of the operators. Anytime you can talk to a Soldier is a good day, and it gives them a voice."
With the war-time optempo receding, Cote said there will be a shift from the quick response to a growing and changing threat to a stronger emphasis on the full development of new capabilities that can impact Soldiers in numerous ways.
"I hope I am able to assist the Army in realizing the future potential of unmanned aircraft systems and how we integrate that into the future force," he said.
Cote is by nature a planner, a trait that is beneficial for an officer assigned to the Army's acquisition corps. In fact, he had his life as an Army career officer planned out well in advance of becoming an Apache helicopter pilot and then shifting into acquisition.
"Nobody ever said to me, 'Hey, you want to be in the Army?' I just thought it was to be," he said.
Cote grew up at Fort Rucker, home to the Army Aviation Center of Excellence where the Army's aviators are trained. His father is a retired Army pilot and Vietnam veteran who flew both fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, and who served as a maintenance test pilot and instructor pilot. Cote's father-in-law is also a Vietnam veteran who flew Hueys, Cobras and Apaches during his Army career.
Cote enlisted in the Reserves in 1987 and then graduated in 1991 as a Distinguished Military Graduate from Auburn University, commissioning into the Army's aviation branch.
"My focus was always to be on active duty. Everything else -- serving in the Reserves and then the Alabama National Guard, participating in ROTC in college -- was a means to an end to pay for school and then go on to active duty," he said.
"Serving as an enlisted Soldier gives you another perspective. When I was a company commander at Fort Bragg, everyone in the company -- the warrant officers and two platoon lieutenants -- were prior enlisted. It gave us a common point of reference that made us a much better team. I am still friends with so many of those from that unit because of our common experience."
Cote's father was a civilian instructor pilot when his son went through flight school at Fort Rucker.
"On July 10, 1991, my father soloed me in a Huey helicopter," he recalled. "He did two tours in Vietnam with thousands of flight hours in a Huey. I kept thinking, 'If he busts you, you could flunk out of flight school.' He told me later, 'I'm done. If I don't ever fly again, I will be OK with that because I got to fly with you.'"
Cote has served as an Aeroscout platoon leader and commander of an attack helicopter company, with assignments in Korea, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. While his piloting years were focused on the Apache helicopter, as an acquisition officer he has been involved with the development of several different helicopters and missiles, including the Apache, the Hellfire missile, and the Black Hawk, Lakota, Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, Iraqi Armed 407 and Armed Aerial Scout. He has served as an assistant project manager in PEO Aviation, as a Plans, Programs and Resource staff officer in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, as a product manager in PEO Aviation and as the commander of the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.
"Working in Plans and Programs at the Pentagon, and then in the science and technology world at AMRDEC really opened up my aperture to a world I had not been exposed to. It has been a learning experience to work numerous programs through the acquisition cycle, including science and technology," he said. "Synchronizing the acquisition life cycle, and working through budgeting and execution of a program is challenging."
When Cote first joined the acquisition corps, he worked on fielding the Longbow Apache helicopter. In many ways, its experiences in fielding are similar to the fielding now of manned/unmanned capability.
"We knew what the Longbow Apache was intended to do. But what it actually does when fielded with units expanded on our expectations," he recalled.
"Pilots started saying, 'Wow, check out what else it can do.' They were building on the tactics, techniques and procedures as well as the capabilities of the aircraft."
The 101st Combat Aviation Brigade has deployed to Afghanistan with a Shadow UAS unit that performed manned/unmanned teaming operations with both the Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
"They gave us a baseline for future operations. They helped us answer questions: Can we do manned/unmanned teaming in theater? How do we do it? The work they did with Longbow Apache and Shadow is expanding to include Longbow Apache and Gray Eagle. UAS is part of the force structure."
During his time with UAS, Cote said the team will further push the manned/unmanned envelope and increase the interoperability of UAS with Army helicopters.
"As we learn more about manned/unmanned teaming, we can exploit that by trying new things. For example, how do Black Hawks and unmanned systems evolve in interoperability? How do we grow interoperability even between our own UAS systems? From an equipment perspective, as the threats evolve we have to evolve, and we have to stay a step ahead of the threat."
As the UAS staff of 400 engineers, technicians and managers work toward developing those capabilities, Cote will lead the efforts, setting expectations and holding employees accountable.
"My leadership style is about providing guidance and then having the patience and understanding to maintain that guidance to achieve our goals," he said.
"Leaders have got to pay attention to those they lead. In doing my job as a leader, I expect employees to always focus on the war fighter. Somewhere on the face of the earth there is a war fighter who needs something. And, if we can contribute to what they need, we need to exhaust every breath to get it. We must do all things right to make it happen."
Cote believes in giving his employees opportunities and challenges, and then giving them the resources and support they need to achieve goals. Throughout his career, others have done that for him, and now he wants to do that for UAS employees.
"You've got to treat people the best you can and give them the opportunity to get where their life's journey is taking them. You want your people to be happy because they are better employees if they are committed instead of just compliant," he said.
"Anybody can follow barking orders. But instead of doing that, I believe you have to treat employees with respect and provide them a good work climate so they can be committed to their work and not distracted by other things."
The key to success in the Army -- both as a Soldier and as a civilian -- is based on a person's work ethic in delivering capabilities to the war fighter, he said.
"The Army is an institution that offers more opportunity if you are willing to put in the effort," he said. "If you work hard, make contributions and be part of a team, then you will get the opportunity to make a difference.
"There is no greater honor than to serve your country and it makes no difference how you do that. In this work, you can't be a taker. You have to be a giver. There's no better place than the Army for the opportunity to excel and advance if you put forth the effort and pursue opportunities."