FORWARD OPERATING BASE EDINBURGH, Afghanistan --
Edinburgh is a small forward operating base, which lies surrounded by mountains and conflict in the northern region of Helmand province.
The three infantry units operating within the surrounding areas frequently engage with the enemy. These ground forces often look to one common aviation support element operating here, which plays a vital role in their safety and mission accomplishment.
Seven Marines and 14 civilian contractors work around the clock keeping eyes in the sky known as the X-200 ScanEagle, which provides overwatch for ground forces. The ScanEagle is a highly effective Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which can stay airborne for more than half a day and is almost completely silent.
“We are in a pretty hot spot out here, surrounded on almost all sides by enemy forces,” said Capt. Charles Higgins, the ScanEagle mission commander for the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 Detachment, with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). “ScanEagle provides the ground forces that we are supporting with that extra platform, filling in all the holes and gaps and provides a rapid-response eyes-on capability.”
The ScanEagle is not officially a Marine Corps asset; it is a leased program from the Boeing Corporation and is operated by U.S. civilian contractors. The contractors here, most of which are prior U.S. military, operate and maintain the aircraft while the intelligence Marines liaison with the infantry Marines on the ground and provide them with pertinent information and real-time intelligence.
The ScanEagle quickly wins the favor of the few Marines who receive the opportunity to work with the aircraft.
“I feel the ScanEagle is built on the same fundamentals as the Marine Corps, its capability makes it an invaluable asset to the Marine Corps arsenal” said Cpl. Anthony Willis, an intelligence analyst with VMU-2. “It is extremely expeditionary and requires very little manpower, maintenance or resources. These Boeing operators out here with ScanEagle are truly keeping these Marines alive, and without them, we would be in a different place entirely.”
The ScanEagle was originally designed to be launched and recovered by fishing vessels in order to track fish while out at sea. It is to no surprise that a UAV so amphibious and expeditionary would eventually find employment by the Marines.
Now, the ScanEagle has been modified into two models, day and night, both equipped with different cameras to better suit the needs of troops on the ground. The aircraft is roughly 40 pounds and can remain in the air for nine to 14 hours depending on fuel and weather conditions.
The ScanEagle requires no runway or arresting gear to operate. A pressure-controlled launcher is used to catapult the UAV into the air while a more unique method is used to recover the aircraft. A collapsible tower will extend 40 feet into the air with a cord running from top to bottom. The ScanEagle will then fly directly into the cord, clipping it with the far end of its wing. A small hook attached to the wing will then snap onto the cord and catch the aircraft, which ironically leaves the UAV dangling as a fish would from a fishing line. The aircraft is then lowered, unhooked and returned to the site for any necessary post-flight maintenance.
With the ability to operate in such a small space with less than a few dozen personnel, the Marines leased the ScanEagle to operate where the traditional Marine Corps UAV, the RQ-7B Shadow, could not. One contractor operating the ScanEagle here, who requested to remain anonymous, stated that in the past he had personally contributed to the development of a ScanEagle site, which was completed and operational within 24 hours.
Having the ability to erect ScanEagle sites in hostile and remote locations such as FOB Edinburgh has immensely contributed to supporting International Security Assistance Forces operations within the region.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from the units we are supporting out here,” said Higgins. “It’s a great capability to have out here, and it has put us in high demand.”
Though the future of ScanEagle and the Marine Corps is still uncertain, one fact still remains – The team of Marines and civilian operators have contributed to numerous successful missions and saved countless lives here.
“We have a great crew out here, and I couldn’t have hand picked a better one,” said Higgins. “I’m really excited about finishing up the deployment with these guys and where we are going with [the future of] ScanEagle.”