Part spy, part sniper: UAVs increasingly in use in war
Friday, January 04, 2008
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Unmanned, aerial spies regularly take to the skies over Afghanistan because of a hunch from the ground.
That hunch might come from a coalition force operative who suspects a white pick-up truck is delivering weapons to insurgents in one of this country's many isolated, mud-walled compounds. Soon, the U.S. air force pilots who fly Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan are watching the pick-up truck's every movement from their base in Nevada.
While the scenario of the truck is fictitious, it illustrates how an increasing number of unmanned aerial vehicles - slow-moving, remote-controlled aircraft with cameras - are being used during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Our primary mission is to find what people are looking for," said Maj. Rich, a UAV pilot who flies Reapers in Afghanistan. (The pilots cannot reveal their full names to protect their families.)
The Predator, which can fly for up to 20 hours while carrying two Hellfire missiles, is described by pilots as part spy, part sniper in the sky.
"We are a spy. I don't know if that's politically correct to say, but we are a spy in the air," said U.S. Predator pilot Maj. Howard.
"We just have a better field of vision."
The use of UAVs is fast-growing among several armed forces, despite criticism that they perform poorly in bad weather and are prone to being lost or shot down. The U.S. air force more than doubled its monthly use of drones between January and October 2007, largely because of the war in Iraq where it has 361 unmanned aircraft, the Associated Press reported this week.
In Afghanistan, the air force logged 3,000 to 3,500 flight hours for the Predator each month, the AP report said. The U.K. has ordered three Reapers for Afghanistan, the first of which arrived in October, Frontline Defence magazine reported.
The Reapers are faster than the Predators and can carry Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
Canada also has plans to expand its UAV arsenal. This fall, the Canadian Forces announced plans to buy a new fleet of UAVs for various uses, including intelligence-gathering during the war in Afghanistan and conducting aerial patrols in the Arctic.
News reports said Canada is hoping to buy the UAVs over a five-year period, but there were no details about how many of the drones would be purchased.
A spokesperson from Canada's Department of National Defence couldn't be reached this week for comment.
Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Predator has been used by the U.S. since 1995. Canada's first major operational deployment of drones was in 2003, when the military purchased French-made CU-161 Sperwars for the war in Afghanistan.
The small Sperwars, which can only fly for a few hours at a time, are used for multiple purposes, including supporting convoys by surveying roads for insurgents planting IEDs. The American-piloted Predators have a similar function.
"A huge part of our mission i s scanning the roads for IEDs," said Howard.
In Afghanistan, the use of UAVs is also crucial because the aircraft can follow insurgents who would otherwise blend into the civilian population as shopkeepers during the day and fighters by night.
"That's why they (the insurgents) can't fade into the shadows," said U.S. Capt. Michael Meridith, an air force spokesperson at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
To a trained eye, the Predator's footage shows remarkable detail: everything from gunfire, to a cigarette, to whether a truck is overloaded. On a joint mission involving the Canadians and the Royal Gurkha Rifles, UAV footage would be clear enough to make the distinction between "the pasty Canadians and the darker Gurkhas," Howard said.
"It's very hard to hide things," he added. "Camouflage doesn't work."
While Howard and Rich are both based in Afghanistan, the vast majority of UAV pilots fly the aircraft by satellite, from stations thousands of kilometres away at air force bases in Nevada.
Because of a two-second delay in the satellite link, some pilots must be located in Afghanistan for take-offs and landings. It is this separation between aircraft and pilot that's made countries like Canada uneasy about using drones equipped with missiles.
A former fighter pilot, Howard said he saw little difference between firing a missile from a Predator and shooting a target from an F-15 Strike Eagle. The biggest challenge for Predator pilots at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada is leaving home each day to go to war.
"I go from the gym and step inside Afghanistan, or Iraq," he said. "It takes some getting used to it. At Nellis you have to remind yourself, 'I'm not at the Nellis Air Force Base. Whatever issues I had 30 minutes ago, like talking to my bank, aren't important anymore.'"
Howard and Rich said they like being in theatre because they can get feedback from soldiers on the ground who were saved because of support from the UAVs.
"I've had people tell me, 'dude, you just saved our asses'," Howard said.
"A lot of it is luck," he continued. "A lot of it is looking for people who shouldn't be there."
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