Soldier Pilots in Iraq
A lot has been written about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in combat, but what is it like to actually employ them, and what use are they to the average soldier? Dodge Billingsley of Combat Films & Research recently spent some time with UAV operators of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Air Assault Division back from Iraq, where they have been operating the US Army's Shadow Tactical UAV (TUAV) and Raven (UAV). He wrote an article for eDefense Online entitled "Soldier Pilots." Here is an excerpt:
The Shadow platoon falls under the recently renamed Special Troops Battalion (STB), part of the newly transformed modular brigade. The STB was created last year and includes, among other units, military police (MPs), intel assets, and a UAV platoon. Each UAV platoon is supposed to have 22 soldiers when fully operational – a warrant officer, platoon leader, platoon sergeant, 13 qualified air-vehicle operators (AVOs) or pilots, mission-payload operators (MPOs), and maintenance personnel – although CPT Gourley, the 3rd brigade's UAV platoon leader, admits he will deploy to Iraq two pilots short of a full platoon.
Members of the Shadow platoon come from various Military Occupation Specialists (MOSs) -- field artillery, communications, and infantry. SGT Brenner used to be a 31-Charlie, or radio operator, "about as basic como as you can get, and I wasn't satisfied with that job, so when it came time for reenlistment, I reclassed and came in as a 96-Uniform [Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator] to Fort Huachuca."
SFC Baker is a former infantryman who was looking at an early discharge because of a medical condition, went before a medical board, reclassed to a different MOS, and found his way into the Shadow platoon. He now considers himself fortunate to be in the UAV platoon and is looking forward to his specific mission in Iraq. None of the pilots/operators expected to fly or work with UAVs, since the position didn't exist when they entered the Army.
SGTs Brenner and Baker received their Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for 26 weeks at Black Tower, the location of the UAV schoolhouse at Ft. Huachuca, AZ, where training with the Shadow and Hunter UAV takes place. They also received two months of additional training at the Redstone Arsenal facility near Huntsville, AL, with other platoon members.
SGT Brenner is the standards pilot for the platoon. "The standardization pilot is pretty much in charge of all training areas that our platoon is involved in, making sure that all of our pilots are current and they're up to all the different 1000-, 2000-, 3000-level tasks designated by the commander," he explained.
It is his job to evaluate all the pilots in the platoon. The Army requires that he and the other pilots operate the Shadow at least once every 90 days or they fall "out of currency" and have to re-qualify. Regulations and procedures allow each pilot to make one flight simulation count as a flight, but they must fly the actual Shadow within the second 90-day period. "If a pilot is outside of 90 days flying a Shadow, he's considered non-current and goes down to what is called RL-3, which is the readiness level of 3. That means you have to take evaluative flights, and you have three months in order to achieve RL-2, at which point you have another three months to achieve RL-1. An RL-1 is a pilot who is ready to fly with no one else in the back seat evaluating them," said SGT Brenner.
CPT Gourley and his pilots expect some growing pains operating a new system in a hostile environment. The platoon has had limited ability to integrate the Shadow system into their brigade training operations. The UAVs were sent directly from Redstone Arsenal to the brigade's staging area in Kuwait, instead of returning to Ft. Campbell, KY, with the Shadow platoon, so they did not train a single day with the brigade prior to deployment.
The primary means of communication with the Shadow is line-of-sight (LOS) communications. Being able to operate at a higher altitude means the Shadow will not fall victim to the obstruction of signal from which lower-flying UAVs might suffer in an urban environment of tall buildings and telecommunications towers, but potential loss of LOS will be a factor.
The sound of the Shadow's Motto Guzzi engine is another concern. According to the Army, more than 20 UAVs were shot down in Kosovo in 1999 and more, including Shadows, have been downed in Iraq and Afghanistan by alert enemy ground forces (see "US Army UAV Programs in Flux"). Despite these considerations, CPT Gourley is not overly concerned: "In open terrain, in the countryside, people below would hear it, but in the cities, the urban landscape, with lots of city traffic, it is unlikely that people would notice it overhead." In any case, labels posting a reward for the return of the UAVs to coalition forces are plastered on the sides of the Shadow and the Raven in an effort to minimize aircraft loss in the event one does go down due to hostile fire or mechanical issues.
However, some units within the brigade are benefiting from the noise factor. According to Shadow platoon members, psychological-operations (PSYOPS) units have recorded the sound of the Shadow and broadcast it in an effort to make the enemy think one is overhead, in an effort to deter insurgent strikes.
Flying in a crowded skies environment is perhaps the greatest challenge to the Shadow. Without any form of aircraft-avoidance system, word among the platoon is that there has been at least one case where a UAV struck the tail of a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, nearly causing the helo to crash. Standard operating procedure for the Shadow is to schedule a flight 72 hours in advance, reserve a slot, and then push out. Traditionally, an operations officer at the brigade level will work out the air-tasking order.
According to SGT Brenner, they are treated "just like a manned aviation plane. We have to coordinate airspace through air-traffic control, and we have officers that pretty much do that for us. But when we're flying, we're still in constant contact with air-traffic control."
Because of the need to reserve the airspace, the Shadow is not a quick-reaction-force (QRF) asset. Conceding that the Predator and other UAV assets will be tasked for theater-wide targets at a higher echelon of command, the real benefit, according the Shadow platoon, is the ability the UAV gives the brigade commander to get his own "eyes on target" without having to fight for airtime on other platforms like the Predator. (For more on UAV usage, see "US Plans Expanded Role for UAVs.")
The inability to quickly adjust the flight path in a fluid battlefield environment is compounded by the fact that UAVs are still under Air Force flight-plan constraints and requirements. Coordination with the Air Force is a time-consuming process, thus negating the potential benefit of having a tactical UAV at the brigade level. To overcome this obstacle, CPT Gourley hopes – in a best-case scenario, at least – "to have the Shadow more or less tasked to be in the air as much as possible in support of ongoing operations. The Shadow can then be re-tasked in the air to cover any contingency that might be necessary." He envisions at least one mission to "track vehicles to do area searches and road searches looking for IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and things of that sort. We're really good at route recons and smaller-level things like that." (For more on countering IEDs in Iraq, see "No Silver Bullets for IEDs.")