ScanEagle drones keep an eye on the enemy

( USA TODAY )- As the war raged in western Iraq in 2006, Marines desperately sought to prevent insurgents from planting roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops.

One solution: drones to patrol the long supply routes connecting cities and search for insurgents in the vast desert. The Marines made 11 urgent pleas for better eye-in-the-sky surveillance in 2006; four of the requests were satisfied by purchasing more flight hours from a contractor who provided the drone known as the ScanEagle . The Pentagon leased 82 ScanEagle flight hours in 2003. By 2007, they leased 40,522 hours.

"It's a great piece of gear," said G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine colonel who served in Iraq. "It's a good example of what technology should be: smaller, lighter, easier to use, sophisticated and cheaper. It provides you eyes on the target, to see things out in front of you."

ScanEagle illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of fielding emerging technology during war. It has sniffed out insurgents planting improvised explosive devices ( IEDs ), but the communication used by the drones had the potential to interfere with other signals used to stop the detonation of IEDs . Demand for its video feeds also underscores how crucial drones have become to 21st-century warfare and how the military is scrambling to train crews to keep them in the air.

If the Pentagon considered the drones a priority, it would have bought and not leased them, said Tom Ehrhard , a retired Air Force colonel who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

" ScanEagle is a fantastic plane," he said. "Leasing it equals not being serious about UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)."

Buying ScanEagles would not have put more in the sky, said Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Patton. Currently, every Marine in its two unmanned squadrons has other duties and would not be able to operate the ScanEagles , he said.

"Purchasing systems would have put more UAVs in theater but would not have increased the number of UAV flight hours provided to the supported units," Patton said in an e-mail. Contracting for more hours provided the needed surveillance, he said.

The Marines issued their first urgent request for ScanEagle in spring 2004. They needed a lightweight drone that could track insurgents for hours "to greatly reduce the wait/response chain and eliminate delays or denials from higher headquarters," the urgent-need statement said.

The unmanned plane has a wingspan of 10 feet, weighs less than 40 pounds and is launched by catapult. The Air Force, which also flies ScanEagle , says it can be operated by two trained airmen. It has cameras for day and nighttime use and can remain aloft for 20 hours.

By March 2005, the ScanEagle had proved its worth. Marines watched a video feed as it tracked a convoy of suspected insurgents, according to a Marine Corps report. When they began to set bombs along a major highway, Marines from a quick-reaction force swooped in and detained them.

The drone also posed a potentially fatal flaw. Marines discovered that ScanEagles could interfere with efforts to jam the detonation of remotely controlled bombs, said Dyke Weatherington , the Pentagon's deputy director of unmanned warfare. No commander would be willing to sacrifice protection against IEDs for surveillance from drones, he said, adding that the communication problem has been resolved.

Though proven in the field, ScanEagle isn't owned by the military. The Pentagon buys hours of flight time each month from the contractor, Boeing and its partner, Insitu of Bingen , Wash. The Pentagon will contract reconnaissance services until 2011, according to Patton. That's when it expects to have its own drone ready for operation.

Buying drones and creating a career path for troops who operate them would help establish unmanned flight as a permanent part of how the military fights, Ehrhard said. He called the current approach ad hoc.

A Marine Corps analysis noted problems with the high turnover among officers assigned to squadrons that operate drones. "You get Marine officers that come in here as mission commanders and get good at what they do and gain a broad understanding of the (UAV squadron's) mission," the executive officer for such a squadron wrote in March 2008 edition of Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned. "Then at about the time they are proficient, they (get reassigned). It's really a disservice to the Marines to have such high turnover."

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