The Long Distance War
One of the more popular phrases in military circles today is "persistent surveillance." As the concept implies, near-continuous surveillance makes it more difficult for an enemy to operate, even in guerilla wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. Attacks can sometimes be prevented or even deterred if an adversary knows that a drone is overhead--and trained eyes are watching the pictures it provides.
Even its more ardent supporters would acknowledge that persistent surveillance is still a work in progress, but the Air Force (in particular) has made tremendous progress in recent years. The service has created an architecture called the Dedicated Common Ground System or DCGS, that links surveillance drones over distant battlefields with intelligence nodes half a world away.
This story, from a newspaper in Newport News, Virginia, provides both a fascinating--and personal--perspective on persistent surveillance in action. From their operator consoles at Langley AFB, intelligence specialists monitor live UAV feeds from Iraq, provide instant analysis, and pass information back to combatants on the ground.
As reporter Stephanie Heinatz notes, the airmen at Langley are thousands of miles from the Sunni Triangle or Khandahar Province, but they are very much involved in the fight--and it takes an emotional toll. There are lows (such as watching an undetected roadside bomb take out a HUMVEE, real time), but there are rewards as well. The intelligence group commander recalls walking into the facility to find his crew "going crazy." They had just found their third, unexploded roadside bomb of the day--and likely saved American lives in the process.
A personal note: I've been inside one of these facilities on a couple of occasions, and the technology is impressive. But even more impressive are the young men and women sitting at the console, relaying information to their comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the specialists at Langley (and other locations) are junior airmen, serving their first tour of duty. They deserve our gratitude--and respect.