By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON 11/10/04, (AFPN} — Unmanned aerial vehicles are earning star status in the war on terrorism. They are becoming the most-requested capability among combatant commanders in Southwest Asia and use has increased fourfold in that theater during the last year alone.

Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of the Pentagon's UAV planning task force said, “UAVs are topping combatant commanders' wish lists. During the past year alone, UAVs' numbers in Iraq have jumped from fewer than 100 to more than 400.”

“We've seen a huge growth in the total numbers of UAVs in the theater, with most of that growth in the area of small UAVs,” he said. “There's a lot of capability over there today, and frankly, the war fighter is asking for more. What makes UAVs so valuable is their ability to provide eyes in the sky for extended periods of time, beaming real-time images to the ground.”

“In the global war on terror, persistence is vitally important,” he said. “It's important to deny the enemy sanctuary. And constant surveillance in his backyard, so to speak, prevents him the opportunity to mass assets and forces.”

In the event the enemy does this, UAVs offer an additional capability beyond their traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role,” Weatherington continued. “Now they are demonstrating a strike capability as well.

The RQ/MQ-1 Predator UAV, which earned its stripes flying reconnaissance missions in Bosnia, showcased the strike capability in Southwest Asia. The Predator is credited with taking out one of al-Qaida's top lieutenants in Afghanistan with a Hellfire missile, and has since been used widely for offensive operations in Iraq.

Although the Predator was not initially designed as a strike platform, Mr. Weatherington said its ability to provide continual surveillance and respond quickly to on-the-ground threats makes it a valuable asset in the war on terror.

“A UAV with a strike capability can take action very early in that cycle (of enemy activity),” he said, “and in many cases, eliminates the threat entirely.”

“Even unarmed, the Predator and other UAVs can identify targets so other strike platforms, such as AC-130 Spectre gunships, can engage them more quickly and effectively.”

But the Predator is not the only UAV proving its value in Southwest Asia. The variety of UAV systems in the military inventory ensures that the technology is adaptable to the widest range of missions.

In all, the military now has more than a dozen UAV systems in its inventory and is at work on several new ones, including the Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System that will incorporate direct-strike capabilities and a rotary wing.

On the more immediate horizon is the high-altitude, super-sophisticated Global Hawk being developed for the Air Force to conduct long-term surveillance. At the other end of the spectrum is the Marine Corps' hand-launched Dragon Eye system that gives squad- or company-level leaders a snapshot of their operating area. Small enough to break down into pieces that fit in a backpack, it is already in use in Iraq.

“The Raven, another small, hand-held system in use by the Army, is the most common UAV in Iraq,” Mr. Weatherington said, “with about 250 Ravens providing real-time, up-to-date, over-the-horizon views of trouble spots. It packs into a transit case that fits into the back of a Humvee.”

The deputy director said, “Another rising star is the Shadow tactical UAV, proving its value in Iraq during improvised-explosive-device sweeps and reconnaissance missions. Six of these Shadow systems in Southwest Asia are flying almost continuously.”

Weatherington‘s office coordinates all military UAV initiatives and programs.

“There is no single, one-size-fits-all formula for them. he noted. “Different systems are more readily adaptable to different missions, providing capabilities from the squad or company level to the division or corps level, to the theater level. It's the integration of all those capabilities that makes them advantageous… that provides very persistence surveillance capabilities.”

In Iraq, UAVs provide situational awareness for troops guarding garrisons and high-value targets, support mobile troops during scouting missions, and they watch over convoy movements.

“They're a real advantage,” he said. “If a convoy is going down the road and sees something up ahead that looks unusual, (it) can literally stop, put one of these things together and launch it, fly [it] down the road and see what's down there — without endangering the convoy.”

Weatherington said these small UAVs extend the capabilities of ground forces involved in protecting strategic locations. “You can have a detachment there for protection, but they can't always service the entire area, So with one of these small UAVs, you can extend their eyes and ears to a much larger area and have a very rapid response if they detect a potential threat.”

Meanwhile, UAVs provide high-altitude surveillance with “robust capabilities” at the theater level. He cited as many as five Predator systems — all operated from within the United States — continually monitor the sky over Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes simultaneously.

UAVs can do what people cannot, or ideally, should not have to do. They can operate at long ranges and do not tire or lose concentration as a human would over extended periods, particularly when operating in dangerous, high-stress environments.

They are less expensive to operate than manned aircraft. For example, operating a Predator costs about a quarter of what it costs to operate an F-16 (Fighting Falcon) — and it stays up 10 times as long. But perhaps most importantly, they can conduct highly risky missions without losing human lives.

“It affords combatant commanders flexibility in using an asset to conduct a mission that they may not choose to risk a human [or] manned platform to do,” Weatherington added.

In the long term, he said he expects to see UAVs and other unmanned systems replace more manned systems, particularly for high-risk or high-threat missions - but despite their contributions, aren't a panacea. “They can't do everything for everybody, and we shouldn't try to make them do everything for everybody,” he said.

Air-to-air combat, for example, is probably best left to the highly skilled pilots trained to operate in what Weatherington called, “a highly dynamic environment. Similarly, tanker and airlift missions are probably most appropriate for manned aircraft, although the services are eyeing the possibility of optional manning for these aircraft.”

In the meantime UAVs have become “an extremely valuable asset, in terms of their endurance; their intelligence; surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; their flexibility; and their cost.”

“They've proven their worth and continue to be a very effective tool for combatant commanders fighting the global war on terror,” Weatherington concluded.