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5 November 2007

By Douglas Harpel, Reporting from Baghdad

The use of unmanned aircraft systems in Iraq is a “decisive factor” in the dramatic drop in successful improvised explosive device (IED) attacks says Army Major General James E. Simmons, the Deputy Commanding General, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, III Corps Commander, and the senior aviator in the CENTCOM Theater of Operations. 

In a wide-ranging discussion with DSD and a handful of other reporters in his Camp Victory Headquarters in Baghdad on Friday, General Simmons, a rotary wing aviator with over 4,000 hours in a range of Army attack and utility helicopters and over 120 mission logged in Iraq, touted the dominant impact of rotary wing aircraft in virtually every area of military endeavor in Iraq and stressed the operational synergies that are resulting from the teaming of the Army’s manned and unmanned aerial assets.With a fleet of some 532 U.S. helicopters in the Iraqi theater logging nearly half a million flight hours annually, he notes that a real breakthrough in the fleet’s application and payoff has come in its synergistic interaction with unmanned systems. 

Today, according to Simmons, “UAVs are transmitting data to humans in command posts who are, in turn, handing off to both manned and unmanned system capable of striking the enemy.”The General notes that eight Army WARRIOR A vehicles have, since this Spring, been successfully flying missions in the Iraqi theater from Stryker Air Base under the auspices of the largely shrouded Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize), a high priority effort aimed at stemming the IED threat in Iraq.

The WARRIOR A vehicle – a precursor to the Army’s new SKY WARRIOR UAV as that larger, more capable platform comes on line in the years ahead (perhaps jointly with the Air Force PREDATOR program, stay tuned) -- is, in General Simmons’ view, “an absolutely incredible and sustainable platform” that he wants more of.  According to Simmons: “It has great legs [range] and station time [loiter]… and its OR (operational readiness) rates are very high.” 

Changing the Economy of IEDs

That the WARRIOR A and Task Force ODIN are impacting the IED fight is buttressed by some hard numbers.  Through August of this year, General Simmons notes that 148 sensor-to-shooter target handoffs resulted in 233 IED emplacers being killed, 48 being injured, and 260 being detained. 

In what is claimed to be an increasingly typical employment scenario, WARRIOR A platforms loitering over MSRs (main supply routes) such as Route Tampa, identify and flag IED emplacements for neutralization by ground-based units or fixed wing assets. 

As the emplacers leave the scene, the UAV gives silent chase to the emplacers that can result in the identification of their origins and the unraveling of their networks.  Describing the flexibility this Task Force ODIN capability provides, General Simmons says: “We will detect them and they will not know that they’ve been detected.  Once we have our hooks in them, we won’t let them go.  It’s only a question of what we will do with them.” 

Simmons notes that the demonstrated capability of the WARRIOR assets has itself had a deterrent effect on future IED emplacements and that this effect is coincident and central to the marked reduction in IED deaths in Iraq over the past several months.  The General argues that these capabilities change the economics of IED emplacement.  If IED emplacers are increasingly killed in action, the available stock of volunteers goes down and the price goes up.  Market forces make for a safer Iraq for U.S. troops.At the core of the manned-unmanned teaming synergy and success, the 54-year-old notes, are the Service’s young operators. 

“The younger they are, the better they are,” notes Simmons, who adds that it is nineteen- and twenty-year-old Army analysts, communicating with each other in code via mission-focused “chat rooms” that are moving data from surveillance platforms to those platforms, manned and unmanned, that are most capable of striking the target.  While MG Simmons continues to view the AH-64 APACHE and other manned systems as his primary strike assets in the theater and notes that UAVs should be used “sparingly” for strike, he recognizes the increasing utility and potential of unmanned systems to destroy enemy targets with high confidence. 

Although he clearly recognizes the advantages of having pilots making final kill decisions based on direct visual confirmation of the target, he recognizes “there are instances where the UAV is the right answer and it [striking the target] makes a lot of sense. 

The associated issue of whether the UAV strike mission should be within the purview of the Army at all – an issue at the core of the Executive Agency (EA) question much in vogue within the Air Force and on Capitol Hill – is a foregone conclusion to the General, who notes that the imperative to shorten the kill chain demands that the sensor and the shooter be controlled by a common decision-maker.

Since he is here and they are there, it is tough to argue otherwise.

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