CAMP TAJI, Iraq - Since the dawn of aviation more than 100 years ago, militaries throughout the world have continuously pursued the development of unmanned aerial vehicles to give them an edge over the enemy when conducting combat operations.
Today, more than ever before, the UAV has become an imperative asset for troops on the ground. This is especially true for Multi-National Division-Baghdad Soldiers, who conduct daily missions in and around the Iraqi capital.
As the leading provider and provisional authority for MND-B's airspace, the Combat Aviation Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, which is based out of Fort Hood, Texas, provides the launch and recovery for one of the U.S. Army's primary reconnaissance tactical UAV assets, known as the Shadow UAV.
Since the initial development of the UAV approximately ten years ago, its use in the global war on terror has increased tenfold and provides vigilant reconnaissance for almost all combat operations in MND-B, thus helping to provide troops an added edge against the enemy.
With sophisticated optics, cameras and communications equipment, the Shadow provides commanders on the ground the ability to quite literally see the entire battlefield in real time.
As a significant enabler to the mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Soldiers have reported that the Shadow TUAV greatly contributes to the capture of criminals 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 Maj. Jonathan Shaffner, brigade aviation officer and chief of operations, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, who hails from Mansfield, Ohio.
"The aircraft is an active contributor to the actual apprehension of these criminals," he continued. "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 gave an example of the Shadow's ability, citing an operation recently conducted by his Soldiers north of Baghdad. During the operation, Soldiers were required to find and capture a suspected militant responsible for hostile acts against coalition forces and the Iraqi people.
Upon entering the residence of the suspect, Soldiers found that the criminal wasn't there. At the same time however, the Shadow was honed in on a suspicious vehicle nearby the scene.
With the camera fixed on the vehicle, the TUAV operator reported to the ground commander of the situation at which time two male subjects fled from the vehicle and attempted to hide 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 criminal they were looking for.
The event is just one off the hundreds of examples of how brigade's all over MND-B use the TUAVs, Shaffner said.
All launch and recovery operations are strictly the responsibility of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, CAB, 4th Inf. Div.
The company is unique in that unlike a conventional unit, Co. G, which is also known as the "Guardian Angels," is collectively made up of Soldiers from all across the MND-B area of operations.
UAV operators are assigned to their respective BCTs throughout theater, but one platoon from each unit is sent to Camp Taji for a predetermined amount of time to help operate the launch and recovery site.
Essentially, the platoons, made up of both operators and maintainers, become assigned or attached to the CAB during their stay at the Guardian Angels' TUAV operations center.
The five major units that operate the site at Camp Taji include the 1st and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams of the 4th Inf. Div., along with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Div.; the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division; and 2nd SBCT, 25th Inf. Div.
The launch and recovery site is just that. Shadow operators perform take-off and landing procedures from the facility. The specific mission and flight path of the Shadows are controlled by the forward units all throughout MND-B.
"All the aircraft are prepared and launched from here," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Horwath, from Vassar, Mich., who is the senior non-commissioned officer of the company. "Our guys fly them out, hand them off to the brigade combat teams in theatre and, at that time, the specific brigade TUAV elements actually fly the missions.
"At the conclusion of a Shadow mission, the brigades route the aircraft back into our airspace 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 U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
Maintenance, quality control and production control are of high priority at the launch and recovery site. Double checking and triple checking all maintenance protocol is common place within the walls of the facility.
"We never overlook anything when it comes to maintenance," explained Spc. Cesar Castro, a UAV operator with 2nd BCT, 101st Abn. Div.
"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 from actual flight hours to required services and inspections."
On a comparative basis, the Shadow is relatively cheap when you compare it with conventional U.S. Army aircraft.
Each system includes three to four aircraft, two ground stations, a launch trailer and support vehicles for equipment and personnel. Each system costs roughly $10 million depending on equipment dynamics and accessories.
When compared to an AH-64D Apache Attack helicopter, which many times are used for some of the same reconnaissance missions as the Shadows, the price differential and fuel consumption is 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 also another benefit of flying the TUAV due to the fact pilots are not part of the equation, and for ground troops, their "eyes in the sky" ally prevents unexpected enemy contact during their daily combat operations.
"The simple fact is this technology saves lives," said Sgt. 1st Class David Norsworthy, a UAV platoon sergeant with 2nd BCT, 101st Abn. Div.
Norsworthy, a former infantryman, knows better than most how effective the TUAV 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," said Norsworthy, who is a native of Clarksville, Tenn. "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 number one. This is definitely a technology that will always be part of the fight," he said.