- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE NORMANDY, Iraq — Flying model airplanes might not seem like fit work for grown men, especially soldiers.

But the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, is transforming the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing U.S. commanders with real-time reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition data that was never available before.

“We’re not rated as pilots,” said Sgt. Thomas Oberman of Portsmouth, Va., as he controlled a UAV in flight near Baqouba in Diyala province, a front line in the latest U.S. offensive against al Qaeda holdouts north of Baghdad.

“We have no illusions about that, but we”re well-versed in air operations, weather, everything that comes into getting the bird up and on mission.”

New Pentagon data obtained this month by the Associated Press show that the Air Force more than doubled its monthly use of drones between January and October 2007. A report cited by the AP predicted even more aggressive efforts to develop and use drones in the future.

The best-known UAV to the American public is the Predator, which proved its worth in the Balkans. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the craft have been given killing power by outfitting their wings with laser-guided Hellfire anti-tank missiles that can be launched by an on-the-ground controller.

The use of Predators shot up from 2,000 hours a month in January 2007 to more than 4,300 hours in October, the AP reported. Recently released Air Force video footage shows a Predator-launched missile killing three militants who were firing mortars at U.S. forces near the city of Balad in November.

Less well-known than the Predators, but just as valuable, are the smaller Shadow 200s and Ravens.

“They haven’t been able to arm [the Shadow] yet because of the weight, but we do a lot of coordination with the air-weapons teams, the Apache [attack helicopters],” said Lt. Jason Siler. “So we’re kind of the hunter and they’re the killers.”

Lt. Siler is with Delta Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. The unit is responsible for four Shadows that fly from Forward Operating Base Normandy in Baqouba.

At least one of the unit’s aircraft is in the air round-the-clock to give the brigade a constant flow of real-time information and pictures of activity in their sector. That activity could be the movements of an al Qaeda unit, suspect vehicles, blocked roads or a bird’s-eye view of terrain.

Each Shadow is aloft for about six hours at a time, cruising at speeds of between 50 and 60 miles per hour and altitudes as low as 500 feet. Launched by a hydraulic catapult, it weighs just 375 pounds and has a 14-foot wingspan.

Delta Troop’s flight command center is a container unit on the back of a Humvee, where two men sit side by side — one flying the UAV and the other operating its camera system.

Sgt. Oberman said the two men trade jobs about halfway through a six-hour mission. “You kind of go crazy looking at the same thing, so we switch off to go crazy looking at something else,” said Cpl. Andrew Currier, from Missoula, Mont.

Each Shadow serves a brigade. For smaller units in the field, there is the Raven, which is just 4½ pounds in weight, 38 inches long and has a 5-foot wingspan. It comes in sections that fit into a single suitcase, along with a hand-held controller and small image receiver that fit easily into a backpack. It is launched manually, much like the paper airplanes children play with, but with a running start.

The Raven, with a small electric engine and a camera, can stay aloft for an hour. Its optics aren’t as sophisticated as those of the Shadow or Predator, but are good enough to give its operator a clear image from 1,000 feet of a man on the ground carrying a rifle.

Like the Shadow, it’s gray in color and hard to see when in flight. The Shadow sounds like a distant, muffled lawn mower; the Raven hums like, well, a model airplane.

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