WASHINGTON — The Army is looking at upgrading its fleets of unmanned systems, and while acknowledging that the budget for such overhauls is limited, two of the service's top unmanned systems officials made it clear they have a wish list.
Col. Courtney Cote, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, and Col. Thomas Von Eschenbach, the director of the capabilities integration center at TRADOC, told reporters Oct. 13 that they want to find ways to knock weight off the systems to increase payload and time on wing.
But beyond those general requirements, Cote said, he would like to see a specific list of improvements across the entire field.
That includes building survivability in contested environments through assured precision, navigation and timing technologies, and finding ways to increase integrity of data links.
Von Eschenbach added that he wants to see a universal operator concept, complete with a common cockpit and a user interface that runs across the entire fleet of Army unmanned systems.
He also said he'd be interested in experimenting with putting electronic warfare technologies onto the UAV fleets, but noted that would require major studies to look into the pros and cons of adding such technology onto various unmanned vehicles.
"There's no doubt in my mind that in the future, [Army] unmanned systems will have roles other than ISR," Von Eschenbach said. "The question is, what is the path to be able to do that?"
And of course, increasing the number of armed UAVs is being discussed. The RQ-7 Shadow UAV, for example, does not currently carry weapons, and the service is looking at whether that should change.
"Weaponing Shadow comes at a cost to the commander who now has to maybe trade station time and fuel for a payload," Von Eschenbach explained. "It depends on what it weighs and what it can do. So at what cost would it take, and what munition would that do?
"We're not ruling it out [but] on the current Shadow system, that's a challenge," he added. "I think we'd be more interested in a next generation of tactical UAS we'd look as putting that in as a requirement."
The Army is also looking at changing the weapon payload for the Grey Eagle UAV, which currently can only carry Hellfire missiles, which are not always the ideal tool for the mission.
"Right now, in our unmanned systems, including the Grey Eagle, we're shooting Hellfire off of, we would like to look at a more scalable portfolio of munitions that allows the commander to choose something other than one munition to do what we've now seen a multitude of times," Von Eschenbach explained.
One option the service has already asked industry to look at is whether they could replace the Hellfire, which weighs around 100 pounds, with a trio of 30 pound bombs, effectively tripling the payload for certain missions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wish list for the Army is similar to that of the U.S. Air Force.
In August, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board finished a large report on how to best upgrade the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reapers systems. A major focus for the study was on how to increase survivability in contested environments.