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6 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, reporting from Taji Forward Operating Base, Iraq

Situated approximately twenty miles north of Baghdad is Forward Operating Base (FOB) Taji – one of the U.S. Army’s operational hubs for AAI’s RQ-7A Shadow 200 tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (TUAV). 

Under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Mark R. Hirschinger, Commander of the Army’s 615th Aviation Support Battalion, some twenty-five Shadow air vehicles supported by some fifty Army personnel are flying at ten times the system’s expected operational tempos (OPTEMPOs) – some 15,000 hours a month Army-wide -- in performing a variety of missions for users.  Most prominent among the Shadow’s “overwatch” missions are:

·         IED Defeat – Where the Shadow is used to monitor the emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), leading to their removal or defeat.


·        
Counter-IED -- Where the Shadow is used to deter the emplacement of IEDs or, once they are emplaced, to track/trace and defeat their networks of facilitators, communicators, and suppliers.


·        
Counter-IDF – Where the Shadow is used to identify the source/location of indirect fire (IDF) against U.S. sites and to cue rapid counter-strikes against these sources.


Another impromptu mission was performed by the Shadow during DSD’s Sunday visit to the operating site, when a Shadow system lost engine power during its return to base, deployed its emergency parachute and was found by local (friendly) Iraqis.  
As a quick reaction force was deployed from the FOB to recover the lost system, an already-airborne Shadow was “dynamically retasked” within minutes to provide overwatch of the (ultimately successful) air vehicle recovery operations.


Notwithstanding Sunday’s accident – and a general loss rate of four air vehicle a month -- Army officials are generally pleased with the system’s improving reliability and performance.  As Lieutenant Colonel Hirschinger puts it: “We have been pushing the system hard in extreme conditions, particularly heat, and it has responded well.”
While Shadow accident rates “remain unacceptably high” according to PM-UAS -- they have been cut in half each year for the past two years and continue to fall. 
According to a Shadow program official: “the trend lines are promising.  We’ll be satisfied when we get accident rates down to or near zero.” 


Organizing for Shadow Success

While Army doctrine has the TUAV working in support of single Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), Lieutenant Colonel Hirschinger explains that Baghdad’s uniquely congested and conflicted airspace – among the most challenging in the world -- argued for a tailored approach to Shadow employment.

Hirschinger explains that centralizing Shadow operations and control of some six BCTs within his Battalion, operating at stand-off distance from Baghdad’s airspace, allows him and his men to more readily and assuredly de-conflict air space management issues, speak to higher echelon airspace coordination authorities in one voice, and therewith more efficiently sustain critical RSTA operations over and around the capital. 


A seasoned helicopter pilot, Hirschinger notes that Shadow operations have benefited by their incorporation into the aviation community at FOB Taji.  Aviation culture, he notes, has higher expectations for safety and a lower threshold for accidents.  “Aviators emphasize what others may not, including such things as corrosion control, weight and balance, tracking of repair costs.” 


He adds that “from a dollar cost perspective, it is a positive move to bring the system into the aviation community.”
Whether Shadow operation and support will remain at the Aviation Brigade as it is currently at FOB Taji or eventually migrate down to the Brigade Combat Team (BCT) level as dictated by current Army force structure remains to be seen.  What is clear is that Lieutenant Colonel Hirstinger and others Army aviators with whom DSD spoke believe that the system effectiveness demonstrated in Iraq operations argue strongly for management of the fleet at the higher level. 


Looking Forward


According to officials at Taji and the other operating sites DSD has visited, the information provided by the Shadows and other unmanned assets has fed the demand for more intelligence delivered at greater speed.  “People have come to count on UAVs.  They have a lot of advantages, and expectations are growing” says Hirschinger. 
As detailed above, operations at FOB Taji and other locations have provided a wealth of information on how the operation and support of the system can be improved.  Indeed, close cooperation and consultation between PM UAS and Shadow’s OIF and OEF theater-based users in have resulted in improvements to the Shadow system including:  


--  
The development and fielding of a SINCGARS communications radio relay Shadow 200 variant and the ongoing modification of that derivative air vehicle to more directly integrate the radio into the airframe that thus increase its speed and range in line with the rest of the fleet;


--
The improvisational introduction of a double-catch ground cabling system to provide greater assurance that the air vehicle can land safely.
Like many Shadow operators with whom we spoke, Lieutenant Colonel Hirschinger wishes that the Shadow’s engine was quieter to allow for more covert operations.  He and other Shadow users also look forward to the day when the system can be weaponized.
 
The Shadow system consists of four air vehicles (AV) with day/night (EO/IR) payloads, two ground control stations (GCS) with ground data terminals (GDT), one portable ground control station (PGCS) with portable ground data terminal (PGDT), two tactical automated landing system, launcher, air vehicle transport (AVT), and additional ground support equipment and vehicles for personnel support.  The Shadow Air Vehicle cost is approximately $680 million and the total system cost – inclusive of all of the above – is estimated at $12-$14 million

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