Arming RQ-7 UAVs: The Shadow Knows…
By 2007, US Army RQ-7 Shadow battalion-level UAVs had seen their flight hours increase to up 8,000 per month in Iraq, a total that compared well to the famous MQ-1 Predator. Those trends have gained strength, as workarounds for the airspace management issues that hindered early deployments become more routine. Some RQ-7s are even being used to extend high-bandwidth communications on the front lines.
The difference between the Army’s RQ-7 Shadow UAVs and their brethren like the USAF’s MQ-1A Predator, or the Army’s new MQ-1C Sky Warriors, is that the Shadow has been too small and light to be armed. With ultra-small missiles still in development, and missions in Afghanistan occurring beyond artillery support range, arming the Army’s Shadow UAVs has become an even more important objective. It would take some new technology, but that seems to be on the way for the US Marine Corps RQ-7B Shadow UAV fleet.
Pieces of the Puzzle
SecDef Robert Gates’ has consistently offered strong support for more attention to the needs of the counterinsurgency fight. Surveillance is part of that, but it needs to be backed by action. Pending and emerging approaches tie UAVs, manned propeller planes, artillery, and helicopters into a cohesive, fast, and flexible solution for finding, identifying, and capturing or killing opponents.
Larger RQ-5 Hunters have been tested with Viper Strike mini-bombs, and MQ-1C Sky Warriors can carry up to 4 Hellfires – but both UAV types are far outnumbered by the Army’s smaller RQ-7 Shadows. Precision weapons can also be dropped by fighters or bombers, but the planes’ $10,000 – $25,000 cost per flight hour is prohibitive, they require extensive planning processes to use, and declining aircraft numbers affect their potential coverage and response times.
Small UAVs can still pack a punch without weapons by providing GPS targeting data to M30 GPS-guided MLRS rockets, long-range ATACMS MLRS missiles, or 155mm Excalibur artillery shells – as long as those weapons are (a) appropriate and (b) within range.
Using an ATACMS missile to take out an enemy machine gun position seems a bit silly, but that’s exactly the sort of help that could really make a difference to troops on the ground – and has been used in urban fights, against building strongholds. With that said, maximum effectiveness comes when battalion-level “Tactical UAVs” like the RQ-7B Shadow can perform the full spectrum of missions: surveillance, laser or GPS target designation, or close support for infantry fights.
The U.S. Army’s Armament Research Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Picatinny Arsenal, NJ has funded some R&D in order to provide “Tactical Class Unmanned Aircraft Systems (TCUAS)” with a low-cost weapon, US NAVAIR is busy developing a 5-pound missile called Spike, and global trends are pushing companies like Raytheon and Thales to invent designs of their own. The US Army ended up dragging its feet on arming its small tactical UAVs, but they are fielding GBU-44 Viper Strike weapons on MQ-5B Hunter UAVs, and have a small but growing fleet of Hellfire-armed, Cessna-sized MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs. The US Marines have no such option, and decided that arming their own growing fleet of RQ-7Bs was the way forward.
Step 1 requires a lightweight laser designator that would add the ability to actively mark targets for common helicopter and UAV weapons like Hellfire missiles, laser-guided 70mm rockets, or Paveway bombs. That way, the small and relatively cheap RQ-7s could mark targets for any component of Task Force ODIN, or its equivalent. That effort is already underway, across the board.
Step 2 involves arming even RQ-7 size UAVs, but their payload weight limits make that a very challenging task. Small missiles like the US Navy’s Spike are in development, but solutions are needed now.
DRS has been cooperating with the Navy on the tiny Spike mini-missile.
General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems makes the US Army’s mortar rounds, and had an interesting idea. What if their 81mm mortars could receive a small add-on GPS guidance kit, similar to the JDAM kits used on larger air force bombs? The Army’s 81mm mortars weigh just 9-10 pounds each, and GD-OTS’ clip-on Roll Controlled Fixed Canard (RCFC) is an integrated fuze and guidance-and-flight control kit that uses GPS/INS navigation, replacing current fuze hardware in existing mortars. A standard M821 81mm Mortar with fuze weighs 9.1 pounds, and the same mortar with an RCFC Guidance system and fuze weighs just 10.8 pounds. US Army ARDEC funded their development testing.
Raytheon has a privately-developed effort called Pyros, a 22-inch, 13.5-pound bomb that uses dual GPS/INS and semi-active laser guidance. It also has also 3 warhead options: height-of-burst, point-of-impact or fuze-delay detonation.
In 2012, Lockheed Martin began discussing its “11 pound class”, semi-active laser-guided Shadow Hawk bomb.
