LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Unmanned Aircraft Systems — previously referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely operated aircraft/vehicles — come in a variety of shapes and sizes; providing aerial surveillance and security for service members and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.
Soldiers assigned to Company A, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, based out of Fort Hood, Texas, conducted reconnaissance missions with the RQ-7B Shadow from Combat Outpost Xio Hoq, giving commanders an accurate view of the battlefield.
It was a team effort for the Soldiers of Company A, also known as the “Dirty Birds,” to maintain, operate and deploy the Shadow. The aircraft is launched from a trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult and recovered with the aid of a hook and arresting gear. The team flew combat missions 24 hours-a-day from the flight line at COP Xio Haq.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Tyler Hervey is the unmanned aircraft systems platoon sergeant. Not only does he conduct flight operations, serving as a UAS operator, he is in charge of the welfare and training of his Soldiers. He said his mission in eastern Afghanistan was peaceful compared to his mission in Mosul, Iraq, where he accumulated well over a thousand flight hours.
“Every other day we had rockets and mortars fired at us,” said Hervey. “They were always attacking the flight line.”
He said his Afghanistan mission can’t compare to Iraq, but his assignment in Xio Haq comes with its own set of challenges.
“This time around I am a platoon sergeant, I have a lot more responsibility on my plate, but at the same time, it is also very fulfilling,” said Hervey. “Luckily I have a great group of soldiers.”
Half of the team performs maintenance on the birds and the other side of the house operates the aircraft. Hervey said there are two different sides to the same sandwich. He said his UAS maintenance and operators are very responsible and are go-getters and overall, he is impressed with them.
“It makes things a lot easier, having squared-away soldiers,” said Hervey.
As far as the mission is concerned Hervey said just having the aircraft available 24 hours-a-day is the most important thing. Hervey said he is providing quality support that only UAS can provide.
“The great thing about the RQ7B Shadow is that it is a highly mobile system,” said Hervey. “You can pack up the entire system, go to a flat dirt road and you are good to go. You can set up the entire system and fly straight from there.”
Hervey said the UAS is the eye of the battle, it can see everything that is going on.
“We scan the area and deter any enemy forces from emplacing improvised explosive devices, harming convoys on the highways,” said Pfc. Harrison Strole, an unmanned aerial vehicle operator assigned to Company A, 4th BSTB, 4th BCT, 1st Cav. Div.
After he graduated basic training and advanced individual training Strole said he arrived at Fort Hood and was ready to have some fun. He found out his unit was at Fort Polk, La., at the Joint Readiness Training Center conducting pre-deployment training. He was quickly sent to JRTC, while there, he got to know the rest of the crew. Following the realistic training in Louisiana, he and the rest of the “Dirty Birds” deployed to Afghanistan and have grown to be like a family.
Mountains dominate the terrain that surrounds COP Xio Haq.
“The mountains really played a factor on what we can see,” said Sgt. Christopher Kaiser, an unmanned aircraft systems repairer, also assigned to Company A, 4th BSTB, 4th BCT, 1st Cav. Div. “Compared to Iraq, where it had more flat land.”
Kaiser is a native of Dyersburg, Tenn., and said he services and maintains the aircraft and the launchers. His favorite part of the deployment was participating in the “Spur Ride” the battalion held on COP Xio Haq.
The challenging course had a variety of obstacles including tests on first aid, land navigation and obstacle courses.
“There were a lot of intense physical events and it rained on us too,” said Kaiser. “The spur ride ended with a spur ceremony where everyone was awarded a certificate allowing them to wear spurs, continuing that cavalry tradition.”
The operators controlling the RQ7B Shadow don’t have regular 9 to 5 hour shifts. Depending on the mission they could fly the aircraft from 8 to 12 hours.
Strole’s shift begins at two in the morning, he walks to the flight line if he is mission coordinator that day and checks the weather forecast to see if the aircraft will fly.
“I get my flight crew ready to go,” said Strole. “After they finish their pre-flight checks, I brief the crew and the bird goes up, that is when I keep an eye out on the mission that day.”
The time the aircraft spends in the air depends on the mission and weather. Strole said once the UAV is in the air he could see what the Soldiers on the ground could not. He could communicate with a convoy of a possible threat so they don’t run into anything dangerous.
The native of Grain Valley, Mo., said the RQ-7B Shadow is loud and when it is in the air. It could be heard by someone trying to dig a hole by the side of the road to place an improvised explosive device.
“We’ve actually seen that happen a couple of times, where it appears a group is doing something suspicious they all start walking away when they hear the UAV overhead,” said Strole. “So if they were doing something bad, we didn’t see the result. That is a good thing, nobody got hurt and everybody gets to go home.”
Hervey said sometimes it is nice to have a loud platform to work with. He said people stay inside, the enemy runs away, because they know they will be watched.
“We can buzz over convoys and intimidate the enemy into not doing whatever it was going to do,” said Hervey.
The UAS operators are tasked with different missions. Hervey said the majority of them are area surveillance, watching over military convoys on the road.
“That stuff can get pretty mundane and repetitive but it doesn’t mean it is any less important,” said Hervey. “Sometimes you get an exceptional mission and that is when you get positive feedback from the guys on the ground.”
As the Afghanistan mission for Task Force Long Knife soldiers comes to an end, Hervey looks to the future of UAS. He said drones are going to be key to the future of combat.
“Not only is it the rising trend, they will make a larger impact in combat,” said Hervey. “Bottom line, the technology will keep soldiers out of harm’s way.”