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7 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, reporting from LAS Anadaconda/Balad Air Base, Iraq

For U.S. troops and civilians serving in Iraq, the threat of attack by enemy insurgents is a constant one.  Even for those who serve “behind the wire” on fixed operating bases (FOBs), there remains a very real threat of attack by rockets and mortars.  While primitive and unguided, these systems are still capable of inflicting massive damage at any time, particularly in areas where personnel are massed.

Based on the unsettled nature of the Sunni Triangle in which it is located and its resulting vulnerability to rocket and mortar attack, LSA Anaconda (a.k.a. Balad Air Base) has come to be known as “Mortaritaville.” 
The Air Force is trying to change that and it appears that its efforts are making a difference.

The Air Force’s 11th Reconnaissance Squadron operates a fleet of AGM-114 HELLFIRE-armed MQ-1A Predator unmanned aerial vehicles from Balad under a cost and resource-efficient “Remote Split Operations” arrangement with the U.S.-based Predator Operations Center (POC) at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
While Iraq theater-wide Predator missions are controlled via a large cadre of systems operators in Nevada, forward-based personnel (and contractors) at Balad are responsible not only for the launch, recovery and maintenance of the aircraft, but also for some key base defense missions carried out at the end of nearly every MQ-1 mission.

When the MQ-1 nears completion of its primary mission (of up to twenty hours) and Balad-based operators are handed control of the airframe for its landing, recovery, and turn-around they have an opportunity to perform limited reconnaissance, surveillance and strike missions around the Balad Air Base perimeter.  According to U.S. Air Force LtCol. Andy Uribe, the Squadron’s deputy Commander, these terminal phase missions “are focused on known indirect fire hotspots.”

LtCol. Uribe adds that the scope and range of this ancillary base defense mission is dependant upon system availability (i.e., does the airframe have extra fuel and does it have extra time before it must be re-launched in support of its primary missions.)

With the MQ-1A averaging 3,000 flight hours a month in Iraq operations to date this year and 3,500 hours a month over the past three months – what this reporter figures to be about six twenty-hour sorties daily -- it was clear that, despite being an ancillary mission, a considerable amount of time is being spent by the Predator on the base defense mission.  Indeed, DSD was told that since June of this year, Balad-based operators have flown hundreds of base defense surveillance missions and have engaged enemy targets – those emplacing and launching rocket or mortars at the base – some eight times.

The effects, as evidenced in a video of a recent target engagement shown to DSD, are both timely and lethal.  Operating at altitudes of between 8,000 and 12,000 feet, the insurgents – whose hostile intentions are verified beyond the shadow of a doubt –simply never see what’s coming. 
While it’s difficult to gauge the deterrent effect of such surveillance and strikes, Air Force officials note that rocket and mortar attacks on the base have declined precipitously since these MQ-1 base defense operations commenced.

The MQ-1A Predator Air Vehicle cost is approximately $2.3 million and the total system cost – inclusive of all key elements – is estimated at $40 million