The RQ-7B Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft system’s engine roared as it slingshots off a mobile launch ramp at Horsemen Flight Landing Strip in Trzebien, Poland, Nov. 2 and into the bright horizon during another day of training for Soldiers assigned to Delta Company, 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
Sgt. Lisa Vines says the “Horsemen Platoon” is creeping closer to its goal of attaining 270 flight hours during their Atlantic Resolve rotation.
“We’re coming up on 270 flight hours in Europe, which is significant because that is what the unit previous to us got, so it shows we’re able to keep pace in a challenging rotation,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Austin J. Collell, the Shadow platoon leader assigned to Delta Company, 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
Just outside of a small village, Soldiers are currently living and working at Horsemen FLS, a camp obscured by camouflage netting in the wood line of a training area accessible only by a dirty road. The platoon is training an influx of new Soldiers on TUAS technology repurposed for a near-peer fight.
“Shadow is a really unique force multiplier because it was designed for Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Collell. “We had to repurpose Shadow in a different direction from what it was originally designed for.”
With a team made up of mostly recently enlisted, junior Soldiers, the training tempo has been high as seasoned operators train their Soldiers in an effort to close the knowledge gap.
“They’re drinking through a fire hose shadowing our senior guys. You cannot mass produce operators,” said Collell. “Even if they’re not flying, they are here at the airfield.”
U.S. Army Pfc. Carlos A. Castillo, an unmanned aircraft systems repairer assigned to Delta Company, Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, is one of those new Soldiers.
“Being a newer Soldier and coming out here, it was on who takes the initiative to get things done,” said Castillo. “If you’re going to learn, now’s the time to learn.”
Almost all of the Soldiers in the Horsemen Platoon are working in positions well beyond their rank’s typical responsibilities.
“They all perform one level up. I think it’s very unique for my guys to be able to have maturity and the knowledge base where they can succeed in these kinds of roles to make the mission happen,” said Collell.
With a diverse team in such an austere training environment, everyone is making the most of their time in the field. They are the first platoon to fly on the Horsemen FLS and to validate the airstrip for the Polish government and every rotational force that follows, which makes their mission a significant milestone.
“The Polish government and the U.S. Army engineers built this airstrip specifically for the Shadow,” said Collell. “It’s not designed for any other airframe.”
The Shadow UAS can be deployed as part of expeditionary forces due to its ability to launch off tactical runways.
“Shadow can move out further and further away from the flock. It allows us to move away from the comforts of home, and a lot of the logistical support packages that we have, and move out to where the enemy might not expect us to be,” Collell said.
One of the Horsemen Platoon’s leaders and mentors, Warrant Officer Brandon C. Dupuis, the UAS operations officer, has 1,300 flight hours under his belt, with experience in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria.
“A TUAS is mainly used as a hastily employed reconnaissance platform. This way can give the commanders at all levels a picture of the battlefield, so they can more easily deploy their troops,” said Dupuis.
Whether the TUAS is employed within aviation or armored brigades, it serves a unique purpose. The Shadow can coordinate with crewed aircraft or artillery to destroy the target. When Soldiers on the ground have an unmanned system such as the Shadow RX-7B on their team, they do not have to risk their lives for reconnaissance.
“One of our biggest jobs out here, and in any deployed environment, is to keep the forces on the ground safe,” said Dupuis.