Drones reshaping Iraq's battlefields
WASHINGTON — The use of unmanned surveillance planes over Iraq has soared, revolutionizing the way U.S. troops wage war and crowding the skies above Iraq.
The Army says that before the Iraq war started in March 2003, it had 14 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); it now has about 700 in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them small.
In 2003 and 2004, the Army flew the aircraft about 1,500 hours per month, the Army says. In the past year, the aircraft flew 9,000 hours a month.
The unmanned scout planes and sensor systems have made it easier to spot insurgents and roadside bombs, thus saving American lives, Pentagon officials and experts say. Using the aircraft, troops can often get an instant picture of what lurks behind the next hill or building. "One can argue that the standard equipment for a Marine or infantryman now is the helmet, rifle, boots and UAV," says Christopher Bolkcom, a defense expert for the Congressional Research Service.
Pilotless aircraft have changed fighting much as night-vision technology did in the 1980s and 1990s, says Col. John Burke, project manager for the Army's UAV program. "It's very seldom that you see a revolution in warfare like this."
The increased use of drones led to a midair collision with a helicopter in 2004, the Army says. No one was hurt. Bolkcom says there have also been several near misses. "Collision avoidance is an issue that they haven't quite gotten the hang of yet," says John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.
The aircraft are more common because they're easier to use. An 18-year-old soldier can learn how to launch and fly a Raven and avoid midair collisions in eight hours, Burke said. The controls look "very much like a PlayStation controller," he says.
In previous wars, troops found the enemy by patrolling until they bumped into them, Pike said. Now U.S. troops can peek beyond the horizon. "They have gone bonkers over them because they work."
THE AIRCRAFT IN ACTION
The Raven, a hand-launched aircraft with a 4-foot wingspan, spotted an insurgent roadblock that had prevented Iraqis from reaching a polling place. U.S. tanks and armored vehicles then cleared the intersection.
A Shadow aircraft, which is larger than the Raven, detected an insurgent position and identified it with a laser pointer. An Apache attack helicopter locked on to the laser target and killed the insurgents.
Insurgents had been lobbing mortar rounds at U.S. troops for several days, but their precise location was unclear. A drone allowed U.S. crews to watch the area for three days. When the insurgents resumed firing, the Army killed them with artillery fire.
Source: U.S. Army