By CSM Billy D. Webb and MAJ Seth Gulsby: Young and talented unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operators are deployed to two different areas of responsibility and are at the front of UAS operations that demonstrate a unique understanding of the operational environment with a skill that the ground force they support has come to trust.
The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system. / ARSOAC COURTESY PHOTO
So how did these SOF UAS operators get to this point? Having just completed the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) Green Platoon Combat Skills Course (EGP), these young Special Operations warriors receive further technical training to become basic mission qualified (BMQ) UAS crewmembers in the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces MQ-1C Gray Eagle program. This system supports Special Operations Forces (SOF) around the globe.
The 2nd Battalion, 160th SOAR with the help of the Special Operations Training Battalion (SOATB) developed a course that enables UAS operators to build on the skills taught at Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or learned from other units with Army Aviation. The course is SOF UAS BMQ, and it nearly mirrors the MH-60/47 BMQ course taught in SOATB that at the end of the pipeline crewmembers are basic mission qualified and able to deploy in support of war-time efforts.
The curriculum has established a standardized, tested and validated progression program for UAS operators in a veritable training wilderness where no Army Regulation dictates a fixed standard. This structured pipeline allows commanders to effectively choose crews and build teams for a very demanding mission set. It has been crucial for the effective management of proficiency levels across the formation and helps drive risk management in support of the ground force.
The U.S. Army’s Special Operations MQ-1C Gray Eagle program has operated on the leading edge of the unmanned operational spectrum with two forward deployed platoons: a fully operational training platoon in the U.S.; and a relentless demand signal from the supported SOF enterprise.
For many years, the SOF MQ-1C program has shared in the same qualification courses and training regulations with the rest of Army Aviation. By the same token, the SOF MQ-1C program has also shared in the same lack of published standardized training packages. Considering the unique requirements for Special Operations units, the SOF MQ-1C program unequivocally demonstrated its need to consistently train competent operators in order to build and sustain the force. To address this challenge, the SOF MQ-1C enterprise, with SOATB, designed the SOF UAS BMQ Course. This program follows SOATB’s other initial-entry training program which takes newly assigned UAS operators and prepares them for SOF UAS missions.
SOF UAS BMQ Course curriculum centers on an iterative training schedule that consists of ten simulator flights and ten aircraft flights in twenty total training days. Soldiers entering the course spend the first ten days conducting simulator training on Ft. Campbell, KY specific scenarios. Soldiers and trainers spend the next five days on active flights to progress to Readiness Level (RL) 1. This is followed by a full mission profile (FMP) week in the simulator flying in different locations for each daily FMP iteration.
Soldiers attending the course are paired with the highly trained aircraft commanders of E Co., 2-160th SOAR (Abn.). The 20 iteration requirement allows each Soldier more time and exposure to learn at a progressively higher proficiency level the required tasks for each flight. As the Soldier progresses through the course, more realistic gunnery scenarios and emergency procedures gradually immerse the Soldier into the mission before ever being exposed to it in real life.
Extreme care has been taken to ensure the scenarios are realistic and detailed. Each training mission reflects current mission sets and exposes the Soldier to actual chat windows and pre-recorded audio scripts that simulate both ground and air assets. The end result is a BMQ UAS crewmember ready to deploy and provide unmatched attack reconnaissance for the SOF Enterprise and supported ground forces.
The SOF UAS BMQ Course is still in its infancy. While training is being conducted and classes are taking place, the program is working to establish a single source document that covers Qualification, Readiness Level Progression, Aircraft Commander Progression and Instructor Operator Qualification. This document follows the already approved Gray Eagle Qualification Course.
As more SOF UAS BMQ Courses graduate, this document will be refined and validated before being institutionalized within SOATB. Ultimately, SOATB will have a formal program of instruction that graduates an RL1 and BMQ UAS operator. Once the program reaches this desired end state and survives multiple rounds of internal validation, the Army SOF UAS community intends to share the training program with the rest of the Army MQ-1C enterprise.
Throughout the past few years, the Army Special Operations MQ-1C program has continually explored new technologies and refined tactics associated with the MQ-1C platform. Many of these changes are being adopted throughout the wider UAS community. Constantly seeking change with a purpose follows the Special Operations charter of developing tactics, techniques and procedures to share with the wider Army UAS enterprise.
CSM Billy D. Webb is the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command headquartered at Fort Bragg, NC; MAJ Seth Gulsby is the commander of Company E, 2nd Bn., 160 Special Operations Aviation Regiment headquartered at Fort Campbell, KY.