FORT HOOD — While the idea of unmanned aerial systems is relatively new to the general public, they have been operating within the Army for nearly 20 years. These systems — which have advanced cameras to provide surveillance and aerial views while keeping soldiers safe — are often called drones. But using the term is a quick way to upset the Army professionals dedicated to integrating these systems into the skies of Central Texas.
“A drone by our definition would be something that our air defense guys would launch and shoot down, like a target,” said Bob Ulrigg, air traffic and air space officer for Fort Hood. “We have unmanned aircraft here because that’s what they are — aircraft operated by somebody on the ground. I think nationally, if they would go to that, people would have less fears than the drone concept.”
Ulrigg said a drone is an aircraft that takes off on its own, flies a preplanned route and lands without a human interface.
“We don’t do that. None of the Army platforms are that way,” he said. “Through the uplink, through the system, there’s always a man in control.”
Since the Hunter, the first unmanned system to fly at Fort Hood, began operating under the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion in 1995, the use of unmanned systems in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan has brought them from a small, quiet specialty of the Army’s intelligence community to the forefront of national politics.
There are now four unmanned systems in use at Fort Hood, flying almost daily at training grounds, Hood Army Airfield and Robert Gray Army Airfield.
Since 2006, the Hunter has operated among the commercial flights at Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, and the Army’s newest unmanned system, the Gray Eagle, joined the ranks earlier this year.
“Initially we had no restrictions,” Ulrigg said. “As time went on, the FAA realized it needed to put restrictions as far as the integration of manned and unmanned aircraft, especially at Robert Gray.”
Jeff Wagner, chief of UAS operations and civilian trainer with the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion, has been working with the unit’s Hunter systems since 2002. He said the Army purchased 80 systems in the 1990s, and 50 to 60 of those are still flying today.
“It does not have a bad safety record. It’s probably the best for Army UAS,” he said.
That positive record is what allows Fort Hood some of its freedom of flying unmanned systems the way it does.
“We are allowed to do a lot of things around here at Fort Hood that the rest of the continental United States cannot,” Ulrigg said. “Especially having commercial aircraft in Class D airspace. ... If the FAA was not comfortable with our procedures and our safety record, they wouldn’t allow us to do some stuff we do today.”
Sometime between 2016 and 2020, Wagner said the Army will phase out the Hunter, and its operations will be completely taken over by the Gray Eagle — a larger system with similar capabilities and longer endurance.
The Army will purchase 152 Gray Eagle systems and field them with 15 companies, said Sofia Bledsoe, spokesperson for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation. Fielding began in 2011 and should be finished by 2018. Each company, which are division assets, will have 12 aircraft while deployed and nine in garrison.
So far, two of these companies fall under the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and another is with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan. The next will activate at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Fort Hood’s 21st Cavalry Brigade has trained the last three companies, and Ulrigg said the unit is likely to train the next company at Fort Stewart. Around 2017, he said, one of the 1st Cavalry’s companies will leave Fort Hood. “The Army is mainly waiting for infrastructure,” he said.
But the Gray Eagle and the Hunter are not the only unmanned airplanes flying at Fort Hood. The Raven and the Shadow are smaller, surveillance-only platforms that operate within Fort Hood’s brigade combat teams.
“Most people seem to think that flying the unmanned system is easy or like playing a video game,” said Capt. Eric Francis, commander of Alpha Company, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. Currently deployed to Afghanistan, Francis’s company contains a platoon that operates the Shadow aircraft. “What these people don’t understand is how taxing it can be to sit in a small shelter, staring at the same road for hours on end,” he said.
Unmanned system operators are under the same work restrictions as pilots of manned aircraft, meaning strict shift and sleep requirements. Maintainers of unmanned systems, which Francis described as “unsung heroes,” have the same detailed list of checks as those of a manned system.
Tools of war
In Afghanistan, the platoon’s mission is to provide the brigade and subordinate battalions with near real-time, full-motion video support throughout the brigade’s operational environment, Francis said. These systems can fly into hostile areas, where it could be considered too dangerous to send a manned aircraft.
Chief Warrant Officer-2 David Chadwick, platoon leader for 3rd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s Shadow platoon, described the mission plainly: “Bad guys are less likely to do bad stuff if they know we’re out there.”
Lt. Col. Jonathan Byrom, the 3rd Squadron commander, said unmanned systems are “combat multipliers” that give commanders an improved, timely intelligence picture in order to make better decisions.
“Their capabilities enable us to secure (forward operating bases), to identify (roadside bomb) emplacements and monitor key population areas, like festivals, so that we can better protect the local population,” he said. “In Iraq, we would use it to monitor elections to provide security to polling sites to confirm or deny enemy or friendly activity during high visibility events.”
Long-term flight plan
Wagner, the civilian trainer for the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion, predicted Army aviation will be half to two-thirds unmanned by 2030.
“I don’t necessarily see unmanned aircraft going out on the battlefield and airlifting soldiers out, but I do see the attack mission; the Apaches and stuff like that going to an unmanned platform-type mission,” he said. “It’s where the future is because we want to protect people and protect soldiers’ lives, and if you can do it with an unmanned platform for a significant reduction in cost and risk to life, that’s the way it’s going to go.”