Warplanes: September 15, 2005


One thing American combat troops cant get enough of is UAVs. So many of them have been distributed to combat units that commanders are uneasy if they dont have one or more of them up there, keeping a real-time eye on the combat area, when a battle is underway. This is not a unique situation, four decades ago, during the Vietnam war, helicopters first became common on the battlefield. Infantry battalion and brigade commanders loved to get their hands on a helicopter, and command from on high. While these officers could clearly see what was going on down below, with the naked eye and the help of binoculars, there were several serious shortcomings to this approach. 

First, the commander was up there to command, not to give his subordinate commanders down below a running commentary (which is what the guys on the ground wanted) on what was going on in suspected enemy areas. 

Second, the helicopters were large and noisy targets for enemy troops. Hostile fire often forced the helicopters to back off to the point where the commander really couldnt see the action any more. 

Third, and most damaging, was the tendency of the commanders-in-the-sky to interfere, rather than assist, the commanders on the ground. This became known as micromanagement, and it was much hated by company and platoon commanders. Some of those captains and lieutenants are now running the army and they dont want to inflict that kind of pain on their junior officers. 

Thus the enthusiasm for UAVs at the bottom and the top of the chain-of-command. UAVs give everyone an eye-in-the-sky that is difficult to shoot down, and works for the guy on the ground exclusively. While army operations in Iraq often have brigade and battalion commanders viewing the video feed from the 350 pound Shadow 200 UAV, company and platoon commanders have access to feeds from the many 4.2 pound Raven UAVs. This is aerial reconnaissance as it was meant to be, being performed solely to assist the combat commander. None of this traditional, week old aerial photographs stuff. The company and platoon commanders are fighting a battle right now, and they need real-time video. Raven gives it to them, and it saves lives. The brigade and battalion commanders tend to use their Shadow 200 for pre-battle recon and planning. Trying to compete with whatever the Raven is picking up is a losing proposition. If the Shadow 200 picks up a bunch of bad guys heading for the area where a company commander and his guys are fighting it out, then, OK, the battalion commander can tell the company commander that something bad is heading his way. That sort of help is appreciated. But mostly, the company and platoon commanders want to see whats on the other side of that hill or behind those buildings. Raven does that for them, even though you have to bring it down every hour to replace the drained battery.

Another bonus with UAVs is that it lowers the demand for helicopters to be up there providing aerial recon. That's always been a dangerous job for scout helicopter pilots, and they appreciate having robots fill in for them. 

Some old school officers wonder if these captains and lieutenants can fight a battle without their micro-UAVs. Of course they can do it without their eye in the sky, but they would prefer not to. The same criticism was leveled half a century when company and platoon commanders got radios. New technology is an improvement in proportion to how badly it is missed when it is not available. 




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