High above Iraq’s urban battlefields, tiny, remote-control spy planes-streaming video 24/7-provide a crucial edge to coalition forces. A report from the battle for Fallujah.
Published in the February 2005 issue.
In a small tent on the outskirts of Fallujah, a dozen Marines in a unit known as the Watchdogs crowd around a pair of 26-in. monitors that show the same nighttime scene.
“There goes a mongoose kid,” says Lt. Col. John “Ajax” Neumann, commanding officer and mission commander. “Stay with him.”
Cpl. Phillip Saliba adjusts the zoom lens of an infrared camera on the underside of a remotely piloted aircraft circling 3000 ft. above the Iraqi city. Even from that height, the black-and-white video feed clearly shows a cyclist hunched over the handlebars, feet pumping furiously, tires kicking up a rooster tail of dust. To the Watchdogs, the rider looks like a mongoose scurrying across a field.
“He’s heading for the safe house,” Saliba says.
In the monochrome of the plane’s camera, Fallujah is as bright as day, yet dingy and depressing–block after desolate block of courtyard walls, squat buildings and empty streets. The cyclist swerves left and disappears under a tin roof.
“We’ve already marked that location,” Neumann says. In the four months that the Watchdogs have kept Fallujah under surveillance with Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), they have pinpointed more than 100 safe houses used by insurgents and the mujahedeen–“muj” to the Marines. The bike riders are sentries.
“He’s probably going off watch,” Neumann says.
High above, the UAV holds station, turning in lazy circles, the camera locked on the safe house, where an armed guard stands watch on a patio. A few minutes later, a pickup barrels down the street. The driver brakes in front of the safe house and backs under the tin roof.
“They think if they drive fast, we might not see them,” a Marine says. “With all the dust they kick up, how could we miss them?”
“Call for a fire mission?” asks Lt. J.D. Parchman, the intelligence section watch officer. “We got a positive ID on weapons. Clear violation. Has to be muj.”
“Negative,” Neumann says. “It’s almost H-hour, and we’re supporting the opening raid. Push north to the hospital.”
H-hour–19:00, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004, the launch of Operation al-Fajr (the Dawn). After eight months of vacillation and negotiation by the Iraqi and U.S. governments, 10,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers, along with 2000 Iraqi soldiers, are about to kick off a campaign to regain control of Fallujah, the strong point of the Sunni insurgency just west of Baghdad and the sanctuary of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. An estimated 70 percent of the 300,000 residents have fled; the 4000 insurgents who remain vow to fight to the death. American and Iraqi troops need to clear them out with minimum casualties to Multi-National Forces, Iraqi Security Forces and civilians. That means detecting where the enemy is hiding, and in what strength.
For such precise intelligence, the Americans turn to units like the Watchdogs of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron VMU-1 and their Pioneer UAVs. “Those muj are out there to kill our soldiers and Marines,” Neumann says. “We’re here to find them so our shooters kill them first.”
The UAV deployment is part of the American military’s increasing reliance on unmanned technology. In Iraq, this dominance of the robotic battlefield has helped limit both coalition and civilian casualties. Radio-controlled robots are used to detonate homemade bombs; tethered blimps are common at bases. About 10 types of UAVs patrol the skies, providing real-time surveillance and battle damage assessment to troops on the ground.
The 14-ft.-long Pioneer RQ-2B, which proved its worth in 1991 during Desert Storm, looks like a boxy model aircraft you might buy at Radio Shack, assemble in the garage, and fly in the nearest park for a day of fun with the kids. With radio-controlled landings and takeoffs, just like a model aircraft, the Pioneer can loiter over targets for more than 5 hours. Circling at less than 100 mph, it provides a steady platform for a daytime optical camera and a nighttime Forward-Looking Infrared camera.
Four months before Operation al-Fajr, the Watchdogs pitched their operations tent next to a runway about 12 miles west of Fallujah and started sending up four Pioneers a day on hundreds of sorties. Whenever insurgents came out of doors, the UAVs tracked them–day after day, night after night. The Watchdogs followed one pickup from a mosque to a highway beyond the city limits, where three men with their arms bound were pushed into a ditch and shot. The pickup was then driven back into town and parked in front of a safe house. The Watchdogs tagged it for later bombing.
Several times the Watchdogs monitoring the Pioneer’s video feed saw pickups swerve into empty lots. The occupants would jump out, fire a few rockets and scurry off before a response attack could be launched. “We followed one pickup after it fired some rockets,” says Staff Sgt. Francisco Tataje, the intelligence chief. “It swung up onto the main highway, and we had it intercepted. The driver had a perfect ID. No incriminating stuff. We gave the interrogation team a copy of our video. They called back later to say the guy confessed.”
