By Brett Davis
Signaling the opening of pending arguments over future defense spending, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he's concerned about a pending defense drawdown, which he said would unfairly target the defense budget.
McKeon was the opening speaker at AUVSI's Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012. He said he has mixed feelings about Air Force plans to cancel Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk Block 30 program and instead soldier on with the venerable U-2 manned aircraft for spy missions.
"It's a little proprietary for me," he said, as the U-2 was developed in his district, but the Global Hawk is also built there. "It's not like I think one's better than the other because [of] what it does for my district, but I'm looking forward to a longer conversation about this subject," he said. "I want to understand how 50-year-old technology beats modern unmanned technology. It comes down to numbers and dollars and cents, I guess, but I need to have a further conversation about that to see how that works."
McKeon's presentation was briefly interrupted by Code Pink protester Medea Benjamin, who hopped on the stage to protest "killer drones." McKeon quipped that he has many grandchildren and is used to being interrupted.
Other speakers at the program's Air Systems Day highlighted the fact that unmanned aircraft are taking on new roles, such as cargo resupply, even as their existing roles are being beefed up with advanced sensors and other equipment.
Lt. Gen. Larry James, deputy chief of staff for ISR at the U.S. Air Force, said new sensor packages are resulting in "huge" amounts of data. One new sensor platform, for instance, ARGUS-IS, is capable of generating 87 years' worth of full-motion video "every single day." The demand for unmanned combat air patrols has been such that the service has backed down from last fall's surge to 65 CAPS and is on "a gradual backdown to 57 CAPs, frankly so we can reconstitute … to create more pilots," he said.
Richard Kretzschmar, the U.S. Army's new deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft, said the agency is beefing up its Shadow, moving ahead to develop a new small aircraft family and developing an unmanned helicopter in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. The service is also working to demonstrate its ground-based sense-and-avoid capability, although it has now moved that effort from El Mirage, Calif., where night flights were conducted last year, to Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, where controlled airspace can be used. The Army plans to start conducting demonstrations there this summer.
One new use for unmanned aircraft is cargo resupply, which the U.S. Marine Corps is demonstrating in Afghanistan with the Lockheed Martin-Kaman unmanned K-Max, where it's supporting three forward operating bases. The aircraft was delivered to the area in the middle of December, and "we've been flying it ever since," said Lt. Col. Brad "Myrtle" Beach, the UAS coordinator at the Marine Corps aviation headquarters. "It's doing quite well for us."
The system is not only able to replace some manned convoys, as it did on a recent delivery of some engines, but it can also operate in dusty weather conditions that make it difficult to drive. To date, it has racked up 94 sorties, flying more than 100 hours and delivering 155,000 pounds of equipment.
Several speakers noted that the new Federal Aviation Administration reathorization bill calls for unmanned aircraft to be integrated by 2015. They also noted that this represents a significant challenge.
"Can it be done? It's a significant challenge," said Joe Sciabica, executive director of the Air Force Research Laboratory. "Can it be done? I think so. I think it can but we have to collectively come together in a partnership to solve this. … You can't look at it and say, OK, the Air Force is going to solve it; the Marine Corps is going to solve it. If everybody is doing it, nobody's doing it."
Several speakers pointed out program highlights to expect this year:
• Northrop Grumman's Fire Scout will fire a weapon for the first time
• The Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft is expected to have its first flight, leading to a more capable system than the current demonstrator aircraft (both are based on the Global Hawk UAS)
• The Department of Homeland Security will launch a demonstrator program aimed at transitioning unmanned aircraft to the nation's first responders.