Sunday, August 19, 2007

Predator soars to record numbers of sorties

9 Aug 07
by Master Sgt. Steve Horton
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs.

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) - When terrorists tried shooting mortar rounds at Balad Air Base in July, they didn't count on the tireless, unblinking eye of an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle overhead, transmitting their every move to Airmen on the ground here.

Airmen assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here kept the Predator overhead July 24 watching the men while they confirmed what they were seeing with a joint terminal attack controller on the ground. After confirmation, the order was given for the Predator to launch an air strike and moments later a Hellfire air-to-ground missile struck the terrorists' car when they fled, killing the three terrorists.

"The Predator crews go through the same targeting and approval processes as a pilot flying another strike aircraft before shooting a weapon," said Col. Marilyn Kott, the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group deputy commander. "They coordinate with ground forces to confirm targets and coordinate on the best course of action for the situation.

Sometimes the best course of action is launching an air strike, other times it can mean remaining overhead to observe or follow possible insurgents as they move around the countryside. "The crews flying the Predator report possible enemy activity and give the joint terminal attack controller and the ground and air commanders the opportunity to decide what they want to do with that information," Colonel Kott said. "They can agree that the activity needs to be stopped right away and can target the perpetrators." Because the Predator has a long loiter time, it is an ideal platform for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, so the 46th ERS mission load has increased.

June, a busy month for most U.S. and coalition forces conducting and supporting combat operations throughout Iraq, was a record setting month for the 46th ERS. They recorded a record number of combat sorties and flying hours for the Predator during the month. More than 175 combat sorties were generated, producing 3,279 flying hours.

July was just as busy for Predator operations. The 46th ERS flew the same number of combat sorties as in June, but increased flying hours to more than 3,300.

"It says a lot about how much the Predator is employed and how busy the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing is now as opposed to some previous periods of Operation Iraqi Freedom," Colonel Kott said. "That's partially because the wing and the (continental United States) Predator units have increased OIF Predator capability, developing logistics and technologies to make the system more successful in a deployed environment." And with success comes more requests for the Predator's service.

"The air battle staff asks for the Predator constantly because it provides such a fine (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform, and it's always airborne," the colonel said. "The objective here is to find and follow activity that might be aiding the insurgents."

"The sorties and hours are increasing as a result of increased demand," said Maj. Jon Dagley, the 46th ERS commander. "Currently, the Predator is the most requested asset in theater. As warriors continue to recognize how the Predator works, what it brings to the fight, and what it can do for them, its demand will only continue to skyrocket."

Even with the number of sorties and flying hours increasing, the colonel is quick to point out the rigorous thought process that goes into the decision to launch an air strike or not. "The (improvised explosive devices) terrorists are planting, for example, don't just affect our convoys, they pose a danger to civilians living here too," Colonel Kott said. "The more surgical we can be at stopping insurgent behavior, the better (it will be) for the civilians trying to get on with their lives."

The 46th ERS, consisting of less than a dozen Airmen, is responsible for the takeoff and landing of Balad AB's fleet of Predators as well as flying operations within a 25-mile radius of the base. Every sortie is manned on the ground by a pilot, who flies the aircraft and controls the weapons system by remote control, and a sensor operator, who controls the camera view and laser targeting system on the aircraft.

Once the Predator is in the air, the pilot and sensor operator will locate a target point used to zero in the weapons system. The sensor operator works with ground members to ensure the laser, which guides the Predator's weapons system, is on target. When the weapons system has been zeroed in, the pilot prepares to hand control of the Predator to Airmen stationed halfway around the world at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., or at March Air Reserve Base, Calif.

"The Predator is coming into its own as a no-kidding weapon versus a reconnaissance-only platform," Major Dagley said. "The work it is doing with its precision-strike capability on top of top-notch ISR, is forcing many people to stand up and take notice. It is forging new ground almost daily. It is paving the way for future technologies and applications, and, as a result, tactics."

By coming into its own as a weapon, to compliment its ISR capability, the number of Predator sorties and flying hours will continue to increase. That's good news to U.S. and coalition forces, and bad news to the terrorists who think they can continue to threaten the security of Iraq.

Photo - Capt. Richard Koll, left, and Airman 1st Class Mike Eulo perform function checks after launching an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle Aug. 7 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. Captain Koll, the pilot, and Airman Eulo, the sensor operator, will handle the Predator in a radius of approximately 25 miles around the base before handing it off to personnel stationed in the United States to continue its mission. Both are assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. Photo by Master Sgt. Steve Horton.

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