Nearly a mile in the sky, a 400 lb. bird of steel flies in deliberate, careful patterns, watching the world below with an unblinking eye. It can tell the living from the inanimate, the friendly from the enemy, and relay that information back to its controllers instantly without ever giving up its position. Armed only with its camera, the unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle, Shadow, is a weapon of intelligence, and it's giving Soldiers with Fort Lewis's 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, the edge they need at the Joint Readiness Training Center here.
Since the training began at the JRTC in early June, the Soldiers of Darkhorse Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, have been sending these UAVs into the air to support the many training missions undertaken by the brigade. While Soldiers may not even realize the Shadow is in the air during many of their operations, they have all benefited from its capabilities at one point or another.
"The Shadow is the commander's eye on the battlefield," said Spc. Eric Myles, a UAV operator with Darkhorse Troop. "It's surveillance, target acquisition and route reconnaissance all in one."
Equipped with infrared optics, the Shadow can detect subtle differences in heat signatures. This means it can spot a person through dense foliage clearly and even detect where earth has been disturbed by digging, making it invaluable in protecting Soldiers from ambush and improvised explosive devices. This ability has contributed to successful night raids for the brigade at JRTC, one of which seriously crippled the distribution of weapons and IED materials, captured two anti-coalition militants and improved area security.
The Shadow also has another, more offensive capability.
"The system is designed so that once it spots a target, it can relay coordinates so you can call for air or artillery support and strike the target to within 10 meters of accuracy," Myles said. "Or it can mark targets that might have gone unseen by dismounted Soldiers."
The missions at JRTC test all these abilities and challenge the operators to be at their best.
"We've supported countless troops in contact. We've found IEDs and monitored vehicle-borne IEDs and supported a bunch of raids out there," said Sgt. Reed Myers, a UAV operator with Darkhorse Troop.
Despite the high demands of the training, the Soldiers are glad for the chance to reinforce skills Darkhorse Troop used during their last deployment to Iraq a year ago.
"It's been rigorous. We have a high operational tempo but it's excellent training for the mission we'll be providing in theater. JRTC does an outstanding job of providing an accurate depiction of what we're going to see," Myles said. "We saved countless lives, caught hundreds of bad guys and disabled tons of IEDs in our support of troops on the ground."
When the unit deploys to Iraq in the fall, the Soldiers of Darkhorse Troop, with the help of the Shadow, expect to be busy saving lives once again.