ALEs will also be a big part of the Gray Eagle 25M upgrade optimized for Multi Domain Operations.
General Atomics tested a new survivable Air-Launched Effect (ALE) during a flight demonstration based out of the Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah. The new ALE, known as Eaglet, was launched from a U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The Eaglet flight was jointly funded by GA-ASI and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development (DEVCOM) Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and Aviation & Missile Center (AvMC).
The development of Eaglet was first disclosed by General Atomics in 2021, even though it didn’t have a name yet. During the 2022 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, the company provided some technical details about the new ALE, mentioning that Eaglet weighs less than 200 pounds and has a span of 10.5 feet with its pop-out wings deployed.
The ALE can fly at a maximum airspeed of 115 knots, with a range of about 435 miles or about eight hours with a payload between 20 and 30 pounds, and a maximum service ceiling of about 15,000 feet. Eaglet also appears to have low observable features which, together with other design features, contribute to its survivability.
“The first flight of the Eaglet was an important milestone for the GA-ASI/U.S. Army team,” said GA-ASI President David R. Alexander. “Eaglet is intended to be a low-cost, survivable UAS with the versatility to be launched from a Gray Eagle, rotary-wing aircraft, or ground vehicles. It enables extended reach of sensors and increased lethality while providing survivability for manned aircraft.”
Eaglet fits into the ALE’s large category, which encompasses larger, more powerful sensors or payloads and it’s capable of carrying a diverse range of payloads in support of multiple Army missions. The company says Gray Eagle can carry Eaglet for thousands of kilometers before launching it while being controlled through unmanned-unmanned teaming or as a component of advanced teaming command and control concepts.
Eaglet can work both alone or in concert with other long-range payloads carried by Gray Eagles, helicopters, or other platforms to support deep sensing in Multi-Domain Operations and contribute to advanced teaming command-and-control capabilities. GA-ASI says will work with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to feature Eaglet in other exercises to further determine its potential.
While the first flight test of Eaglet was performed on a “standard” Gray Eagle, a new upgraded variant is in the works and might be used soon for similar tests with ALEs. In fact, in 2022 General Atomics began performing factory upgrades on two U.S. Army Gray Eagle Extended Range UAS which will become the first 25M variants and are scheduled for flight test and qualification beginning in 2023.
According to the company, the new Gray Eagle 25M takes the Army’s current flagship medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft and elevates it to a new degree of power, interoperability, and combat capability. The 25M program preserves the core aircraft, with upgrades focused on the internal components, reducing the required time and cost. The upgraded UAS will be controlled from a laptop-based MOSA ground station, reducing material footprint while dramatically improving transportability, as well as enabling expeditionary operations.
The Gray Eagle 25M (the “M” stands for Modernized) brings a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) to the Multi-Domain Operations (MDO)-capable system to ensure incremental enhancements can be made at the speed of emerging threats. Advanced datalinks, an upgraded propulsion system and greater onboard electrical power will be part of the 25M package, as well as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities.
“GE-25M incorporates MOSA across the aircraft and ground system architectures, which enables rapid integration of advanced payloads and communication equipment, along with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) capabilities,” said GA-ASI Vice President of Army Programs Don Cattell. “This will reduce the sensor-to-shooter timelines, while simultaneously reducing the datalink bandwidth requirements in a contested environment, thus increasing range and resiliency.”
These capabilities greatly enhance Gray Eagle 25M’s ability to conduct what the Army calls Detection, Identification, Location, and Reporting (DILR), speeding up timelines and opening up more decision space for soldiers and commanders. Traditionally, a UAS collects intelligence, transmits it to human operators or another central location, and then commanders task the aircraft to respond accordingly; with the 25M upgrade much of that collection, assessment, and action can take place onboard the aircraft in real time, with what is being called the onboard “edge processing” capability.
The software behind the new processing capabilities is designed to be portable and usable on other aircraft in the Army’s arsenal. Also, Manned-UnManned Teaming capabilities will be enhanced with Gray Eagle not only supporting AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopters, but also those planned under the Army’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft programs. The upgraded UAS will also act as both communication node and communications and electronic intelligence collector.
Gray Eagle 25M will also carry an advanced new sensor, the Eagle Eye radar. Eagle Eye is a multi-mode radar that can perform moving target indication, detect changes, build strip maps, and yield other precise insights to aircraft operators. Among the available modes there is a “classic” synthetic aperture radar mode and a new video synthetic aperture radar mode that can produce a moving image of its radar returns. A dedicated maritime mode is also available.
Obviously, Air Launched Effects will be an integral part of Gray Eagle 25M, which will allow the UAS to sense and affect the battlespace, adding the delivery of stand-in effects to the traditional unmanned aircraft roles, long-loitering reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition. In the last few years, the Army has been pursuing options for both large and small ALEs to bring a variety of capabilities to the battlefield.
One of the expected uses of ALEs is in MUM-T operations, where they will be employed to protect the human-crewed aircraft by detecting, decoying, neutralizing, or destroying anti-air systems. Gray Eagle 25M will this way use its sensors to provide early warning and detection for the manned aircraft, targeting data for the manned aircraft’s weapons or, if necessary, fire support with its own onboard weapons.
The Army’s Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, has taken a specific interest in Air Launched Effects as a means to jam, spoof or spy and fight from greater distance. In fact, ALEs are meant to be a part of the Future Vertical Lift “ecosystem” and, specifically, one of crucial pieces of the manned Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Here is how the U.S. Army describes the role of Air Launched Effects: “The ALE Family of Systems extends tactical and operational reach and lethality of manned assets, allowing them to remain outside of the range of enemy sensors and weapon systems while delivering kinetic and non-kinetic, lethal and non-lethal mission effects against multiple threats, as well as, providing battle damage assessment data. They will provide scalable effects to detect, locate, disrupt, decoy, and/or deliver lethal effects against threats.”
Obviously, the Gray Eagle 25M will be able to employ multiple ALEs, even from different manufacturers. Among those there is the ALTIUS (Air-Launched Tube-Integrated Unmanned System) 600, which has been heavily tested and evaluated by the U.S. Army. The service first tested this ALE in 2018, initially launched only from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, but since 2020 expanded the testing to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.