In early 2021 the U.S. Army conducted its first live test of a new mission-update system that uses an army Gray Eagle (improved Predator) UAV flying with or ahead of UH-60 troops carrying helicopters and launches smaller ALE-L (Air-Launched Effects-Large) disposable powered UAVs that can move at high speed, up to 360 kilometers an hour, for about 40 minutes and transmit photos and electronic emissions found around the helicopter LZ (Landing Zone). In the transport helicopters troops see this real-time information on tablet computers equipped with mission planning software that is modified to accept the ALE-L updates so that during a 30-40-minute helicopter ride the troops can get updates on what is going on near their LZ. This can often be a matter of life or death because an LZ is selected beforehand as an area where the terrain and lack of armed opposition is favorable to the helicopters getting in and out after unloading their troops safely, but as close as possible to the ground objective the troops are after. The army press release did not provide many details on the new ALE-L or the real-time updates for the mission planning software. It was also not mentioned that all this new tech is evolutionary not revolutionary.
The ALE-L, whatever its exact specs are, is based on loitering-munitions that have been around for over a decade. Mission planning software was first developed for military aircraft so the crew would know what each mission involved, especially a combat mission. The ground forces, especially SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have long monitored developments in this area, which is not that difficult because there are army and air force aviation components of SOCOM that pioneer the development of new mission planning systems as part of their job.
Mission planning for ground troops developed quickly after 2000 as commercial satellite photography became available to everyone via Google Earth. Meanwhile advances in gaming software, where successful designs depended on more realistic NPCs (non-player characters) or computerized opponents led to the development of two technologies SOCOM adapted for mission planning. The first was ScenGen, an app that quickly calculates all the possible outcomes for a mission. ScenGen deals with a limited number, as defined by the mission planner, of actions in a mission. The action list can be changed and ScenGen run again. With an app like ScenGen planners and commanders can quickly see which aspects of the mission are most likely to cause problems and address those issues.
Something like ScenGen is particularly useful when used with a mission planning system like LGC (Lt.Gen Computer) that adds photo analysis tools that enable 2-D digital photos to be quickly transformed into 3-D models of the battlefield terrain. LGC helps troops with sorting out what the easiest routes (traversability) are and what you can see from any point in an area (for line-of-sight to potential targets.) Changes in traversability, caused by weather or enemy actions, often requires changes to a mission plan.
Troops have long been asking for capabilities of apps like ScenGen and LGC. The troops also want mission planning software that is easy to use, does what needs to be done, and fits on a laptop computer or tablet. Since 2014 the latest mission planning systems combined digital maps and 3-D gaming technology with military procedures and equipment specifications to produce programs that enable commanders, and troops to quickly put together a simulation of a mission. This is what mission planning is all about. Apps like ScenGen and LGC take a lot of the risk out of combat by enabling the troops to get a better look at the battlefield, and try out moves before they do it under enemy fire, and also be able to quickly adjust a plan to changes in the situation.
SOCOM had earlier addressed the LZ monitoring issue in 2014 with the EMC2 (Enroute Mission Command Capability) system. This is a software package that operates inside U.S. Air Force C-17 and C-130 transports when carrying commandos, rangers or paratroopers as they are being flown to an operation where they will parachute in. This trip often involves eight hours or more in the air, especially if the flight is from the United States to some distant hotspot. During that time the situation at the destination can change quite a lot and the troops have to be kept up to date. There have been products similar to EMC2 available for over a decade, but with much slower data links, as in varying degrees of dial up modem speed, and not as much supporting software. EMC2 addressed a lot of these shortcomings and the solutions that have long been on SOF operators’ wish lists.
EMC2 featured use of internet service, mission planning apps, video, handling highly classified intelligence and collaboration apps so commanders on the aircraft can communicate with those on the ground or other aircraft. The aircraft are equipped with flat screen PC terminals that could also be used for teleconferencing. Data can also be transferred to tablets and smartphone type devices used by officers, NCOs and troops on board. Word of EMC2 and its success got to the many more ground troops who conducted a lot more air-mobile missions via helicopter and wanted the same capability to monitor the LZ.
The ALE-L UAV is described in mysterious tones and without much detail but it sounds like an update of the MALD (miniature air-launched decoy) disposable decoy that entered service with the air force and navy over a decade ago. MALD is a powered decoy that appears on enemy radar to be a warplane. Later came MALD-J, a radar jamming version.
MALD is three meters (9.5 feet) long and its pop-out wings give it a 1.55- meter (five foot) wingspan. The 130 kg (285 pound) decoy is powered by a small turbojet engine that gives it a speed of up to 1,000 kilometers an hour, for 45 minutes, at 11,000 meters (35,000 feet), or 20 minutes at 1,000 meters (3,100 feet). It can be programmed to fly a specific course to try and get enemy air defenses to open up so the enemy weapons can be spotted and destroyed. MALDs are also designed to be used in swarms to overwhelm enemy air defenses. MALDs cost nearly $300,000 each. The MALD-J is more expensive and about five percent heavier. The MALD-J has been so successful in tests that the air force is converting 200 of its MALDs to MALD-J.
The Gray Eagle (MQ-1C) UAV described as using ALE-L can already carry four Hellfire missiles. These weigh up to 49 kg (108 pounds) each, which would be what a disposable UAV like ALE-L would weigh and the recent test of ALE-L and the real-time LZ update software mentioned a Gray Eagle launching two or more ALE-Ls. The new system does take advantage of recently developed and tested tech that enables helicopter pilots to share access to data UAVs are gathering. Troops on the ground can do the same. In this case troops in helicopters and on the ground shared data from both ALE-Ls and smaller ALE-S (small) UAVs. The ALE-S can be launched from the ground or from fixed wing aircraft or helicopters. ALE-S is used to update information once the troops have landed and now uses existing loitering munitions like Slingshot to attack newly discovered targets. Much of this data is also used by a ground headquarters which combines data from many sources to show the current state of operations over a wide area, like the portions of the South China Sea now occupied by Chinese bases on small islands, some of them artificial, recently built using dredged up sand.
And there we have another example of the old adage about “what is old is new again.” It’s a way of life in the military where radical new tech is suspect until it proves itself, or has its origins in earlier but similar and familiar, to the troops, technology.