08 Dec 10. Milestones seem to be all in a day’s work for the employees who develop and sustain the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet.
First, there was a celebration last spring with Army and congressional officials at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate reaching 1 million flight hours of unmanned aerial vehicles. Of those hours, about 89 percent were combat flight hours.
Then, in October, the 400-plus employees of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Project Office, which is part of the Program Executive Office for Aviation, and its contractors and subcontractors topped that milestone by providing the development, technical, acquisition and maintenance support needed to reach 1 million combat flight hours for the Army’s unmanned aircraft fleet. Of those 1 million hours, 900,000 were flown in the last three years.
“These systems continue to be in demand and reach worthwhile milestones. It won’t be long and we will be averaging 25,000 hours a month of combat flight hours,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Since 9/11, that unmanned aerial fleet – including the Shadow, which was flown for about 505,000 combat flight hours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn (Iraq) – has provided big dividends for the Amy’s troops, reducing risk and increasing lethality.
“Before 9/11 there were very few systems,” said Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “This milestone signifies for the unmanned aircraft systems industry that for the first time we are seeing complete acceptance of these systems.”
“Vietnam and Korea were the helicopter wars,” Owings explained. “The Middle East has largely been the unmanned system wars. We’ve gone from eight to 10 systems, to thousands of systems, and we’ve reached an unprecedented level of understanding of what these systems can do.”
But when unmanned aerial vehicles were first introduced to the war fighter “there was a lack of confidence in unmanned aircraft, a lack of enthusiasm,” Gonzalez said. “Today, there is a huge demand for the aircraft and what they can do.”
“Unmanned aircraft systems have changed the way we fight and we won’t ever fight without them again,” he continued. “We are developing and providing what the warfighter needs. The demand for unmanned systems is created by the warfighter.”
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office, headquartered at the Sparkman Center, is responsible for development, acquisition, production, fielding, training, product improvements and sustainment of the Army’s Shadow, Raven, Hunter, Gray Eagle and other unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Reaching 1 million combat flying hours is not just a significant milestone for this project office, it’s also a significant milestone for the Army. The significance of combat flight hours is not in the numbers, it’s in what those numbers represent,” Gonzalez said.
“Army forces have confidence in unmanned aircraft systems. They demand the use of these systems. They use them and they fly them to save lives and to overcome the enemy.”
The Army has deployed 337 unmanned aircraft systems that have included more than 1,000 unmanned aircraft. Unmanned aircraft are used to provide Soldiers with a tactical view of the battlefield, allowing for visual contact of objects hidden by buildings, landscape features and other obstacles.
They are used for route reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. They help Soldiers search for improvised explosive devices, enhance situational awareness of enemy positions, identify and laser designate targets for a variety of weapons, provide knowledge of specific areas of combat and track the enemy.
The mission for unmanned aerial vehicles is growing to include weaponization, communications relay, specialty payloads and the linkage to manned aircraft.
“There are a number of ways unmanned systems prot