An Army unit deployed to Camp Taji, Iraq, is shaping the future of the US Army's unmanned aircraft systems program with a handful of its newest aircraft, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.The unit, known as Quick Reaction Capability 1-Replacement 1, deployed in June to use the Gray Eagle in combat before the Army fields the aircraft to all of its aviation brigades in the next few years. It is one of two deployed Army units currently flying the Gray Eagle, and it is the only one using it in Iraq.
The unit is attached to the Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, an all-in-one aviation brigade from Fort Riley, Kansas. The Gray Eagle's mission is similar to the mission of the brigade's Apache and Kiowa helicopters, but as an unmanned aircraft, has stronger ties to the intelligence community. The QRC1-R1 operators are working with aviators from the brigade's Apache battalion to integrate their mission into the aviation realm.
The Gray Eagle is an extended-range, multipurpose unmanned aircraft designed primarily to provide ground commanders a set of "eyes in the sky." The aircraft is built on the same platform as the Air Force's Predator drone, and will provide the Army access to the type of support usually provided by Predator-type aircraft.
The Army purchased its first batch of Gray Eagles from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems while the aircraft was still in the developmental stage. Forming the QRC units allowed the Army to get a head-start on introducing the aircraft to combat.
The unit has not identified any significant flaws in the aircraft, which has yielded impressive results during the first six months of deployment. It has flown nearly 7,000 accident-free hours, more than 350 combat missions, produced more than 16,000 surveillance-type images, and maintained a systems operational readiness rate of about 93%, according to unit reports.
In addition to education on a portable system known as the OSRVT, or One Station Remote Viewing Terminal, the Gray Eagle and its operators are perfecting several technologies that are new to the Army's spy-plane arsenal. The technology comes particularly useful in locating buried IEDs and weapons caches. The Gray Eagle can also help ground troops communicate with their headquarters over long distances.
The Army plans to provide 12 Gray Eagles to each of its aviation brigades when the aircraft is fully developed. The aircraft are likely to work closely with the Army's scout helicopters, but will remain strongly connected to intelligence and ground combat units, officials said.
"Ten years ago the Air Force had Predators and they were working for three-letter agencies," said the unit's senior enlisted trainer and master gunner. "When this thing goes full production, every aviation brigade is going to have it."