From small store-bought “toys” to multi-million-dollar aircraft, the progression of such technology – also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – is allowing the U.S. military to conduct reconnaissance in a way never before possible – specifically where troop safety is concerned.
According to Lt. Col. PJ Croom, the Deputy Intelligence Officer for the 2d Marine Division (2d MARDIV), UAS extend the commander’s eyes and ears on the battlefield, allowing them to see and hear farther and better than they ever could otherwise.
The 2d MARDIV was able to test these assets during its recent division scale, unscripted, force-on-force battle, Marine Air-Ground Task Force Warfighting Exercise (MWX) 1-20. The exercise gave the Division the opportunity to fully immerse itself in a life-like scenario – a scenario that required the minds from various military occupational specialties, branches of service, and nations, to come together to challenge one another, as friendly and adversarial forces pitted against each other, all in the name of innovation and preparation for the future peer-level fight.
The MAGTF Warfighting Exercise was unique in many ways, one being its ability to showcase and test new technologies, one of the biggest of those being UAS assets. As part of MWX, the Marine Corps worked in a joint environment with the United States Army in an effort to plan and coordinate the use of UAS assets for future operational missions.
“It’s good to get everybody on the same page of understanding the assets of the air supporting you before you’re actually in the fight,” Army Sgt., Chloe Koehler, a UAS instructor-operator said. “(The Marines) wanted the learning experience to be there so they could understand how to plan before they actually go down range.” The Army often works directly with Marines, in order to help facilitate UAS requests in real-world operations, and MWX gave both services the rare opportunity to train in a joint environment.
The RQ7-Bravo Shadow and the MQ1-Charlie Grey Eagle UAS were primarily used for reconnaissance purposes during MWX. They are both classified as tactical aircraft, which means they are employable in a moment’s notice. The Shadow can be loaded into the back of a Humvee and launched from anywhere in the world, whereas the Grey Eagle, the larger of the two, may take up to 12 hours to prepare prior to the start of a mission.
The Shadow, an Army asset, is classified as a reconnaissance UAS that has the capability to fly upwards of nine hours. “If it’s a reconnaissance asset, it’s about the abilities of the payload, which is our camera,” Army Staff Sgt. Greg Shoning, a UAS Operator, explained, “(our payload includes) a laser designator, a laser pointer, and a laser range finder, so we can designate for any laser-guided missiles or bombs, as well as use our laser pointer for troops on the ground, (in terms of) guiding them to a point or letting them know where the enemy is on the battlefield.”
The Grey Eagle, another Army asset, “is the equivalent to the (Air Force’s) Predator. It’s basically the little sister of the Predator,” Koehler explained. It’s a reconnaissance asset; however, unlike the Shadow, it has the capability of being armed with up to four Hellfire missiles. It can fly upwards of 24 hours, and can utilize SATCOM, which means it can connect to the satellites that orbit the planet in order to fly anywhere in the world regardless of where the operator is located. It also has the ability to see people perfectly on the ground while flying at 18,000 feet.
“If there’s someone out there, eating a bag of chips, I would be able to see that perfectly – someone eating a bag of chips – at 18,000 feet,” Koehler said.
The reconnaissance aspect of UAS is essential to battle planning. “We can use the (UAS) as an early-warning device, a reconnaissance asset, the same as a Recon team, but we have a bird in the sky,” Marine Sgt. Carlton Adkison, a member of the 2d MARDIV planning section, explained. It also allows members of the planning teams to gain better insights when developing and adjusting their plans. “It gives that planner a good feel of the battlefield, he obviously has a map but if you can get real-world images with UAS, you can (visually) see what’s on the plan, so that can help those planners,” he said.
Reconnaissance is a critical component in the intelligence community because it drives commanders’ decisions.
“The intelligence cycle exists to reduce the uncertainty of the commander, to provide answers to things he or she requires to make that decision,” Croom explained, “(for) example, if the commander needs a better understanding of the dispersion between or among the enemy systems, then potentially we use UAS with some kind of imagery capability, and we can collect that information with a visual depiction.”
UAS technology is continuously evolving. It is the future of reconnaissance and planning in military operations because it allows observers to see further into the battle space than ever before. Among the top priorities in the military’s UAS development are safeguarding the security and privacy of U.S. citizens, and removing more pilots from harm’s way. “We don’t need helicopter pilots out there in danger when we can perform the same or similar function, and we can be up there longer,” Koehler said.
The UAS is a an essential asset and the future of military operations, according to Croom, “It’s important to recognize that people are our most important resource, and UAS development and employment allows us to optimize and safeguard our human capital,” he said, “because if you can replace a manned system with an unmanned system then you have one less person in harm’s way.”