If one drone could be a tank, it would be the Shadow. A hardy and known king of the battleskies, the Shadow is one of the few combat drones that demands its own unit to operate, and it’s assigned as standard equipment to every brigade-sized formation, just like artillery.

The initial Shadow model (RQ-7A) entered service with the U.S. Army in 2002 and flew its first mission over Baghdad in April 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Shadow models have since been adopted by Army special operations and the Marine Corps. Shadows are still forward deployed in the Middle East, stationed in Kuwait. A Shadow system consists of four drones and two ground control stations, which transmit full motion video and wide area (4x4 kilometer) imagery in near real time directly to the most forward combat command centers. Because Shadow is the most standard and common drone equipment, the most information is probably known about it. But that’s not to say that there aren’t secrets, and under the CORPORAL (Collaborative On-line Reconnaissance Provider Operationally Responsive Attack Link) development program, an “electronic attack” was integrated into the drone for jamming and other warfare tasks.

Built by AAI Corporation (now owned by Textron), the Shadow is 11 feet long with a wingspan of 13 feet. It has a range of 68 nautical miles, a distance picked to match typical Army brigade operation, and averages a flight duration of five hours. Although the Shadow can reach a maximum altitude of 14,000 feet, its optimum level for reconnaissance and endurance is 8,000 feet. The Shadow is catapulted from a rail-launcher, and recovered with the aid of arresting gear. The upgraded version, the Shadow B (RQ-7B), features a 16 inch greater wingspan and larger fuel capacity allowing for an extra two hours of flight endurance.

Give a combat unit a Shadow and it has to have a nail. In 2009, Marine commanders in Afghanistan argued for munitions after they complained that operators lost track of 90 insurgents involved with improvised explosive device (IED) emplacement. They stated that armed Shadows could have taken these IED teams out. Two years later, the Marines were leading a classified multi-million dollar program to arm Shadow. The final weapon, if it is to become another standard of Marine fighting regiments and then Army combat brigades, would have to weigh less than 25 pounds.

Excerpt from Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare

Pioneer begat Shadow. Pioneer veterans grumbled that Shadow’s flying range was 60 kilometers less than Pioneer’s. And whereas Pioneer had to be launched by a rocket-assisted catapult contraption and landed in a large net, Shadow . . . well, had a similar bulky and complicated launch and recovering process, using arresting gear similar to jets on the deck of an aircraft carrier, demanding a flat, cleared space the size of a soccer field to operate. But in those twenty years, the technologies had transformed, and everything about the modern drones reduced infant mortalityto almost zero. Shadow was lighter, had a more powerful engine that used motor gasoline readily available to ground forces, and could fly 4,000 feet higher than Pioneer and loiter for six hours, almost a third longer than its forefather. The first version of Shadow (referred to as the Shadow 200) was thus a substantial advance in all aspects, and the range didn’t particularly matter because it was no longer just the pioneer, the only drone in the hands of the troops on the ground; it was part of a growing family. Its range, in fact, matched the distance covered by typical Army brigade-level operations, the highest echelon to which it was assigned.

The army chose Shadow not just to replace Pioneer but also eventually to replace Hunter; the marine corps shot for an improved Shadow‑B with three feet of additional wing to increase fuel storage for greater range and payload to match its tactical needs; and the navy began the search for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing alternative that could operate from ships (initially Fire Scout). In the world of unmanned systems, Pioneer and Shadow are called small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS), that is, more than4.5 pounds but less than 55 pounds. They are also sometimes called tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (TUAV): directly supporting those at the edge of combat. But neither title quite explains their position in the network of drones as so many more
have emerged. These Shadows in the middle, not too large and not too small, are operated by a platoon of men to support the intelligence needs of a fighting brigade of some 3,000 to 3,500 men. The unit is assigned four drones, two ground control stations, one rail launcher, and eight HUMVEEs (a Shadow unit requires three C‑130 air transports to deploy it).

[Images courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps]