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Predators Protect Troops

By Spc. Leah R. Burton, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, BALAD, Iraq, Feb. 9, 2005 – The loud roars of Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons here are familiar reminders of close-air support, but unmanned Predators silently swarm the skies protecting troops by different means.

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The MQ-1 Predator, a lightweight, low horsepower, unmanned aerial vehicle capable of flying more than 20 hours of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, helps protect ground troops and Logistics Support Area Anaconda. Photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The MQ-1 Predator, a lightweight, low-horsepower, unmanned aerial vehicle capable of taking daylight and infrared video imagery traverses the atmosphere above virtually undetectable.

The 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here aids Army personnel by keeping eyes on the combat situation via the Predators.

Although the Predator's main mission is to collect intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, it can also be used to introduce some lethal firepower to an intense combat situation.

"Obviously if we catch the bad guys that are shooting mortars at our base, the mortars stop," said Air Force Maj. Michael Bruzzini, squadron commander. "We saw mortars launched and took out the perpetrators with Hellfire missiles."

All of this is done from a terminal on the ground, where a pilot and a sensor operator control the movements and actions of the UAV.

The Predator was used during a recent raid where Army personnel detained several high-value targets, increasing the unit's combat effectiveness by 50 percent, Bruzzini said.

"As the raid was going down, a 'God's-eye' view was being passed down to the soldiers. The Predator had eyes on the whole time and was able to inform the soldiers of what was going on around them," Bruzzini said.

This type of mission is part and parcel what the Predator was meant for. "Our biggest mission is to support [the Army]. We want to be your God's-eye view," Bruzzini said.

While the Predator's two onboard Hellfire missiles and surveillance capabilities supports the mission, Bruzzini still understands what his sister service's bottom line. "You win wars by securing ground, and troops on the ground are the only way you secure ground," the former F-16 pilot said.

He noted that there are challenges that are unique to the Predator. "You feel like you're in it. You do lose some situational awareness, because you can't look around your aircraft," Bruzzini said. "You take for granted a lot of things that are very easy in other aircraft, like taxiing."

Other than challenges borne of the fact that the pilot isn't actually in the aircraft, piloting the Predator is very similar to operating other aircraft.

The sensor operators control the movement of the cameras on the Predator and undergo nine months of training for that responsibility. Six months of that training takes place at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, and the other three months take place at a formal training unit.

"In the first couple of weeks of the FTU, you want to quit [because of difficulties controlling the equipment,]" said Airman 1st Class Tyler Farley, a squadron sensor operator.

Farley has since mastered the operation of the equipment and now acts on instinct. "You just trust what the pilots do and play your 'video game' for five hours or so," he said.

Although it can be scary controlling a $4.2 million aircraft by remote control, Bruzzini said they are more apt to take risks in this aircraft because they're not risking loss of life.

"What's going through my head (when I'm piloting the Predator) is we have troops getting shot at who are Americans, and I want to help save American lives. ... It's very rewarding to know that what you do saves lives. ... There are combat missions with people on the ground, and I'm saving their lives on a daily basis," Bruzzini said.

(Army Spc. Leah R. Burton is a member of the 28th Public Affairs Detachment from Fort Lewis, Wash. and is deployed to Iraq in support of units at LSA Anaconda.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Maj. Michael Bruzzini, 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander, visually inspects an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Logistics Support Area Anaconda recently. Photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAirman 1st Class Tyler Farley, an MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, controls the virtually undetectable unmanned aerial vehicle's cameras from his seat on the ground. Photo by Spc. Leah R. Burton, USA  
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