FORT BENNING, Ga. (Feb. 26, 2021) – There has been a desire throughout multiple levels of command for the Army to procure a new unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, to support emerging Soldier needs in the field.
For nearly 20 years, the RQ-7 Shadow has been a workhorse for brigade combat teams, or BCTs, and Army aviation units. But emerging mission requirements and technological advancements demand an in-depth evaluation of the current capabilities needed for the next generation UAS. Commanders’ operational needs statements indicate the platforms to follow the aging RQ-7 is expected to be runway independent and organically transportable with a reduced acoustic signature.
U.S. Army Futures Command, headquartered in Austin, Texas, through its Redstone Arsenal, Ala.-based Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team, or FVL CFT, has been digging into the issue for more than year. To guide the decision-making process, the Army adopted a “Buy, Fly, Inform” approach to developing a future tactical UAS. The approach includes an Army purchase of commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS, equipment to be tried in the field to inform the requirements to be developed for future systems.
In 2018, FVL CFT partnered with the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office – Aviation, which is also based at Redstone Arsenal, to initiate the process to select and procure systems for testing. Nearly a dozen vendors were selected to participate in a fly-off at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah in late 2018 and early 2019. As a result, four systems were selected for purchase and further testing.
This research approach includes an iterative process involving Soldier input and feedback through a series of Soldier Touch Points, or STPs. These touch points include the eventual end-users who will have to work with this technology in the field. STPs do not replace more formal testing, but allows for quicker feedback to allow designers to improve and refine their designs before the outlay of significant program investments.
Last March, the first of four UAS variants began to be delivered to five BCTs within U.S. Army Forces Command, or FORSCOM, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. The participating units include: 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.; 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas; 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.; 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan.; and 1st Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Cumulatively, they tested four different COTS systems during training deployments.
Once fielded, the FORSCOM Soldiers began training on their respective systems over six-weeks of classroom instruction and flight training to gain competency. Each system is comprised of four air vehicles, three ground control systems, communications equipment, and other required components. The Army units can load each systems onto the Air Force 463-L pallet, which is transportable by a CH-47 Chinook, a twin-engine, tandem rotor, heavy-lift helicopter. This creates greater tactical maneuverability, avoiding reliance on U.S. Air Force strategic airlift. The systems are also capable of movement by Army organic ground vehicles, thereby making them truly airfield independent.
The U.S. Army Joint Modernization Command, or JMC, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, has played a key role on the team of teams conducting these assessments. For example, JCM was instrumental in developing and conducting surveys of Soldiers and leaders involved along the way. This group includes the operators, maintainers, leaders from platoon through brigade, observer-coach-trainers and simulated opposing forces during the training deployments. JMC visited each of the BCTs to interact face-to-face throughout their time with system, and especially during their respective training deployment.
Feedback from the STPs have been informing future UAS requirements and now culminates in a combined assessment underway at Fort Benning called the Future Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (FTUAS) Rodeo. The rodeo, a capstone event to run Feb. 22 through March 5, is to consist of flight demonstrations of each of the four tested systems, as well as provides direct Soldier feedback to senior leaders from across the Army. They are able to see and hear first-hand the results of this unique “Buy, Fly, Inform” approach.
The culmination of the STPs and the FTUAS Rodeo seeks to ensure the Army ultimately gets critical capabilities into the hands of warfighters faster while making efficient use of every dollar provided toward this modernization priority.