Special Operations: The Need To See

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June 3, 2016: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has pioneered the use of UAVs by ground troops. SOCOM troops were the first to use the tiny (2 kg/4.4 pound) Raven and the slightly larger Puma. The first MQ-1C unit was formed in 2009, and assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM and exists to support SOCOM operations. Normally an army UAV company has eight Shadow 200s and four MQ-1Cs but the SOCOM UAV company apparently has more MQ-1Cs. SOCOM also uses a lot of the Shadow 200s as well.

The MQ-1C Block 1 Gray Eagle weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of 30 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles.

A new, Block 2 version of Gray Eagle is entering service and SOCOM apparently was first to get these as well. The new version has a better engine, fifty percent more fuel capacity, over 75 percent more endurance (from 30 to 53 hours), and its payload increased by 50 percent from 372 kg (798 pounds) to 558 kg (1,227 pounds). The fuselage has been modified to handle the increased fuel load and has greater reliability and stability in the air. The additional internal space makes it easier to install a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that makes it possible to fly in airspace used by civilian manned aircraft.

A 159 kg (350 pound) Shadow 200 UAV can stay in the air 5.5 hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,900 meters (15,000 feet), the Shadow can thus go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters (10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow UAVs can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, is 3.5 meters/11 feet long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters/12.75 feet. The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers.

Raven appeared in 2003. It is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator and a new gimbaled camera is being bought. The cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is on the ground). The Raven can go as fast as 95 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50 kilometers an hour. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller and usually flies a pre-programmed route, using GPS for navigation.

Puma first entered service in 2008, at the request of SOCOM. This is a 5.9 kg (13 pound) UAV with a 2.6 meter (8.5 feet) wingspan and a range of 15 kilometers from the operator. Top speed for Puma is 87 kilometers an hour and cruising speed is 37-50 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) and endurance is 120 minutes. Puma has a better vidcam (providing tilt, pan, and zoom) than the smaller Raven and that provides steadier and more detailed pictures. Because it is larger than Raven, and three times as heavy, Puma is much steadier in bad weather. Both Puma and Raven are battery powered. Eventually the Army began using Puma as well for situations where something larger than Raven, but carried by infantry, UAV was needed.

Switchblade showed up in 2009. This is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. Switchblade and Raven operators use the same handheld controller. The Switchblade can also be launched from the 70mm rocket tubes used on army helicopters. Moving at up to a kilometer a minute, the Switchblade can stay in the air for 20-40 minutes (depending on whether or not it is armed with explosives.) The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus the Switchblade could be useful for ground troops, to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location.

SOCOM also took the lead in getting UAV video to the troops in real time. A Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in January 2002, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from above. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who often were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link.) The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.

The air force went to work, and in two weeks had a ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver) prototype that the Special Forces guys took back to Afghanistan. ROVER 1 was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. SOCOM supported constant improvements and by 2009 ROVER 5 appeared. This model cost about $35,000 each and was the size of a large smart phone. Being hand held, ROVER 5 enabled the user to direct the camera on the UAV supplying the video. ROVER allowed troops to view real-time video from a UAV or aircraft overhead that was taking real time video. Aircraft with targeting pods (like Litening and Sniper) or surveillance gear (like AC-130 gunships) are much more effective when the guys on the ground have a ROVER unit that can receive that video feed.

SOCOM is taking the lead in developing new sensors that fit on small UAVs as well as new UAVs or variants of existing ones. Smaller and more powerful versions of ROVER also continue to show up.

 


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