Gray Eagle Drones Are Not Being Deployed To South Korea As A Reactionary Measure

The news that the US Army is deploying MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft to South Korea came yesterday packaged in a strange manner. News outlets and the US government seemed to be making the point that the aircraft’s new assignment was part of some sort of escalation in response to North Korea’s continued missile tests and nuclear ambitions. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated: “In addition to THAAD these drones are defensive measures that are a response to what we—and by ‘we’ I mean South Korea, the United States and Japan—view as a real and credible threat to our security.” 

Yet the truth is that the armed reconnaissance drone has been made an integrated part of the US Army’s master rotary-wing aviation plan, and its arrival on the Korean Peninsula is just part of the implementation that long-standing plan. 

Along with the latest iteration of the AH-64 Apache, the Gray Eagle replaces the retired OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopter. It just so happens that the last of the OH-58Ds are being fully retired from service, and the final unit using the type—the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade—was forward deployed to South Korea up until very recently to work alongside and to provide armed scout capabilities to the resident 2nd Aviation Regiment’s Apaches one last time. 

The MQ-1C Gray Eagle is an evolutionary outgrowth of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. Where the Predator system is built around a stationary, cockpit-like man-in-the-loop control concept that primarily leverages a satellite data-link for connectivity, Gray Eagle and its sensor and weapons payload can be controlled by operators in, near, or even above the battlefield.

Primary control of Gray Eagle is still executed through a ground control element, but one that is simpler and more transportable than those used by the Predator. These units can be mounted on the back of a truck or they can be offloaded and set up quickly at an in-theatre base. Like the Predator, the Gray Eagle also has satellite connectivity, so operations are not limited to line-of-sight operations. But ground operators can “pass off” control of the drone to other elements over or very near the front lines, such as to an AH-64E Apache’s crew, or a forward air controller, or even to another ground control element that is mobile and operating as part of a larger ground force.

Inside the tight confines of the Universal Command Station that can control the Gray Eagle. No control stick or throttles here!, US Army

When a Gray Eagle is teamed with an Apache, the helicopter crew can use a “point and click” semi-autonomous interface to extend their surveillance and attack range, as well as their overall situational awareness, via the Gray Eagle. This could include commanding the drone to go scout an area ahead for dangerous enemy air defenses, or it could be to designate targets beyond the Apache’s own sensor reach. Or simply the Gray Eagle could be directed to get “eyes on” a target area in advance of the Apache crew’s arrival. Eventually, Apache crews could take out targets using the drone’s own Hellfire or Viper Strike missiles, thereby allowing the helicopter to attack on two fronts at once, or to “soften” a particular target area before making their own attack run. 

Because the Grey Eagle can stay aloft for over 24 hours, multiple “users” could leverage the aircraft during a single sortie. For instance, an Apache could use the Gray Eagle for a period of time, and once they leave their station, a forward-deployed ground unit could take it over to scout their route ahead and to provide overwatch and organic close air support if needed. 

Kiowas Warriors have held their own on the cheap over 15 years of war overseas., DoD

It is this “manned-unmanned teaming” concept, which is still in development, as well as the AH-64’s higher-end sensors and enhanced survivability, that the US Army used to justify the retirement of hundreds of battle-tested and relatively cheap to operate OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout helicopters. The diminutive Kiowas and their notoriously aggressive crews were known to have been incredibly effective in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their ability to work close to both friendlies and enemies alike (Kiowa pilots are known to engage the enemy with their own M4 carbines), and their high readiness rate and relatively small logistical footprint made them a greater force than the sum of their parts. This is precisely why many were incensed by the US Army’s plan to remove all H-58/Jet Ranger derivatives from its fleet as part of a sequester-era, cost-saving aviation restructuring plan. 

This plan also resulted in the Army’s practically new fleet of roughly 200 UH-72 Lakota twin-turbine utility helicopters being made into primary trainers, with the Army’s massive fleet of far simpler and more cost effective TH-67 Creeks being put out to pasture. That’s right, student pilots are going through primary helicopter training with the US Army in $6 million Eurocopter EC145 derivatives. Under the same plan National Guard and Reserve AH-64 Apaches would be transferred to the active service, with some units receiving Black Hawks in exchange. 

According to the US Army: “The Gray Eagle UAS company consists of nine unmanned aircraft, five Ground Control Stations (GCS), six Ground Data Terminals (GDT), one Mobile Ground Control Station (MGCS), three Satellite Ground Data Terminal (SGDT), an Automated Take-off and Landing System (ATLS), and other ground-support equipment, operated and maintained by a company of 128 Soldiers.” , US Army

Fast forward to today, and the Kiowas are all gone, with some units still converting over to the Apache and MQ-1C to take up the armed reconnaissance mission. Thus establishing an MQ-1C presence on the Korean Peninsula with the Army’s 2nd Aviation Regiment that is permanently based there as part of the 2nd Infantry Division is more a part of the Army’s larger tactical aviation master plan than anything else. Not just that, but the MQ-1C is incredibly well suited to the tactical situation in the Korea area of operations. When not teamed with Apaches or forward ground-based elements, these aircraft can fly along the demilitarized zone, carrying different sensor packages to suck up image/WAAS, radar, electronic, communication and other forms of intelligence. In Korea, Gray Eagle can also do this largely within line of sight of its ground control stations, without the need for a continuos satellite data-link. During a time of war, Gray Eagles can jam enemy radio communications, hunt for active artillery positions, missile launchers, regime elements and track troop movements. It can even take out targets of opportunity itself if it ends up being operated in an armed state, a move that will require the approval of South Korean government. 

In the end the Grey Eagle’s arrival in South Korea fits in with the US Army’s master plan for tactical aviation, and beyond that the aircraft provides relevant capabilities to allied commanders. But the idea that its permanent deployment, which will likely be to Kunsan Air Base, is some type of escalating response to North Korea’s recent missile launches and other acts, is likely inaccurate, but it does make for a good headline and impactful propaganda. 

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