US Army aviation will shift over the next 25 years to operating mostly unmanned aircraft that will take on new missions, including cargo re-supply, and be equipped with new sensors and weapons, including small lasers.

The army's dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is encapsulated in the UAS Roadmap, which was unveiled by Gen Peter Chiarelli on 15 April at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual convention in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The UAS roadmap is not -- and I repeat, is not -- a budget or acquisition policy document," says Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the army. "It is a long range strategic vision."

The army UAS centre of excellence will update the roadmap every two years so it can adapt as new technology and requirements materialize, he says.

The strategic blueprint leaves unanswered several immediate questions about army aviation. For instance, the army intends to replace the Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior with a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, but the document does not clarify the near-term strategy, which remains under review.

But the roadmap nonetheless outlines a series of ambitious objectives for army aviation. The US Air Force roadmap, by contrast, foresees manned aircraft remaining the principal strike aircraft over the next 30 years.

But the army envisions that technology and a changing culture will allow unmanned aircraft to expand beyond the surveillance and communications relay missions mostly performed today.

By 2035, the army's UAS roadmap predicts unmanned aircraft also will fly nearly all missions for attack, armed reconnaissance and cargo re-supply.

Only the utility and medical evacuation roles will remain predominantly the domain of manned aircraft. Even the manned aircraft that remain in the inventory, including Boeing AH-64 Apaches and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks, will likely be modified to also serve as unmanned, or optionally piloted vehicles (OPVs).

"Over the next 25 years," the roadmap states, "the army aviation force mix shifts from being almost entirely manned to consisting of mostly unmanned and OPV."

The roadmap also confirms that army aviation's leadership have embraced the cargo re-supply mission for unmanned aircraft. Then around 2020, the army foresees one-fourth of all re-supply missions conducted by unmanned or optionally-piloted aircraft.

The document also shows the army plans to acquire a new class of small UAS for battalion-level missions. The aircraft - notionally described in the roadmap as the AeroVironment Puma and Honeywell gMAV - will fill a gap above and below currently occupied by the AeroVironment Raven.

Source: Flight International