These and other systems will offer the US Marines the options they need. In the end, however, they key change isn’t the individual weapons – it’s the concept. That concept’s influence will extend past small UAVs, in 2 ways.
One is the growing trend away from sole USAF control of air support, and toward a much more responsive era of “federated airpower” that includes high-end aircraft and UAVs operated by the US Air Force, and lower-tier propeller planes and small UAVs operated by the US Army and Marines. Those lower-tier options use lower-cost platforms that are far more affordable to operate, which means they can be bought and operated in numbers that provide far wider battlefield coverage for small-unit engagements.
The USAF’s long-running and pervasive deprecation of relevant counter-insurgency capabilities, and strong institutional preference for high-end, expensive platforms, has left them vulnerable to lower-cost disruptive technologies that meet current battlefield needs. While the service still has a key role in maintaining American power, strategic control of the air, and high-end capabilities, the new reality involves a mix of high and low-end aerial capabilities, with a lot more aerial control nested closer to battlefield decision-making.
The other change is reaching beyond UAVs, and into USAF and USMC aircraft, which can carry larger weapons. The nose-mounted RCFC guidance has now been successfully demonstrated on multiple mortar calibers, in both air-drop and tube-launch applications. The tube-launched application has been successfully demonstrated at Yuma Proving Grounds, AZ in a tactical 120mm guided mortar configuration known as the Roll Controlled Guided Mortar (RCGM), which uses the existing 120mm warhead and the M934A1 fuze.
Related tube-launched small precision weapons, which already include Raytheon’s Griffin missile and Lockheed Martin’s Scorpion, are finding their way to USMC KC-130J and Special Operations MC-130W Hercules, which are receiving roll-on/ roll-off weapon kits that can turn them into multi-role gunship support/ aerial tanker aircraft. Smaller weapons will make it easier to equip more planes with more on-board weapons.
Contracts and Key Events
May 2/12: Shadow Hawk test. Lockheed Martin announces successful tests of its privately-developed Shadow Hawk bomb from an RQ-7B. The “11 pound class,” 2.5 inch diameter weapon is laser-guided, and hit within 8 inches of the target at at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah after being dropped from 5,100 feet.
April 4/12: Army update. The US Army discusses its plans for the RQ-7 Shadow. The army’s product manager, ground maneuver, UAS is Lt. Col. Scott Anderson. He says the Army is observing USMC efforts to add weapons to the Shadow, but is more interested in giving the UAV a new engine to improve reliability. That multi-phase competition got 14 responses, and could indirectly help weaponization efforts, especially if the new engine also provides more power.
Jan 12/12: Armed to Afghanistan? Flight International reports that the USMC plans to send 8 armed RQ-7Bs to Afghanistan as a combat demonstration program, after 94 “high-value targets” escaped during a recent Marine unit’s deployment, even though they were spotted by RQ-7s circling overhead. There isn’t always someone else on hand to fire.
The goal is to arm the Shadows with guided bombs weighing under 25 pounds, which was cleared for treaty compliance (?!?) by the US State Department in July 2011, and reportedly followed by a $10 million December 2011 contract. Installation and certification is expected to take a year, followed by a $7 million follow-on contract for deployment. The magazine reports that the weapon isn’t Raytheon’s STM, MBDA’s SABER, or ATK’s Hatchet, but is “another guided weapon that already has been developed and fielded in secrecy.”
Dec 30/11: Laser designators. Textron subsidiary AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $54.8 million firm-fixed-price contract modification to supply RQ-7B laser designator retrofit kits.
Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of March 31/14. One bid was solicited, with one bid received by US Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-08-C-0023).
Sept 16/11: STM-II test. Over at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ, Raytheon’s 12-pound, 22″/ 56cm Small Tactical Munition Phase II finishes captive carry tests on the company’s smaller Cobra test UAV, paving the way for full weapon tests.
STM Phase II is more than 2 inches shorter than the Phase I design, and has foldable fins and wings that allow it to be used from the U.S. military’s common launch tube. It uses both GPS and semi-active laser guidance. Raytheon is taking the production-ready mandate seriously, as well; STM Phase II is also easier to assemble than the Phase I design. Raytheon Nov 30/11 release.
Aug 17/11: Cleared to arm. Flight International, quotes US NAVAIR’s Small Tactical UAS program manager, Col. Jim Rector, who says that the Marines have received clearance from policymakers to arm the RQ-7 Shadow. The USMC made its intent to do so clear late last year (vid. Jan 18/11 entry). Field trials are to be performed on with unnamed munition selected by AAI, within the Marines’ request that it be a production-ready item. This evaluation process is scheduled to last 18 – 24 months.
