Saturday, November 14, 2009

Unmanned Aircraft Crews Strive to Support Warfighters

By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON - As Pentagon officials look for ways to increase intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for warfighters in Afghanistan, the Air Force's first unmanned aircraft systems wing already is on the case in its never-ending quest to provide more and better intelligence through the systems they fly.

"I don't have to tell them to try to make it better," Air Force Col. Peter E. Gersten said of his 432nd Wing and 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing airmen at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. "They are working to make it better every day, all by themselves. ... Better every day is kind of a theme here."

The 432nd Wing flies the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, both remotely piloted aircraft that provide 24/7 eyes in the sky over troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Our mission is to keep the joint ground fighter out of trouble, and when he gets into trouble, it's to get him out of trouble as soon as possible," Gersten said. "And with this new technology, we can do that now."

Both the Predator and Reaper provide a capability that Gersten, an F-16 pilot, said a pilot in the cockpit simply can't: a "persistent stare" and ability to hover over a precise location for as long as necessary.

"We have the ability to oversee the joint ground warfighter 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no weekends and holidays and without a break," he said. "We are not going 500 miles an hour. We are going 120 knots, right on top of him, and we are orbiting around him and helping him.

"We are dedicated to supporting him," Gersten said, "and we don't do anything else."

When a convoy leaves the "wire" in Afghanistan or Iraq, the 432nd Wing airmen oversee them every step of the way. "We are going to be there from the time they leave their forward operating base to the time they get to their desired destination," he said. "We are going to watch that soldier on the ground as he begins to do his search mission. We are going to be there."

Geren said the aircraft's ability to hover overhead for as long as necessary is a key in ensuring the information it gathers is complete, and that if strikes are required, they're precise.

"We don't show up on the battlespace and have 15 minutes of hold time to build our situational awareness," he said. "We have a high capacity to make sure that we have the exact, right target in our crosshairs.

"Time is not our enemy," he said. "We own time."

As his airmen fly the aircraft, analyze the mountains of raw data gathered and sift out what matters most to troops on the ground, Gersten said, there's really little about the systems that are "unmanned." He considers the term "unmanned aerial vehicle" a misnomer that loses sight of the manpower every mission entails, preferring the term "remotely piloted aircraft."

And he makes it clear that when he refers to the "system," he means far more than the actual aircraft.

"When I talk about the system, I am talking about the airplane, the ground station, the communication that links the ground station to the airplane, the product we produce that goes out -- the actual ISR intelligence," he said.

He noted the big network of airmen involved in the process, all committed to getting the information the aircraft collects into the hands of warfighters who need it. Regardless of their function within that framework, Gersten said, they recognize the value of their contribution.

"I hear stories all the time about how one of our aircraft stopped a convoy from driving over an [improvised explosive device] or kept a soldier from walking around a corner where there was an ambush, or helped get a wounded soldier out of a city by guiding him out," he said. "Those stories are day-to-day here. It's part of the pride of being 100 percent for the joint ground warfighter, every single day."

When he first sat down to watch his airmen at work after taking over his new command in June, he admitted, he was bowled over by their expertise. "The ability to talk, fly, communicate, text and execute, all very seamlessly, is a tremendous skill set," he said. "And it is amazing to watch them do it as fast as they do."

During his commander's calls, Gersten challenges the wing's airmen to channel their creativity and know-how to making the systems even better.

"I can't tell you what these systems are going to look like 10 years from now, but you can," he tells them. "You are the ones who will make this system the future. ... Make it something better than it is."

And they're coming up with new ideas every day. Some are "completely outside the box, but executable," Gersten said. Others are "way out there," not necessarily applicable now, but present new approaches and new ways of thinking that could apply down the road.

Gersten said he's particularly impressed with his wing's ability to take raw data collected by unmanned aircraft and translate it into "decision information" ground troops can act on.

"There was a time when we said, 'I'm drowning in data, but I am starving for knowledge.' But we have changed that," he said. "Four to six years ago, it was pretty good. Two years ago, it was really good, and today it is exceptional. Tomorrow, it is going to be beyond exceptional."

This capability has generated an almost insatiable appetite for the support unmanned aerial systems provide.

The Air Force has taken notice, funding more unmanned than manned aircraft in this year's budget and training more pilots to fly unmanned aerial vehicles than fighters and bombers combined. Yet, Gersten finds himself constantly working to allay some people's concerns that unmanned aircraft will some day muscle out their manned counterparts.

Remotely controlled aircraft have their unique capabilities, he said, and manned vehicles have theirs.

"We do a great job of enduring over the battle space, but we can't carry the load of a B-2 [bomber]" Gersten said. "We can go do endurance, and then they can come in and help us out. Or they can come in and do their job, and we can come in and look at it afterwards.

"It's not one system that is going to overtake the other," he continued. "These systems are complementary and have a very synergistic capability. So when people ask, 'Which way is it going?' I say, 'It's going together.' It is not a question of one or the other. It's a question of how much of each we need to secure the nation's interests."