Army Aviators Could Shift to UAS

By Staff Writer | August 1, 2015
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By Pat Host

U.S. Army helicopter aviators phased out as part of the service’s massive Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI) could have new careers piloting unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

The head of Army Training and Doctrine Command, Gen. David Perkins, said June 30 the service is moving some aviators to UAS billets (depending on where they are in their careers) because their skill sets are transferable to unmanned systems. Speaking to a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, Perkins also cited the Army’s move toward manned-unmanned teaming arrangement as a reason for moving some pilots over to UAS.


As part of ARI, the Army is divesting its OH-58D Kiowa Warriors and sending UH-60M Black Hawks to the National Guard in exchange for Guard AH-64 Apaches. While Congress has blocked the Army from divesting -58Ds until Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2016, the service can prepare for divestiture.

Eighty-six Kiowa Warrior aviators who are not transitioning to other manned aircraft have applied to move to the UAS fleet, the Army said. These soldiers, who are seasoned pilots well versed in the scout mission, will fill leadership positions in the UAS units. They have experience operating payloads and training in deployment of precision weapons. In addition, they bring Army aviation’s culture of discipline and attention to detail, service leaders said, and will be key facilitators as the service integrates its unmanned systems into AH-64 formations.

Steve Colby, a retired, 27-year veteran U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot and Rotor & Wing International contributor, said Army aviators have unique skills transferable to unmanned systems. In addition to their flying experience and direct familiarity with the scout mission, he said, they know manned Army aviation tactics, techniques and procedures and the transfer of technology and tactics, techniques and procedures from different mission sets.

Their familiarity with the mission includes a “sensor-to-shooter” mission unique to military service, Colby said. While Kiowa Warrior pilots are accustomed to looking at things through the wide field of view of a windshield, he said, they’re also comfortable working with information gathered through narrow field-of-view sensors and passing info along via data links. With UAS, he said, they’d move that information out to the shooters.

“If your UAS is unarmed, an operator is going to need to move that information from the UAS through some distributed ground station to an Apache,” Colby said.

Another important skill set is one gained through joint missions with the other services. This helps bring new tactics and techniques to missions that other warfighters might not learn if they perform only in-service missions.

“When you bring someone in from the outside, you might be able to make a community better at what they do because you bring some skills, or techniques that you haven’t thought about because you were never exposed to them,” Colby said.

Retired Army Gen. Guy Swan III, vice president for education at the Association of United States Army, said he believes helicopter pilots have another transferrable skill set: a tactical skill sense. Since pilots operate routinely with ground forces, he said, they would understand what ground force commanders are looking for when using unmanned systems.

The Army also may send Kiowa Warrior pilots to fill the Air Force’s need for unmanned MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper crews and UH-1 pilots. The number of transfers has been small so far; those transfers have been handled on an individual basis.

The Army has two UAS flown by professional pilots, some of whom will be integrated into Apache formations. These are Textron’s 400-pound RQ-7B Shadow and General Atomics’ 3,600-pound MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

The 20-foot-wingspan Shadow flies below 18,000 feet MSL and below 250 knots and can carry a 60-pound intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payload. It has a designed endurance of nine hours.

The 56-foot-wingspan Gray Eagle flies up to 29,000 feet and 167 knots. It can carry a combined internal/external ISR payload of 1,075 pounds, to include up to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. It has a designed endurance of 25 hours.

Both UAS perform ISR missions, and the Gray Eagle can attack as well.

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