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Technology In The Air
By Richard Rubright / Special Correspondent
Mar 27, 2008 - 7:45:10 PM

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Note the size of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) compared to the soldier in the upper left corner of this photo. Richard Rubright Photo.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a rather recent phenomenon over the last decade.  In essence they are aircraft without a pilot sitting in the plane itself.  Almost all UAVs in the US military are in-fact still controlled by an operator on the ground using a console.  In time and with great reluctance this will change in the future as they become smaller, cheaper and more numerous.

Aircraft are capable of taking off, flying to a destination, maneuvering, returning to the launch site and landing with absolutely no interference from humans.  It may surprise people but the vast majority of the time they spend in commercial airplanes is time in which a computer, not a person, is flying the aircraft. However, people are still reluctant to leave their fate purely in the hands of a machine, which is a large part of the reason we have pilots; to trouble shoot problems if they occur.

The military also keeps “a man in loop”.  This is to trouble-shoot problems that may arise, be able to quickly change the mission of the UAV if it needs to be given a different task and to shoot the weapons the UAV may be carrying.  We don’t trust UAVs to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly targets, much as civilians don’t trust a commercial airplane to fly itself.

Captain Jason Siler of Headquarters Troop, 2nd Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment operates a small platoon of 23 men who fly small UAVs called Shadows in support of the 4th Stryker Combat Brigade Team.  His men fly their remote control planes around the clock, 24 hours a day.  Their mission is to provide intelligence and surveillance in direct support of combat missions of the brigade.  In-fact, in last week’s story of clearing a village at night, one of Capt. Siler’s Shadows was noiselessly circling overhead while looking for enemy fighters fleeing from our assault.  If enemy soldiers are spotted the little plane pinpoints them with a laser which is clearly visible to the Air Weapons Team (AWT), such as Apache attack helicopters, which sweep in and kill; the insurgents have no chance and die almost 100% of the time.

This UAV is aptly named “The Beast” Richard Rubright Photo.
UAVs come in many shapes and sizes, some types and their capabilities are classified.  Some carry weapons, all carry sensors and other capabilities.  Unlike manned aircraft they are incredibly fuel efficient and can loiter for incredible amounts of time.  The Global Hawk’s range and loiter times are classified, but its name suggest its reach is substantial.  The Shadow can see in the daytime with regular optics or at night with infrared which sees the heat given off by vehicles and people; it can also transmit radio signals.  When we raided that village at night the soldiers on the ground used light portable radios to talk to the Shadow, which in turn relayed their signals back to the unit’s battalion headquarters.  UAVs are a flexible asset and in high demand.

It should also be kept in mind that UAVs are only a tool.  Counter-insurgency warfare is not all about high technology capable or facilitating the killing of enemy fighters.  The United States made a grave error in Vietnam when it relied upon the killing power of firepower and technology while ignoring, or being unable to come to grips, with the political aspects of that war.  The same mistakes were made in the first three to four years of war in Iraq and no number of UAVs will win the support of the Iraqi people, the ultimate determination of success or failure in Iraq or in most other counter-insurgency efforts.

Captain Siler and his men, as well as the whole vast and potent power of technologically driven US military capability can not win a counter-insurgency war alone due to the rules we place on our military and the morals/values the soldiers hold.  They need generals and politicians who understand how to work within the political environments of where they are fighting (such as working with tribal leaders in Iraq). But, with competent generals such as General Patreaus, Colonel Lehr commander of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team 2nd Infantry Division and competent civilian leaders such as Secretary of Defense Gates who do understand how to fight a counter-insurgency war, the technology and its advantages become truly profound.

Captain Siler’s 23 men and their small aircraft have been directly responsible for the killing of over 120 enemy insurgents.  They have spotted insurgents placing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on roads and called in gunships.  They have spotted enemy fighters and pinpointed them for troops on the ground or gunships in the air.  They have monitored villages and pinpointed cache sites where insurgents have buried explosives and weapons.  The have observed and marked IEDs emplaced and relayed the coordinates to engineers to dispose of the IEDs, which has saved soldiers lives.  They have relayed communications and flown over 7,000 hours in support of the brigade. And in doing this stellar job they have taken zero casualties; not one of his soldiers has been killed or wounded.

When this level of technical capability is joined with solid leadership and competent counter-insurgency strategy the result is not the “quagmire” of the first three to four years in Iraq.  Rather the result is the opening of markets, the return to normalcy of people lives and the potential for political solutions that could lead to a stable Iraq.

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