Drones could guide every bit of an Army division’s firepower, 101st CO says

Drones could guide every bit of an Army division’s firepower, 101st CO says

U.S. Army units could someday align every level of their indirect weapons—from mortars to missiles—with some form of unmanned aerial system, or UAS, the 101st Airborne Division commander said.

“You could see those small UAS tied to the employment of mortars, and you could see those medium UASs tied to artillery, and those larger UAS could be tied to air-launch effects and other higher-order precision munitions,” Maj. Gen. Brett Sylvia said at a media roundtable Thursday.

The 101st is experimenting with different forms of tech as part of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George’s “transforming-in-contact” initiative, which seeks to rapidly evaluate new technology by fielding it directly to select units. 

As part of the tests, the 101st’s second brigade has been designated as the Army’s first Mobile Brigade Combat Team, Sylvia said. The brigade now uses a variety of new technologies, including using the Army’s Android-based ATAK mission planning software at multiple echelons of command. One “landing spot” for testing new technologies is the brigade’s new Multi-Functional Reconnaissance Company, Sylvia said. 

Units might organize themselves in several ways to take advantage of their drones, Sylvia said. Infantry squads might use small drones to scout ahead, with soldiers operating drones as an additional duty to their job as a rifleman. Small drones “provide that squad or platoon to be able to see what’s over that next terrain feature,” said Sylvia. 

A dedicated drone unit might then operate at a higher echelon in order to provide reconnaissance for long-range, expensive weapons. “The cognitive load associated with those particular systems may need to make that a primary duty, not an additional duty,” Sylvia said. 

He said tying drones to weapons will eventually help tighten the “kill-chain”: the process of finding, picking, and destroying a target.

Both Russia and Ukraine use drones extensively for coordinating every level of fires—the military term used to refer mortars, artillery, rockets, and missiles. Ukrainian drone teams often share video directly with artillery teams via Google Meet, communicating with the gunners to correct their fire much in the way that forward observers did in years past.  

Close connections between drones and other forms of fires in recent months has even allowed Russia to hunt and destroy Ukrainian military equipment far behind enemy lines — including highly mobile platforms like helicopters and High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. 

Besides drone experimentation, the 101st is also working on improving communications by extending the integrated tactical network, or ITN, across the division, Sylvia said.

The division is trying out the new tech—and new tactics—in exercises like “Lethal Eagle,” a 21- day wargame held last month. The 101st experimented with using electronic warfare to suppress air defenses during an airborne assault, he said.

Future exercises designed to test new equipment will include “more intense airspace deconfliction models, and contested logistical hurdles,” Sylvia said.

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