DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- For Capt. Travis Blaschke, the mission has shifted.
Deployed three times -- as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and as the commander of the first Quick Reaction Capability 1 team with the Gray Eagle in Iraq -- Blaschke knows how well unmanned aircraft systems augment the Army's manned aircraft on the battlefield.
And now he is putting his battle experience to work as the assistant product manager for Gray Eagle, supporting improvements and added capabilities as this medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft speeds toward achieving top performance.
"This is a different mission. One is operational and 100 percent focused on completing the tactical mission," Blaschke said. "I've been in the military eight years and during seven of those years I deployed for 30 months. Now my mission is focused on supporting those who are going to fight the war.
"We are evolving our product to better support the war fighter. Gray Eagle is continuing to be deployed. Reliability continues to get better. The system's development is now closer to 95 percent and will get to 100 percent in the near future."
Blaschke and Gray Eagle were at Dugway Proving Ground the week of Sept. 12 to participate in the Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Capability exercise demonstrating the benefits of manned-unmanned teaming. Those benefits include increased situational awareness for both ground and air crews, better reconnaissance of targets and situations, and improved combat information provided in real time.
During 2009-10, Blaschke commanded a quick reaction capability team in Iraq of 16 Soldiers and 24 civilians that flew 4,000 accident-free flight hours to conduct long-dwell, wide-area reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, communications relay and attack missions.
"Since we were the first ones to ever field, train and fly this system in wartime we did really well," he said. "Soldiers did all the flying. The team did an extremely good job in supporting the war fighter."
During the first Gray Eagle deployment, Iraqi residents were going to the polls to vote. Gray Eagle was used to provide "a lot of persistence in viewing polling sites and in watching trucks of ballots moving from polling sites," Blaschke said. "We also supported tactically by providing convoy security. We were able to provide full motion video of locations, vehicles and routes. We were used the vast majority of the time for reconnaissance, and for cordon and search of high volume targets and individuals."
As the unit's commander, Blaschke was involved in planning the Gray Eagle's missions based on requests from the division, brigade and company levels.
"We had the opportunity to state how we would support the mission," he said. "We would develop how we were going to execute in coordination with the unit we were supporting. We would ask: How can we support you the best?'"
Gray Eagle is one of several unmanned aircraft systems that are making a difference on the battlefield.
"The unmanned aircraft system is revolutionizing the way we fight wars today," Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said. "Vietnam and Korea were known as helicopter wars. Wars in this decade are unmanned aircraft wars. These systems are adding tremendous value on the battlefield every day and they are saving Soldier lives."
Gray Eagle can fly both line of sight involving distances of 200 to 300 kilometers and beyond the line of sight with the help of satellites that can extend its visual capabilities thousands of kilometers from the ground station. It uses electro-optic and infrared systems for target detection and acquisition.
"The system is capable of day and night vision, and it is capable of providing tremendously high fidelity images," Owings explained. "It has a synthetic aperture radar to find moving targets."
Besides running its own missions, the exercise at Dugway Proving Ground demonstrated Gray Eagle's interoperability with the Apache helicopter. The addition of new sensors under each wing to go with the sensor located underneath its fuselage gives Gray Eagle a triple-effect capability, known as triclops. With the currently fielded Block 2 Apache, which was demonstrated at Dugway, these sensors provide added opportunities to view the battlefield. But with the Block 3 Apache, which will be fielded later this year, teaming with a triclops Gray Eagle means on the battlefield that one sensor can be controlled by a crew member aboard an Apache helicopter, a second can transmit video data to a terminal on the ground and the third can be controlled by the Gray Eagle's ground operator.
"The Apache helicopter flies very low, very fast, and has a frontal view of the target," Owings said. "With Gray Eagle, the Apache can also look down. Putting these two systems together is like putting hunting dogs in front of the hunter."
Or, in another battlefield scenario, different sensors can focus on different targets, allowing, for example, a Gray Eagle to track multiple people and vehicles as they scatter after placing an improvised explosive device.
The new sensors give Gray Eagle a "very unique and very powerful capability," Owings said. "This capability is now being tested and will be in theater later this year. Having three sensors on a single aircraft makes it highly capable. The system also can put a laser beacon on a target and then let its missiles fly to that target, which increases its lethality aspect."
Gray Eagle requires two operators. One is the air vehicle operator who flies the vehicle from a ground station. The other is the payload operator who controls the camera and any payloads -- such as four Hellfire missiles -- carried by Gray Eagle.
"We take 18- and 19-year-olds from high school to flight school, and give them the capability to fly this highly automated system," Owings said.
One Gray Eagle unit is still deployed in Iraq. Another one -- Quick Reaction Capability 2 -- is in Afghanistan. A third unit -- QRC 3 -- is getting ready to deploy out of Fort Hood, Texas. It will be the first full size company to deploy with Gray Eagle.
Gray Eagle's effectiveness continues to increase, with improvements still being made in a system that was only 85 percent ready for deployment when Blaschke led the first quick reaction team into combat.
"We were deployed earlier than the original timeline," he said. "So there were growing pains and learning that needed to occur along with more development of the aircraft and the system.
"We all went into it knowing there would be hiccups along the way, and some additional challenges we would have to go through. But it was more important to give the capability to the war fighter at 85 percent solution than to wait through two more years of development to a 100 percent solution. It was a time when we were transitioning from the surge, and war fighters were asking desperately for more unmanned aircraft vehicles and reconnaissance-type platforms. We had the call to quickly deploy."
Blaschke's work with Gray Eagle in theater further showed him the complimentary roles that unmanned systems and manned systems have on the battlefield.
"There's really no replacement for having two pilots with four eyes and four ears. There's no substitute for Soldiers in the cockpit working in support of Soldiers on the ground," he said. "But unmanned systems can augment the work of pilots. They can provide additional sensor capabilities for better situational awareness and longer endurance times."
While an unmanned aircraft vehicle can remain in the air on a mission for 24-plus hours, a helicopter working that length of time would require three refuels that, in turn, require three rotations of helicopters to continue around-the-clock surveillance of a target or situation.
"In a team of manned and unmanned systems, the manned system can continue surveillance while a helicopter goes to refuel or as the helicopters are changed out," Blaschke said. "The UAV can continue to keep the positive identification throughout the mission, and that is really important in an urban situation where you can easily lose a moving vehicle or people if they are not kept under constant surveillance."
With Gray Eagle, as with all unmanned aircraft systems, there still remains a Soldier in the loop who manages the system and runs safety checks. But once hooked on a target, there is a lot of autonomous control of an unmanned system.
During the MUSIC demonstration at Dugway, Gray Eagle interface with the Apache helicopter showed improvements in a manned-unmanned teaming connection that furthers Gray Eagle's "game changing capability for the United States Army," Owings said. "Persistence in the key to what we're trying to achieve."
Apache pilot Maj. Ryan Atkins of the 21st Air Cavalry Brigade at Fort Hood agreed that manned-unmanned teaming is the future of air combat.
"This is another way to provide better situational awareness for the attack team and the team on the ground," said the Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran. "Unmanned aircraft provide a different angle, a different view of the threat, and better protection for ground forces."
As a veteran aviator, Blaschke is looking forward to the additional capabilities that will be added to Gray Eagle during his time on the system's development team.
"As the first commander, I was on the receiving end of all the good of this system. We received the property, training, support and sustainment. Now, I am on the giving end," he said.