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This article was Originally Published on Aug 25, 2005 in Volume: 4  Issue: 2

Extending the UAV

The Army is seeking a new unmanned aerial vehicle with more range and endurance to replace the Hunter.

By Peter A. Buxbaum

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As this issue of Military Aerospace Technology went to press, the Army announced that it had selected General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.(GA-ASI) for the next development stage of a new Army unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). A team led by GA-ASI had been vying with one led by Northrop Grumman (NGC) for the $900 million contract.

At issue is the Army’s extended range multipurpose (ERMP) UAV, an aircraft designed to replace the Hunter, which provides surveillance and reconnaissance for Army corps commanders. The NGC team has weighed in with its Hunter 2 design, an aircraft based on the original Hunter, which it manufactures. GA-ASI has offered its Warrior UAV, a design based on its earlier Predator, which has been deployed by the Air Force. The Predator has been noted for its performance in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, while the Hunter has accumulated over 32,000 flight hours, 13,000 of those in the Balkans and Iraq.

UAVs have emerged as an increasingly important weapon of modern warfare, capturing the imagination of military planners for several reasons. First, the war on terrorism places a high premium on UAVs’ primary mission: intelligence gathering. Second, UAVs offer advantages over manned aircraft in their cost-effectiveness and in minimizing risk to life. Third, the services have both innovatively experimented with and exploited the capabilities of UAVs, in the case of the Predator, by arming it with missiles, to good effect in recent conflicts.

Finally, UAVs dovetail with the Pentagon’s plans for military transformation. A network-centric fighting force relies heavily on data provided by UAV sensors. The Bush administration’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget increases allocations for unmanned vehicles to $1.7 billion, continuing a trend that has seen funding nearly triple since 2001.

Each of the services fields fleets of UAVs. The Air Force has Predators and Global Hawks; the Navy and Marine Corps, the Pioneer; and the Army, the Hunter, Shadow and I-GNAT. Additionally, several UAV developmental efforts are on the drawing board, including three contemplated by the Navy and Marine Corps and another envisioned as a joint Air Force-Navy system.

Both sides in the current Army competition emphasize that their offerings are based on existing successful models. They contend the track record of their respective designs reduces the risk inherent in choosing a new combat system.

At a competitive fly-off in Fort Huachuca, AZ, earlier this year, each team demonstrated a series of capabilities according to a predetermined script. Among the attributes under consideration will be each aircraft’s maximum altitude and speed, takeoff and landing performance, endurance, ability to carry different payloads, and other advanced technological features.

The Army plans to purchase five systems, the first of which will be deployed in fiscal year 2009.

Core Asset

The Army has released few details about its impending decision. The decision may reveal more of the Army’s strategic thinking, analysts suggest, than the technical capabilities of either of the aircraft under consideration.

The ERMP UAV will replace the Hunter as one of the Army’s “core asset of UAVs,” according to Bob Hunt, a spokesman for the program. “The program demands a big increase in endurance and range over the Hunter.”

The current Hunter boasts flight endurance of eight to 12 hours. The Army is demanding the new ERMP UAV “go out 300 km, stay on area 12 hours, and return safely,” Hunt explained. “That equates to 40 hours of endurance. It also provides 100 kilometers in additional range over the Hunter.”

GA-ASI’s Warrior offering provides the Army with “the lowest risk solution for persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and tactical strike operations,” said Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., president of the Aircraft Systems Group, GA-ASI.

“The Warrior solution utilizes common Army systems and processes to reduce financial, technical and operational risks,” he explained. “The system we put together is based on the Predator, which has been flying since 1993 and has about 120,000 flight hours, including extensive flight hours over the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. We have included numerous upgrades over the years and it is still performing brilliantly. It is the most proven UAV in the world.”

The Army demanded several additional requirements for the ERMP UAV that GA-ASI designed into the Predator, Cassidy added.

The Predator first flew reconnaissance and target acquisition missions over Bosnia in 1995. The medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, roughly half the size of an F-16, is outfitted with a 450-pound surveillance payload, including two electro-optical cameras and one infrared camera. Following the initial contract in the early 1990s, the Air Force has ordered 12 more Predators.

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan saw a major improvement in the Predator’s command and control system. In the Balkans, the UAV’s video feeds had been relayed to an operations center, which then uploaded data to pilots in the air. In Afghanistan, methodologies were improved to allow targets to be struck within five minutes of their identification.

Predators worked in concert with the Air Force’s AC-130 gunship and the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet, locating targets for the strike aircraft and using a laser designator to aid in target acquisition. In addition, Central Command outfitted the AC-130s with terminals that enabled the aircrews to receive Predator feeds directly in the airplane, a major improvement over operations in Kosovo.

