Drone moves in real time
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — High in the night sky somewhere downrange, an unmanned drone loiters unheard, unseen, over terrain where insurgents have been operating.
Miles away, an Apache attack helicopter hovers, its two-man crew able to control from the cockpit the drone’s flight path, camera angle and weapons payload.
The drone’s camera picks up insurgents planting a roadside bomb.
The pilot-gunner moves some controls and, using an electronic link to the faraway drone, the insurgents are caught in his crosshairs. A laser beam locks on the enemy’s position, and a Hellfire streaks off the drone, homing on the laser and exploding amid the insurgents.
That scenario — which the U.S. Army hopes to make a reality by 2012 — could usher in sweeping changes to helicopter warfare, Army officials and Apache pilots say.
"Think of this as a set of hunting dogs — the [drone] out in front of the hunter, the Apache," said Tim Owings, the Army’s deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft systems with the Program Executive Office Aviation, at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
Apaches can now receive real-time video from drones, a major benefit in combat, the Army says. But technical upgrades planned for the next generation of the Army’s AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters would give crews the ability to control a drone’s flight path, sensors and weapons.
Apaches could be linked to any type of drone that’s fitted with the necessary communications gear.
The Army aims to produce 250 Apaches equipped to control drones, officials said. Installing the hardware in those 250 Apaches so that crews would have what the Army calls "Level 4" capability — control of the drone’s flight path, sensors and weapons — is projected to cost about $750 million to $1 billion, said Sofia C. Bledsoe, a spokeswoman for PEO Aviation. The upgrade would pay off in combat by enabling Apache crews to more readily view the battlefield from whatever vantage they wanted, and to more quickly attack targets, because they’d be able to control the drone’s path, camera and weapons themselves instead of using ground controllers as go-betweens, Army officials say.
Although the Air Force has a well-developed drone capability, the Army wants to give its own forces that capability, allowing ground commanders to react immediately to sudden changes on the battlefield, Army officials say.
The Air Force can control unmanned drones over the battlefield from ground control stations in the United States. Operators control "every facet" — manipulating a drone’s camera, seeing its video and launching its weapons, said Air Force Capt. Albert Bosco of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force.
But its drones are tied to the theater-wide priorities of the senior commander and are in "high demand," Bosco said.
"The fact of the matter is there are not enough [drones] to go around," he said. "It’s going to be a priority like everything else."
Even if an Air Force drone is available, a request to send one out might be denied. For example, if the nearest drone is too far away to be of use to ground troops in time, the Air Force might instead assign a fighter jet, Bosco said.
By contrast, the Army currently uses its own attack helicopters and drones on its part of the battlefield.
"It enables the ground commander that is close to that battle to — real time — maneuver those assets … and develop the situation" directly, said Col. Shane T. Openshaw, Apache project manager with PEO Aviation.
And instead of having to fly over the enemy and risk exposure to ground fire, they can stay clear of the danger zone, still see the enemy in real time, and launch attacks, all by relying on their ability to control the drone.
The upgrades also have the potential to help avert "friendly-fire" incidents and other cases of mistaken targeting, Army officials and Apache pilots say.
Such lethal mistakes can occur when pilots in the air and troops giving them information on the ground "do not have a 100 percent common picture of that environment," Openshaw said.
"This will help to eliminate some of that uncertainty."
Officials say they hope to begin equipping the first Apache unit with the upgraded helicopters by late 2012. A test of a limited number of aircraft is set for November.