By Army Sgt. Jason Dangel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 15, 2008 - Since the dawn of aviation more than 100 years ago, militaries throughout the world have pursued the development of unmanned aerial vehicles to give them an edge over the enemy when conducting combat operations. Today, the UAV is an imperative asset for troops on the ground. This is especially true for Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers who conduct daily missions in and around the Iraqi capital.
As the leading provider and provisional authority for Multinational Division Baghdad's airspace, the 4th Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade, based out of Fort Hood, Texas, provides the launch and recovery for one of the Army's primary reconnaissance tactical UAV assets: the Shadow.
Since its development about 10 years ago, the Shadow's use has increased tenfold. It provides reconnaissance for almost all Multinational Division Baghdad's combat operations. With sophisticated optics, cameras and communications equipment, the Shadow enables commanders on the ground to see the entire battlefield in real time. Soldiers have reported that the Shadow greatly contributes to the capture of criminal in the suburban neighborhoods around Baghdad.
"For the most part, we have a UAV on station for the majority of missions that involve the capture of high-value targets or terrorists," explained Army Maj. Jonathan Shaffner, brigade aviation officer and chief of operations for the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, who hails from Mansfield, Ohio. "The aircraft is an active contributor to the actual apprehension of these criminal. It's hard to imagine combat today without UAVs. The aircrafts' capabilities are continuously improving, and they are beginning to do a lot of the same missions as our manned aircraft."
Shaffner cited a recent operation north of Baghdad to find and capture a man believed to be responsible for hostile acts against coalition forces and the Iraqi people.
Upon entering the suspect's home, soldiers found he wasn't there. But the Shadow was honed in on a suspicious vehicle nearby. With the Shadow's camera fixed on the vehicle, its operator reported to the ground commander that two men had fled from the vehicle and were hiding in a nearby canal.
With precise accuracy, the Shadow operator reported the location of the two individuals to the ground soldiers, who then apprehended the suspects, one of whom was the operation's target.
The event is just one of the hundreds of examples of how tactical UAVs have helped throughout Multinational Division Baghdad's area of operations, Shaffner said.
Launch and recovery operations are the responsibility of the 4th Infantry Division's Company G, 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Battalion. Unlike a conventional unit, Company G, also known as the "Guardian Angels," is made up of soldiers from all across the area of operations.
UAV operators are assigned to their respective brigade combat teams throughout the theater, but one platoon from each unit is sent here for a predetermined amount of time to help to operate the launch and recovery site. The platoons, made up of operators and maintainers, are assigned or attached to the combat aviation battalion during their stay at the Guardian Angels' tactical UAV operations center.
The five major units that operate the site here include the 4th Infantry Division's 1st and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams, with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, and the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
Shadow operators perform take-off and landing procedures from the facility. The forward units throughout the area of operations control the specific mission and flight path.
"All the aircraft are prepared and launched from here," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Horwath, from Vassar, Mich., the company's senior noncommissioned officer. "Our guys fly them out, hand them off to the brigade combat teams in theater and, at that time, the specific brigade [tactical] UAV elements actually fly the missions.
"At the conclusion of a Shadow mission," he continued, "the brigades route the aircraft back into our air space, and the UAV operators here pick the aircraft back up and land them. Once they land, we conduct maintenance and prep them for another mission."
The air vehicle uses a pneumatic launcher on take-off and is recovered by a tactical automatic landing system, with no pilot intervention on the runway. The aircraft is then stopped using an arresting hook and cable system similar to the ones used on Navy aircraft carriers.
Maintenance, quality control and production control are high priorities at the launch and recovery site. Double- and triple-checking all maintenance protocols is commonplace.
"We never overlook anything when it comes to maintenance," Army Spc. Cesar Castro, a UAV operator with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said. "Everything we do, in terms of maintaining the aircraft, is annotated by inputting information into our computer system. We keep track of just about anything you can think of, from actual flight hours to required services and inspections."
Operating the Shadow is relatively cheap in comparison to conventional Army aircraft. Each system -- three to four aircraft, two ground stations, a launch trailer and support vehicles for equipment and personnel -- costs roughly $10 million, depending on equipment dynamics and accessories. When compared to an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter, often used for some of the same reconnaissance missions as the Shadows, the price differential and fuel consumption are astronomically lower.
"The UAVs can provide at least 70 percent of the support you would get from an attack helicopter -- minus the armament," Shaffner said. "The operators can observe, perform route reconnaissance and report immediately over voice what they see to the ground forces, very similar to conventional aerial reconnaissance methods. It's very helpful."
Safety is another benefit of flying the tactical UAV. Pilots are not part of the equation, and the Shadow's "eyes in the sky" prevent unexpected enemy contact during ground forces' daily combat operations.
"The simple fact is this technology saves lives," said Army Sgt. 1st Class David Norsworthy, a UAV platoon sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Norsworthy, a former infantryman, knows better than most how effective the tactical UAV technology is when it comes to conducting full-spectrum operations in Baghdad.
"The Shadow provides coverage for a lot of raids. We do road scans for roadside bombs and have actually caught terrorists in the act of implanting these bombs in the road. The UAV mission is imperative to today's combat operations," the Clarksville, Tenn., native said. "When the infantry troops are going into a certain area to clear buildings, we'll go in ahead of time and scan the area, and we'll be able to report to them exact grids of potential enemies in the area.
"Keeping soldiers safe on the battlefield is No. 1. This is definitely a technology that will always be part of the fight," he said.
(Army Sgt. Jason Dangel serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Battalion Public Affairs Office.)