Special Operations: Portable Ground Control

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November 29, 2019: U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is spending nearly a hundred million dollars to equip air force MQ-9 and army MQ-1C UAVs with capabilities that SOCOM teams on ground require to more effectively carry out their missions. This apparently involves allowing Special Forces teams to carry portable electronic gear that enables them to control the sensors and weapons on MQ-9 or MQ-1C UAVs overhead. This is an evolution of a program that began with the ROVER tech instigated by Special Forces troops back in 2002. A Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130, or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the same capability AC-130 crews had to view video from a nearby Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real-time video from Predators and other combat aircraft. At that time the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft or the UAV operators, who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link. The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real-time.

The air force went to work and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER 1 was not terribly portable but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. As expected this proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER 2 appeared which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004 ROVER 3, a 5.5 kg (12 pounds) unit built to be carried in a backpack, was available. Over the next five years, ROVER got smaller, lighter and more capable. The smallest version was called Tactical ROVER, a 440 gram (one pound) handheld device that uses a variety of display devices (like helmet monocle, laptop, PC or tablet). Tactical ROVER was popular with the Special Forces, who often sneak into hostile territory on foot and need to minimize their weight load. By 2018 there was Rover 6 that allowed for encrypted two-way communication with overhead sensors in UAVs, AC-130 gunships and combat aircraft carrying targeting pods.

The original ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. The only other troops that got them were some SOCOM units. That eventually changed and by 2012 there were some 4,000 ROVER units were out there. This meant infantry platoon leaders and company commanders had access, as well as some army or marine ground patrols. Since then the number of ROVERs has more than doubled as it was found useful to provide them to friendly forces (Kurds in Syria and Iraq as well as Iraqi commanders in general). This proliferation of ROVER terminals allowed more expert advice from experienced commanders, especially those who had been operating in an area (like an ISIL held neighborhood in Mosul or Raqqa) for a while and knew what ISIL personnel were likely to do next if he could see the real-time video of what they were doing at the moment.

ISIL documents and prisoners revealed that the Islamic terrorists had deduced that there were no really effective countermeasures to the Reapers/Predators and how they were used. The Islamic terrorists knew little about ROVER although they heard that Iraqi commanders could see the UAV video. What they didn’t realize was that many of these ROVER terminals had touch-sensitive screens enabling the user to mark exactly where the target was, especially one that was concealed as best ISIL could manage. The ground troops had come to trust the skill of the UAV operators (communicating via satellite from a base in Nevada) to regularly hit small targets with laser-guided missiles. This often meant having a Hellfire missile go down an alley and hit a specific window on one side of the alley. The ground troops didn’t care if the guy firing the missile was in an aircraft overhead or back in the United States. If the UAV operators successfully carried out these “danger close” shots on a regular basis, they were trusted and called on repeatedly.

The latest SOCOM gear is meant to allow Special Forces or SEAL teams to not only monitor what overhead vidcams are seeing but coordinate the use of weapons carried on those aircraft and UAVs. Special Forces teams have long been trained to operate as air controllers and call in smart bombs, missile or even strafing attacks. This last item was particularly effective when the strafing aircraft was an A-10 using its 30mm multi-barrel autocannon. But for many missions the Special Forces teams are tracking elusive targets, often Islamic terrorist leaders or technical specialists and the only air support they can call on immediately is an armed UAV (MQ-9 or MQ-1C) overhead or at least within missile range (eight kilometers). Their targets are often well aware of UAV surveillance and possible missile attack and move around in ways that diminish that vulnerability. Special Forces teams are trained to track these targets on the ground and detect, confirm and attack the few moments the bad guys are vulnerable. With the new “enhanced ROVER” equipment the ground teams will be able to take more advantage of those brief opportunities. This also enables ground teams to better defend themselves if they come under attack.

The new equipment is  an extension of similar, but bulkier and heavier equipment already available for army helicopter gunships, which can control UAVs up to 100 kilometers away. The gunships can add their own Hellfire missiles to those carried on the UAVs to attack targets.

 


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