A top US Army acquisition official has conceded that a legitimate, but limited, role exists today on the battlefield for an unmanned cargo aircraft.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle System International's Unmanned Systems Programme Review on 3 February, the service's UAS deputy programme manager Tim Owings, said: "We ought to be doing that. We've had issues early on in Afghanistan where it was simply impossible to resupply small units due to a combination of hostile fire and altitude conditions there. I personally think we ought to have the ability to do that with an unmanned system. It completely changes your decision calculus if you don't have to worry about losing a crew."

The concept of deploying unmanned aircraft with large cargo payloads is not new. A Lockheed Martin/Kaman team in June 2008 demonstrated how an unmanned K-Max helicopter could fly an autonomous route with a 1,360kg (3,000lb) sling-load. The demonstration was performed before an audience of army and US Marine Corps officials at Fort Eustis, Virginia.

However, despite Owings' personal support, the army has not decided to acquire such a system. But Owings says the service is providing "moral support" to a USMC plan to launch an advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD) to test the validity of an unmanned cargo aircraft. However, Maj Thomas Heffern, the USMC's unmanned aircraft systems capabilities officer, says the ACTD has not been funded.

Owings also acknowledged the source of the army's reluctance to invest in the unmanned cargo concept. "There's a more complex case when you get into routine resupply," he says. "You have to really make a case at that point of cost effectiveness, I believe. And you have to make sure that you can indeed do it as reliably and as cost-effective as the manned side. I think the jury is still out on if that can be done or not."

Source: Flight International