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Aquila UAV

The Aquila (Latin for “eagle”) was a fairly ambitious project, and has been the subject of some excellent analysis. It has become fashionable to blame "requirements creep" for the demise of the Aquila program. Further analysis suggests that this program had more problems than simply a problem with identifying a stable set of requirements. It suffices to say that a thoughtful review of the Aquila program would be beneficial to anyone contemplating an unmanned vehicle acquisition program for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Having been the leader among the Services in the use of drones for surveillance and target-detection missions prior to 1964, the Army at that time abandoned its drones. The reasons for thisdecision were more use-oriented than technical. That is, lack of vehicle, sensor, or other subsystem performance, per se, was not the major problem. Rather, it appears that the problems were primarily use-oriented, indicating that inappropriate choices were made in developing the systems, mission constraints were not thoroughly analyzed, and the value of drones relative to other mission alternatives was not completely evaluated.

Basically it appears that there had been too much emphasis on "drone work for drone's sake", and too little consideration of such questions as: What are the missions which cannot be done without drones or whichare too risky and/or expensive without drones? What must be the total physical, operational, and cost characteristicsof a drone system for it to be best-suited for the mission? What is the price of compromising these characteristics? What drone-system characteristics must be avoided if the drone isto be competitive or superior to alternative vehicles/methods?

In 1964, the Army Chief of Staff decided (by Summary Sheet action) to discard the existing Army R&S drone aircraft and to rely upon the Air Force for tactical aerial surveillance and target detection. The reasons for this decision were described as follows:

  • The costs of the drone aircraft (development, training, operation,recovery) were just too high in terms of personnel as well as funds when viewed from the standpoint of their limited utility for surveillance/target-detection missions.
  • The performance of the early drone aircraft systems for special surveillance/target-detection missions did not approach that of manned aircraft for the same missions. Moreover, manned aircraft could perform other aerial reconnaissance/spotting missions.
  • The field training and deployment of the early drone aircraft systems presented difficult mission and operational problems with respect to other Army/Air Force aircraft.
  • Although the requirements for the early drone aircraft stressed the need for simplicity in operation and maintenance, the various user demands for a "gadget-to-do this and a gadget-to-do-that" inevitably resulted in the production of drone aircraft systems that were overly complex for tactical operations.
  • The Army was reassured by the Air Force that the latter could perform all of the Army's tactical surveillance/target-detection missions with their own manned aircraft much more efficiently and at no apparent cost to the Army.

The Aquila was a small RPV, weighing about 135 pounds, with a 35-pound payload. It is launched from a truck-mounted catapult, cruises at 75 to 120 knots, and is recovered by flying into nets suspended several feet above the ground. The Aquila can be programed to fly a course or can be remotely controlled.

Aquila was expected to fly by autopilot, carry sensors to locate and identify enemy point targets in day or night, use a laser to designate the targets for the Copperhead artillery projectile, provide conventional artillery adjustment, and survive against Soviet air defenses. Achieving the latter expectation required development of a jam-resistant, secure communications link, but using the secure link degraded the video quality, which interfered with the ability to do targeting. During operational testing in 1987, Aquila was only able to successfully meet mission requirements on 7 of 105 flights.

Despite high expectations for UAV development after Vietnam, another decade passed before the military seriously pursued new systems again. The armed forces continued to use target drones, while some research persisted into the development of reconnaissance UAVs. Although spending on research and development of UAVs did increase in the 1980s, most notably on the Aquila program, costs tended to overrun the budget and raised questions about whether UAVs actually could save money.

The Army's first major UAV acquisition effort was the Aquila program. The Army wanted a UAV that could provide laser designation for the Copperhead precision munitions being developed at the same time. This program started in 1979 and was originally estimated to cost $123 million for a 43-month development effort, followed by planned expenditures of $440 million for procurement of 780 air vehicles and associated equipment.

DSI provided LMSC with 23 Sky Eye units to assist in development. Lockheed began testing the Aquila in December 1975, with six successful test flights. These aircraft were remotely controlled and equipped with landing gear for conventional takeoff and landings. The landing gear was removed for testing on catapult launchers and for recovery using arresting wires and nets.

Flight testing between January and September 1976 was plagued with design and procedural problems on the recovery and other systems, and eight out of nine aircraft crashed. Because of these crashes the Aquila has been modified and the landing apparatus changed. The program had 13 successful flights from October 4 through December 16, 1976, and one flight was parachute recovered. Seven of the flights included automatic launch and recovery. The last three flights were conducted by military personnel.

After three years and almost 200 flights, Aquila demonstrated its ability to mark a target using its onboard laser, guiding a Copperhead round to a stationary tank. The Copperhead was fired from nearly seven miles away. The initial stage of the program, which ended in 1978, appeared promising enough for the Army to grant a $123 million dollar contract to LMSC in 1979 to enter full scale development, with $440 million for acquisition of 780 RPVs and other equipment.

The original mission for Aquila was to have been relatively straightforward: it was to be a small, propeller-driven aircraft (portable by four soldiers) that could provide ground commanders with real-time battlefield information about enemy forces located beyond the line of sight of ground observers. As development was nearing completion, it became evident that the requirement for the small aircraft size conflicted with the many avionics and payload-related items the Army wanted to put inside the UAV.

