Sunday, May 23, 2010

Arming Small UAVs

By 2007, US Army RQ-7 Shadow battalion-level UAVs had seen their flight hours increase to up 8,000 per month in Iraq, a total that compared well to the famous MQ-1 Predator. Those trends have gained strength, as workarounds for the airspace management issues that hindered early deployments become more routine. Some RQ-7s are even being used to extend high-bandwidth communications on the front lines.

The difference between the Army’s RQ-7 Shadow UAVs and their brethren like the USAF’s MQ-1A Predator, or the Army’s new MQ-1C Sky Warriors, is that the Shadow has been too small and light to be armed. With ultra-small missiles still in development, and missions in Afghanistan occurring beyond artillery support range, arming the Army’s Shadow UAVs has become an even more important objective. It would take some new technology, but that seems to be on the way for the US Army’s RQ-7B Shadow UAV fleet…

Pieces of the Puzzle
RQ-7 launch
RQ-7 launch, Mosul

SecDef Robert Gates’ has consistently offered strong support for more attention to the needs of the counterinsurgency fight. Surveillance is part of that, but it needs to be backed by action. Pending and emerging approaches tie UAVs, manned propeller planes, artillery, and helicopters into a cohesive, fast, and flexible solution for finding, identifying, and capturing or killing opponents.

Larger RQ-5 Hunters have been tested with Viper Strike mini-bombs, and MQ-1C Sky Warriors can carry up to 4 Hellfires – but both UAV types are far outnumbered by the Army’s smaller RQ-7 Shadows. Precision weapons can also be dropped by fighters or bombers, but the planes’ $10,000 – $25,000 cost per flight hour is prohibitive, they require extensive planning processes to use, and their declining numbers affect their potential coverage and response times.

Small UAVs can still pack a punch without weapons by providing GPS targeting data to M30 GPS-guided MLRS rockets, long-range ATACMS MLRS missiles, or 155mm Excalibur artillery shells – as long as those weapons are (a) appropriate and (b) within range.

Using an ATACMS missile to take out an enemy machine gun position seems a bit silly, but that’s exactly the sort of help that could really make a difference to troops on the ground – and has been used in urban fights, against building strongholds. With that said, maximum effectiveness comes when battalion-level “Tactical UAVs” like the RQ-7B Shadow can perform the full spectrum of missions: surveillance, laser or GPS target designation, or close support for infantry fights.

Step 1 requires a lightweight laser designator that would add the ability to actively mark targets for common helicopter and UAV weapons like Hellfire missiles, laser-guided 70mm rockets, or Paveway bombs. That way, the small and relatively cheap RQ-7s could mark targets for any component of Task Force ODIN, or its equivalent. That effort is now underway.

Step 2 involves arming even RQ-7 size UAVs, but their payload weight limits make that a very challenging task. Small missiles like the US Navy’s Spike are in development, but solutions are needed now.

General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems makes the US Army’s mortar rounds, and had an interesting idea. What if their 81mm mortars could receive a small add-on GPS guidance kit, similar to the JDAM kits used on larger air force bombs? The Army’s 81mm mortars weigh just 9-10 pounds each, and GD-OTS’ clip-on Roll Controlled Fixed Canard (RCFC) is an integrated fuze and guidance-and-flight control kit that uses GPS/INS navigation, replacing current fuze hardware in existing mortars. A standard M821 81mm Mortar with fuze weighs 9.1 pounds, and the same mortar with an RCFC Guidance system and fuze weighs just 10.8 pounds.

Application of RCFC technology to 81mm air-dropped mortars was sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ, in order to provide “Tactical Class Unmanned Aircraft Systems (TCUAS)” with a low-cost weapon option for rapid fielding. In the end, however, its reach is likely to extend past small UAVs, in 2 ways.

MC-130W: next?

