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ABCNews.com March 21, 2003

Guardian Angels

Layers of Airborne Surveillance Help Speed Ground Forces Into Iraq

By Barry Serafin

- While today's massive "shock and awe" air attack on Baghdad marks just the beginning of the air campaign against Iraq, coalition ground forces have been making steady progress into Iraq over the past two days, and they have a fleet of tools in the skies to thank.

ABCNEWS' Ted Koppel, embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, reported that they have advanced more than 100 miles into southern Iraq since crossing the Kuwaiti border on Thursday.

One reason that such units have been able to roll across the desert in Iraq so rapidly is they have more high-tech eyes in the sky scanning for enemy positions than ever before.

"With the modern army there's an intelligence escort that is flying in the sky, in space, that is escorting the army on the ground," said John Pike, principal analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.

There are literally layers of surveillance technology overhead. Each layer, containing a different mix of aircraft and capabilities, plays a role.

Out in front and on their flanks, U.S. ground forces are protected by Apache helicopters flying reconnaissance. The attack helicopter's sensors, as well as the eyes and ears of its two-man crew, watch for Iraqi tanks, troops and other immediate threats to the advancing columns of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

Unmanned Predator drones, capable of flying for longer periods than piloted planes, extend the watchful eyes even further. On-board cameras can scope out areas tens of miles ahead of the allied advance into Iraq.

"That's the one that is going to give you the most direct, immediate, the most continuous surveillance of the highest value targets that you are most worried about," said Pike.

Electronic Peeks Ahead

Higher up, at around 30,000 feet, radar and radio intercept aircraft will be scanning with electronic instruments for telltale signs of Iraqi activity.

J-STARS planes - the acronym stands for Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems - will search hundreds of miles of terrain, looking for moving tanks and low-flying aircraft. Airborne Warning and Control planes - AWACs - with rotating 35-foot radar antennas will spot any high-flying Iraqi jets, which have yet to venture into the U.S.-dominated skies.

Along with the radar planes, so-called Rivet Joint aircraft will monitor the radio airwaves, eavesdropping on the frequencies used by Iraqi military commanders.

"All of these are going to provide continuous battle-space awareness over a radius of hundreds of miles from each of these aircraft," said Pike.

High-Tech High Flyers

Unmanned and jet-propelled Global Hawk aircraft may make up the next surveillance layer. Flying at 60,000 feet - where anti-aircraft fire is unlikely to reach - the drones can keep watch from the air for up to 24 hours.

Even higher: the manned U-2 spy plane that can fly at up to 80,000 feet - well above the range of any missile in Iraq's arsenal.

"Those are going to be using radars, cameras, signals, intelligence devices that would be able to give you very long-range surveillance," said Pike.

But the ultimate watchful eyes are perhaps 500 miles overhead.

"There are dozens of intelligence satellites taking digital pictures, radar pictures, through clouds, doing radar and radio intercept," said Pike.

All of the flying technology is able to relay information to command posts, which send it on to commanders in the field within minutes - a huge advantage to ground forces racing toward Baghdad.


Copyright 2003, ABC News Internet Ventures.