Special to American Forces Press Service
Iraq, Jan. 31, 2008 - They are known as the "commander's eyes on the battlefield." Coalition forces have used them to find roadside bombs, track the enemy's movement, clear convoy routes and locate key targets -- all without having to leave the relative safety of their bases. Remote- and satellite-controlled unmanned aircraft systems are transforming the way the military conducts aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition missions.
Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team have been using the Shadow unmanned systems to monitor the battlefield since they arrived in northeastern Iraq's Kirkuk province in October.
"The Shadow has been a tremendous asset to our brigade's combat operations," Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Thornthwaite, unmanned aircraft systems platoon sergeant in the brigade's Special Troops Battalion, said. "We have been able to get a picture of the battlefield before we send our troops outside the wire."
The soldiers complete rigorous maintenance and performance checks before each launch of the Shadow, sometimes taking the system completely apart and putting it back together to ensure the machine is operational. They lock on to the Shadow's frequency using a satellite, monitoring and controlling the system from a ground control station. The system transmits images in near-real time, and soldiers view the footage on television sets and computer monitors.
The battalion's unmanned aircraft system operators have twice located terrorists planting improvised explosive devices and tracked their movement, allowing safe disposition of the bombs and the capture of the bombers.
"With these systems, we are able to stay on top, stay observant and keep an eye out," said Army Sgt. Josh Nelson, UAS training, knowledge and standardization operator. "We are similar to a TV crew, but with a much bigger mission."
These systems give coalition forces the upper hand on the battlefield and save lives, said UAS operator Army Spc. William Arms.
"When we discover an IED using the UAS, that is one less IED that can kill an American soldier," he said. "These systems give us a much-needed advantage. We are in the enemy's backyard, and we are unfamiliar with this terrain. Using the Shadow allows us to look around the corner without having to walk around out there."
Despite the important contributions they make, the unmanned aircraft systems operators insist their job is only to help those who do the "real work."
"The guys on the ground still do the work; they have the tough job. We are here for them; we do our job for them," Arms said. "They are out there protecting us, and we are just trying to protect them, too."
(Army Spc. Jason Jordan serves in public affairs with the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, Multinational Division North.)