U.S. forces deployed just 13 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, but although the potential of surveillance and combat aircraft that don't put pilots in the line of fire has always been clear, few would have predicted just how quickly this technology would transform modern warfare. The proof? The U.S. Army has recently surpassed one million unmanned flight hours and is now using 333 different types of unmanned aerial systems in Iraq and Afghanistan... and the growth curve isn't about to level out.
The use of what the Army calls Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – defined as a UAV and ground control station that combine to deliver near-real time reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition data – took a long time to get off the ground. The Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew more than 300 combat missions during the first Gulf War in 1991 but it took 13 years to complete the first 100,000 hours of UAS flight time. Due to their increasing use in Iraq and Afghanistan, over half a million hours have been flown in just the past two years and currently Army UAS are clocking up around 25,000 hours a month. As of April 14, 2010, a total of 1,002,731 unmanned aerial system hours have been recorded.
The Army's UAS fleet now includes 87 Shadow UAS systems, 1,300 hand-launched Raven systems and 16 vertical take-off gas-powered Micro Air Vehicle (gMAV) systems.
The only way is up
The Army has recently released its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035 which outlines "how the U.S. Army will develop, organize and employ UAS from 2010 to 2035 across the full-spectrum of military operations."
Manned-unmanned teaming technology that creates a real-time airborne link between UAV's and Apache helicopters is already under development and in the long term, unmanned systems will provide vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, perform cargo lifting and Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) as well as becoming even more effective "eyes and ears" as Nano UAV technology develops.
“Unmanned aerial systems must provide the ability not only to see, but to shape, the battlefield,” Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said last month.