By Spc. Roland Hale, PAO eCAB, 1st Inf. Div.
An Army unit deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq, is shaping the future of the Army's unmanned aircraft systems program with a handful of its newest aircraft, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.
The unit, known as Quick Reaction Capability 1-Replacement 1, deployed this June to use the Gray Eagle in combat before the Army fields the aircraft to all of its aviation brigades in the next few years. It is one of two deployed Army units currently flying the Gray Eagle, and it is the only one using it in Iraq.
The unit is attached to the Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, an all-in-one aviation brigade from Fort Riley, Kan. The Gray Eagle's mission is similar to the mission of the brigade's Apache and Kiowa helicopters, but as an unmanned aircraft, has stronger ties to the intelligence community. The QRC1-R1 operators are working with aviators from the brigade's Apache battalion to integrate their mission into the aviation realm.
The Gray Eagle is an extended-range, multipurpose unmanned aircraft designed primarily to provide ground commanders a set of "eyes in the sky." The aircraft is built on the same platform as the Air Force's Predator drone, and will provide the Army easy access to the type of support usually provided by Predator-type aircraft.
"The Army needed more UAS support, there was a gap in coverage," said Capt. Michael Goodwin, the unit's commander, and a native of Cedar Island, N.C. "Predator based platforms are spread too thin to meet all of the Army's needs…we're the Army's answer to finding a quick solution to that problem."
The Army purchased its first batch of Gray Eagles from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems while the aircraft was still in the developmental stage. Forming the QRC units allowed the Army to get a head-start on introducing the aircraft to combat.
The unit has not identified any significant flaws in the aircraft, which has yielded impressive results during the first six months of their deployment, said Goodwin.
The unit has flown nearly 7,000 accident free hours, more than 350 combat missions, produced over 16,000 surveillance-type images, and maintained a systems operational readiness rate of about 93 percent, according to the unit's reports.
Soldiers of the QRC unit are not only developing the Gray Eagle and its systems, but often help introduce its technology to the commanders and ground troops it is designed to benefit.
"One of the biggest things we try to do is educate other units about our capabilities," said Goodwin. "A lot of units have the ability to use our assets, but they don't know what we can do."
One of the most useful tools the unit offers ground troops is education on a portable system known as the OSRVT, or One Station Remote Viewing Terminal. Ground commanders using the system can access the Gray Eagle's video feed from a laptop. The OSRVT can be carried in a backpack and is designed to be used in most military vehicles. Access to the Gray Eagle's feed through the system provides ground commanders a firsthand, bird's eye view of the battlefield, said Goodwin.
"We're finding that a lot of units have the OSRVT, but don't know what it does for them," said Goodwin. "Our company helps train the ground guys on the system, on how to access our feeds and use our aircraft to support them."
"It's such a new technology that - just like our aircraft - most people don't know how great the technology is," said Goodwin. "If I were a ground commander, I wouldn't roll out without it."
In addition to the OSRVT, the Gray Eagle and its operators are perfecting several technologies that are new to the Army's spy-plane arsenal.
Older Army UAS platforms have typically only served as a middle-man in engaging targets, providing attack helicopters, planes, or ground troops with a target. With the Gray Eagle, the Army's UAS family can now do both. The unit is working to prepare the aircraft to carry hellfire missiles, and is scheduled to conduct a live test of the missiles in Iraq this January.
Sgt. Brent Randal, a Gray Eagle operator deployed with QRC1-R1 and a native of Las Vegas, Nev., said that one of the aircraft's best features is its new Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR. Mounted underneath the Gray Eagle's nose, the SAR can compare high resolution images of a location taken at different times to determine whether objects have been removed from or placed at a scene.
"Using the SAR we can fly by a site, fly by several hours later, and if anything changes we'll see it," said Randal.
The technology comes particularly useful in locating buried IEDs and weapons caches, said Randal.
The Gray Eagle can also help ground troops communicate with their headquarters over long distances.
"We've had a couple situations where ground troops were out of communications range from their higher headquarters, so we used our radio systems in the aircraft to retransmit their signals to their headquarters," said Randal. "In essence we bounce their signal back to their base."
Staff Sgt. Raymond Ballance, of Beaufort, S.C., the unit's senior enlisted trainer and master gunner, has a unique perspective on the company's mission with the Gray Eagle.
Ballance recently hit his 11 year mark in the Army, but has only operated unmanned aircraft for the last five years. Before he turned to flying drones, Ballance spent the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq as a scout on the ground. His mission was to travel ahead of infantry units to find the enemy, observe their activity, and provide his commanders with firsthand intelligence.
Ballance and many other scouts became unmanned aircraft operators when the Army did away with their original field in 2005.
"We're still the eyes on the battlefield, now it's from above," said Ballance. "It's a lot safer, too. You no longer have that three man team out there hours away from help hiding in the bushes."
"You can never fully replace the human element on the battlefield, but what I used to do has evolved into what the Gray Eagle does now," he said.
Since switching jobs Ballance has flown several of the Army's unmanned aircraft, including the Predator drone for Task Force ODIN, the Army's first unit to fly that aircraft. The success of that task force helped pave the way for the Army's acquisition of the Gray Eagle, said Ballance.
"The Army saw the success of the Predator in the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan and decided to go full production with their own," said Ballance. "I've seen it evolve from there: better engines, better payloads, better systems."
The Army plans to provide 12 Gray Eagles to each of its aviation brigades when the aircraft is fully developed. The aircraft are likely to work closely with the Army's scout helicopters, but will remain strongly connected to intelligence and ground combat units.
"Ten years ago the Air Force had Predators and they were working for three-letter agencies," said Ballance. "When this thing goes full production, every aviation brigade is going to have it."