Send in the Calvary to Rescue Our Drone Industry

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The Army’s imminent UAS choices have dramatic implications for military and civil success and security.

Few citizens realize how important the U.S. Army is to our nation outside its national defense. The Army Corps of Engineers keeps our rivers flowing while keeping our cities flood-free. The Army Medical Corps is reinforcing our nation’s hospitals during the current pandemic. Our Army provides the vast majority of any domestic disaster response. What the American Army is most famous for, however, is sending in the cavalry over the horizon in the nick of time to save fellow Americans from gruesome deaths. Can the U.S. Army do the same for our domestic drone industry?

The Army is running three major UAS acquisition initiatives that will have a significant impact on reviving small and medium-sized drone manufacturing in the U.S.: the Air Launched Effects (ALE) program, the Future Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (FTUAS) program and the Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) program. ALE involves a mini-drone launched from MQ-1C Gray Eagles or helos to extend its sensor range and attack targets. The FTUAS program aims to replace the Textron RQ-7 Shadow platform for brigade operations, with the successor having the potential to become the backbone of the commercial beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) fleet. And the Army’s SRR program will bring quadcopters to the battalion and company level, possibly even the squad level. I’m watching the SRR effort the closest because, with its concentration on smart quadcopter advancements, it might just knock DJI back from its monopoly on small-drone manufacturing and help revive the suffering domestic effort.

For some backdrop, the table shows how the Army organizes its drones. Generally, the bigger the unit, the larger the drones.

INTRA-ARMY ALIGNMENT

Echeloning creates several different cultures within the Army, and each one views drones differently. Division-and-above echelons have big drones, which drives an aviation versus military intelligence (MI) culture clash that resembles the friction between pilots and intelligence in the Air Force. Army aviators used to view drones as a bit beneath them and only useful to the MI guys, but they changed their tune after 9/11, when they found drones could save lives by finding the enemy without exposing soldiers to heavy hostile fire. MI, like Air Force Intelligence, hasn’t cared if it flies, hovers, swims or walks—if it gathers intelligence. Nothing gathers more intel than drones, so MI personnel have been fervent drone enthusiasts since the 70s.

The minor dissonance between aviation and MI is over what to put on the MQ-1C Gray Eagle; MI wants more sensors, while aviation wants ALE that Grey Eagles can launch to avoid going down some valley lined with anti-aircraft artillery. Aviation has been more persuasive so far. The major clash between aviation and MI is also like the Air Force’s in that it pits buying new manned aircraft versus already-fielded drones. Aviation wants two new manned helicopters: the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft. MI likes drones because they can stay over a target for a long time and gather much more information than a manned helo.

Compounding this fight is the Army decision to only allow non-commissioned officers (NCOs or sergeants) to fly drones. Hence, the Army does not have an officer corps that is committed to its success like the Air Force has with its Remote Pilot corps. If Air Force experience is any guide, DOD will tell the Army to keep the MQ-1C in the fight and figure out how to buy new helos with other funding. The only thing that gives me pause is the fact that the Air Force will still retain a hefty MQ-9 Reaper capability. Perhaps the Army could rely on the Air Force for air support instead. I know, crazy—right?

The infantry dominates the field in brigade-and-below drones. Infantrymen are the ultimate utilitarians, constantly asking themselves if a new widget is worth more than the ammunition it replaces in the 120-pound rucks they carry up mountainsides. The Global War on Terrorism convinced the infantry that drones were worth their weight, mainly because they saved trips up those mountainsides. Infantrymen approach all objects the same way—it can stay if it is useful, if it can operate in absolutely any kind of weather and if it cannot be broken by stressed-out 18-year-olds. Hence, the FTUAS will NOT use the tons of equipment needed to launch/recover the Shadow. That stuff will not fit in a ruck. The SRR drone WILL be at three pounds so it only displaces three M-4 magazines per ruck.

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THE FUTURE TACTICAL COMPETITION

The FTUAS is proceeding like a normal Army acquisition program, with the Army Materiel Command’s Program Manager for UAS (PM UAS) spending $99.5 million to buy and evaluate four of 11 offered drone designs. As Technology Reporter Vicki Speed details in the article that follows this one, the candidates are Textron’s Aerosonde catapult/net vehicle, L3Harris’ Apex catapult/chute approach, Martin UAV’s V-BAT vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) entry, and another VTOL, the Arcturus Jump 20. The interesting part of the FTUAS process is that the Command assigned each selected drone to an active brigade for appraisal by actual infantrymen and not by acquisition personnel.

I’m not taking bets on which will be chosen for FTUAS. From a practical standpoint, Aerosonde and Apex should be out of the running because their catapults won’t fit in a ruck. However, Aerosonde is an ultra-reliable system with plenty of flight hours behind it and very difficult for 18-year-olds to break. Apex is an American-built Israeli design with electric motors that are hard to hear from 100 yards away—quiet counts in combat. The Martin UAV V-BAT has a downright interesting “tail-sitter” design, in which its VTOL launch capability transitions into horizontal flight without needing complex gears or extra motors—no catapult needed either. Arcturus uses a design popular with commercial drones—separate sets of motors for VTOL and horizontal flight. Plenty of hours are behind this concept, but it does involve extra weight for the motors that aren’t being used. All four companies are American, manufactured in America, and use American or allied components.

