The latest version of the U.S. Army attack helicopter, the AH-64E, is equipped to share video being taken by army MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs. An AH-64E is also equipped for the pilot to briefly take control of a nearby MQ-1Cs for a short while. This is usually to quickly give the UAV a specific route to patrol and for how long. The new version of the smaller Shadow 200 UAV is getting the same capability for AH-64E control. Most of the time one or more MQ-1Cs are “flown” by their operators, who are assisted by a sensor operator. Both of these are usually army NCOs operating nearby on the ground. The AH-64E pilot and weapons officer can also constantly observe the video the UAVs are taking and ask the NCO operator to look for specific items or move to a new area. The army has been testing this capability recently and is pleased with the results. AH-64E pilots take quickly to controlling or just cooperating with UAVs. An AH-64E with one or two UAVs under its command (or occasional control) makes for a very potent combination.
The current MQ-1C Block 1 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. Each MQ-1C costs about $21 million (50 percent more if you include R&D cost). The army uses warrant officers as well as NCOs as UAV operators. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees).
There’s a new version; the IGE (Improved Gray Eagle) which began flight testing in mid-2013. This 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.
The army put eight years of development and field testing into the MQ-1C before authorizing full rate production (about 20 aircraft a year) in June, 2013. The army already had 65 MQ-1Cs. But with the defense budget cuts and no major overseas commitments after the last major units are out of Afghanistan next year, the army is only planning on getting 152 MQ-1Cs along with 31 ground control stations. It is unclear how many of the IGEs will be produced or if any Block 1 models will be upgraded.
The first MQ-1C unit (an aviation company) was formed in 2009, and assigned to the U.S. Army 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), which belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command). MQ-1Cs were used in Iraq starting in 2010, as part of the final field testing. The army began sending platoons (each with four aircraft) of MQ-1Cs to Afghanistan in 2011, and more have followed.
The army originally planned to equip each combat brigade with an MQ-1C company (12 UAVs) and establish over three dozen of these companies. But the reduced force of MQ-1Cs means there will only be enough to give each combat brigade a MQ-1C platoon. Each combat brigade is now supposed to also have 35 mini-UAV systems (each with three UAVs, most of them two kilogram Raven but at least ten of these systems are to be slightly larger Pumas). That means that each combat brigade now has its own air force of over a hundred reconnaissance aircraft. Only a dozen will be the larger UAVs in a UAV company that will probably have eight Shadow 200s and four MQ-1Cs.
The army currently has over 6,000 UAVs. Over 85 percent are micro-UAVs like the Raven and Puma. The army is proceeding to spend scarce cash on new sensors for existing UAVs, and the old Shadow 200s have gotten other new components (engines, wings, and so on). Money problems mean the army will have to make the most of the few MQ-1Cs and RQ-7s it can buy and keep operational.