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. Predators Provide Eyes In The Sky Over Afghanistan

A unique Predator (pictured) aspect is that it is able to provide continuous coverage of the battlefield and the Air Force doesn't have to deploy hundreds of Airmen overseas to operate and maintain the system.
by Maj. David Kurle
Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan (AFNS) Jun 09, 2006
What has a 50-foot wingspan, buzzes like a giant insect and can put an AGM-114 Hellfire missile through a window from 8,000 miles away? It is the Air Force's MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, and it's arguably one of the most requested assets in Operation Enduring Freedom, said Capt. Jonathan Songer, commander of the Predator launch and recovery element here.

"They can't get enough of us. They simply can't get enough Predators in the air," he said.

Captain Songer and the Airmen of the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Flight are responsible for the operation and maintenance of the newest Air Force resources in the ongoing war against extremists in Afghanistan.

Their job is to get the Air Force Predators in the air and pass control of the operational missions to pilots and sensor operators at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

After 20 or more hours in the air, the launch-and-recovery team takes control and lands Predator at this airfield in southeastern Afghanistan where crews maintain these lethal eyes in the sky.

With that kind of flying time, combined with cameras and sensors onboard, the Predator provides large amounts of intelligence for commanders, troops on the ground and the decision-makers in a war against an enemy bent on ruining the future of Afghanistan.

Captain Songer calls this capability "persistence over the battle space," and it's saving lives.

"We're able to look for (improvised explosive devices) and we're finding folks getting ready to shoot rockets," he said. "We call it intelligence preparation of the battlefield. If our forces are going to conduct a raid we're telling them what window to go in and what route to take to maximize the safety of the troops on the ground."

A unique Predator aspect is that it is able to provide continuous coverage of the battlefield and the Air Force doesn't have to deploy hundreds of Airmen overseas to operate and maintain the system.

That doesn't mean that Predator crews don't go into harm's way, because to launch and land a Predator requires a line-of-sight signal between the ground and the aircraft to alleviate a slight delay when the aircraft is flown via satellite uplink.

That delay could cause problems with the constant, small control inputs necessary to take off and land an aircraft.

Using unmanned aerial vehicles, flown by crews at Nellis, saves time and money. The Air Force doesn't have to deploy the number of aircrews and maintenance personnel required for most manned aircraft, Captain Songer said.

"It actually doubles the number of Predator sorties we can fly by operating them from home," he said.

Most Predator missions in the launch-and-recovery phase are flown by a pilot and sometimes a navigator, plus an enlisted sensor operator who manages the aircraft's sophisticated suite of cameras and laser-targeting equipment.

"We're in the only enlisted job that I know of where we can shoot a live Hellfire," said Airman 1st Class Rachel Veros, a sensor operator with the 62nd ERF.

While the pilots usually pull the trigger, the sensor operator's job is to guide the missile into the target using the laser, giving the Predator a real kick should an opportune moment arrive for the application of deadly force.

"I think that UAVs are going to be the wave of the future because why put someone's life at risk when you can fly this from Nellis?" Airman Veros said. "It's invaluable. There's nothing that compares to the Predator. There's nothing else with our versatility and durability."

The future of the Predator, and UAVs in general, are limitless, Captain Songer said.

"If you can imagine it with this platform, it can be done," he said.

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