Army's Elite Night Stalkers Quietly Stood Up A New Unit Ahead Of Getting New Drones

Better known for its helicopters, the Army's top special operations aviation unit's unmanned aircraft are also in high demand.

GA-ASI

For the first time in nearly a decade, the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has added a new unit to its ranks. The creation of the additional separate company comes as the Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers, which is best known for providing premier special operations helicopter support for U.S. special operators, is expanding its drone capabilities.

On Aug. 16, 2018, Company F, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment stood up at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, according to an order from U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), which we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Fort Campbell is already home to the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 160th, as well as the Regiment’s headquarters. The remaining 3rd and 4th Battalions are based at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, respectively.

US Army via FOIA
US Army via FOIA

Censors redacted the unit’s so-called “Table of Order and Equipment” code, or TOE, which defines its size, structure, and mission, as well as the total authorized personnel for the new company. We do know that the company is assigned directly to the regimental headquarters rather than placed under the control of any one of the 160th’s existing four battalions.

This is the first new unit USASOC has created under the control of the 160th since it activated Company E in October 2010. The Army had shuttered the previous incarnations of both Companies E and F, which were both equipped with MH-47 Chinooks at the time, in 2007. The personnel and helicopters from these units subsequently became part of the new 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

SOCOM

The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as of 2015. The ERMP unit, standing for Extended-Range Multi-Purpose, is Company E.

Though we don’t know for sure what Company F’s composition or mission set is, it seems very likely that the unit will take control of 160th’s future fleet of MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) drones. The order, somewhat confusingly, says that personnel destined for the new company would first go to the unrelated Company F, 2nd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. 

In September 2018, the Army publicly acknowledged that special operations aviators from this other Company F, which is the battalion maintenance company, had taken part in testing of the GE-ER drone at Fort Hood in Texas. The most recent annual report from the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, also stated that the Army would establish a company of the improved MQ-1Cs within the 160th.

In development since at least 2013, the GE-ER, previously known as the Improved Gray Eagle (IGE), is larger and significantly more capable than the original MQ-1C. The Army completed Follow-on Operational Test and Evaluation of the GE-ER variant in October 2018, the last step before operational units begin receiving the aircraft.

US Army

An MQ-1C GE-ER during testing at Fort Hood in 2018.

The GE-ER’s maximum gross takeoff weight is 600 pounds greater, primarily due to its more powerful Lycoming DEL-120 Heavy Fuel Engine (HFE). It also has a deeper fuselage that can accommodate 50 percent more fuel and a payload bay that is 50 percent larger. This means the GE-ER can stay aloft for more than 40 hours, almost an entire extra day compared to the earlier MQ-1Cs, while also carrying a more robust suite of sensors and weaponry.

It’s easy to spot the new variant from the new winglets on the end of each wing and the relocation of the vertical mount with data link antenna on top from the middle of the fuselage to the rear. The added endurance of the MQ-1Cs will allow a single platoon of three of the drones to perform persistent surveillance of a particular area 24 hours a day without interruption, according to the latest annual DOT&E report.

The extra internal space in the upgraded model will also make it easier to integrate new sensor systems or other payloads, such as electronic warfare systems, as they become available in the future. The Army is already buying signals intelligence packages for its existing Gray Eagles, as well.

It will also have improved performance with various underwing stores. As with the earlier MQ-1Cs, it can carry up to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, as well as wide-area persistent surveillance systems, electronic warfare packages, and more. The Army is also exploring adding dispenser pods that can each carry a dozen of Northrop Grumman's Hatchet precision-guided miniature munitions to the Gray Eagle’s arsenal, which you can read about in more detail here.

US Army

An earlier model MQ-1C with components of a wide area persistent surveillance system mounted in pods underneath each wing.

A company of GE-ERs will significantly boost the 160th’s drone capabilities. Company E also has a mix of earlier model MQ-1Cs and pre-production Warrior Alphas, the latter of which are only capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

The 160th has used the unmanned aircraft for armed overwatch during operations, as well as communications relays. A single drone can operate in multiple modes at once, too. The added endurance and payload capacity of the GE-ER will only add to this flexibility.

Have a company of the improved Gray Eagles will also expand the total force of medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aircraft available within the U.S. special operations community in general. At present, the vast majority of this capability comes from MQ-9 Reaper squadrons assigned to both Air Force Special Operations Command and the non-special operations Air Combat Command. There are also conventional MQ-1C units across the regular Army.

Still, the demand for this category of unmanned aircraft support has perpetually outstripped the capacity of these existing units. The Air Force has resorted In 2018, the U.S. Navy hired General Atomics, who builds the Gray Eagles and Reapers, to fly their own unarmed MQ-9s in support of U.S. Marines.

With this in mind, if Company F is indeed slated to become the 160th’s new GE-ER company, it could easily find itself very busy when it reaches initial operational capability with the type. By every indication, Company E has been heavily deployed since 2010, as well, though the Army has been very secretive about its operations.

US Army

One of Company E's MQ-1C's on display in 2013.

The service did not even publicly announce its activation until 2013, at which time it was situated at Fort Huachuca, the Army’s hub for aerial intelligence and drone training, in Arizona. Later that year, it relocated to Fort Campbell, at least officially.

By that time, that unit had already received a Meritorious Unit Commendation for supporting special operators in Afghanistan. Next we heard, in 2016, Company E had deployed Gray Eagles to Garoua, Cameroon to support operations in that country, as well as neighboring Nigeria, against the terrorist group Boko Haram.

US Army

Company E's Meritorious Unit Commendation for operations in Afghanistan.

In 2018, the Pentagon also revealed that Gray Eagles were flying in the Philippines as part of a special operations forces-led mission to support the Armed Forces of the Philippines battle ISIS-linked terrorists in that country. Though we don’t know for sure, it seems very likely that these drones are also from Company E.

Whether or not it turns out that Company F will be flying the 160's GE-ERs, the Regiment's future looks set to involve increasing unmanned operations in addition to its trademark helicopter assaults.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com