The New U.S. “Smalls” Air Force Over Afghanistan

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We’ve all seen the airplane-sized Predator and Reaper drones now flying and fighting over Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen. They’re fairly big (the Predator has a 48-foot [15-m.] wingspan) and costly ($5 million each). But there are fleets of smaller and cheaper man-launched drones that have been, um, flying under the radar in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Even as U.S. troops begin pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is preparing to send a veritable air force of an additional 300 such small drones into the Afghan campaign over the next three months. These hand-launched Raven and Puma drones provide security for forward operating bases, and the convoys streaming to them carrying everything from fuel to food.

They’re also being increasingly sent out with small groups of troops on patrol, who use them to scout out territory and peer over hills before the troops get there. These so-called micro air vehicles are being used to monitor roads and detect roadside bomb-planters. Their quiet electric motors let them lurk near areas of interest without betraying their presence. It’s a way of giving U.S. troops greater “SA” –- situational awareness – into what’s going on around them without deploying additional soldiers. The grunts love them. They’re “very light, very fast and very cheap,” says Sergeant First Class Jose Blanco. “And it’s fun, sir, very fun.”

The Raven, with a price tag of about $50,000, is simply tossed into the air with its battery-operated prop spinning for flights of up to 80 minutes at 30 miles an hour (45 kph). It transmits color video or heat-detecting infrared signals (useful for after-dark missions) to the operator’s laptop up to nine miles (15 km.) away, usually from altitudes ranging between 300 and 500 feet. The Army is sending 180 Ravens and 129 Pumas to troops in Afghanistan over the summer.
(See “Gears of War: Inside America’s Incredible Military Arsenal.”)

The 4.2-pound (1.9-kg) RQ-11 Raven has a 4.5-foot (1.4-m) wingspan, about half the size of the 13-pound (5.9 kg) Puma AE and its 8.5-foot (2.6-m) wingspan. The Army is using these drones, and the even smaller 1-pound (454-gram) Wasp in what it calls a “proof of principal” deployment to see if theses flocks should be made a permanent part of the Army. All three are built by Aerovironment of Simi Valley, Calif.

Operators call them “smalls” because they all weigh less than 20 pounds (9 kg) apiece. Anything weighing more requires a dedicated pilots, and small Army units don’t have the manpower available for that. Unlike the bigger Predators and Reapers — whose controllers are based miles — and even oceans — away, the “smalls” operators carry their drones into the field in their rucksacks and operate them in the middle of the battlefield. It’s not so much remote control as flying a kite.

Today’s troops are ready for this kind of assignment. “They pick it up rather quickly and they love it,” Blanco, a Raven operator and instructor, said recently. “For them, believe it or not, it’s the best video game in the world.” Soldiers spend 10 days training to use the Raven, and they don’t have to be Hercules to toss the drone skyward. “It’s very light and it’s all in technique,” Blanco says. “We’ve had male and female soldiers graduate the course and even a soldier who was an amputee.”

A soldier launches a Raven in Afghanistan / Army photo by Russell Gilchrest

The U.S. military now flies some 7,000 drones, up from a handful before 9/11. The Air Force is now training more drone pilots than the cockpit-occupying kind. “Unmanned aircraft systems have long held great promise for military operations, but technology has only recently matured enough to exploit that potential,” the Congressional Budget Office says in a new study on the increasing use of such aircraft. “The Department of Defense’s 2012 plan calls for purchasing more of the existing unmanned aircraft systems for current operations, improving the systems already in service, and designing more-capable unmanned aircraft systems for the future.”

Pint-size drones have another advantage. Pakistan has pestered Washington for years to sell it its own fleet of Predators for terrorist-killing missions. Washington has always declined. But not too long ago, Pentagon officials said the U.S. would be providing 85 Ravens to the Pakistani military. (After they pinpoint the terrorists, perhaps U.S.-supplied F-16s — at least those not on strip alert primed to strike arch-foe India — can be called in to hit the bad guys.)

U.S. troops appreciate having the Ravens around. “They feel a little bit more secure and happy when they actually have Ravens within the company or battalions,” Blanco says. “You’re going to throw it up in the air, hand launch it, it’s going to go out 10 kilometers and it’s going to clear that whole area for you.”

Unlike most pilots – who spend their entire careers far above the battlefield – Blanco and his fellow drone operators are ground-pounders. That gives them a different perspective from those who spend their nights at air bases instead of in the mud. “Being a ground troop, I lost a lot of friends, saw a lot of guys step on IEDs, get blown up,” he says. “You know, if I can prevent that from happening to another ground troop, and this is the best job to do it in.”

It seems the only downside to having a Raven around is the feeling of helplessness it can cause when Raven-using troops see fellow soldiers in trouble too far away to help.

A soldier controls a Puma flying over Afghanistan / Army photo by Jennifer Cohen

Blanco recalls a training mission he was on when his unit spotted fellow GIs in trouble. “Another group of soldiers came into contact with the enemy,” he says. “We were at the max distance of our aircraft…I’m going to tell you from being there and doing it, sometimes you get to see what’s on the ground and what’s going on live and then you realize it’s not a game — it’s the real deal.

“You want to jump into the fight and you can’t do it,” he says. “It’s bad when you’re looking at it at the screen and you’re looking at other soldiers getting shot at.”