USA — In short term, Gray Eagle trades reliability for capability

WASHINGTON — The Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle pro­gram is under its esti­mat­ed bud­get, and is also meet­ing expect­ed avail­abil­i­ty rates in the­ater.

Grey Eagle Unmanned Air­craft Sys­tem
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While the reli­a­bil­i­ty rate of the unmanned air­craft sys­tem, or UAS, is not where it could be, Army lead­ers have said for now the ser­vice is okay with that because the UAS doing more in terms of capa­bil­i­ty than what it was orig­i­nal­ly designed to do.

“We focused on what is more impor­tant. And what is more impor­tant is get­ting capa­bil­i­ty into hands of warfight­ers down range,” said Maj. Gen. William Cros­by, pro­gram exec­u­tive offi­cer, Army avi­a­tion. “The feed­back we’ve got­ten from our warfight­er down range is this sys­tem is a game-chang­er.”

The Gray Eagle UAS is part of a sys­tem that includes ground con­trol sta­tions and ground equip­ment. The sys­tem pro­vides recon­nais­sance, sur­veil­lance, tar­get­ing and acqui­si­tion capa­bil­i­ties for com­man­ders. The air­craft can car­ry mul­ti­ple sen­sors and is also weaponized with the Hell­fire mis­sile.

“It’s done so well, we keep adding stuff to it,” Cros­by said. “We’re adding sen­sors, we’re updat­ing the engine.”

With the Gray Eagle, the Army has made a con­scious deci­sion to focus on capa­bil­i­ty for now, Cros­by said, and will focus lat­er on reli­a­bil­i­ty.

So far, reli­a­bil­i­ty prob­lems have been attrib­uted most­ly to soft­ware issues that arise with the addi­tion of new sen­sors to the Gray Eagle, Cros­by said. Those prob­lems change as new sen­sors are added. How­ev­er, Cros­by said, when those soft­ware prob­lems are fixed, they don’t reap­pear.

“That gives the team con­fi­dence we will be able to resolve this when we quit adding new capa­bil­i­ty,” Cros­by said.

When the Gray Eagle first was intro­duced into the­ater, it was equipped with an elec­tro-opti­cal/in­frared sen­sor. Now the sys­tem car­ries weapons, and the Army has also added the Syn­thet­ic Aper­ture Radar/Ground Mov­ing Tar­get Indi­ca­tor as well as air-data relay capa­bil­i­ty.

In Afghanistan now, the Army has two “quick reac­tion capa­bil­i­ty,” or QRCs, pla­toon-sized avi­a­tion ele­ments that are each equipped with four Gray Eagles. The first of those QRCs was ini­tial­ly in Iraq, in August 2009, before it moved in Decem­ber 2012 to Afghanistan. The sec­ond of the QRCs moved into Afghanistan in Sep­tem­ber 2010.

Also in Afghanistan now is the first full-sized Gray Eagle unit, F‑227, which is a com­pa­ny-sized unit with three pla­toons of four air­craft each. Fox 227 entered Afghanistan in April 2012 and has done well there.

The F‑227 unit has been fly­ing now for about two months and “the unit has matured over the last 45 days or so,” said Col. Tim­o­thy Bax­ter, project man­ag­er, unmanned air­craft sys­tems. Bax­ter said the unit flies three to four “strings” per day, gain­ing about 70–90 fly­ing hours for the sys­tems dur­ing each day of fly­ing.

The Gray Eagles in the­ater now have flown, togeth­er, about 24,000 com­bat hours. Bax­ter said avail­abil­i­ty for the Gray Eagle is at about 80 per­cent now, which is what was expect­ed, though the Army’s objec­tive for the air­craft is 90 per­cent.

In Jan­u­ary 2013, the Army expects to field anoth­er unit, F‑1, with 12 air­craft, a unit sim­i­lar to F‑227. Before deploy­ing to Afghanistan, the unit will par­tic­i­pate in an ini­tial oper­a­tional test­ing and eval­u­a­tion this sum­mer.

The Army hopes to even­tu­al­ly field a com­pa­ny-sized Gray Eagle unit to every divi­sion, offi­cials said.

Press release
U.S. Army