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Army Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Present Focus & Future Plans

AUSA Winter, Huntsville, Alabama

February 2014

Lt. Col. Nickolas Kioutas, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Product Manager

DSJ had a chance at the AUSA Winter 2014 Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama for an extended discussion with Lt. Col. Nickolas Kioutas, the Army’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Product Manager.  Our focus was to determine where the Army is going with its SUAS fleet and how and when it will get there. 

Lt. Col. Kioutas explained that the November 2013 Army approval of a new Capability Production Document (CPD) for the Family of Small UAS – a plan a long time in coming – outlines where the Army wants to go.  He also described how he and this team intend to extend the reach and impact of the existing SUAS fleet while reducing its cost of sustainment.

Future SUAS Force Structure

Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that the new CPD outlines basic capabilities and Army Acquisition Objectives (AAOs) for Short-Range Micro (SRM), Medium-Range Mobile (MRM), and Long-Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance (LRRS) classes of aircraft.  The gaps compared with the current SUAS force structure vary greatly by class:

·     The AAO of 3,604 Medium-Range Mobile (MRM) aircraft is met by the more than 6,000 RQ-11B Raven aircraft presently in inventory.  Indeed, Lt. Co. Kioutas notes that some of the fielded RQ-11 systems will likely be removed from the Army’s Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE).

·     The roughly 1000 RQ-20A Puma aircraft in the Army inventory go some distance towards meeting the Army’s Long-Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance (LRRS) AAO of 1,213, but Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that additional LRRS buys – and by no means necessarily limited to the RQ-20 – will be contemplated.

·     The Army has no program of record for the Short-Range Micro (SRM) SUAS, for which the CPD posits an AAO of 1,580 aircraft.  As projected, the SRM will be a small “perch-and-stare” system seemingly therefore likely to employ vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability.  While Lt. Col. Kioutas concedes that there is no funding presently projected in the budget for the SRM class, he anticipates that the Army will budget for this system beginning in the FY17-21 budget planning documents.

The Army will initiate actions to adjust the MTOEs to reflect the tailored mixture of the three types of aircraft described in the CPD.  That process may extend over a couple years.  The number of MRM, SRM, or LRRS in any unit will vary according to the unit type (Infantry, Engineer, Military Police, etc.), reflecting the requirements flowing from the roles and missions of that unit.  The three aircraft will leverage common control hardware and software and share the Digital Data Link (DDL) presently fielded with the Raven and Puma systems.

Diversifying the Contractor Base, Ensuring Open Systems

As the manufacturer of the Raven and the Puma as well as their associated EO/IR payloads, it is no secret that Monrovia, California-base AeroVironment Inc. (AV) has dominated the Army’s SUAS portfolio.  It is also no secret that while the Pentagon has been pleased with the overall performance of the company and its SUAS offering, the Army has sought to diversify its supplier base in an effort to save money.

Lt. Col. Kioutas says that, in the past, the Army has had little choice but to buy AV’s UAS controller.  That exclusive situation is changing, he notes, with the development and validation of the Tactical Open Government Architecture (TOGA) controller. Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that he anticipates a first TOGA prototype to be complete by April and, funding pending, production commencing next June.  The TOGA will provide a government owned or government purpose rights architecture that will form the core of the acquisition strategy, allowing the addition of any aircraft to the family and achieving the best value to the government.

When asked about the impact of the December 2012 award of five-year indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contract worth up to $248 million to five companies – AV, Altavian, Elbit Systems of America, Innovative Automation Technologies, and Lockheed Martin -- to provide SUAS aircraft and parts, Lt. Col. Kioutas touted the results.  “We had a goal of reducing our SUAS sustainment costs by 30% through the use of the new contracting vehicle.  We saved 35% over the prior year and want to save another 10% this year.”

While Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that some of AV’s systems and parts are proprietary in nature and cannot be provided by other contractors, the program office is endeavoring to “second source” wherever it can as means to introduce additional competition.  Batteries, packaging, propellers, and “even a second-source gimbal” are among the components that the office will seek to compete moving forward.

“Embracing the Small” to Extend SUAS Application and Impact

With the development and fielding of a new SRM thus several years in the future and with present funding at a low ebb, Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that he and his colleagues have “embraced the small” and says that he is accordingly “focused on shrinking everything” -- shrinking costs, soldier physical load, soldier cognitive load (think two systems per soldier rather than two soldiers per system), time-to-award, sensor-to-shooter timelines, and training time (think five days versus six weeks of required training).

Lt. Col. Kioutas notes that these goals look to extend the application and impact of existing SUAS on the battlefield.  He points out that in February 2014, the SUAS pushed information to the tactical edge within an Army Expeditionary Warfighting Experiment (AEWE) at Fort Benning, Georgia.  In the experiment, soldiers, for the first time, employed tactical radios to receive the Army Raven and Puma Full Motion Video (FMV) at extended ranges and display it on new NETT Warrior End User Devices (EUDs).  Those EUDs used an application to process the FMV producing targetable coordinates for fire support in near real-time.

 “Embracing the small” indeed.

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