Drones let U.S. soldiers monitor Afghan terrain

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 28, 2012 

QALAT, AFGHANISTAN — As far as Sgt. Christopher Moore can tell, the threats he and his fellow Stryker soldiers face here are the same they encountered in Iraq: Insurgent networks ferrying fighters and explosives to take hidden shots at American troops.

The big difference is terrain. Iraq’s flat deserts are a distant memory. Moore’s new territory spans tall, craggy peaks and remote villages nestled in Afghanistan’s poorest province, Zabul.

He’s an instructor and pilot for a Joint Base Lewis-McChord team that keeps unmanned aerial vehicles in the skies. These drones help troops on the ground identify threats and gain a sense of where their enemy is headed.

“The human eye can only go so far, but I can fly five miles ahead completely undetected,” said Moore, 27, of Roy.

Three years ago, he served in the same unit in the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment when it deployed to eastern Iraq. It sent out its drones for long missions, gathering information all over the desert.

Here, the drones take off from an altitude of nearly a mile high on a bluff above the city of Qalat. They can ice up in the coldest months.

The team has four unmanned aerial vehicles, each flying about five hours at a time.

AWAITING AN OFFENSIVE

Zabul is known as an insurgent supply route with an ethnic Pashtun population that once made up the Taliban heartland. It’s occasionally the scene of deadly attacks against Western forces.

But lately, these soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based south of Tacoma have seen a mostly quiet and cold Afghanistan winter.

They’re looking for signs of a coming spring offensive even as the ranks of U.S. service members thin in accordance with the drawdown of “surge” forces.

Insurgents “have ways to hide what they’re doing, but we have ways to figure them out,” said Pfc. Anthony Denny, 21, who pilots the unmanned vehicles.

The soldiers work out of a set of mobile command centers on a small landing strip at the edge of this base. A catapult-like device launches a drone on a programmed flight path that can be adjusted in air.

Its payload – a surveillance camera – delivers images and coordinates back to the command centers. Those video feeds can be piped into the 3rd Brigade headquarters all the way down to the level of a Stryker soldier on patrol.

Seven years ago, on Moore’s first deployment to Iraq with a drone team with the 101st Airborne Division, unmanned vehicles could send images only to commanders. Moore would describe what he saw to soldiers, and they’d try to visualize his directions.

Now, “instead of me trying to describe it, they can see it.”

The U.S. military employs unmanned aircraft not only for surveillance but also for strikes on insurgent positions. Offensive uses at times have proven controversial; the U.S. is trying to salvage relations with neighboring Pakistan after a drone strike in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a border area.

The Lewis-McChord cavalry unit uses drones only for surveillance.

Drones have become such a mainstay in combat that a morning watching the busy runway at Kandahar Air Field can reveal nearly as many varieties of unmanned vehicles as there are piloted jets from NATO nations.

So many are in the air above Afghanistan that a drone of the same type as the one Moore’s crew was using Saturday collided with an Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft last August.

‘WAVE OF THE FUTURE’

Last weekend, Moore and other soldiers worked with a Shadow RQ-7B manufactured by AAI of Hunt Valley, Md. The model weighs about 400 pounds when it carries a full load of fuel. It’s the military’s predominant surveillance drone for battalion- and brigade-level missions.

Maintenance is relatively easy, the soldiers said. The main source of wear and tear comes on landings and takeoffs. A drone lands on a runway set up like the kind on aircraft carriers with wires to slow it down. Soldiers run to grab it before it hits a final safety net.

The Stryker troops work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, their assignments often pushing 14 hours. From their high-tech runway, they can see sheep herders and the simple homes of Qalat city.

“The best part is the launching and landing, and getting everything ready to go to just support the guys,” Denny said.

He joined the cavalry squadron in October, two months before it deployed to Afghanistan. He was drawn to the field because it fits in with his long-term life goals.

“I wanted to join the CIA,” said the New Jersey native, who lives on base at Lewis-McChord when not deployed. “They said the military’s a good place to learn, and (drones) are the wave of the future.”

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