Recently, the U.S. Army Operational Test Command’s Aviation Test Directorate (AVTD), based at Fort Hood, Texas, completed follow-on test and evaluation (FOT&E) trials of the General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended-Range (GE-ER) unmanned air system. The system was put through its paces to validate its suitability for service, including examining its survivability and performance in a realistic operational scenario.
GE-ER is an evolution of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which itself is a derivative of the U.S. Air Force’s RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator A, tailored to meet Army requirements and featuring a heavy-fuel engine (HFE) that allows it to share supplies with the Army’s land vehicles. The Gray Eagle first flew in 2004 and entered service in 2009.
Whereas the original aircraft had a 25-hour endurance, the GE-ER has a 42-hour endurance, with a deepened fuselage holding around 50 percent more fuel than the original. There is also a 500-pound centerline hardpoint that permits the carriage of an external pod housing 450 pounds of fuel. With the pod attached, the GE-ER’s fuel capacity rises to 1,350 pounds, compared with 600 pounds in the original MQ-1C. A 180-hp HFE is installed in place of the original 160-hp unit, and the air vehicle sports winglets that improve fuel-burn figures.
A development GE-ER first flew in July 2013 and a few months later stayed aloft for 45.3 hours. The Army ordered a first batch of 19 for intelligence and special operations units in July 2015 from a stated initial requirement for 36, and the first production air vehicle took to the air on Oct. 29, 2016. The UAS is employed in the RSTA (reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition) role and also has weapon options using underwing pylons.
The recent FOT&E trials were flown out of Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale, California, just a few miles away from the General Atomics manufacturing and test facilities at Grey Butte and El Mirage. During the trial, the AVTD worked with troops from the 2nd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) to provide 24-hour RSTA support to the 52nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Pennsylvania National Guard, which was on rotation at the nearby Fort Irwin National Training Center. At this location, the U.S. Army conducts large-scale maneuvering exercises of its ground formations in scenarios against high-level OPFOR (opposing forces). As such it provides the most realistic possible trials environment short of operational deployments.