One is the growing trend away from sole USAF control of air support, and toward a much more responsive era of “federated airpower” that includes high-end aircraft and UAVs operated by the US Air Force, and lower-tier propeller planes and small UAVs operated by the US Army and Marines. Those lower-tier options use lower-cost platforms that are far more affordable to operate, which means they can be bought and operated in numbers that provide far wider battlefield coverage for small-unit engagements. The USAF’s long-running and pervasive deprecation of relevant counter-insurgency capabilities, and strong institutional preference for high-end, expensive platforms, has left them vulnerable to lower-cost disruptive technologies that meet current battlefield needs. While the service still has a key role in maintaining American power, strategic control of the air, and high-end capabilities, the new reality involves a mix of high and low-end aerial capabilities, with some control nested closer to battlefield decision-making.

The other change will reach beyond UAVs, and into USAF and USMC aircraft. The nose-mounted RCFC guidance has now been successfully demonstrated on multiple mortar calibers, in both air-drop and tube-launch applications. The tube-launched application has been successfully demonstrated at Yuma Proving Grounds, AZ in a tactical 120mm guided mortar configuration known as the Roll Controlled Guided Mortar (RCGM), which uses the existing 120mm warhead and the M934A1 fuze. 

That tube-launched weapon is likely to find its way to USMC KC-130J and Special Operations MC-130W Hercules, which are receiving roll-on/ roll-off weapon kits that can turn them into multi-role gunship support/ aerial tanker aircraft.

Contracts and Key Events
81mm mortar
81mm RCFC test

April 19/10: Looks like the US Army is getting more serious about fielding armed Shadow UAVs. US FedBizOpps solicitation #W31P4Q-10-R-0142 says that “Responses to this RFI will be used for information and planning purposes only and do not constitute a solicitation…,” but its issue does show a higher level of seriousness, and could well be a prelude to a real solicitation if an acceptable candidate emerges:

“The US Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM) Program Executive Office (PEO) Missiles and Space (M&S), Program Management (PM) Joint Attack Munition Systems (JAMS), on behalf of the war fighter, seeks information from industry on weapons systems ready for production and suitable for integration on the RQ-7B with POP 300D laser designator payload Shadow Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs). Potential weapons systems must be ready to field within 12 months from the date of a potential contract award. The primary interest is in weapon systems approximately 25 lbs or less total system weight (to include munition, launcher, wiring, fire control interface, etc). The weapons system should be able to engage stationary and moving targets such as light vehicles and dismounted combatants in day and night conditions with low collateral damage when launched from a Shadow UAS flying at speeds of 60-70 knots and between 5,000 and 12,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL). Terminal accuracy must be on the order of that demonstrated by currently fielded Semi Active Laser / Imaging Infrared / Millimeter Wave (SAL/IIR/MMW) weapons…”

That level of terminal accuracy may be an issue for RCFC mortars, depending on how the Army interprets it. SAL/IIR/MMW weapons are generally considered to be more accurate that GPS guidance, but if “on the order” means “approximately,” then a GPS guidance kit would qualify. It is intended that this RFI will be open for 21 calendar days from date of publication (to May 10/10).

April 1/10: General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems announces successful 81mm Air-Dropped Mortar guide-to-target flight demonstrations at Ft. Sill, OK. The RCFC weapon was released from a TUAV (Shadow) using the GD-OTS’ newly developed “Smart Rack” carriage and release system.

Feb 12/09: Textron subsidiary Army Armaments Incorporated (AAI) in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $9.3 million cost plus fixed fee contract modification, exercising options for additional engineering hours related to these Shadow UAV modifications. These services are related to low-rate initial production of Laser Designators, Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) interoperability, and integration with the Army’s Universal Ground Control Station and Universal Ground Data Terminal. 

Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of April 30/09. One bid was solicited and one bid received by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-08-C-0033).

Jan 21/09: Textron subsidiary AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $12.2 million firm-fixed-price finalization of Letter Contract Modification P00012. It will purchase 25 Laser Designator Retrofit Kits for its RQ-7 Shadow Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). 

Work will be performed at Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of Aug 31/09. One bid was solicited and one bid received by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-08-C-0023).

Dec 16/08: General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems announces that it has successfully demonstrated the ability to maneuver and guide 81mm air-dropped mortars to a stationary ground target after release from an aircraft. These test results in Kingman, AZ build on previous pre-programmed maneuver flight tests successfully conducted by General Dynamics in 2007, and use the company’s patented Roll Controlled Fixed Canard (RCFC) flight control and guidance system. 

This article can be found in its original format here.

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