BAQOUBA, Iraq | Unmanned surveillance aircraft likely will become even more important to U.S. forces in Iraq as troops withdraw to isolated encampments this year under a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The pilotless aerial vehicles that provide tactical reconnaissance, or "eyes in the sky," to support ground operations, will play a bigger surveillance role and could involve Iraqi Security Forces more directly than in the past, U.S. officers say.
"I think [their role] will change," said Army Maj. Phillip Mann, commander of Delta Troop, 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. "Not from the standpoint of giving direct support to our guys on the ground in operations, but just for us to be able to go to places where we aren't putting forces to get situational awareness of what's going on."
Maj. Mann's unit, which operates four Shadow-200 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is attached to the 25th Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Warhorse near Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala province. It´s a restive region with ethnic and sectarian tensions and pockets of al Qaeda activity. On its eastern edge sits Iran, which militants are thought to use as a safe haven. To its south is Baghdad. To the west is Salahaddin province.
Until late 2007 and early last year, Diyala was the headquarters for al Qaeda's self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate. Al Qaeda control is a thing of the past, but militants still use Diyala as a transit point into Baghdad, to Salahaddin and north toward Ninevah province, where the city of Mosul remains al Qaeda's last urban redoubt.
Delta's UAVs keep watch on the mainly rural province for U.S. brigade commanders, giving them real-time "situational awareness." From altitudes as low as 500 feet to as high as 12,000 feet, the 11-foot drones scan the ground, using enhanced electro-optic cameras with infrared capability to catch suspicious movements of vehicles and men and to perform specifically requested intelligence and reconnaissance tasks. The images are transmitted in real time to commanders on the ground.
"You're looking from seven or eight thousand feet through a soda straw. We may see something by chance, or we may not see it," said Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class David Wheatley, a Shadow operations technician. "It's not a stand-alone system, it has to have something else cueing it."
The something else was intelligence, which will increasingly be gathered by Iraqi Security Forces. U.S. troops, under the bilateral agreement between Washington and Baghdad that went into effect Dec. 31, are now playing supporting roles in Iraq, which means their daily direct interaction with local citizens and intelligence sources is diminishing. By July 1, it will diminish even further when, as required by the accord, all U.S. troops withdraw from cities, villages and towns to more isolated bases.
According to Delta Troop's commander, preparations are now being made to share the UAVs' products with Iraqi forces.
"All of us are in a tricky situation because of the SOFA," Maj. Mann said. "Before it was just U.S. operations that we supported. Now we're going to have to transfer material to the Iraqis, and there's classified information involved.
"We're already working to skim some of the data off of it to enable the Iraqis to see the images. We're not completely there yet, but right now the advisers who are with those Iraqi units are getting that capability to do that."
The advisers, members of U.S. military transition teams, would receive a UAV's streaming video on their laptop computers, using special software and antennas. Secret information around the videos' margins that U.S. commanders see, such as U.S. map grid notations and telemetry data, would be removed so the images could be shown to Iraqi forces.
"We're also trying to declassify some of the data that comes off of the Shadow," Maj. Mann added.
The Shadow, made of composite materials, has a 14-foot wingspan, weighs just 375 pounds and is launched by a hydraulic catapult. It's powered by a 38-horsepower engine and cruises at a speed of about 50 to 60 knots.
With its light-gray paint, it's difficult to see with the naked eye when airborne and sounds like a muffled lawnmower when overhead and near the ground.
The aircraft, referred to as an air frame, stays aloft about six hours and has a maximum range of 125 miles, which can be extended by placing a second control center farther up range. The control center consists of a container fitted to the back of a Humvee and outfitted with video and computer screens, keyboards and joysticks.
An air-vehicle operator pilots the craft while the payload operator sitting next to him controls the Shadow's optical, video and laser package, which sits beneath the UAV's nose and which can rotate 360 degrees.
Unlike the much larger and more sophisticated Predator, which is operated from an Air Force base in Salahaddin province, the Shadow carries no weapons.
"We run about two missions a day, each lasting six hours," Maj. Mann said. "But it really depends on who we are supporting and their priorities that day. Originally it was designed to find mass movements of men and vehicles, but now it's to gather more refined information."