U.S. Army Considers Remote Operations For Sky Warrior
U.S. Army Considers Remote Operations For Sky Warrior

Looking to maximize capacity, the U.S. Army is investigating options to operate its largest unmanned aircraft remotely while still directly supporting ground commanders in combat, according to Army officials.

The U.S. Air Force already flies its unmanned aerial vehicles remotely, with operators located in the United States controlling unmanned systems flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Up until now, the Army has insisted that UAV operators need to be in theater to be fully responsive to what is happening on the ground.

However, in an effort to get more capability to theater faster, the service is now considering remote or "split-based" operations for its largest unmanned aircraft system, the Sky Warrior - also known as the Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ER/MP) system - Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the Army's aviation director, said at a Feb. 3 UAV conference in Washington.

Currently, unmanned aircraft stays with its associated unit as it goes through the Army's deployment cycle, which has soldiers either training, deployed or in reset in the United States.

By introducing some level of remote operations, more systems can be deployed to the combat zone, Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, said at the same conference.

Directed by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the service is looking into what additional equipment and force structure it would take to support split-based operations for the ER/MP system, said Col. Robert Sova, who serves as the capabilities manager for unmanned aircraft systems at Army Training and Doctrine Command.

Senior Army staff is set to be briefed on March 22, after which a decision will be made about whether to proceed with remote operations, he said.

The Army does not intend to adopt the Air Force's way of doing things, but it is considering forward-deploying part of an ER/MP company to work with a division commander in theater while using satellite-based communications to connect with another part of the company located in the United States, Schloesser said.

"The bottom line is the Army is not rethinking its position to assign these aircraft to specific units," Gonzalez said. "We're going to have a direct-support relationship. We're not considering pooling all of our resources and running them from some location back in the United States."

And currently, the service is only considering changing the way it operates with the Sky Warrior UAV. Schloesser said the Army experimented with its smaller Shadow systems, but decided remote operations were not worth it with smaller aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Sky Warrior ER/MP program passed a milestone C review Feb. 2, allowing the program to move forward from development into the pre-production phase, according to Gonzalez.

The Army received permission to procure two Sky Warrior Systems (24 aircraft) under low-rate initial production, plus an additional eight aircraft using FY 2009 supplemental funding to support soldiers in combat.