As built by Lockheed, the Aquila was designed to operate in the microwave crowded skies over Europe. The Aquila has a complex secure data link, including two steerable antennas in dorsal and ventral thimble radomes. It has its own inertial navigation system. Finally, Aquila was designed for fully automated recovery, which required the development of a special electro-optical guidance system to steer the vehicle into the landing net.

In the Lockheed Aquila, the operator's technique played an important role. Normally, the Aquila flew an automatic figure 8 orbit, while designating a target with a laser beam to guide incoming Copperhead artillery rounds. The spot location was affected by the figure - 8 orbit, and the operator must manually compensate for this effect. Operators also had the ability to use the laser designator as a ranging device. The operator can range on the crater of the first shell and the system will automatically compute range, deflection, and elevation corrections, and relay that information back to the artillery battery.

Aquila had numerous difficulties since it entered full-scale development in 1979. Among these were technical performance problems and funding cuts, which led to substantial cost growth and schedule slippage. During 1985, the emergence of critical performance problems during testinq led to a major program restructuring and threatened the Aquila's future. Prior to these changes, costs to acquire the Aquila were estimated at about $2 billion.

Contractor and Army tests of the Aquila in 1984 and 1985 demonstrated significant technical problems in flight performance and mission capability. Although 10 of 66 flights resulted in crashes or unplanned parachute recoveries during 1984 (air vehicles will not have parachutes in combat), the contractor began preliminary qualification testinq in January 1985. fliqhts from January through May 1985 showed substantial flight performance improvement, as only 3 of 97 fliqhts ended in crashes or unplanned parachute recoveries. After May 1985, however, flight performance worsened, as 8 of 92 flights ended in crashes or unplanned parachute recoveries from June through early December 1985.

In May 1985, referred to as the Red Team, a special task force, was convened to evaluate the Aquila's readiness for operational testing which was to run from September through December 1985. The Red Team, in July and August 1985, reported many other issues in addition to the critical deficiencies reported by the project manager whose resolution would be critical to a successful demonstration of the Aquila's performance. These included durability problems; poor reliability of the data link, mission payload, and air vehicle; and lack of hardware and software representative of the final configuration. The team's findinqs, which included serious performance limitations and shortages in air vehicles, led to major changes in the program's schedule and the Army's management of the program. new project manager was assigned, the seventh in 8 years.

The Army's original concept was to station RPV sections entirely within forward area divisional artillery batteries. The relative high mobility of forward units dictated several of Aquila's requirements, including a light vehicle so that it could be carried by four soldiers, and a precision recovery system, such as a net, rather than landing the vehicle on an airstrip. Since the forward artillery units must move frequently, the air vehicle must be recovered in sufficient time to allow for its ground systems to redeploy to another area. This frequent movement limited the maximum time that the vehicle could be in the air to 3 hours. The Aquila's 3-hour flight endurance specification was based on this limitation.

In 1983 the Army revised the RPV employment concept to respond to evolving missions which the RPV could perform. The new concept called for launch and recovery by sections stationed in rear areas which would pass flight control to forward area sections. According to the Army, rear area basing required significantly less mobility than deployment in the forward area. However, the Army did not modify RPV requirements such as those for recovery and weight limitations in light of the new employment concept.

The new concept also brought into question whether the Aquila's 3-hour endurance left sufficient time to complete the mission since it would take longer to fly the RPV to its tarqet area from the rear than from the forward area. The Red Team estimated that launching and recovering the Aquila in the rear area would allow only 1 hour in the target area.

Thcb Army planned to field the Aquila initially with a television sensor whose use was limited to daytime operations. This was the sensor that was used during operational testing. An infrared sensor was also being developcd to provide night and adverse weather capabilities. It was estimated that it would be available 12 to 18 months after the television sensor was fielded. The Aquila’s great advantage over other reconnaissance assets, such as manned aircraft, was that it can conduct these operations with less risk to human life.

Deficiencies in the test criteria and limitations in the operational testing made it difficult to project the Aquila’s likely performance when it was fielded. Operational test results showed that the Aquila did not meet two basic requirements the Army prescribes for a system before it enters production: that the system (1) be effective in performing its intended mission and (2) be reliable, maintainable. and otherwise logistically supportable. The Aquila performed well or experienced only minor problems in flight and recovery operations. in directing artillery, fire at targets. in mobility. and in its electromagnetic compatibility. These successes, however, were offset by its difficulties in consistently achieving a successful launch, in detecting targets, and in reaching acceptable levels of reliability and maintainability. The test showed that the Aquila performed well in some important areas but that overall it was not ready for production. It seldom was able to complete its mission, and military personnel found it difficult to maintain or to support logistically.

By the time the Army abandoned the program in 1987 due to cost, schedule, and technical difficulties, Aquila had cost over $1 billion, and future procurement costs were expected to have been an additional $1.1 billion for 376 aircraft.

When DOD committed to the Aquila UAV in 1979, the system was not technologically mature. Several of Aquila’s key planned subsystems — such as a miniaturized jam-resistant data link and a day-night sensor with laser designator — did not even exist at the time. As a result, by 1982, in large part due to numerous problems in developing subsystem technologies, Aquila development costs had almost quintupled, and the schedule had slipped 27 months. Nevertheless, DOD continued the program until 1987, when, after spending more than $1 billion, it terminated Aquila.




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