Warfare often brings leaps forward as technology adapts to new threats: the First World War brought maturity and experience to aviation generally, and the Second World War brought the same to the jet engine. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are decidedly lower-intensity than scenarios previously considered by US planners, but it has stimulated a host of innovations, most strikingly in the realm of unmanned air vehicles, which have evolved from largely theoretical options to battlefield essentials.
Perhaps the most fundamental transformations have taken place in the US Army, which has gone from using the ageing Northrop Grumman RQ-5 Hunter for artillery-spotting and occasional intelligence-gathering to employing a plethora of systems for everything from route clearance to communications relay to close air support. It is rare, now, for a ground commander to leave the safety of a forward operating base without some UAV capability overhead or nearby.
The army has several major UAV systems, the largest in number being the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven, Northrop Grumman RQ-5 Hunter, AAI RQ-7 Shadow and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator (of which it deploys a customised version).
Ft Benning, is a large, sprawling base in Georgia with plenty of room for ground manoeuvres but relatively limited airspace, and it is here that soldiers learn to use small UAVs such as the RQ-11 Raven and RQ-20 Puma, both built by Aerovironment. The Raven and Puma are hand-launched, rugged UAVs with limited capabilities, generally carried by infantrymen and used to peer around corners or over hills. These UAVs are nothing if not user-friendly, and are built for rapid assembly and disassembly, resistant to stress and easy to fly. They are relatively simple systems, though they require specialised training to operate and maintain.
TRAINING THE TRAINERS
Until recently, the army selected soldiers from bases all over the world and sent them to Ft Benning for training. The army is now familiar and at-ease enough with the Raven and Puma to realise that teaching new operators does not require much airspace, nor the expensive and time-consuming trip to Georgia. Instead, the service has taken a new approach: it has just graduated its first class of "master trainers", who will return to their home bases around the world and train others.
"Now we're training soldiers to become master trainers," says Col Grant Webb, the army's UAV capability manager at Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). "And this just started last month, [at the] beginning of October, so we've only graduated one class - and they will go back to their units and they have the authority to qualify new soldiers on Raven and Puma at their home station."
Much of this is allowed by limited "point and click" autonomy, allowing soldiers to simply select a route or target on the ground station and letting the UAV handle itself.
Soldiers are trained on larger UAVs, notably the RQ-7 Shadow and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Gray Eagle, at Ft Huachuca, in remote southern Arizona, where the airspace is virtually empty. Using such large aircraft requires Federal Aviation Administration approval when outside the large but scattered patches of military restricted areas, and UAVs often transit through civil airspace to reach training areas.
The larger aircraft are complicated and capable, requiring specialists whose sole responsibility is to fly the aircraft. At the moment, each UAV type requires its own specialised operator, or "15W", but the army is moving towards standardisation. To simplify training and logistics, the army is working to put all its larger systems on a universal ground control station (UGCS).
"Right now we're producing Shadow operators, Hunter operators and Gray Eagle operators," says Webb. "In the future we envision graduating one 15W operator capable of working at a UCGS and flying any one of those three platforms."
Despite some clear differences - Shadow uses a catapult to launch, while Gray Eagle uses a runway - many missions and flight profiles are shared across platforms. Given that the aircraft are using digital datalinks, where control input is sent through a computer, adjusting the flight experience for the operator is relatively easy. Some cross-platform training would be required, but the army is leaning towards displays that help the operator by displaying individualised procedures.
"There have been suggestions - we may go this way - [that] it may be as simple as putting the profile of whatever you're flying at the time at the top right or left corner of the screen," says Webb.
Simulators are taking a much larger training role than they once did, accounting for some 88 simulator hours over a 20-day period. The army is exploring how to increase simulator use. Aside from simply being cheaper, simulators present a more dynamic environment than an actual flight. Because UAVs are flown via GCS, a simulator can be almost as realistic as the real thing.
"If you're sitting in a shelter, do you actually know if the airplane is in the sky or not? That's a good question," says Webb.
Col Victor Hamilton, commander of the UAV training battalion at Ft Huachuca, notes that "the technology in simulation has gotten to the point where you can introduce variables into the mission all day, every day that you couldn't introduce in real flight".
LESSONS FROM THEATRE
Finally, a major change is the total shift from academic training to scenario-based training, kept current through frequent rotations to and from war zones. Even as operations in Afghanistan wind down, UAVs are likely to be among the last assets to leave the theatre, and may continue operations - albeit more limited operations - in support of special operations troops that may remain long after the official conflict is over.
That sort of constant feedback loop enables training to stay relevant, says Sgt Brian Miller, a trainer at Ft Huachuca. "It makes a big difference to a guy that's never been to combat, mainly in how to employ the system, versus a guy that's been before. You've got all these guys here at Ft Huachuca and they're constantly coming off rotation. We're constantly pulling them aside, saying: 'Hey, what did you see downrange?' And he says: 'This is what I saw' - and he's teaching his other instructors."
There are many open questions surrounding future development of UAV training. Among the most crucial of outstanding questions is interoperability with crewed aircraft and helicopters. Current cutting-edge practice includes transmitting the UAV's video feed to an airborne helicopter, often to seek or track targets for an attack helicopter. But the army is examining higher levels of interoperability, including controlling a UAV - or even multiple UAVs - from the helicopter cockpit. What degree of autonomy this may require from the UAV, given the workload of helicopter crews, remains to be seen.