It was once the stuff of science fiction; battles fought by unmanned systems, on futuristic battlefields, usually somewhere in outer space.
Last week, robot engagements moved from fiction to fact, right here on planet Earth. As David Fulgham of Aviation Week reports:
Combat that’s been talked about for the last century – unmanned systems destroying other unmanned systems – is now a reality following the destruction by an MQ-9 Reaper of a vehicle carrying a remotely controlled explosive device in southeast Iraq.
A week ago, the Reaper – the larger, higher-flying, faster and better-armed version of the MQ-1 Predator – dropped a 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12 on the vehicle.
It was the first weapons engagement by Reaper since the aircraft started operations there July 18, said U.S. officials of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base. The aircraft is operated by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron.
The engagement came during a long-endurance “overwatch” mission. Operators from the 46th spotted a suspicious vehicle and relayed the information to a local ground unit that verified it was a mobile bomb. They notified a joint terminal attack controller who cleared the Reaper crew to attack.
“We searched for, found, fixed, targeted and destroyed a [threat] with just one aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Micah Morgan, the 46th’s commander. The unit has the ability to fuse data from air, space and cyberspace and share it with other elements in the kill chain and command network via radio, telephone and secure internet systems.
With the success of the surge--and fewer "volunteers" for suicide missions--it's only logical that insurgents would look toward remote-controlled car bombs. The technology required is within reach of the terrorists, and the use of "robot" VBIEDs gives them added employment flexibility. With a remote-controlled VBIED, you don't have to worry about the driver losing his nerve, or a sharp-eyed American or Iraqi soldier shooting the terrorist before the car reaches its intended target.
Using drones to engage these threats has clear advantages for our side as well. In this particular engagement, ground troops were able to observe the robot bomb from a distance and call in the airstrike, minimizing their own risk from the device.
And, as Aviation Week observes, the allied UAV fleet has the ability to monitor threats for extended periods, and pass that information through the supporting ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) network. That gives commanders the information they need to make the right decision--do we take it out now, or follow it, and see if the remote-controlled VBIED leads us back to its builder.
Welcome to the future.