In 2002, the Air Force began equipping some Predators with Hellfire missiles, and changed its designation from RQ-1B (reconnaissance unmanned) to the MQ-1 (multi-mission unmanned) due to its added capabilities of laser designation and missile-firing. An armed Predator UAV belonging to the CIA, carrying Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, was credited with a hit on a senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen in November 2002, as well as one against al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, press reports indicate that the Predator took out an Iraqi anti-aircraft installation using a Hellfire missile in March 2003. It flew decoy missions over Baghdad to expose Iraqi air defenses, and its cameras allowed U.S. commanders to oversee the rescue of an Army prisoner-of-war in April 2003. The precision of the Hellfire missile has meant the Predator has been called upon to deliver fire power in Iraqi urban areas.

Common Systems

For NGC, the Hunter 2 system “is part of a broader strategy to penetrate the medium altitude endurance UAV marketplace,” according to Rick Crooks, the company’s manager of business development for tactical UAV systems. Although he would not elaborate on other specific opportunities the company is pursuing, he said that they involved “homeland security applications.” The competition now under way is “one of our near-term targets of opportunity to offer this system to that set of requirements,” he added.

For Crooks, the most important feature offered by the Hunter 2 is that it “shares a lot of common infrastructure” with current Army systems. “The Hunter 2 will leverage existing Army infrastructure in the form of training, doctrine, personnel and facilities,” he explained. “It reduces the training required to introduce the system and it leverages existing maintenance and support organizations. Those elements are very important, and translate into a system that is more effectively able to be utilized.”

In addition, there are elements of avionics architecture, communications and ground architecture that the Hunter 2 also shares with its ancestor. “The avionics subsystem also shares common software components,” Crooks said. “All of these elements of commonality reduce risks and ensure that the new system is introduced smoothly and that it operates effectively and efficiently.”

The NGC Hunter 2 design brings together technologies common to the Fire Scout, a Navy shipboard UAV that has since been cancelled, and the Air Force’s Global Hawk, a high-altitude, high-endurance vehicle, in the areas of information management and data distribution, according to Crooks. The Hunter 2 thus offers the Army “built-in interoperability,” he said.

The Hunter is equipped with an electro-optical/infrared sensor payload for day/night operations and has been deployed exclusively for reconnaissance and surveillance, as opposed to combat strikes. But the Army has also conducted tests of other potential missions, including teaming it with armed and unarmed helicopters and arming it with missiles. It has also been deployed domestically for homeland security purposes.

The Hunter first proved itself as an intelligence and reconnaissance asset in the Balkans. The UAV was used extensively during Operation Allied Force in 1999. The Hunter conducted 246 sorties during that operation, totaling 1,357 flight hours, the highest among all NATO reconnaissance platforms, providing imagery and real-time data.

U.S. Army Europe has requested the Hunter each year since 1999, to aid in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans region. According to the CRS, however, “one vulnerability of the Hunter UAV is that it cannot fly in bad weather. It is sent home each year from the Balkans once the winter weather season begins.”

In January 2003, the Hunter UAV system began a new phase of operations, when the UAV was deployed to the CENTCOM area of operations to aid in the war on terror. The aircraft was also sent to Iraq in 2003 to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Last summer, Hunter passed the 30,000 flight-hour mark. More than one-third of its flight time has been spent in reconnaissance missions in the Balkans and Iraq.

During 2002, Hunter was involved in experiments with the Apache and Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopters, in which the choppers controlled the Hunter airframe and its sensor in flight, in an effort to extend the helicopters’ reach. Also, the Army, emulating the Air Force’s success with the Predator, has been experimenting with UAV weaponization. In October 2002 Brilliant Anti-Armor submunitions were successfully dropped from a Hunter UAV at White Sands Missile Range, NM. The BAT submunitions destroyed a BMP combat vehicle and incapacitated a moving T-72 tank.

In August 2003, the Army successfully deployed a derivative of the BAT, the Viper Strike precision munition with a semi-active laser seeker and a 1.8 kilogram warhead, to the Hunter UAV. The Army is reportedly considering the purchase of Hunter UAVs armed with Viper Strikes. Since November 2004, two Army Hunter UAVs have been used for border patrolling by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Unfathomable” Factors

Observers said they did not see a clear favorite in the competition. “Both companies have made good changes to their respective systems,” said Larry Dickerson, a military analyst with Forecast International. “It will all depend on what happens during the competition and what attracts the Army evaluators’ attentions as far as meeting their requirements.

“It also depends on a lot of unfathomables we don’t have access to right now,” Dickerson added. “The fact that one system is already in use by the Army doesn’t necessarily give it a leg up because it depends on what the evaluators are looking for.”

Some of the unfathomables involved in this analysis could include strategic considerations more so than technical specifications. The NGC system shares common attributes with systems already deployed by the Army, thus having the potential to reduce the costs of deployment and maintenance.

But the GA-ASI offering is based on a UAV system the Air Force already uses. As the CRS has noted, “In the past, tension has existed between the services’ efforts to acquire UAVs and congressional initiatives to encourage a consolidated DoD approach.”

The recently released budget proposal incorporates transformation plans that emphasize network-centricity, interoperability and jointness of command and operations. Thus, if the Army has the transformational strategy of joint operations and systems on its mind, it could give the GA-ASI system the advantage.

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