AUVSI: Manned-unmanned teaming key to US Army aviation shake-up

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Teaming unmanned air systems with manned aircraft is one of the keys in the ongoing reorganization of the US Army aviation branch, says the service’s Lt Gen Kevin Mangum.

Speaking at the opening general session of the AUVSI convention on 13 May, the deputy commanding general of the army's training and doctrine command shared an anecdote that describes the army's future.

A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle flying overhead during a recent exercise discovered an enemy target, Mangum says.

The target information was relayed to a Boeing AH-64 Apache sitting on the ground. The Apache pilot - a warrant officer - normally would have to take off, find the target and engage. This time, however, the pilot was still on the ground in Apache cockpit when he called in an artillery strike on the simulated target identified by the Gray Eagle.

"He destroyed the enemy capability without even having to take-off," Mangum says.

Such an example is only the beginning of the operational improvements made possible by manned-unmanned teaming, Mangum says.

Mangum proposes removing aircraft self-protection equipment from manned aircraft and installing it on unmanned aircraft, in order for the latter to provide a "bubble" of protection from hostile fire around a group of manned aircraft. The latter could then carry more fuel to increase their range and endurance, Mangum says.

Mangum also calls on the AUVSI audience to push the army's thinking on what is possible. "We look forward to teaming with you and to you challenging us on how we can use our technology," Mangum says. "We've got to keep pace with you."

The army has proposed divesting the Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior in part to fund the conversion of the AH-64E standard, which includes the ability for the pilot to control an unmanned vehicle and its sensor. But Mangum acknowledged there is not enough funding yet.

"We do need to make some more investment there but we have that capability today," Mangum says.