FORWARD OPERATING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan --
Afghan and coalition forces on the ground depend on a variety of aircraft to support their various missions here in Helmand province, but one type of aircraft is providing a unique capability no other can match.
Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, Marine Air Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), uses the unmanned aerial vehicle known as the RQ-7B “Shadow.” The aircraft is only 11 feet long, but is carrying out the enormous mission of providing surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence information for troops operating across the vast landscapes.
Most of the information collected by VMU-1 is “pattern of life” information. This information helps ground Marines in their missions to identify enemy forces living and working among civilians in the area.
“It’s a good feeling knowing we are providing overwatch for the guys on the ground,” said Cpl. Ryan Venem, a UAV operator, originally from Lancing, Ill. “I always try to look at it as if I were the guy on the ground and what would I want the UAV looking for.”
The UAVs provide real-time video to the controllers and VMU-1 intelligence Marines who relay the information to ground units.
“We collect and send the video to the intelligence representatives at the battalions and regiments as well as to the air officers for the forward air observers,” said Lt. Col. John Barranco, the VMU-1 commanding officer, originally from Boston.
There are several Marines working literally behind the scenes to ensure the UAVs are operating correctly and providing the support ground Marines need. There are two operators working from the back of a truck filled with computers to guide each UAV and search for possible threats.
One operator guides the aircraft to ensure it is in safe flight zones and maneuvering to coordinate with other manned aircraft that may be in the area. The other operator works with a VMU-1 intelligence Marine, who can also see what the UAV camera is recording, to coordinate where ground units are and the type of support they need. This operator controls the onboard camera to aid in this coordination.
Before the Marines can launch a flight and as soon as the flight is over, maintenance Marines step in to ensure the aircraft is operating correctly.
“Each and every one of us do our part to aid the Marines on the ground,” said Sgt. Dane Hayes, a maintenance quality assurance representative for VMU-1. “The Marines in this unit are motivated. We are a little bit removed from the combat aspect of things, but if I were on the ground, I would want the advantage of having someone above me telling me who was around what corner and what to do next.”
The UAV doesn’t require as many maintenance hours as a manned aircraft, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as important, explained Hayes, who is from Fort Pierce, Fla.
There are several systems that have to be checked on the aircraft to ensure it operates correctly and to ensure the UAV and operators can communicate. VMU-1 Marines perform daily inspections on the aircraft, as well as the launching and landing platforms.
Recently, a new chapter in its capabilities opened to further aid Marines on the ground and in the sky. The aircraft now carries a precision laser, which can guide munitions from other manned aircraft to a target. Having the laser capability can aid with target acquisitions for manned aircraft that may be too far away to help if the need arises, explained Barranco.
There is not much as kinetic activity throughout the day now that the Afghan and coalition forces have weeded more and more insurgent forces out of the area, according to Barranco.
However, when things do get hot, a UAV can be on the scene at a moment’s notice to help Marines positively identify targets. There is no escaping the Shadow when the Marines get “eyes on.”