eDefense Online notes that when the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Air Assault Division deployed to Iraq in late October 2005, it contained more unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) assets than any combat brigade in US Army history, with RQ-7 Shadow 200 platoons in all four brigades and RQ-11 Raven mini-UAVs in every company.
The (now defunct and unavailable) eDefense Online article added useful details that illustrate the process of forming and training these teams, and offer detailed tactical assessments of the systems from a front-line perspective. It was highly recommended, and fortunately DID offered judicious excerpts when we covered it.
Some interesting points raised in the eDefense article included:
* The Shadow platoon falls under the recently renamed Special Troops Battalion (STB), part of the newly transformed modular brigade. The STB includes military police (MPs), intel assets, a UAV platoon, et. al. Each UAV platoon is supposed to have 22 soldiers when fully operational.
* Pilots must operate the Shadow “live” at least once every 90 days; or once every 180 days if they flew a flight simulation in the previous 90-day period.
* Integrating the Shadow system into their brigade training operations state-side was not possible, as the UAVs were sent directly from Redstone Arsenal to the brigade’s staging area in Kuwait. This is something that ought to be fixed for future units.
* eDefense reports that according to the US Army, more than 20 UAVs were shot down in Kosovo in 1999.
* More UAVs, including Shadows, have been downed in Iraq and Afghanistan by enemy ground forces. Engine noise that alerts enemies has been an issue in the countryside, though it is less of one in the cities. As a side note, DID has covered some UAVs whose electric systems make them quite silent; dedicated ultraquiet reconnaissance aircraft like Schweitzer’s SA2-37B and third generation RU-38B also address this problem and provide greater surveillance and reaction capability in the bargain, but require a pilot in the aircraft.
* On the other hand, some PSYOPS units like the UAV noise factor for its intimidation value, either via live flights or via recorded and broadcast versions of the sound.
Despite the considerable benefits noted in DID’s previous profile of the UAV in Iraq, the eDefense article reveals that the RQ-11 Raven also has a few areas for improvement:
* The Raven’s camera generates an eight-digit grid, yet the accuracy of its imagery has been questioned. In Iraq and possibly elsewhere, it isn’t possible to issue fire orders off the grid from a Raven without secondary confirmation.
* To keep the Raven’s engine noise from alerting enemies, operators have practiced switching to glide while over the target, then turning the engine back on afterward. Of course, that requires having altitude when one begins, and image quality gets worse the higher you go. So it’s always a trade-off. The Israeli Skylark IV mini-UAV, adopted by Australia for use in Iraq, has a silent electric motor and so avoids this problem entirely.
* UAVs are also lost to mechanical or communication failure, especially when UAVs that depend on line-of-sight (LOS) communications lose that link. The Raven has a directional antenna, which tightens the requirements even further.
* The practical range of the RQ-11 is about half of its stated 10-mile limit due to communication and control limits, and the UAV seems to have issues with its link when flying over water.
In terms of practical tips for staffing and deploying Ravens, tidbits like these surfaced in the eDefense article:
* A lot of forward observers were picked to operate the Ravens; their skill set made them especially well suited for it.
* Launching Ravens takes practice; it’s like a paper airplane, but tougher. The suggested drill is to take a baseball bat, grab it justwhere it starts to thin, and practice casting it into the air so there’s no spin.
* While man-portable, the Raven requires multiple rucksacks. Operators believe the Raven will often end up being staged from a Humvee or other vehicle, similar to plans for the Future Combat Systems Class I and Class II UAVs.
Collision Avoidance Issues
* Crowded skies are an issue: without any form of aircraft-avoidance system, word is that there has been at least one case where a UAV struck the tail of a Blackhawk helicopter, nearly causing the helo to crash. A Shadow 200 is larger than a human being, and can be dangerous to other aircraft.
* In response to this issue, standard operating procedure for the Shadow is to schedule a flight 72 hours in advance and reserve a slot, with an operations officer at the brigade level working out the air-tasking order. Because of that need, the Shadow is not a quick-reaction-force (QRF) asset.
* The inability to quickly adjust the flight path on the battlefield is compounded by the fact that UAVs are still under Air Force flight-plan constraints and requirements. Coordination with the Air Force is a time-consuming process that can remove much of the potential benefit of having a brigade level UAV. To overcome this, the 101st simply reserves as many flight slots as possible in advance of operations, then re-tasks in the air. This is pretty much what one would expect, and mirrors human behaviour in analogous corporate and military situations.
* Crowded skies and lack of collision avoidance systems create serious issues for the RQ-11 Raven as well. Standard operating procedure mandates that Raven operators submit a flight plan 24 hours prior to desired departure, removing the UAV’s natural quick-launch role to respond to immediate questions or potential threats. These limitations will create serious issues for airborne UAVs unless they are addressed, with UGVs like “throwbots” et. al. as the likely beneficiaries at UAVs’ expense.
USAF Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander of 9th Air Force and US Central Command Air Forces, discussed the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in the January 2006 issue of Air Force Magazine. He, too, is concerned about this issue:
“Here’s the problem we’re getting to: …I anecdotally understand we have over 1,000 UAVs on the ground, in the [area of responsibility], with the majority of those flying below 3,000 feet. That is a very thick environment. We have in fact had occasions where they have run into helicopters. Fortunately, to my knowledge, we have not hurt anybody yet. We have damaged airplanes and knocked them down, but we’ve not injured anybody. …My fear is, the day will come where we will have a C-130 full of troops and …a Scan Eagle, a Shadow, a Pioneer, whatever, is going to come through the cockpit and take out a C-130 because we did not deconflict. …Above 3,000 feet, we deconflict via altitude. I deconflict via space. I deconflict via time. …But folks have got to play by those rules, and I will tell you not everybody who’s flying UAVs in the AOR is a rated pilot that understands that, and that deconfliction piece.”