The Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division's Unmanned Aerial Systems program is living (or perhaps robotic) proof that an idea does not have to be fancy, flashy, or even new to be a huge factor on the battlefield.
Though their program was canceled in 1996 after three years of development by a TRW/Israel Aircraft Industries team, the US Army's MQ-5 Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle has never been busier.
CAB Soldiers are flying the vehicles around the clock through the skies of Iraq, providing military leadership with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and even lethal strike capabilities – the only such capabilities in all of Iraq.
Even so, the primary offensive use of the vehicles is in a real-time melding of military intelligence and attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache, said Maj. Tom Rude, the CAB, 1st Infantry Division executive officer. "We have a radio on the Hunter, which allows our aircraft to talk directly with the Hunter operator. Then that Hunter relays back to the operator." Passing the mission over to the helicopter is generally preferable to directly engaging insurgents with UAVs.
"Hunters can directly engage insurgents on the ground. We don't prefer this, as we would rather use UAVs to direct our (Apache) Longbows and have them engage the enemy. But if the weather is bad, or the Longbows are too far away, we can use Hunters to engage them directly," said Rude. The CAB has the only three Hunter UAVs with a weapons platform in Iraq. On a mission-specific basis , the platform is armed with the GBU-44/B Viper Strike munition.
Viper Strike is a 44-pound, three foot long variant of Northrop Grumman's unpowered, laser-guided Brilliant Anti-Tank munition with a 2.3 pound high explosive warhead.
Rude says that such close coordination with manned, rotary wing strike assets today plays a major part in the CABs operational planning, especially counter-IED operations. "UAVs are providing us with much more capability than we have had in the past. They dramatically increase our ability to observe the area of responsibility, and the more we are able to see, the better we are able to do our job. Unmanned systems, including Hunter, are tightening the kill chain."
As for the Hunter's ability to strike its own targets, video from a Hunter UAV shows a successful Viper Strike attack on IED emplacers on Major Supply Route Tampa, on Sep. 17. However, the strike is one of only two that have been carried out to date (the other on Sept. 1, 2007). Rude said the CAB, who has been in theater less than three months, is still working to refine the tactics, techniques and procedures necessary to perform unassisted strikes.
Along with perfecting TTPs, the CAB is working to train Army Soldiers to use Viper Strike. The Geneva Convention prohibits the Northrop Grumman contractors who support UAV operations from actually deploying the munition, Rude said.
Interestingly enough, though the Hunter UAV program was killed for a perceived lack of reliability, commanders on the ground today cite the Hunter's reliability as one of the platform's major selling points. "It's been very reliable for us," said Rude. Capt. Jake Roper, the UAS commander, agreed, adding, "Getting parts for the system has not been a problem, and the vehicles aren't prone to trouble.
"I think the Hunter is definitely a reliable UAV," Roper said. "It's a lot more practical with the [operational tempo] that we're doing."
Much of the Hunter's newfound reliability is likely due to strict aviation standards in terms of maintenance and upkeep. This means a full system inspection every 75 hours of operation and an outright replacement of the UAV's dual 800cc Mercedes Benz engines every 300 hours.
"The constant watch over the aircraft engines means that the aircraft are available to constantly watch over the Iraqi people. The counter IED fight is still a major concern. UAS are playing a huge role in defeating IEDs, and effectively defeating IEDs allows us to provide security for the Iraqi people, and that's one of our top concerns for the future of Iraq. Also, by providing better security, we are able to better enhance governance here in country," said Rude.
The hunters also make it easier to maneuver for both U.S. forces and the Iraqi army, police, and people. "If we can reduce the IED threat, the general level of everyone's well being improves drastically." Rude said.
This work, They're not pretty, but they're plenty busy -- UAVs make a difference, by CPL William Howard, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.