Sunday, April 25, 2004

The Eye in the Sky

Whether or not the President decides to attack the holdouts in Fallujah, the next months will see a gradual increase to US military capability in the shape of armed UAVs. One system specifically tailored for Iraq is the Viper Strike-Hunter combination. The Hunter UAV is a long endurance, fairly high altitude platform which has been extensively used in Iraq. It is able to remain overhead unseen by the ground observer for hours. With the Viper-Strike munition and others like it, the armed UAV solves the time-lag problem in air targeting.

Right now the ability to “park” a UAV over a trouble spot is one of the systems’ greatest advantages, said Dyke Weatherington – deputy of the UAV planning task force in the defense secretary’s office – in a recent interview. “These systems ... park over the bad guys, watch them continually, never give them a break from (our monitoring) their activities and severely limit their ability to mount an effective threat,” he said. ... "operators would see targets of opportunity with UAVs but have to call in manned aircraft to attack them, Weatherington said. “In many cases, we either couldn’t get strikes to the target in time or the manned aircraft couldn’t find that target the UAV had found,” he said.

By arming the UAV the ability to "park" over the the enemy and destroy him becomes fused into a single platform. US forces, seeking to improve on the Apache-Hellfire combination that Israel has used to target the Hamas leadership, adopted the Viper Strike glide weapon because it can drop nearly straight down silently, making it ideal for use in mountainous areas and urban canyons.

Another class of armed UAV aimed particularly at patrolling roads and counter-ambushing forces which mine roadways is the Dragonfly-Metal Storm combination. The Dragonfly airframe is extremely small, a UFO-like object the size of motorcycle and is of very advanced design that allows it to deploy like a helicopter yet range out like fixed wing. But it will carry a multibarreled 40 mm Metal Storm grenade launcher.

The Dragonfly DP-4X is a man-portable, remotely controlled, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) UAV that is approximately 85.5 inches long, 32 inches wide, 44 inches high, has a rotor span of 118.5 inches, and weighs approximately 140 pounds. ... Dragonfly Pictures Inc. chief executive officer, Mr. Michael Piasecki, said the integration of Metal Storm's unique, lightweight, electronic, multi-shot weapon system complemented DPI's 'systems' approach in preparing the new Dragonfly DP-4X as a weaponized UAV helicopter.

The Metal Storm system is an Australian designed weapon which consists of stacked rounds in a set of barrels which can be fired electronically at unbelievable rates. A system like the Dragonfly might be armed with a two barrel launcher with eight 40 mm rounds (I'm guessing here) all of which could be fired in a fraction of a second. It could be all over for an enemy unit before they even react.

But airframes and guns are not as impressive as developments in sensors and software. The US is deploying the 21st century equivalent of the Civil War balloon to Baghdad. The Martin-Lockheed Aerostat will stay aloft continuously, and it opens the possibility of "replaying" traffic movements from a God's eye point of view. Combining sensors like synthetic aperture array radar and persistent platforms will increase the risks of mortaring targets in Baghdad dramatically. The real breakthroughs could be in software. There have been reports that recognition software has advanced to the point where it can recognize individual faces from the air. This, from Aviation Now (hat tip: The UAV Blog):

Intrigued by the possible applications to UAV surveillance video, the UAVB conducted a test last year at Eglin using streaming video from a Pointer UAV. A captain's face was entered into the computer as a search item, and the UAV was launched. "It starts beeping on this clump of trees," Cook said. "And they had to drive the UAV about another two miles before they could get close enough [to see] there was a vehicle underneath the trees." The captain whose face had been loaded into the computer was sitting in his truck eating lunch. "It found his face through the trees, through the windscreen, in the shadows of the trees, and we went, 'Wow, we need to explore this,'" Cook said.

Dubbed DIVOT (Digital Imagery and Video Object Tracking), the software later was put to work on pre-recorded video taken by a Predator UAV in Iraq. The system was provided with imagery of certain objects, then told to identify them in another video. "The scene is a flat desert with some black clumps on it," Cook said. "And when the Predator is about 10 miles away, it starts beeping on one of the clumps. And it takes probably five minutes for the Predator to fly close enough where you can finally make out with the human eye that it's even [an object], let alone the one that we told it to find."

Even current systems are probably unbearable to anticoalition forces. On April 24, a rocket attack was directed against Taji Airforce base, killing 5 Americans, suggesting an effort to strike back at the tormenting Eyes in the Sky. In one sense, the prodigious American technological engine assures a near chronic imbalance between US military capability, which has increased exponentially and the slow, uncertain and labor intensive process of political transformation. The contemptuous ease with which US Marines ambushed and killed 11 insurgents in Fallujah without resort to any wonder weapons illustrates a hidden peril in the Iraqi campaign. It is sometimes observed that allies fighting alongside US troops, and the Iraqi police may be no exception, develop a dependence on the American way of war without the American means. One can sympathize on a certain level, with an Iraqi policeman who hesitates at entering a Fallujah 'mosque' to serve a warrant, at considerable danger to himself, when the incomprehensible Americans could demolish it in a second were they not perplexingly constrained by rules he could never understand. It also creates the temptation in this politico-military theater to reduce politics to the junior partner of the very capable military. The interesting thing about recent US operations in Iraq has been the incorporation of explicitly political elements into the tactical campaign itself.

U.S. officials are still pursuing two other efforts to defuse the crisis short of house-to-house urban combat. On one hand, they are offering millions of dollars to help rebuild the city in an effort to coax Iraqis to join them in disarming the insurgents and policing the city. On the other, they are conducting selective strikes aimed at thinning the ranks of the insurgents. Early Saturday, Marines called in AC-130 "Spectre" gunships and killed about 30 Arabs at an encampment along the Euphrates River after two people were spotted setting up a mortar.

"I can rubble that city and reduce it to crushed stone and walk over it quickly. But that is not the ideal, it may be the worst thing to do," said Col. John Coleman, chief of staff of the 30,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, in charge of military operations across Anbar province, where Fallujah is located. "I don't want to be owning Fallujah with some Marines downtown who are getting potshots everyday because we took no Iraqis with us."

This fusion of politics and warfare, long forgotten by modern armies, is a process that would be strangely familiar to Julius Caesar and the emperor-generals of the ancient world who treated with brigands and conquered chieftains, laying and raising sieges, threatening destruction or granting clemency, offering bribes and accepting service. And it is strangely emblematic of the current struggle -- the camels, the sand, and the antedeluvian hatreds -- resolving themselves beneath a constellation of American robotic aircraft.