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12 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, reporting from Central and Northern Iraq

It’s not pretty, but it’s plenty busy and, according to its users, it’s getting the job done in the skies over Iraq.

Cancelled in 1996 after three years of development by a TRW/Israel Aircraft Industries team, the U.S. Army’s MQ-5 Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle is today flying around the clock in Iraq, providing operators with critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and, in limited measure, lethal strike capabilities.

According to the Army’s PM Unmanned Aircraft Systems (PM-UAS), eight MQ-5 Hunter aircraft have logged over 24,000 flight hours in support of Corps level missions in Iraq as of 23 October 2007.  This number includes five MQ-5 air vehicles operating from Balad in central Iraq in a strictly ISR capacity and three “Viper Strike” MQ-5 air vehicles --operating in the north near Tikrit -- which are capable of striking targets.

“The Hunter is a uniquely flexible, very reliable platform that’s providing critical intelligence today in support of U.S. forces over much of Iraq” relates U.S. Army Lt. Gretchen Carlin, a mission manager and maintenance officer within the Aerial Exploitation element of the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion at Balad Air Base. 

Lt. Carlin, who notes that the Northrop Grumman platform has been in service in Iraq since 2003 and boasts a system availability exceeding 95%, says that the Hunter is used in 17-hour missions to surveil a 200 km radius surrounding Balad, providing real-time intelligence to Corps level commanders on routes and targets as well as IED and rocket and mortar emplacements that threaten U.S. forces. 

At the core of the system’s reliability, Carlin notes, is that the platform is held to strict aviation standards in terms of maintenance and upkeep.  This means full system phase inspection every 75 hours of operation and outright replacement of the UAV’s dual 800 cc Mercedes Benz engines every 300 hours. 

Lt. Carlin doesn’t have and doesn’t seek strike missions for her small fleet of Hunters: “I think there's a benefit in having some that are just [performing] ISR,” adding “We like keeping it unarmed so that it’s not taken away from us.”

In north-central Iraq near Tikrit at Contingency Operating Base Speicher however, the Hunter’s mission has been broadened to include strike missions via the arming of the platform, on a mission-specific basis -- with the GBU-44/B Viper Strike munition. 

Viper Strike is a 44-pound, three foot long variant of Northrop Grumman’s unpowered, laser-guided BAT (Brilliant Anti-Tank) munition with a 2.3 pound high explosive warhead.

Major Tom Rude, Executive Officer for the Combat Aviation Brigade at COB Speicher, notes that the Hunter -- working in close coordination with manned, rotary wing strike assets such as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior and the AH-64 Apache -- plays a key role in finding and striking targets across his Area of Operations (AOR).

Major Rude says that such “manned-unmanned teaming” today plays a key role in his operational planning, particularly as it regards counter-IED operations.  “UAVs are providing us with much more capability than we have had in the past.  They dramatically increase our ability to observe the AOR, and the more we are able to see, the better we are able to do our job…. Unmanned systems, including Hunter, are tightening the kill chain.”

As for the Hunter’s ability to strike its own targets, while Major Rude showed reporters a high resolution video of a successful Viper Strike attack on IED emplacers on Major Supply Route (MSR) Tampa that took place on 17 September 2007, he conceded that the strike was one of only two that have been carried out to date (the other on 1 September 2007.  He relates, further, that his Brigade, which only recently rotated into the theater, is still working to refine the TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) associated with the system’s operation. 

Major Rude also notes that, in addition to refining TTPs, his Brigade is working to properly train Army personnel to use the Viper Strike.  “Green suiters must drop them” he notes, alluding to the fact that the Geneva Convention prohibits the Northrop Grumman contractors – themselves former military to a man -- supporting Hunter operations and maintenance from actually operating the munition.)
While high on the value of “manned-unmanned teaming and accepting of the potential role that UAVs can play in strike missions, Major Rude stresses that Viper Strike has limitations, including its range (it is free-falling), its small warhead, and its inability to operate in bad weather. 

As for when its use would be most appropriate assuming his personnel were trained on its employment, the Major noted: “We would use the Viper Strike in the event that a target must be engaged immediately and we were unable to dynamically re-task fixed wing strike assets.”

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