Troops from the Air Force Special Operations Command are deploying increasing numbers of unmanned aircraft. But while the technology generally is considered useful, it needs improvements, officials said.
Combat controllers deployed in Afghanistan — who mostly operate behind enemy lines to establish helicopter landing zones and airfields — find that hand-launched portable UAVs don’t have good enough sensors, said Master Sgt. Andrew Martin, superintendent of weapons and tactics for the 720th Special Tactics Group, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. He recently returned from Afghanistan, where he flew the Raven UAV on 30 missions.
“The aircraft are good,” he said, “but we desperately need sensor improvements.”
The current systems are uncooled, which keeps their weight low but diminishes the performance of the sensors, Martin said. “Cooled sensors are very sensitive, but are too heavy to place on a man-portable UAV. We need lighter cooled systems.”
The primary UAV employed by special tactics operators is the Raven A, which costs about $40,000. The manufacturer, AeroVironment, in Monrovia, Calif., is developing a B version that will be launched from vehicles.
“The enemy knows that we are utilizing UAVs,” Martin said. In Afghanistan, his unit relied on a UAV to locate hostile militias in an ambush position. “After realizing they had been detected, they ran to a cave, where we called in aircraft to drop a 1,000 pound bomb,” said Martin.
The Raven, however, is not effective at night because it lacks powerful night-vision cameras.
In theory, the UAV requires a two-person team: a pilot controller and a mission commander. The pilot flies the aircraft while the mission commander monitors the situation and updates waypoints. But in actual combat, a single operator is the norm, Martin said.
Combat controllers learn to fly UAVs as part of a “joint firepower control” course at the Air Force Air-Ground Operations School at Hurlburt Field.
Martin stressed the importance of training for both UAV operators and maintenance crews. “The system is only as good as the operator and the maintainer,” he said. Many UAVs were destroyed in Afghanistan because of improper use by the operator.
The head of Air Force Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, said small UAVs are here to stay.
“One of the new ones that we have is called the BATCAM,” he said. More formerly known as the battlefield air targeting camera autonomous micro-air vehicle, BATCAM is a Mylar composite. “You can actually roll this thing up, and place it in your rucksack.”
The BATCAM has both forward and side-looking cameras. “You can fly it over and around buildings to see if anybody’s there,” Wooley said. “In one case, we had a team working a riverbed in Iraq. They launched the little BATCAM, flew it around the bend in the river, saw some bad guys and altered their route, avoiding an engagement.”
Combat controllers, additionally, have been equipped with technology that helps reduce the time it takes to call in an air strike from about 28 minutes to an average of three minutes, Wooley said. They employ a laptop computer — called a remote operated video enhanced receiver, or ROVER –- to review images captured by a UAV to make quick decisions regarding air strikes.
This system uses a machine-to-machine targeting, or M2MT, communications software that takes humans out of the transmission loop, thus speeding up the process. The traditional, intensive and error-prone process called for an intelligence officer to write down target coordinates from a computer and personally carry them to an air operations center radio operator, who would relay the coordinates to an airborne warning and control system aircraft. An officer aboard the AWACS then would send the data on to the shooter aircraft.
The M2MT system, by contrast, includes a much simpler, faster technology called cursor on target, developed by the Mitre Corp. of Bedford, Mass. Cursor on target is an automated way of passing key targeting information across multiple machines. The idea is for a battle commander to be able to move a mouse over an aerial view of an enemy position, point, click a cursor and watch as the target is eliminated.
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