No final decision for the specific basing location within Alaska has been made, but it is expected to be announced in the next few months.
Regardless of where it goes, the new Gray Eagle company is forecast to come online fairly quickly, arriving sometime in the 2015 fiscal year. That’s much sooner faster the other main Pentagon aviation decision the Interior is waiting on. The Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Eielson Air Force Base is a candidate to host, isn’t expected to arrive until 2018, though the Army drone program is much smaller than the manned-aircraft operation.
The Gray Eagle companies are each expected to employ about 120 soldiers, according to Brown. The 48 F-35s the Air Force plans to station in the Pacific region would employ more than 3,000 people.
Drones still are banned in most civilian airspace in the United States, but they’re becoming more common. In Alaska, soldiers have used much smaller drones for more than a decade. Drones took a step toward legitimacy in civilian airspace in December when the Federal Aviation Administration named Alaska one of six testing sites to study adding drones to the national airspace.
But even among the growing variety of unmanned aircraft in Alaska skies, the Gray Eagle would stand out as the largest unmanned aerial vehicle to operate in the state. With a length of 28-feet and a wingspan of 56-feet it’s larger than some manned aircraft.
The Gray Eagle also could be the first armed drone to operate in Alaska. The aircraft is built to carry four Hellfire missiles, but the configuration that would be used in Alaska has not yet been determined, Brown said.
Like other military drones, the Gray Eagle would only be used for training above military lands, he said.