Small Package, Big Mission Critical


From Armor & Mobility May/June 2017 Issue

The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), Hurlburt Field, FL, is the lead command for the readiness and sustainment of U.S. Air Force Small Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS).

By Kevin Hunter, A&M Editor

The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is constantly assessing the current inventory of Small Unmanned Air Systems (SUAS), drafting policy to ensure operational readiness, and looking ahead to meet future challenges. While there are a variety of SUAS operators (SUAS-Os) within the USAF and AFSOC, Special Operations Forces (SOF) operators are a special breed due to the complexity of their mission requirements and need for specialized solutions. AFSOC leadership works continually to advance its SOF SUAS inventory to meet current threats, as well as, provide training that prepares operators to go from schoolhouse to battlefield. SOF, like many other SUAS operators, attend Initial Qualification Training (IQT). This specialized 2-week course rapidly trains individuals of any skill level to highly-qualified SUAS operators, capable of per forming a variety of mission sets in support of their units.

The objective of AFSOC’s SUAS IQT program is to train SUAS-Os to operate a specific SUAS proficiently, and to expose all operators to basic tools they can use to support their unit’s mission, from basic techniques, like orbiting a target with fixed cameras either from a manual or autonomous mode of flight, to advanced techniques, such as mobile operations, handoffs, and area reconnaissance on stationary or moving targets. Once operators complete the course, they are upgraded from Basic Aircraft Qualified (BAQ) to Mission Ready (MR) status; building on basic skills and developing new skills, specific to the unit’s mission. MR training may be limited due to the autonomous nature of basic camera-only platforms, or rigorous for systems with advanced capabilities and manual controls. With limited manpower and an increasing operational tempo, SUAS have proven to provide unparalleled real-time situational awareness for operators and their leadership. SUAS serve as organic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), targeting, and communications relay and for the AFSOC community, allowing units to operate more independently and with a lower risk of target compromise.

Conventional Support Independent

AFSOC’s A3OU Unmanned Systems Operations Branch (USOB) carries out Air Force command oversight of small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) groups 1 through 3 (Raven/Shadow types) and USSOCOM duties as lead component for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration for groups 1 through 5 (Predator/Reaper types). In-addition, A3OU develops, processes, and manages over 100 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Certificates of Waiver or Authorization that permit UAS operations in the United States National Airspace System.

SUAS serves as organic Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), targeting, and communications relay for the AFSOC community, allowing units to operate more independently and with a lower risk of compromise from a target. Specifics that define “organic” and how that enables more “immunity” from enemy eyes are at the forefront of AFSOC SUAS initiatives.

“The ‘organic’ nature comes from the ability of a unit or small squad to conduct their own ISR without the need for conventional assets, such as reconnaissance aircraft or satellite imagery,” said Mr. Jeffrey S. Golliver, Chief, A3OU/USOB. “The ‘immunity’ comes from the ability of SUAS to be launched from several miles away to observe a target, keeping the operators out of harm’s way. Thus, if a small squad was in need of target imagery they have the capability to launch their own asset to get any needed information immediately; this vs the traditional method of risking detection by enemy forces by physically encroaching upon a target to conduction ISR,” Golliver added.

As there are a variety of SUAS operators (SUAS-Os) within the USAF and AFSOC, SOF operators are of special focus due to the complexity of their mission requirements and need for specialized solutions. Ways that AFSOC-specific UAS mission requirements differentiate from conventional operations are critical to SOF operations.

“One particular mission requirement that garnered a specialized solution for SOF was the need for waterproof SUAS,” noted Golliver. “The requirement was met with the introduction of the RQ-20 Puma AE and later RQ-12 Wasp AE; AE – All Environment.”

SOF operators sometimes conduct missions in wet environments and these SUAS allow them to continue to do so without the worry of keeping the system or components dry. “An additional SOF requirement was the need for rucksack-portable systems, e.g. systems that could be folded up and placed in a rucksack for easy transportation,” indicated Golliver. “The RQ-12 meets this requirement, weighing in at 1.3kg, it is easily transportable and breaks down for compact storage.”

Operator-level Readiness

In terms of training, particularly Initial Qualification Training (IQT) near Hurlburt Field, FL, specifics that define SOF readiness for general UAS/SUAS handling i.e. current priorities for in theater operations, are subtle but important.

“Great effort has been taken to ensure AFSOC’s SUAS IQT courses prepare SUAS-Operators (SUAS-Os) for the challenges they will face during theater operations,” said Golliver. “The SOF mission is, in fact, the model from which the course has been built, opting to train our operators to the highest level in lieu of a need to prepare each user to a different standard depending on the SUAS mission, “remarked Golliver. “That said, a Security Forces Airman attending the course will have the same quality IQT training as that of our SOF operators.” Training itself covers expected basics like ISR and vehicle following, to more advanced concepts such as operating from a mobile vehicle while flying SUAS, conducting operations in a noise sensitive environment, and single-operator flying for systems that normal require two operators.

Ongoing Sustainment

“AFSOC SUAS operators face a variety of challenges while downrange and maintenance of the systems is a critical factor in the success of flight operations,” said Golliver. “There are no dedicated maintenance personnel to repair damaged SUAS, instead the operators have the responsibility of fixing and maintaining the aircraft.” To accomplish this, the system usually has an accompanying field repair kit (FRK) that contains a variety of parts and tools the operator can utilize to make repairs. Systems typically include a section in the operator’s manual that direct the operator on how to repair commonly damaged components. For repairs that cannot be made using the FRK, units have the ability to simply mail replacements to deployed users, an advantage not shared by larger ISR platforms.”