Military Insider: The Irresistible March of the Drones

By By Andrew Drwiega | February 1, 2010

Military | Unmanned Aircraft

Military helicopter pilots beware—the day of the unmanned helicopter force could be fast approaching. In 1999 the U.S. Army fielded only three Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), said LTG James Thurman, Deputy Chief of Staff, at the AUSA Aviation symposium (Jan. 5–7 in Washington D. C.). Ten years on, he said, there are more than 1,700 unmanned aerial systems (with each system having the potential of several aircraft, a launcher and ground stations) and that figure is still heading north.

I have used the word drones in the title of this article disparagingly (as it is used in general media), but it is a term that reflects a lack of understanding and totally belittles the sophistication and impact that unmanned aerial systems (UAS, to term them properly) are having on the asymmetric battlefield of today. The infantry are beginning to love them—and to see them as real live-savers—theirs to be exact.


What is most concerning for the rotary wing community is that great value is still ascribed to the manned helicopter fleet. The pilots and crews currently flying the mainstay of helicopter missions in battle—UH-60s, CH-47s, AH-64s, CH-53s and OH-58s—are very arguably the best trained and the most experienced pilots to have been involved in a major conflict since the Vietnam War. There are now many operational officers with greater combat “stick time” than many of their senior staff officers.

No, the quality of the aviators is fine. The problem lies with the lack of investment into manned rotary platforms for the future. As M.E. Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society, pointed out early in his New Year commentary, there has been a substantial lack of funding directed towards new rotary technologies since the 1980s.

While Flater recognizes the proposal for a Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC), enacted at the behest of the Department of Defense (DoD), he sees it as too restricted by preconditions and more short-termism rather than addressing the need to fund S&T realistically.

The search for “commercial-off-the-shelf” (COTS) procurement itself reveals two facts: government currently has no appetite for serious funding of S&T; there is an ongoing belief that civil designs can be reconfigured to fulfill a military role. While American Eurocopter’s UH-72A light utility helicopter success proves this, it is only to a limited extent as it was procured on the basis that it would not deploy outside of the U.S. and would not be involved in any type of combat. But Bell’s armed reconnaissance helicopter (ARH-70A) couldn’t make the leap between COTS and all the mission creep additions that the Army believed they needed for it to function and survive as a front-line helicopter. Even though American Eurocopter is now offering the Armed Scout 635 as its successor, doubts must still exist within DoD that it too can succeed where the ARH did not. Its rival, Boeing’s AH-6, is already a known quantity (in service with the 160th SOAR) and even has an unmanned version, which may add to its appeal.

MG James Barclay, III, commanding general of the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker is on record that UAS aircraft supporting the Army in combat has been a huge success: “We can send a UAS to look down alleys, around buildings, in backyards, or on a roof to see what’s up there, dramatically increasing soldier protection and preserving the force—a vital force multiplier in this era of persistent conflict.”

The current UAS fleet doesn’t give the “eyes on target” and human-to-human connectivity so valued by troops on the ground that has been a hallmark trait of the existing reconnaissance helicopter, the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior.

However, the fact that UAS systems have already made such a recognized and impressive contribution to reconnaissance must raise the question in the minds of procurers of just how much additional value will another manned rotary platform bring by the time it is actually fielded years from now—given the impact that Block III Apaches with VUIT-2 and further enhanced S&T-updated UAS systems will not be able to do?

Those who argue for manned reconnaissance helicopters will always cite the general all-around awareness of the crews and the value of peripheral vision that a UAS doesn’t possess. But with further UAS S&T advances into areas that will include multiple sensors that together with hostile fire indicators, will there be a political appetite to keep putting a manned reconnaissance platform into harm’s way when a UAS may do a very similar job, for less financial and human risk?

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