Aug 15/11: Collision. When an RQ-7 flies into a C-130 Hercules, at least the latter gets to land in one piece. This time.
The incident underscores the role that “deconfliction” needs to play, when armed UAVs are used over the battlefield without “sense and avoid” technologies on board. Experiments are underway to give Shadow-sized UAVs those capabilities, but without that, expect sharp flight restrictions that emphasize long advance notice of flight plans, and narrow altitude bands. Those restrictions will reduce an armed “MQ-7C” Shadow’s potential value, which means the full impact of small tactical armed UAVs won’t be felt until that technical hurdle is cleared.
June 21/11: First test flight at Webster Field, MD of a RQ-7B Shadow UAS under the direction of NAWC Aircraft Division’s UAS Test Directorate. Col. Jim Rector, program manager for Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical UAS program office (PMA-263), said:
“Having a RQ-7B at the UAS Test Directorate allows for the test and evaluation of system enhancements and ultimately provides the ability to quickly get new technologies into the hands of Marines”.
Rector was appointed in April after last serving in the V-22 program office (PMA-274).
The USMC has a few in testing now, and this wing-mounting capability may give Arcturus an opening to supplement, or even replace, AAI’s RQ-7 Shadow as the USMC’s armed tactical UAV.
Jan 18/11: USMC in. Flight Global reports that the US Marines have decided to arm Shadow UAVs as their own initiative, since the Army is dragging its feet, and the Marines don’t have a larger armed UAV like the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle:
“Although the Army Aviaton [sic] and Missile Command issued a request for information in April seeking data on precision-guided weapons weighing 11.3kg (25lb) or less… and said as recently as October that it would take the lead on development of Shadow weaponisation with the USMC, the programme is no longer on the table for the army… says Col Robert Sova, capability manager for UAVs at the Army Training and Doctrine Command.”
The Marines reportedly want a solution fielded within 12-18 months. Beyond options like RCFC, NAVAIR’s Spike, etc., Raytheon has been pressing ahead with its 13 pound Small Tactical Munition (STM), with its dual-mode, laser/GPS guidance system.
Dec 3/10: R&D projects. Aviation Week reports that the US Navy is working on weapons that could give even the ScanEagle UAV hunter-killer capability – and implicitly, the Marines’ Shadow 200s as well.
The 2 pound next-generation weapon management system (WMS GEN2) is designed for use on small UAVs like the Shadow. It has been tested in the lab, and the development team is now looking at using the WMS GEN2 with the 5 pound NAWCAD Spike mini-missile, the Scan Eagle Guided Munition (SEGM), and a GPS-Guided Munition (G2M).
Oct 26/10: STM tests. Flight International reports that Raytheon has conducted tests of its 13 pound, unpowered Small Tactical Munition (STM) at the Yuma Proving Ground, AZ. The 2 successful tests used Raytheon’s Cobra UAV, which was picked because it’s close to the RQ-7 Shadow’s size. Raytheon estimates needing 12 to 18 months to get STM production lines running at quantity, and is readying the project in response to interest from the USMC and, they expect, from Special Forces.
FY 2008 – 2010
April 19/10: Army RFI. Looks like the US Army is getting more serious about fielding armed Shadow UAVs. US FedBizOpps solicitation #W31P4Q-10-R-0142 says that “Responses to this RFI will be used for information and planning purposes only and do not constitute a solicitation…,” but its issue does show a higher level of seriousness, and could well be a prelude to a real solicitation if an acceptable candidate emerges:
“The US Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM) Program Executive Office (PEO) Missiles and Space (M&S), Program Management (PM) Joint Attack Munition Systems (JAMS), on behalf of the war fighter, seeks information from industry on weapons systems ready for production and suitable for integration on the RQ-7B with POP 300D laser designator payload Shadow Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs). Potential weapons systems must be ready to field within 12 months from the date of a potential contract award. The primary interest is in weapon systems approximately 25 lbs or less total system weight (to include munition, launcher, wiring, fire control interface, etc). The weapons system should be able to engage stationary and moving targets such as light vehicles and dismounted combatants in day and night conditions with low collateral damage when launched from a Shadow UAS flying at speeds of 60-70 knots and between 5,000 and 12,000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL). Terminal accuracy must be on the order of that demonstrated by currently fielded Semi Active Laser / Imaging Infrared / Millimeter Wave (SAL/IIR/MMW) weapons…”
That level of terminal accuracy may be an issue for RCFC mortars, depending on how the Army interprets it. SAL/IIR/MMW weapons are generally considered to be more accurate that GPS guidance, but if “on the order” means “approximately,” then a GPS guidance kit would qualify. It is intended that this RFI will be open for 21 calendar days from date of publication (to May 10/10).
