USA — Shadow ‘enhanced platoons’ meet growing need in Afghanistan

HUNTSVILLE, AL — When the Afghan the­ater com­man­der called on the Army to increase the num­ber of Shad­ow pla­toons in the­ater dur­ing the height of the 2011 Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom sum­mer cam­paign, the Army was ready to answer the call.

Two unmanned air­craft sys­tem oper­a­tors per­form flight checks and pre­pare the Shad­ow unmanned air­craft sys­tem, or UAS. The Shad­ow is the Army’s medi­um-sized UAS and pro­vides near real-time recon­nais­sance, sur­veil­lance and tar­get acqui­si­tion for up to 12 hours of con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion with­in a 24-hour peri­od. It is the Army’s UAS work­horse and has flown more than 700,000 flight hours.
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Gen. David Petraeus, who was the Afghan the­ater com­man­der at the time, saw the need to put more “eyes in the sky” as crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the campaign. 

There was only one problem. 

The very thing that made the RQ-7B Shad­ow unmanned air­craft sys­tem so attrac­tive was also a limitation. 

Shad­ow pla­toons are an organ­ic sup­port to their par­ent brigade com­bat team and Spe­cial Forces groups. That means that to deploy a pla­toon sep­a­rate from its par­ent BCT would strip that brigade of its UAS pla­toon dur­ing its next deploy­ment. With a Boots on the Ground/Dwell ratio, which is the time deployed vs. time home at near­ly 1:1, it meant there were no uncom­mit­ted forces in the active Army component. 

“Even the Army Nation­al Guard, that were also heav­i­ly com­mit­ted at the time, could not sup­port the request,” said Todd Smith, deputy prod­uct man­ag­er for Ground Maneu­ver Unmanned Air­craft Sys­tems, or UAS. Their issue was com­pound­ed by an even longer dwell require­ment that would remove the unit from the rota­tion for four years after commitment. 

The team, which con­sist­ed of the Army Staff, the UAS Project Office, Nation­al Guard Bureau, and AAI, began work­ing fever­ish­ly to find a solu­tion to pro­vide imme­di­ate sup­port to the Sol­diers in theater. 

The Shad­ow is the Army’s medi­um-sized UAS that, while not as capa­ble as larg­er plat­forms such as the MQ-1C Gray Eagle or the MQ‑9 Reaper, has built a sol­id rep­u­ta­tion as a depend­able work­horse, sur­pass­ing all oth­er Army UAS in flight hours with more than 700,000 logged and has been very suc­cess­ful at meet­ing the brigade and below mis­sions. The Shad­ow sys­tem is designed for a crew of 22 and pro­vides 12 hours of recon­nais­sance in a 24-hour period. 

Tim­ing was crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the Afghan sum­mer campaign. 

All the U.S. mil­i­tary ser­vices were called by Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates to find a solu­tion to close this capa­bil­i­ty gap. While sev­er­al ideas for incre­men­tal improve­ments were sug­gest­ed, none were suf­fi­cient in scope, accord­ing to Smith. 

But after much debate, the Army pro­posed a bold shift in how Shad­ow pla­toons would be employed and focused on increas­ing their oper­a­tional tem­po instead of just adding more units. 

“Sim­ply put, the Army sug­gest­ed adding an addi­tion­al Ground Con­trol Sta­tion, two air­craft and nine con­tract per­son­nel to each brigade’s Shad­ow pla­toon with the intent of facil­i­tat­ing a sec­ond mis­sion string per day,” Smith said. The con­trac­tors would take over the launch and recov­ery duties of the pla­toon free­ing the Sol­diers to con­cen­trate on fly­ing the actu­al missions.” 

“The result effec­tive­ly dou­bles pla­toons’ poten­tial oper­a­tions tem­po, or OPTEMPO, while requir­ing the addi­tion of less than half the per­son­nel and equip­ment of anoth­er pla­toon,” Smith said. 

The Army had pre­vi­ous­ly exper­i­ment­ed with a sim­i­lar con­cept when it deployed in 2010 with the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion, accord­ing to Smith. 

“We called it the ‘Super Pla­toon,’ which was a 35-Sol­dier con­cept that orig­i­nat­ed ear­ly in the pro­gram to meet increased oper­a­tional and main­te­nance requirements.” 

The con­cept added one addi­tion­al GCS and a hand­ful of con­tract oper­a­tors to expand the Shad­ow cov­er­age with­in a BCT’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty. While this ini­tia­tive was not orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to increase OPTEMPO, it did show the via­bil­i­ty of the idea and did not break the Army’s red­line resourc­ing require­ments. More impor­tant­ly, it proved very cost effective. 

