Wandering through a Google collection of aviation news, Combat Aviation Brigade Welcomes a New Unit, New Aircraft, grabbed my attention. I’m a dedicated rotorhead, helicopters comprise the majority of the US Army’s fleet, and I was hoping to learn about some new helo.
Nope. In March, the Combat Aviation Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (aka The Big Red One, based at Fort Riley, Kansas) is getting the Gray Eagle, an “unmanned aerial system” that will be operated and maintained by Company F.
Unfamiliar with the full array of military drones, I assumed that the Gray Eagle was one of the smaller models, like the RQ-7 Shadow, which has a 14-foot wing span. Nope. The Gray Eagle is an upgraded MQ-1 Predator, built specifically for the Army’s recon and air support missions.
In short, when up to speed, the Gray Eagle will do everything the Air Force Predator now does and more, like integrating with Apache attack helos. What’s more, as far as I can tell, the Army drones will be flown by enlisted soldiers, not officers trained first in aircraft they get into.
Given the history of the US Air Force and its aviation battles with the US Army, the service that gave it life. I wonder if the Army drones will be the start of another interservice budget battle and turf war over who flies what aircraft.
For the unfamiliar, the US Army Air Forces became a separate service, the US Air Force, in 1947. To get its share of the defense budget, the Air Force fought for and won the battle of what service would have land-based offensive fixed-wing aircraft. It left the helicopters for the Army.
Now that drones are the aircraft of the future, it will be interesting to see what develops on this front now that the Army is again acquiring some offensive fixed-wing capabilities in the 21st century. And getting them in a time of shrinking defense budgets.
When money is tight, who flies the Predator/Gray Eagle makes a difference. As discussed in UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence, Air Force Predator pilots undergo undergraduate pilot training, just like those who will fly manned aircraft. In rough terms, it’s a two-year program that costs $1 million a year per pilot. It seems that Gray Eagle pilots are learning to fly on the job for a corps of traveling instructor pilots.
Over the years there have been some who question the need for a separate air force. Since the war on terror replaced the cold war, a large part of the air force mission has become less important, they argue, and its remaining tactical missions could be more efficiently and economically performed by the Army and Navy.
Now that the wellspring of defense dollars seems to be running dry, I expect that this idea will again appear and the interservice battles for the sustaining funds may escalate to levels not seen since their first rounds in the 1950s and 60s. –Scott Spangler