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Predators deliver data, firepower in Iraq

by Airman 1st Class Jason Ridder
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

3/28/2006 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- “I never thought I’d be doing anything like this,” said Airman 1st Class Kyle Bridges from his seat at an RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ground control station. “I signed up to be an imagery analyst, which I thought was going to be a cool job. Instead I was offered the chance to be a sensor operator on the Predator.”

Airman Bridges is with the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here and controls the infrared and electro-optical sensors, the laser range designator and the laser target monitor.

“I also have to back up the pilot on everything he does, such as radio calls, airspace and safety of flight,” Airman Bridges said. “I’m given a lot of responsibility as an airman first class.”

Enlisted sensor operators have a direct and significant role in the war on terror and base defense, and are able to see their results immediately.

“Once a Hellfire missile is launched from the aircraft, I guide the weapon to the target with the laser,” Airman Bridges said. “Sometimes that can mean keeping the laser on a moving truck and guiding the missile all the way to its target.”

All Predators in the Iraqi theater of operations are launched and recovered from Predator GCSs at Balad while most of the missions are flown from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

“We get them in the air and headed in the right direction, before handing over control to the folks at Nellis,” said Maj. Micah Morgan, commander of the 46th ERS.

Before relinquishing control of the aircraft to Nellis, the Airmen at Balad get the Predator to its correct altitude, do system checks and ensure the satellite link is operational.

The people in the squadron are trained in tactical control of the platform and how to operate the weapon system, Major Morgan said. They also receive additional training to handle the specialized mission here of launching and receiving the aircraft.

The Predators are launched and recovered by Airmen in theater because the signal from Nellis has a slight delay after being bounced thousands of miles into space and then back down. Even without a delay the Predator is not an easy aircraft to launch and recover.

“I have flown a lot of different airframes,” Major Morgan said. “Predator is by far the most difficult to land.”

Once the Predator is handed over to Nellis for control, it flies a mission assigned by the Combined Air Operations Center performing reconnaissance and close air support.

Although the primary mission of the 46th ERS is to launch and recover Predators, they do have a secondary mission of defending Balad in conjunction with the base’s Joint Defense Operations Center. In fact, Predators were involved in the apprehension of nearly 20 insurgents last month, Major Morgan said.

The Predator has four capabilities that make it an important tool in Iraq.

It has the ability to loiter in an area for a long time, enabling it to watch a target all day and all night. Additionally, it has immediate strike capability. The Hellfire AGM-114P missiles, specially designed for the Predator, are guided all the way to the target by the sensor operator. Third, the surveillance capability gives the Predator the ability to provide instant battle damage assessment.

Finally, the Predator has the ability to feed real-time video to forces on the ground, giving them a greater level of situational awareness and a new perspective on the battlefield.

“We can track a target, strike that target and make sure the mission is complete all from one airframe,” Major Morgan said. “The Predator can accomplish something on its own that used to take three different assets to do.”

The capabilities of the 46th ERS are growing as more Predators come to Balad, and a new control system comes online. The multiple aircraft control system will enable one pilot, to control four aircraft simultaneously.

“The pilot will be very busy,” Major Morgan said. “But it will greatly increase our effectiveness.”

Each Predator will still have a dedicated enlisted operator at the controls of its sensors.

As for Airman Bridges, he is excited to be working with what he calls the future of airpower.

“There are not a lot of junior enlisted Airmen out there getting the chance to operate a weapons system like this and see the results of their contribution to the war on terror daily,” Airman Bridges said.

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