April 1/10: RCFC test. General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems announces successful 81mm Air-Dropped Mortar guide-to-target flight demonstrations at Ft. Sill, OK. The RCFC weapon was released from a TUAV (Shadow) using the GD-OTS’ newly developed “Smart Rack” carriage and release system.
Feb 12/09: Laser designators. Textron subsidiary Army Armaments Incorporated (AAI) in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $9.3 million cost plus fixed fee contract modification, exercising options for additional engineering hours related to these Shadow UAV modifications. These services are related to low-rate initial production of Laser Designators, Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) interoperability, and integration with the Army’s Universal Ground Control Station and Universal Ground Data Terminal.
Work will be performed in Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of April 30/09. One bid was solicited and one bid received by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-08-C-0033).
Jan 21/09: Laser designators. Textron subsidiary AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, MD receives a $12.2 million firm-fixed-price finalization of Letter Contract Modification P00012. It will purchase 25 Laser Designator Retrofit Kits for its RQ-7 Shadow Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).
Work will be performed at Hunt Valley, MD, with an estimated completion date of Aug 31/09. One bid was solicited and one bid received by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL (W58RGZ-08-C-0023).
Dec 16/08: RCFC test. General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems announces that it has successfully demonstrated the ability to maneuver and guide 81mm air-dropped mortars to a stationary ground target after release from an aircraft. These test results in Kingman, AZ build on previous pre-programmed maneuver flight tests successfully conducted by General Dynamics in 2007, and use the company’s patented Roll Controlled Fixed Canard (RCFC) flight control and guidance system.
- DID thanks subscriber Trent Telenko for his research assistance with this article.
- P.W. Singer – Wired for War. Singer works at the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s principal think-tanks. See also his DID article, “In the Loop? Armed Robots and the Future of War.”
- US Army (March 4/11) – Shadow defies gravity with success. Looks behind the scenes at how the RQ-7 became the Army’s workhorse UAV, and some of the mechanical and procedural changes used to give it a wider temperature range and lower the accident rate.
- Aviation Week (Feb 4/11) – Shadow Punches Above its Weight
- National Defense Magazine (April 2010) – Army on a Fast Track to Build its Own High-Tech Air Force
- National Defense Magazine (February 2010) – Army’s Shadow Unmanned Aircraft Receiving Upgrades For Longer Missions. The extended wings will also improve carrying capacity.
- DID (Jan 21/09) – Laser Designators for RQ-7 Shadow UAVs. That didn’t take long.
- StrategyPage (Jan 8/09) – Laser Precision In All Its Forms. The US military is also testing a laser designator that’s small enough for its RQ-7s. The UAVs can already use a laser rangefinder to geo-locate targets for GPS systems like Excalibur shells, GMLRS rockets, and JDAM/WCMD bombs. A lightweight laser designator would add the ability to actively mark targets for laser-guided weapons like Hellfire missiles, or Paveway bombs. As geolocation and laser designation continue to shrink and devolve to even smaller UAVs than the Shadow, it will change the way units can fight.
- WIRED Danger Zone (Oct 10/08) – New Killer Drones Could be Piloted by Teenagers. Includes trends re: adding weapons to Shadows.
- US Army Fires Bulletin (May-June 2008) – Fires for the 2007 Surge in Iraq: Lethal and Nonlethal [PDF]. See esp. the points re: the changing targeting chain.
- US Army Fires Bulletin (March-April 2008) – Revolutionary to Conventional – Evolution of GMLRS. Shadow drones can currently supply GMLRS GPS targeting via their laser rangefinders. Note, again, the changes in the Army kill-chain, and flattening of the surveillance – fire – approval structure using Army-owned air assets plus artillery. Arming those assets themselves is simply the next logical step.
- Flight International (April 20/11) – PHOTOS: Bits and bobs around Quad-A. Covers ATK’s Hatchet, reportedly funded by the US Air Force Research Laboratory.
- DID (Nov 16/09) – Boeing Team Gets USAF Contract for UAV Miniature Weapon Development
- Designation Systems – NAWC/DRS Spike. Very short range (around 2 miles) powered missile with a 1 kg warhead, weighs only 5 pounds.
- Defense Update (July 21/10) – MBDA Unveils Small Guided Bomb at Farnborough. Their Small Air Bomb Extended Range (SABER), whose unpowered version is about 10 pounds. It reportedly uses a semi-active laser seeker for terminal homing, supplemented by GPS/INS.
- Raytheon – Pyros: Small Tactical Munition.
- Raytheon – AUSA 2010: Griffin and Small Tactical Munition. Shadow would need to use STM.
- Defense Update – Griffin [and] Small Tactical Munition (STM)