Unmanned Aircraft Systems / By MAJ Joshua Bell and MAJ Kristin Yampaglia: In preparation for the future fight, Army Special Operations Aviation (ARSOA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) continues to exploit the MQ-1C Extended Range Gray Eagle capabilities and limitations through challenging, realistic training events and supporting U.S. Army Futures Command initiatives. Earlier this year, MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range (ER) crews from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) participated in two keystone exercises that highlighted the versatility and adaptability of ARSOA UAS. The first event was in China Lake, CA known as the Special Operations Aviation-Advanced Tactics Training (SOA-ATT). SOA-ATT is a multi-week exercise created to train and validate combined ARSOA rotary wing and UAS tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for integration into multi-domain operations (MDO) while operating in a contested environment. Following SOA-ATT, ARSOA UAS crews participated in Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ. Spearheaded by the U.S. Army Futures Command, Project Convergence is a groundbreaking network integration exercise, unprecedented in scale and joint interoperability, with the goal of expediting the kill chain.
An MQ-1ER taxiing at a forward staging base in Arizona./ U.S. ARMY PHOTO
To be competitive in multi-domain operations against a near peer adversary, the ARSOA UAS team had to shift their counter violent extremist organizations (C-VEO) training focus to large-scale combat operations. SOA-ATT provided ARSOA UAS with an excellent MDO training opportunity. At China Lake, the SOA-ATT Task Force consisted of special operations ground and intelligence personnel, rotary and unmanned aircraft from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Air Force Special Operations Command tilt-rotor aircraft. The diverse and highly capable team conducted detailed mission planning, rehearsals, and execution of highly complex missions in a contested aerial environment. ARSOA UAS aircraft played a unique multi-operational role in this environment by providing both ISR and fire support. For instance, in one of the scenarios, ARSOA UAS penetrated and neutralized a complex integrated air defense system (IADS) network while providing other air and ground enablers maneuverability to accomplish the mission. In another vignette, ARSOA UAS executed operations in an electronic warfare (EW)/anti-access area denial (A2AD) environment. Specifically, ARSOA aircrews had to navigate a complex EW/A2AD using unconventional UAS TTPs to avoid detection and provide signals intelligence (SIGINT) along with a fires platform for joint enablers to accomplish their mission undetected in a denied environment against a near-peer threat.
The UAS team conducted both single and multi-ship operations in a variety of environments to include aircraft low-level operations down to 500’ AGL in a tactical flight profile. Utilizing one low level MQ and an MQ employing terrain masking in a hunter–killer team, the UAS multi-ship flight successfully defeated enemy air-defense weapon systems. Serving as an integral part of the pre-mission planning and briefings throughout the exercise, UAS crews focused on denied area intelligence preparation of the battlefield, spectrum management control, route analysis, environmental factor analysis, performance planning, individual threat analysis, and risk management. With broad and diverse tactical expertise, the ARSOA UAS team served as invaluable members of the greater SOA-ATT exercise.
Leading by example at the forefront of UAS operations during SOA-ATT, ARSOA UAS crews demonstrated their flexibility and tenacity in solving complex mission problems and mitigating risk while operating within the national airspace. Prior to participating in the exercise, ARSOA MQ-1C ER operators received academic instruction and conducted extensive mission planning in areas such as aviation mission survivability, offensive and defensive maneuvers, denied area planning, and passive defeat tactics. In order to capitalize on lessons-learned, UAS operators studied the after-action reports from previous exercises. Additionally, ARSOA UAS personnel navigated coordination challenges in order to conduct flight operations from an uncontrolled civilian airfield. Through the experience, ARSOA UAS developed critical pre-mission planning standards that required meticulously detailed coordination and integration with civilian rotary and fixed wing traffic operating within the area. With six months of advanced planning and coordination through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local authorities, ARSOA UAS made SOA-ATT UAS operations seamless with zero negative impacts to the local community.
Following SOA-ATT, ARSOA UAS operators participated in Project Convergence due to the airframe’s distinctive ability to provide autonomy in the air domain and sustain over-the-horizon network infrastructure. Once again, serving in a unique role providing critical capability within the multi-domain operational concept, ARSOA UAS conducted ISR, precision fires, and supported over-the-horizon network architecture simultaneously. Project Convergence validated the MQ-1C ER’s ability to support a “sensor-to-shooter” network that communicates data between multiple systems, making the surface-to-surface and air-to-ground kill chains more efficient and lethal.
At Yuma Proving Ground, ARSOA UAS crews supported the Army Futures Command Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team and operated highly modified MQ-1C ER Gray Eagles to support the Architecture, Automation, Autonomy, and Interfaces (A3I) pioneered capability. The aircraft carried a variety of payloads designed to support network infrastructure, EW systems, and automation within the kill chain. The Gray Eagle played an integral role in supporting a variety of Air-Launched Effects (ALE) and facilitated the integration of space, cyber, air, and ground assets in support of joint missions. By providing unwavering support to Project Convergence and A3I, ARSOA UAS crews reaped valuable lessons-learned about the capabilities and limitations of the airframe, which will allow further network and effects integration in the future.
Both SOA-ATT and Project Convergence provided an excellent opportunity for ARSOA MQ-1C Gray Eagle ER aircraft and crews to validate TTPs while integrating with the joint force to conduct multi-domain operations in a contested environment. SOA-ATT and Project Convergence highlighted the relevance of ARSOA UAS assets in meeting the demands of today’s warfighter and tomorrow’s emerging technology requirements. ARSOA UAS operators will continue to explore tirelessly the limitations and capabilities of the MQ-1ER Gray Eagle while working with industry innovators and stakeholders to employ the airframe in unconventional methods in preparation for the inevitable challenges of defeating a peer adversary in a contested environment.
MAJ Joshua Bell is the commander of E Co. and MAJ Kristin Yampaglia is the commander of F Co., 2nd Bn., 160th SOAR (A) stationed at Fort Campbell, KY.