CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq - It's invisible to the enemy, can cover distances of up to 250 kilometers, can fly at altitudes of 20,000 feet for more than 10 hours, and can gather and transmit visual information in real time to ground force commanders.

What is it'

It's the Hunter -- a 23 foot-long, remotely operated, unmanned aircraft system maintained and operated by a team of aviation Soldiers with Troop F, 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Diamond Head and approximately 30 Northrop Grumman Corporation civilian contractors from Contingency Operating Base Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq. To those it serves, it's an invaluable and indispensible part of Task Force Wings and 3rd Infantry Division operations throughout U.S. Division-North.

Among other tactical advantages, the Hunter provides Soldiers with state-of-the-art intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, along with target acquisition and communications relay platforms. And unlike more traditional ISR assets, especially manned assets, the Hunter requires far less maintenance and operational infrastructure.

In addition to logistical and maintenance needs, Hunter operations require one external pilot and five personnel to serve as ground crew to launch and land it; a UAS operator working from an on-site launch shelter for operations during the launch and recovery phase; and, finally, a UAS operator in a mission control shelter who handles flying the Hunter above certain altitudes.

According to Maj. Robert Bryant, UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and executive officer, 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Diamond Head, his unit has experienced the full spectrum of benefits from the Hunter since TF Diamond Head began conducting partnered Iraqi and U.S. operations, here, in October, 2009.

"We have used the Hunter for counter-indirect fire and counter-improvised exploding device operations, as well as multiple manned and unmanned teaming operations which has led to the detenition of indirect fire cells among other things," said Maj. Bryant.

"The Hunter provides division-level intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance every day, nearly 24 hours-a-day. It directly links the customer via communication [systems] to aviaiton command and control elements and to ground force commanders with real time information. In terms of operational battlefield situational awareness, you simply cannot get those benefits anywhere else in combination."

Captain Brian Hunt, a native of Kent, Wash., is the command officer tasked to manage and orchestrate Hunter operations in USD-N. The OH-58D Kiowa pilot, Hunter operator and commander, Fox Troop, 2/6th Cav., elaborated on his unit's fundamental mission and its value throughout USD-N.

"Our mission is to be division's 'eyes and ears on the battlefield,'" said Capt. Hunt. "To do it, we rely on seven warrant officers, all rotary wing aviators, and a significant Northrop Grumman contractor team who are all UAS operators and maintainers.

"In terms of value-added, the Hunter has better capabilities than traditional ISR," explained Capt. Hunt. "Its reconnaissance continuity and persistence is unmatched by most manned aircraft. It's not easily visible to the enemy. It can stay on station longer and it can provide live video feed to ground units eliminating the challenge of them trying to decipher garbled radio transmissions from a pilot. It also allows secure communication from aircraft or command and control to other aircraft and ground force commanders in situations where traditional communication devices would be out of range."

Since Oct. 1, the Hunter has flown almost 400 missions and logged more than 2,270 hours of flight time throughout USD-N. Also, notably is the fact that Capt. Hunt's unit is one of the few significantly augmented by and partnered with civilian contractors. Many of those NGC employees have prior military UAS experience, and each considers themselves part of the military team.

Shelby "Nick" Nicholson, an NGC Hunter team maintenance manager, former Marine and 18-year veteran of the Hunter program has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan several times. Bruce Grant is the NGC Hunter team site manager, and Army veteran with more than 14 years of Hunter experience.

Both men take pride in the mission and their continued service to Soldiers.

"I may not be in the military anymore, but Capt. Hunt and his group make all of us feel part of the Army team, and we truly are part of that team," said Nicholson.

"Anytime you can say that you helped even one American or one Iraqi by locating an [improvised explosive device] or positively identifying an insurgent placing an IED and get it off the road, that's satisfying," he said.

"After eight years in the Army, I know that it makes a difference to a Soldier who knows that someone is looking after them from high above and taking care of them," added Mr. Grant. "That's why we do our job. That's why the Hunter is a vital asset."

Nicholson's and Grant's commitment to their supported units and the exceptional work of all of the NGC contractors has not gone unnoticed by those they support.

"The Hunter group is a superb organization doing an extremely professional job," said Maj. Bryant.
"Since we arrived, they have improved their maintenance posture tremendously. They have increased their ability to receive parts which keeps Hunters flying, and they have increased the capabilities of our aircraft by employing the Hunter's communications relay packages allowing us to talk across the battlespace," he continued.

"Not only are they providing first rate ISR to us and to Division on a daily basis nearly 24 hours a day, but through their initiative they have expanded [brigade aviaiton] capabilities which continues to advance their value to us, value that we expect to continue throughout out rotation."