HOHENFELS, Germany (Feb, 12, 2018) – The airspace directly above a battlefield has historically belonged to rotary, or fixed wing aircraft. This still may be the case for firepower, but there is a smaller form of aircraft buzzing around these days for reconnaissance purposes in the form of drones.
Infantry units across the Army are slowly seeing the advantage of small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) in the daily fight. SUAS’ are an integral part of the arsenal of the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment (1st Bn., 4th Inf. Regt) assigned to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center at 7th Army Training Command’s Hohenfels Training Area (HTA).
Sgt. Christopher Curley, SUAS master trainer, Blackfoot Company, 1st Bn., 4th Inf. Regt, points out that during rotational exercises as JMRC’s permanent opposition force, at times SUAS accounts for up to 60 percent of its intelligence gathering.
“We typically can cover large areas of the “box” in rapid succession with our SUAS teams,” said Curley. “We paint a large portion of the intelligence picture with minimal risk to men and equipment. What may take a scout team a day to do, may only take three hours for us.”
The 1st Bn., 4th Inf. Regt is currently using three types of SUAS’, a commercial-off-the shelf quadcopter, an RQ-20 Puma unmanned aerial vehicle, and an RQ-11 Raven unmanned aerial vehicle.
The quadcopter can be used in a variety of roles to replicate current and potential threats for the purposes of the rotational units training at HTA. Under perfect conditions, it offers short-range collection capabilities up to seven kilometers (4.3 miles), with a high-resolution camera sensor and can carry a small payload of up to three pounds approximately one kilometer (0.62 miles) in distance, according to Army sources.
The raven, currently used by the U.S. and several NATO and partner nations, has a much longer battery life of up to 60 minutes, and a cruising distance of approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), but it is not as versatile as the quadcopter with its hovering ability.
The Puma has arguably the longest battery life of approximately two hours and a 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) range in distance.
“The quadcopter is a great tool for quick recon,” added Curley. “I relate it to fishing; you cast your reel, check that area and then move on. With the quadcopter you are more agile, but you lack the range of the raven and some of the great tools it has. With the raven, you get a lot of those tools, but you lack the agility and it takes more time to master it, and train Soldiers to use it.
The Puma, on the other hand, has the real ability to get out there and touch someone, with its extended battery life.”
According to Fort Benning’s SUAS instructors, who recently conducted a SUAS Master Trainer’s Course at HTA, the youngest SUAS master trainer in the Army is right here with Cherokee Company, 1st Bn., 4th Inf. Regt. Pfc. Lucas Bria is now relishing his new role as an SUAS master trainer after receiving a wavier for his rank to enroll in the course.
“SUAS gives us a unique view in the sky,” said Bria. “Where we can view objectives and targets from above, and the enemy usually doesn’t account for this view. They’ll usually set up camouflage and defenses linear to their position, not vertically.”
The 1st Bn., 4th Inf. Regt shares their gathered intelligence and methods of collecting it with the units they’re opposing during rotational exercises after they have concluded. Their intent is to relay how successful SUAS operations can be and how all Army units should start implementing them into their repertoire of tactics, techniques and procedures.
According to Curley, during exercise Allied Spirit VIII, a quadcopter was launched from a remote area deep in the wooded training area, and within 15 minutes an enemy’s position was spotted and grid coordinates were accurately reported to the team’s higher command.
According to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army continues testing and developing its own quadcopters to prevent units from purchasing systems off the retail shelf. Until one has been officially developed, a balancing act may continue.
“Having this capability allows us to paint the big picture,” added Bria. “We can provide information for indirect fire, for enemy movement, and anything our higher command may use it for. We’re giving them a new view; new information that they weren’t able to get as quickly as before.”