It is a common sports adage that the best offense is a good defense, and the same can be said of war. To attack one must also be able to defend, yet the tactics employed by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal a fundamental weakness in our ability to do so. Fortunately, U.S. forces have a strong ally in the counterinsurgency fight: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have relied on UAVs since the commencement of both conflicts but the Department of Defense is now expanding the attack with new technologies. Statements from Iraq and Afghanistan show field commanders cannot get enough of the remotely-piloted aircraft, which is translating to extensive developments in the market for UAV systems and upgrades. Many of the modifications are defense-oriented, such as improved radar and monitoring systems, which support counter-IED (improvised explosive device) missions, explosive ordnance disposal, route clearance operations, and convoy security. As a result, ground forces are in a better position to launch offensive attacks. The most recent example of the DoD bolstering defenses is the Marine Corps’ planned outfitting of the RQ-7 Shadow fleet with a laser designator and laser range finder.
Since it first entered the market the Shadow unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has logged over 500,000 flight hours, about 90 percent of which were flown by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. The mid-size platform is primarily used in surveillance operations but recent modifications are expanding its mission. The laser payload the Marines are installing is already in use by the Army and will help combat the threat of IEDs. The addition brings a seasoned veteran to the fight by integrating strike-capable, manned aircraft with the Shadow’s unmanned platform. The laser system will identify an IED and then “take over a missile fired from an AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet or AH-1 Cobra at standoff ranges and guide it toward [the] target,” Lieutenant Colonel Brad Beach, UAS Coordinator in the Marine Aviation Weapons Requirement Branch, told Inside the Navy in a May 26 interview.
AAI Corporation, an operating unit of Textron Systems and the manufacturer of the RQ-7 Shadow, also recently developed an extended wing design, an improved lithium battery, an electronic fuel injection engine and fuel system, modifications to encryption and One System Remote Video Terminals (OSRVTs), and a Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). The Army has already ordered 100 wing kits, which extend flight endurance by nearly three hours by increasing fuel cell capacity. In addition, the 2011 Army Aircraft Procurement budget calls for $916.3 million in RQ-7 Shadow modifications by 2015.
Defense is critical but at some point the offense needs to take the field to guarantee a win. For that reason the Army and Marine Corps hope to weaponize the Shadow platform itself within the next 12 to 18 months. The greatest obstacles to quickly getting the modifications in theater are tailoring a weapons system to the smaller aircraft body, the time required by extensive testing, and the United States’ treaty obligations with other countries.
The planned upgrades to the RQ-7 Shadow come amidst a debate over the military’s spotlight on counterinsurgency techniques. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently ordered the entire military to adopt Army General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency standards from Afghanistan, but Special Operations Command Chief Admiral Eric Olsen believes the approach restrains our forces. “Counterinsurgency should involve countering the insurgents,” he said. Continuing to weaponize UAVs will help follow through on this front while keeping soldiers safe in the backfield.
Find Archived Articles: