Military Elite Fly High in Afghanistan

July 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine


Staff Sgt. Robert D. Custer, USMC (l), intelligence analyst, and Martin Susser, a ScanEagle operator with Insitu, prepare a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for flight in western Iraq. Special operations forces also employ the asset to enhance their operations in Afghanistan.

A U.S. sailor in the desert shares his perspective on the successes of a robot aircraft and what can make it better.

Military use of unmanned systems has increased substantially during the years of war in the Middle East, and even the service branch usually at home on the water is taking to the skies to support ground operations. The U.S. Navy is using ScanEagle platforms to support special operations forces in battle, helping to save lives as well as to complete missions successfully.

Ensign Anthony Rojas, USN, ScanEagle mission commander/forward ground operator, is deployed on an almost two-year tour to Afghanistan at Camp Bastion—a U.K. military base in Regional Command–Southwest—flying the ScanEagle. The ensign, a naval special warfare officer, agreed to his long deployment to qualify for training on the platform. Though the primary objective of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is to help warfighters in special operations in all branches of the military, it also provides convoy overwatch, views of targets, assessments, connectivity and capabilities to locate improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

ScanEagles can carry several different payloads, though most are different types of electro-optical or infrared cameras to take photographs or full-motion video. Ensign Rojas explains that most of his taskings require persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) of specific targets for hours on end. However, assets may be redirected if coalition troops come into contact with the enemy. At Camp Bastion, the UAV is run by a joint group overseeing special operations, and the Navy officer explains that all branches of the U.S. military use the vehicle in different capacities.

Originally, ScanEagles were intended for civilian applications—aiding in mining efforts, then later tracking weather systems and looking for tuna schools in the ocean. The aircraft’s flight duration and persistence capabilities attracted the Navy; the service’s special warfare forces now employ it in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Insitu and Boeing Corporation build the aircraft, which is about 4.5 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan and has a maximum horizontal speed of 80 knots with a cruise speed of 48 knots.

Many of the tactics, techniques and procedures of ScanEagle employment are classified. However, Ensign Rojas explains that typical missions last 8 to 12 hours, though overwatch missions sometimes require coverage throughout 24- to 48-hour time frames. In those cases, personnel run shifts and cycle various aircraft with different payloads.

During a recent mission, the ScanEagle crew accomplished what Ensign Rojas believes is one of the asset’s biggest victories. The platform and the people who operate it were able to find insurgents in the act of placing an IED. With that information, a ground team was able to move out to handle the enemies and prevent them from blowing up anyone. Another success that attracted more attention came over water, not land, in a different part of the world. In 2009, when Somali pirates captured a U.S. vessel and held the captain, Richard Phillips, hostage, ScanEagles supported the SEAL operation that rescued him.

The ScanEagle personnel at Camp Bastion do most of their own product development and then send it to the customer requesting the information. “We can also share our live feeds with our partners,” Ensign Rojas said. The team’s work includes in-house video exploitation, which is passed on to analysts, and the platform offers raw video as necessary. To cover the large spaces in which troops operate in Afghanistan, other hubs are located around the country from which UAVs can be launched and recovered or handed off and flown remotely. Though unable to specify the total number of aircraft and personnel in theater, Ensign Rojas shares that operations are led by military members with contractors staffing maintenance teams. ScanEagle is not unique to U.S. forces; coalition forces, including Afghan commandos, also are benefiting from the technology, at least in its overwatch capacity.

Ensign Rojas is familiar with coalition operations, having already deployed to both of the United States’ major war zones. He served in theater as part of operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005 as well as completed a tour in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2008. He explains that in his first stint in the latter country, he worked in various capacities in the Kabul and Herat regions. Between then and now, he has noticed several major changes, most notably to the infrastructure in the nation, including road projects. In addition, the more modern methods that reconstruction teams throughout the country use—as opposed to traditional Afghan techniques—have caught his eye. “Things are moving forward,” he says.

Even with all the progress in the country, platforms such as ScanEagle still are essential for coalition forces’ missions. Ensign Rojas explains that being able to give joint terminal attack controllers or leaders real-time imagery and videos for better situational awareness during a convoy or when executing orders “is invaluable. Because we’re such a mobile platform, we’re able to say, ‘Look at this. Look at this really quick,’ instead of sending it up the chain ... instantaneous ISR on a target is invaluable.”

The immediate response is the biggest benefit to the intelligence users, Ensign Rojas believes. He says that sometimes his outpost lacks the ability to produce the same products that higher headquarters create, but the value added to the warfighter is real-time information about battlefield conditions.


ScanEagle operators prepare to launch an X-200 ScanEagle UAV, which will provide overwatch and real-time intelligence to troops on the ground. The aircraft supports the missions of various U.S. military branches and some coalition partners.

Another benefit of the UAV is its ability to fly at altitudes up to 19,500 feet, which exceeds most aircraft in its size range. Ensign Rojas says its cost per unit compared to other aircraft that can fly at that height is significantly lower and that it also requires fewer crew members and captures better imagery. Once it reaches a certain height, the UAV flies silently, so it can move into an area undetected because its flying-wing design is almost invisible. Larger unmanned systems, such as the Predator, attract more attention, and the ensign shares that some customers say the newer payloads on ScanEagle offer feeds as good as those from Predators. The stealth factor also enables users to access sensitive areas to collect information that otherwise might go undetected.

The ensign believes that people are starting to recognize the complexities of flying the platform. “There’s a lot more to this job than flying a ScanEagle or being a mission commander,” he explains. Electronic technicians, P-3 aircraft pilots, mechanics and Navy special operators are some of the specialties being tasked to help make the ScanEagle mission a success.

Personnel dedicated to the platform’s operations work closely with the people they support. “We go out to an outpost where the team is or the actual missions are being executed from,” Ensign Rojas says, adding that individuals have to be able to integrate with the operators at those locations. Having a special operations background helps, especially because the remote outposts offer little in the way of amenities.

Ensign Rojas says those responsible for ScanEagle support have to be multifaceted jacks-of-all-trades, serving as carpenters, electricians, communications experts and even diplomats when necessary. They must be “willing to deal with these different branches of services and kind of understand the idiosyncrasies,” he explains. And of course, that lack of luxuries is a deterrent for certain people. “Some folks aren’t too keen on not being able to take a shower every day or week or going to the bathroom in a bag while taking insurgent mortar fire,” Ensign Rojas says.

However, he says that daily experiences for most warfighters in his area are not as unpleasant as people might expect. “For the most part life is not too bad,” Ensign Rojas explains. Many of the bases in Afghanistan are equipped with water and electricity as well as various recreational offerings. The stress, according to the ensign, comes from operations outside the wire and being away from home for so long.

For all its use in the field and the better overall knowledge of its capabilities, Ensign Rojas says certain features of the ScanEagle mission might still cause surprise. “I’m not sure people are aware of how effective we are in providing the services we do which directly support kill or capture of targets—taking out known bad guys basically,” he explains. “We’re also able to provide information on the local community and to see what is going on out there so that we can help them maintain security. I think that’s having a big impact.” But the biggest misunderstandings he sees are the lack of knowledge about how much support the aircraft can supply to those who need it and the cost effectiveness of its offerings.

Good performance is essential in the ensign’s area of operations, which includes southern Helmand Province, home to a brutal kinetic fight. “Needless to say, we are extremely busy,” he says. Not only is his own small crew busy, but all unmanned assets are called to long duty hours. Ensign Rojas explains that it is not unusual for ScanEagle pilots to see other UAVs or manned aircraft below them. With a relatively small airspace and so much activity, mission priority changes constantly. “We can be providing overwatch of a convoy, and then two seconds later there’s troops in contact call so we have to provide overwatch for the troops in contact,” he explains. Later, they may be called to check into an IED explosion or bomb run to conduct that battle assessment.

Such a constantly changing dynamic can take an emotional toll on crew members, especially when they are called to help fellow warfighters who are under attack. Ensign Rojas says he knows of no specific way for UAV operators to prepare for such events, but they try to maintain discipline and emotional control. They monitor the radios in the control center that communicate with teams in the field and other aircraft to decipher what occurs in their coverage area. “You try to do the job the best you can,” the ensign says.

Those same communications can be a challenge for the ScanEagle crew as can being a small part of a larger organization across which logistics must be managed. “Sometimes we struggle with the basic administrative support for the guys or getting supplies and materials and parts,” Ensign Rojas explains. “It’s just the nature of the beast being out here in Afghanistan. I think the biggest challenge we face is communications and support from the rear.”

When asked what he would put on his wish list to help bridge the gaps, Ensign Rojas jokes, “I’d ask for everything I can’t have now.” More seriously, he suggests a laser designator or range finder payload for the ScanEagle that could help with even more specific targeting locations and distances. He explains that feedback from field teams and from warfighters on the ground asks for these capabilities. The Navy officer also would like to see more latitude to allow personnel to procure what they need and fly missions in a more timely manner.

Though he feels that most people involved in the war effort probably are doing their best, he does have some ideas about how industry and government could better support his mission. “From an industry perspective, I guess I would ask them to be innovative and come up with new uses or new features for this type of product,” Ensign Rojas says. He encourages industry to learn from the voices of experience. “There are some lines you’d have to cross about whether it’s an ISR or a weapons platform, but there are definitely good ideas out there,” he states. “I would challenge industry to listen to what the guys on the ground have to say.”

On the government side, Ensign Rojas would like what all programs would like to see—more funding. Budget constraints prevent ScanEagle personnel from procuring more aircraft or the materials to build up camps. From a training perspective, he believes better in-air preparation would help the mission. Because of airspace restrictions within U.S. boundaries, few opportunities exist in a training capacity to fly the ScanEagles as they are intended.

Adequate practice is important; the controls on a UAV closely resemble the complex ones found in a manned aircraft, even if the crew members never leave the ground. And though a crash might not result in a loss of life, the interruption of the services it provides could. And that is what Ensign Rojas and his fellow ScanEagle operators hope to avoid.

Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems:
Naval Special Warfare Command:
Regional Command–Southwest:


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