The sec­re­tary, see­ing that this ini­tia­tive exceed­ed the orig­i­nal sup­port request, approved the Army’s plan with one change. 

In the Army’s orig­i­nal plan, the stand­ing up of nine sites would be a phased approach over the next year to allow time to train the need­ed con­trac­tors. The sec­re­tary, mind­ful of the impor­tance of the cur­rent cam­paign sea­son, request­ed the plan be accel­er­at­ed through the use of Soldiers. 

How­ev­er, this request, which equat­ed to approx­i­mate­ly four pla­toons of per­son­nel, placed the Army back into its orig­i­nal predica­ment. “We were again unable to source addi­tion­al pla­toons with­out strip­ping them from oth­er deploy­ing units,” Smith said. 

The issue was quick­ly over­come, how­ev­er, thanks to the time­ly input of the Army Nation­al Guard, or ARNG, staff that iden­ti­fied four pla­toons that had not deployed with the par­ent pla­toon either because they were field­ed after the BCT had deployed or because the BCT had a mis­sion that did­n’t require the Shad­ow Platoon. 

“As this was a one-time mobi­liza­tion, the Guard felt con­fi­dent this deploy­ment would not impact their abil­i­ty to meet mis­sion,” Smith said. 

The end result became the ini­tia­tive called “Enhanced Pla­toons” that near­ly dou­bled Shad­ow sup­port to Oper­a­tion Endur­ing Free­dom, or OEF, while pre­serv­ing their organ­ic rela­tion­ship with the BCTs and Spe­cial Forces groups that have made them so successful. 

With the units iden­ti­fied, the invol­un­tary mobi­liza­tion of these per­son­nel was quick­ly approved, waiv­ing the nor­mal 180-day notice and reduc­ing the time to less than 30 days to be at their mobi­liza­tion stations. 

To fur­ther accel­er­ate the deploy­ment, the Army and ARNG were able to short­en the pre­de­ploy­ment train­ing from 90 to 30 days, allow­ing the first pla­toons to arrive in the­ater less than two and a half months from first notification. 

With the imme­di­ate require­ment to get per­son­nel and equip­ment deployed resolved, the Army, work­ing through the UAS Project Office, began build­ing their con­trac­tor replacements. 

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the Army had cre­at­ed four gov­ern­ment-owned con­trac­tor-oper­at­ed pla­toons that were deployed to Afghanistan in sup­port of Spe­cial cus­tomers. PM UAS was able to lever­age this con­tract­ing vehi­cle and their train­ing site at Dug­way Prov­ing Ground, Utah, to cre­ate the addi­tion­al per­son­nel need­ed to man the sites. 

While the orig­i­nal plan was to push the con­trac­tors in as soon as each site team was trained up, the intro­duc­tion of the ARNG per­son­nel allowed the Army to delay their deploy­ment and align them with the ARNG nine-month rotation. 

In May, the last of the ARNG per­son­nel were replaced by con­tac­tors, turn­ing the effort into an endur­ing mission. 

“Born of a great need, this effort sur­passed all expec­ta­tions in both speed of deploy­ment and qual­i­ty of sup­port,” Smith explained. 

Although the orig­i­nal request was to sat­is­fy a short-term surge require­ment, less than two months after the first unit’s arrival, the­ater lead­er­ship request­ed the sup­port be extend­ed indef­i­nite­ly as the new Shad­ow base­line. This request and result­ing solu­tion pro­posed by Sol­diers and civil­ians has fun­da­men­tal­ly changed how the Army fights the Shad­ow system. 

Feed­back from the­ater has been very pos­i­tive since deploy­ment of the enhanced pla­toons, Smith said. 

“Over the last year, Shad­ow pla­toons have flown 111,000 hours, the major­i­ty of which were in Afghanistan,” Smith said. “The surge enabled units to fly over 10,000 more hours in OEF than pre­vi­ous years.” Addi­tion­al­ly, they were able to main­tain over 96 per­cent avail­abil­i­ty dur­ing this period. 

The Nation­al Guard surge pro­vid­ed much-need­ed sup­port to the war in OEF when it appeared none was avail­able. AAI, the mak­er of the Shad­ow sys­tem, respond­ed quick­ly and effi­cient­ly to sup­port the ini­tial surge, Smith said, and is now pro­vid­ing con­trac­tor per­son­nel to replace return­ing Soldiers. 

“The true suc­cess of this effort rests with the Sol­diers and civil­ians who over­came every obsta­cle to sup­port the Sol­diers down­range,” he said. 

U.S. Army 

Team GlobDef

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