LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Unmanned aircraft systems — previously referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely operated aircraft/vehicles — come in a variety of shapes and sizes; providing aerial surveillance and security for service members and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.

Soldiers assigned to Alpha Company, 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, conducted reconnaissance missions with the Shadow from Combat Outpost Xio Hoq, giving commanders an accurate view of the battlefield.

It was a team effort for the company’s soldiers, also known as the “Dirty Birds,” to maintain, operate and deploy the Shadow. The aircraft is launched from a trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult and recovered with the aid of a hook and arresting gear. The team flew combat missions 24 hours-a-day from the flight line at Xio Haq.

Staff Sgt. Tyler Hervey is the unmanned aircraft systems platoon sergeant. Not only does he conduct flight operations, serving as a UAS operator, he is in charge of the welfare and training of his soldiers. He said his mission in eastern Afghanistan was peaceful compared to his mission in Mosul, Iraq, where he accumulated well over 1,000 flight hours.

“Every other day we had rockets and mortars fired at us,” Hervey said. “They were always attacking the flight line.”

Own challenges

He said his Afghanistan mission can’t compare to Iraq, but his assignment in Xio Haq comes with its own set of challenges.

“This time around I am a platoon sergeant, I have a lot more responsibility on my plate, but at the same time, it is also very fulfilling,” Hervey said. “Luckily, I have a great group of soldiers.”

Half of the team performs maintenance on the birds and the other side of the house operates the aircraft.

As far as the mission is concerned Hervey said just having the aircraft available at all hours is the most important thing. Hervey said he is providing quality support that only UAS can provide.

“The great thing about the RQ-7B Shadow is that it is a highly mobile system,” Hervey said. “You can pack up the entire system, go to a flat dirt road and you are good to go. You can set up the entire system and fly straight from there.”

Hervey said the UAS is the eye of the battle, it can see everything that is going on.

“We scan the area and deter any enemy forces from emplacing improvised explosive devices, harming convoys on the highways,” said Pfc. Harrison Strole, an unmanned aerial vehicle operator with the company.

Mountains dominate the terrain that surrounds Xio Haq.

“The mountains really played a factor on what we can see,” said Sgt. Christopher Kaiser, one of the company’s unmanned aircraft systems repairer. “Compared to Iraq, where it had more flat land.”

Ready to fly

The operators controlling the Shadow don’t have regular 9-to-5 shifts. Depending on the mission they could fly the aircraft from 8 to 12 hours.

Strole’s shift begins at two in the morning, he walks to the flight line if he is mission coordinator that day and checks the weather forecast to see if the aircraft will fly.

“I get my flight crew ready to go,” Strole said. “After they finish their pre-flight checks, I brief the crew and the bird goes up, that is when I keep an eye out on the mission that day.”

The time the aircraft spends in the air depends on the mission and weather. Strole said once the UAV is in the air he could see what the soldiers on the ground could not. He could communicate with a convoy of a possible threat so they don’t run into anything dangerous.

He said the Shadow is loud and when it is in the air, it could be heard by someone trying to dig a hole by the side of the road to place an improvised explosive device.

“We’ve actually seen that happen a couple of times, where it appears a group is doing something suspicious they all start walking away when they hear the UAV overhead,” Strole said. “So if they were doing something bad, we didn’t see the result. That is a good thing, nobody got hurt and everybody gets to go home.”

Hervey said sometimes it is nice to have a loud platform to work with. He said people stay inside, the enemy runs away, because they know they will be watched.

“We can buzz over convoys and intimidate the enemy into not doing whatever it was going to do,” Hervey said.

The UAS operators are tasked with different missions. Hervey said the majority of them are area surveillance, watching over military convoys on the road.

“That stuff can get pretty mundane and repetitive but it doesn’t mean it is any less important,” Hervey said. “Sometimes you get an exceptional mission and that is when you get positive feedback from the guys on the ground.”

As the Afghanistan mission for Task Force Long Knife soldiers comes to an end, Hervey looks to the future of UAS. He said drones are going to be key to the future of combat.

“Not only is it the rising trend, they will make a larger impact in combat,” Hervey said. “Bottom line, the technology will keep soldiers out of harm’s way.”

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