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Small aircraft take on some of the biggest missions

by Lt. Col. Bob Thompson
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

6/7/2006 - BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Patrolling the sky over Iraq for more than 2,250 hours in May, the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here leads the largest unmanned aerial vehicle operation in the world with one of the Air Force’s smallest aircraft -- the MQ-1 Predator.

Providing “real-time eyes-in-the-sky,” the squadron of about 20 aircraft is often the critical link between ground commanders and what is around the next corner in combat.

“We’re the largest game in town and an integral part of just about every large joint operation in Iraq,” said Capt. Fred Atwater, 46th ERS commander.

Predators often work closely with ground forces. Flying more than 130 missions in May, they patrolled convoy routes, supported ground force raids and flew as aerial sentries to deter attacks on infrastructure and people.

“We’re the most requested asset in theater,” Captain Atwater said. “Our aircraft fly for 20 to 22 hours straight without refueling. We can provide a commander with full-motion video of the battlefield and an armed presence that stays overhead, on station, throughout his mission.”

Able to carry two Hellfire missiles, the Predators not only hunt insurgents throughout the country, they also defend the squadron’s home at Balad AB. By working closely with Army quick reaction forces, Captain Atwater’s unit patrols the base’s perimeter.

“It’s all about the guys on the ground,” said Senior Airman Kyle Bridges, Predator sensor operator deployed from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. “We try to make the mission as effective as possible so we can best serve the troops who are fighting in combat. We get info into the hands of the warfighters."

Sensor operators have an intelligence background so they know which pictures can best help their customers, said Airman Bridges, who has been trained as an imagery analyst.

Tracking anti-Iraqi forces night and day, the Predator teams locate and follow the enemy’s movements and see where they hide. When the time is right, they strike, sometimes with missiles, other times with a simple beam of light.

“From overhead, we can put a pinpoint of light on an individual who is trying to ambush or hide from our troops,” Captain Atwater said. “You can’t really see this marker unless you’ve got on night-vision goggles. We’ve worked with the Army this way and have captured hundreds of individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have been seen.”

Because the 20-hour Predator missions provide “persistent stare,” or long looks at ground operations and targets, the reconnaissance squadron has increased the reliability of aerial intelligence and helped coalition forces avoid collateral damage. Also, because the aircraft’s cockpit is located on the ground and protected on base, no aircrew lives are at risk.

“Everybody loves the Predator,” the captain said. “Predator footage is used to brief the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Air Force, and even the president.

“But the most rewarding missions are the ones where you escort a group of soldiers on a foot patrol. You weave them through hostile terrain and get them home safely,” Captain Atwater said. 

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