U.S. military commanders around the globe need more eyes in the sky amid a proliferation of global threats, and the Army is moving to help fill that shortage.
Although primarily a land force, the Army is planning to stand up new units this fall to expand its aerial exploitation battalions forces, which fly manned intelligence missions around the world.
With wars raging across the Middle East, North Africa and Ukraine — and tensions rising in the Asia Pacific — there is no lack of places they are needed. Indeed, the Pentagon said last month it is planning to increase its daily drone flights by 50 percent over the next four years.
The Army’s new units will be structured like the existing aerial exploitation battalions, which fly fixed-wing aircraft with special equipment that, for example, detects enemies emitting signals in war zones.
For now, two units are planned, which will be stood up at the Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia and Fort Bliss in Texas, where the Army has two aerial exploitation battalions. The new units will not require new funding, troops or aircraft, however.
Pilots and crew will be taken from excess forces in the Army’s operational support airlift units — which ferry cargo and personnel, equipment and troops around the globe also in fixed-wing aircraft. They will also come from the National Guard and Army Reserve.
As far as aircraft — the new units will be “associate units” of the existing aerial exploitation battalions, which means they will share aircraft, which currently numbers about 50 heavily modified C-12 Beechcraft King Air planes.
The Army is borrowing the “associate unit” concept from the Air Force, which first put it to use in 2008.
The demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) flights by combatant commanders has historically been high, but the limiting factor has been the number of pilots, according to Army officials.
“There is an incredible demand for the capability and the aircraft,” said Col. James Lindsay, the Army's director of aviation. “But what we wear out very quickly are our pilots. Our pilots are turning at one of the highest op-tempo of any pilot, of any soldier in the Army, even more so than [medical evacuations], even more so than special operations."
The new units will create dozens of more pilots flying ISR missions and increase the Army's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability by about 30 percent without increasing the number of airplanes, Lindsay said.
Lindsay said the pilots would not need new training, since almost all the airlift pilots are former ISR pilots. They would likely get refresher training when they report to their new assignments, which is required semi-annually anyway, he said.
“I think this is really an internal reorganization that’s really more of an efficiency drill than anything else. I don’t think there’s anything required on that,” Lindsay said. The move comes as the U.S. has drawn down a large-scale troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is keeping a lighter footprint in both places.
Army officials said that often when troops draw down from war zones, the demand for intelligence actually increases. Army Fixed-wing Systems Officer Lt. Col. James Wilson said to meet these requirements over the last decade, pilots were already coming from the airlift mission to man the aerial exploitation battalions “and help forever — like, constantly.”
“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out — there's probably too much here and not enough here,” he said.
The move is also helping to prevent Army pilots in the active duty and reserves from being cut, due to pressure from defense budget cuts.
“It takes a long time to grow a qualified, competent expert fixed-wing driver. We wanted to look carefully at the preservation of that human capital,” Lindsay said.
“A way that we found that was amenable to everybody was to go ahead and answer this longstanding problem that we’ve had for years” to meet its growing requirements for intelligence, he said.
The Army is also restructuring its rotary-wing units as part of an initiative called Aviation Restructure Initiative (ARI), which will move the National Guard’s attack helicopters to the active duty.
But while the National Guard is fighting that plan, Army officials say the associate unit concept has gone over well with the reserve component.
"The Army Reserve and the National Guard have all embraced the idea as a way to preserve capability and really apply expertise that we’ve invested heavily in against a critically important mission,” Lindsay said. “We also like this construct because it keeps reserve and active component soldiers working side by side on a daily basis which builds trust and confidence over time.”
The restructuring of the fixed wing fleet has been in the works since the Joint Staff undertook a fixed-wing review in 2010, but the associate unit concept in the Army is relatively new. “When the bureaucracy does not react negatively to an idea, you run with it,” Lindsay said.