by DAVID AXE
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Nestled in a remote corner of the NATO-run airfield in this violent southern province of Afghanistan is a nondescript row of trailers ringed by earthen barriers. Inside one of the trailers on a cool November morning, two flight-suit-clad officers bend over keyboards, flat-screen displays and control sticks. This is the standard Ground Control Station for the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The officers represent a typical flight crew — a pilot and a sensor operator — assigned to the forward-deployed 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.
What isn’t typical is the display mounted at the pilot’s right shoulder. While the screen itself doesn’t look like much, it’s the most visible aspect of an important change in the way the Air Force uses its five-ton Reaper drones. With the press of a few buttons, a series of images flashes on the screen: grainy, black and white snapshots of a road, seen from above. Each shot is slightly different than the one before, as the Reaper producing them flies a course following the road, snapping photos as it goes.
Only they’re not really photos. The images are products of the Reaper’s Synthetic Aperture Radar, a sensor that has long been standard equipment on the MQ-9, but until this summer was virtually ignored by commanders. Under the leadership of Lt. Col. James Curry, the 62nd this summer began using the SAR to map key portions of Kandahar province. That itself was a big step for the Air Force. Equally importantly, the 62nd — an outfit normally tasked solely with launching and landing Predators and Reapers on behalf of the U.S.-based squadrons that actually control the drones during their combat sorties — is flying the SAR missions itself. That shift, from a support role to a more direct combat role for the expeditionary UAV squadrons, has squeezed extra combat power out of a force struggling to meet relentless demand for its services.
In subtle ways, the 62nd is pioneering practices and tactics that could become standard procedure for U.S. and allied UAV operators. At the heart of these changes is a time-honored method for visual reconnaissance called “change detection.”
Changes in the Air
Change detection is almost as old as aerial reconnaissance itself. The practice amounts to comparing two photos snapped of the same area at different times. The differences between the photos represent the changes that took place in the time between the photos were taken. The changes might indicate troop movements, base construction, boosts in war supplies, etc. As a practice, change detection became possible the day, nearly 150 years ago, when the Union Army first placed photographers in balloons tethered over the front lines of the American Civil War.
Change detection initially ebbed in popularity in the current video age. While many airborne reconnaissance systems continue to carry what amount to still cameras, they usually also carry video cameras to provide full-motion video. Given a choice, commanders usually opt for the video. The moving image, after all, is “sexier,” Curry told Unmanned Systems during a visit to the 62nd’s facilities.
But video can’t do change detection, as video is nothing but change. While video is great for giving commanders a broad, holistic view of a battlefield, it’s not so good at highlighting small details. And those details might betray the presence of a concealed rocket launcher or a recently-buried Improvised Explosive Device.
Indeed, it was the spread of IEDs in Iraq that helped revive the practice of change detection, in the years following its steep decline. In Iraq, the Marine Corps suddenly found its reconnaissance-optimized F/A-18D Hornet fighters in high demand for spotting roadside bombs. Like pretty much all tactical fighters these days, the Hornet were fitted with targeting pods carrying video cameras. But it was the traditional still cameras in some Hornets’ noses that were most useful in the counter-IED campaign. The so-called Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System, or ATARS, shoots high-resolution still images that output to magnetic tape.
At Al Asad in western Iraq three years ago, Sgt. Elizabeth Zakar, from Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332, worked 12-hour shifts analyzing ATARS imagery. “We send it to a couple different exploitation machines where we can zoom in and out and put annotations on the imagery and things like that. … We also have a new piece of equipment called a change-detection workstation that puts two strips of imagery side by side to where us, the analysts, can go through two different days’ worth of imagery on different roads and see if there’s anything that might be an IED.”
In Afghanistan, the Reaper improves on the F/A-18D’s change-detection capability. Operators use the drone’s radar to “photograph” roads where IEDs pose a serious threat to Afghan civilians and NATO troops. The images transmit directly to the 62nd’s Ground Control Stations for analysis. The Hornet’s tapes, by contrast, had to be recovered from the aircraft’s nose, post-flight. And where the Marines’ change-detection workstations still compared physical prints, Reaper change-detection is entirely computerized. The 62nd borrows change-detection software from the British Ministry of Defense.
Keeping it Local
Curry was a driving force behind the UAV change-detection tactic. Curry, a 38-year-old former tanker pilot, assumed command of the 62nd in June. The unit he inherited had settled into a fairly rigid routine reflecting the increasing maturity of Air Force drone operations. Within this crystallizing routine, Curry sensed room for innovation.
The 62nd is a forward-deployed extension of the Air Force’s larger U.S.-based UAV infrastructure. Using line-of-sight radio signals, the squadron launches and lands the roughly 80 Predators and Reapers assigned to NATO’s southern Afghanistan forces; operators living and working at bases in Nevada assume control the drones for the durations of their patrols, relaying Ku-band command signals via satellite. “We control them for just an hour at a time,” Curry said.
But why not make better use of that hour? Curry’s crews cannot control their UAVs beyond the range of their line-of-sight transmitters. But that still allows them to cover all of Kandahar, a city of half a million people and an important center of gravity for southern Afghanistan. As Taliban pressure on Kandahar mounted, the number of IEDs discovered in the city doubled to more than 350 between 2007 and 2008. In September, 30 Afghans were killed when an IED struck their bus in the city. Curry saw an opportunity. He would use his hour-long control window with the unit’s Reapers to conduct change-detection missions over Kandahar roads, in order to pinpoint IEDs before they explode. “Why not spend 15 minutes looking at critical points?” Curry asked rhetorically. “It just made sense,” he added.
But implementing the new tactic was easier said than done. The Reaper’s radar is so unpopular with video-obsessed commanders that the Air Force doesn’t even install displays for radar imagery in the standard UAV control station. Curry had to jerry-rig his own displays, connected to a bank of off-the-shelf servers. There was no manual for Reaper change detection, no guide for how often a drone should revisit a particular road, in order to take an updated snapshot for comparison purposes. The 62nd had to figure out that “soak time” for itself, through trial and error.
The new, more ambitious 62nd had its first big success soon after Curry’s reforms. A series of radar snapshots revealed a newly-installed rocket launcher, aimed at the Kandahar airfield. The 62nd relayed the find to a Belgian F-16, which dropped a 500-pound bomb on the launcher.
Today the Air Force maintains some 37 round-the-clock Predator and Reaper orbits, each orbit populated by around four drones. The Pentagon wants to expand that to 50 orbits by 2011, while also boosting the training base. With the Predator and Reaper force growing by huge leaps, it’s up to innovators like Curry and the rest of the 62nd to ensure that fresh tactics and procedures don’t get lost in the rush.
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