The FTUAS program is coming along in the nick of time because the American drone industry needs a solid, dependable, made-in-the-U.S. medium-sized drone to be the backbone of its BVLOS capability. In this issue’s column, I predicted the USAF MQ-9 would become the DC-3 of the large commercial-drone industry. I think the FTUAS drone will be the Jeep of the medium-sized commercial-drone fleet. Just like the Air Force never predicted the DC-3 would go from dropping the 101st Airborne over Normandy to supporting the same unit with DC-3 gunships over Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, I’ll bet the world can’t guess what variants will spring from the FTUAS. Also, let’s not forget that John Wayne didn’t just ride horses to the rescue in all those Army movies; he did his best work from a Jeep. My favorite Duke role? Paratroop commander with a broken ankle from a DC-3 drop over Normandy. He couldn’t have saved all those Americans in “The Longest Day” without an American-made Jeep to ride on. The 21st-century John Wayne will use the FTUAS to watch over his troops and, just like the Jeep, civilians will probably buy a bundle of ‘em after the war.

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BUY-AMERICAN SSR?

SSR is the program the American commercial small-drone industry is counting on to ride over the horizon and rescue it from the Chinese hold on it—IF there’s an intelligently used “save fellow Americans” criteria and not the “parts built by the lowest bidder” measure most acquisition folks adhere to. Now is not the time for that mentality. The U.S. small-drone industry needs its Army to help it because Chinese-made drones make up more than 80 percent of the registered drones in America today.

The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), working with the Army PM UAS, is running the SRR program and gave five companies $11 million total to hand over prototypes to the Maneuver Battle Lab for testing. There weren’t many requirements for the project other than that the contenders weigh less than three pounds, fly for 30 minutes, have a range of at least two miles, take less than two minutes to assemble and (you guessed it!) fit in a standard ruck.

However, this short list of requirements gives some pause. DIU apparently didn’t ask for an American-built drones or ones made with mainly American parts because it allowed Parrot to compete. Parrot is a French company. Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against our oldest ally. But I do have concerns with how Parrot manufactures its drones. Parrot drones are 100 percent assembled in China with nearly 100 percent Chinese parts. Aside from giving Parrot an unfair advantage because the Chinese supply chain is cheaper, this creates a potentially massive security problem. Parrot can valiantly attempt to limit Chinese intelligence access to its drones, but it will never be able to stop Chinese agents from getting onto the assembly line or accessing the drones during the shipping process. Hence, we will never be sure that our soldiers aren’t carrying GPS beacons in their rucks that will give Chinese intelligence the location of every squad in the U.S. Army.

Security concerns aside, allowing Parrot to compete also sounds contrary to guidance in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to buy American. And it is specifically counter to DOD guidance to stop buying commercial drones made in foreign countries. I know the infantry is firmly in control of this acquisition and its heart is in the right place, so I sure hope they are talking to the MI guys. Intel will know the risk they run by buying drones that are Chinese in everything but name.

The problem is the MI guys don’t get formally involved in unclassified procurement. If the military procures an electronic item for an intelligence facility, the Defense Security Service is all over the procurement. They vet the manufacturer to make sure it is not a Chinese front company, they make sure all the high risk cybercomponents come from trusted partners and, if it is a big procurement, they do a risk assessment of the entire system. If that same electronic item is for an infantry ruck no one runs these checks. Parrot is an obvious example because they manufacture in China, but who’s to know if Chinese investors have an interest in any other SSR competitor? The DOD made an attempt to vet companies for unclassified procurement with its Trusted Capital Fund but it held its first meeting nearly a year ago and it’s been nil heard since then. It doesn’t appear they were involved in SRR either.

All the SRR competitors are clearly useful, but when one looks at the other informal requirements for infantry objects—operates in absolutely any weather and cannot be broken by stressed 18-year-olds—the field narrows considerably. Only the Altavian Ion M440 has an all-weather controller and air vehicle. And it also has the bonus of being the only one that can be operated with gloves on. However, all the competitors BUT Altavian are offering commercial drones that have plenty of experience with civilian 18-year-olds handling them. The question then becomes, will an 0.7-pound drone really survive in combat under the not-so-gentle care of an 18-year-old infantryman wearing 100 pounds of gear while getting shot at in a muddy foxhole at night, in the rain?

I think the SRR program’s selections will end up being the civilian-drone equivalent of the U.S. Army’s greatest contribution to mankind (next to that whole winning two world wars stuff). That’s right—I think the SRR might just be the duct tape of the small-drone world. Few know it, but duct tape was invented by the U.S. Army. I spent Desert Storm with the U.S. Army so I know first-hand how important duct tape is to land combat. You can fix or do just about ANYTHING with duct tape. Heck, we even had a sofa and lounge chairs made from the stuff. If we do get an American-made small drone that the infantry likes more than extra ammo, my suggestion is to make a duct tape wallet, and then bet what’s in it on the winning SRR drones.

And if you still aren’t sure, my son confirms that his generation really DOES still watch those John Wayne movies where the Duke leads in the calvary right in the nick of time. It is no coincidence that the Duke’s gear was all American-made, or that history repeats itself. The Army, they got this.

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