The conflict in Iraq has proved that UAVs can do more than collect data. And, with Operation al-Fajr ready to roll, the Watchdogs’ billet has been expanded to include target acquisition and strike coordination. By making airborne robotic technology a common and useful battlefield tool at the lowest tactical level–regiments and battalions–the Watchdogs and similar units in Iraq have opened a new dimension in warfare.
When Neumann’s crew tracks a promising target, it sends a “story board”–a PowerPoint presentation with text, and digital photos, maps and video streams–to one of the regiments or brigades the Watchdogs support. The data also goes to the Tactical Fusion Center on the west side of town, which collects information from UAVs, companies on the front lines, electronic intercepts, agent reports and other intel. The Tactical Fusion Center then sends the information to regimental or battalion combat teams, which determine target priorities. The combat teams’ Fires Sections assign the shooters–artillery, AC-130 Spectre gunships, strike aircraft or even Hellfire missile-equipped Predator UAVs.
As the six battalions taking part in Operation al-Fajr roll into town from the northern outskirts, the Pioneer flies to the Fallujah General Hospital, located on the west bank of the Euphrates at a great bend in the river. The Watchdogs study the twin monitors’ high-contrast images, which show a line of white ghosts snaking around palm trees in the hospital courtyard and winding up onto the roof.
“Those guys are wearing packs,” Neumann says. “They’re friendlies. It’s the Iraqi Commando Forces.”
“Concur,” says watch officer Parchman. “They’re too disciplined to be muj.”
Outside the hospital, armored cars kick up dust, their warm engines visible through the hoods as glowing white dots. The Marine 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) battalion is moving into position to cover the Iraqi raiders.
Lance Cpl. Robert Daniels reads a secure chat-room message that pops up on his screen. “LAR wants us to sweep across the river,” he says. “Someone’s firing.”
“Take us east,” Neumann tells the UAV pilot. “Shift from white-hot to black-hot.”
The pilot takes the Pioneer across the Euphrates, while his partner tightens the camera’s zoom and switches to display a negative image: Now heat-generating objects show up on the monitors as black images instead of white ones. The screen image jumps slightly and then comes into focus: two black spots moving behind an earthen berm.
“I confirm weapons,” says Sgt. Jennifer Forman, an imagery analyst. “Watch their right arms when they run. They’re shooting across the river.”
Just as the black spots bob together, the screen suddenly blooms black, then settles back into focus, showing a thick gray cloud and a scattering of small black spots, like someone in the cloud has thrown out a handful of rocks.
“Tank gun got them,” Neumann says. “Picked them up from their thermals. They’re scratched. Scan up the street.”
The Pioneer’s camera tracks up a wide, empty boulevard bordered by ramshackle warehouses, tin-roof repair shops and dingy apartment buildings. A few hundred meters from the Highway 10 bridge over the Euphrates, four dark spots are splayed against one corner of a large building, with three similar spots at the other corner.
“One’s lying down,” Neumann says. “They’re manning a crew-served weapon pointed at the bridge. Tell Regimental Combat Team-1 we have targets for Basher.”
STREET LETHAL: Marines patrol Fallujah during Operation al-Fajr. UAVs overhead provide troops with live intel.’);”>Click to enlarge
Marines patrol Fallujah during Operation al-Fajr. UAVs overhead provide troops with live intel.
The combat team agrees with Neumann’s assessment that it’s a job for Basher, the four-engine Air Force AC-130 circling above the city. With its 105mm howitzer cannon, 40mm cannons and 20mm rotary cannons, the gunship is a flying artillery platform. Daniels types in a grid location for the building, accurate within a few meters. Regiment sends a one-line response: Basher on the way.
A minute goes by. The four dark spots crouch in the shadows. On the screen a black ball hits the edge of the building; black chunks go flying. Another black ball hits the target, and then another and another, enveloping the spots. Using an infrared spotlight to illuminate the insurgents, Basher’s pilot is pounding away with 105mm artillery shells. Gray smoke rises from the scene.
“Watch for leakers,” Neumann says. “There’s one now, heading north. Stay with him.”
A black spot breaks out of the smoke. Against the background of the macadam on the street, the man’s silhouette stands out plainly. He runs with the speed of a sprinter.
“Ten to one he’s headed for the mosque up the street,” Neumann says.
Parchman watches the runner climb a wall. “He made it. Can’t hit him there.”
While Basher moves on to another target, the Pioneer circles to assess damage to the building. A large door in the rear slides open, and two men run around the side of the building. They quickly return, dragging a body. The Marines watch as the scene is repeated several times.
“Are they carrying a heavy weapon or a body part?” a Marine asks.
“Don’t know,” Parchman says. “We confirm four down. Mark this as a safe house. We’ll come back later for a relook.”
The next day, with Maj. Kelly “Maddog” Ramshur on watch as mission commander, the Pioneer circles al Shu-hada, a district the Marines have dubbed Queens. The lair of criminal gangs, terrorists and jihadists, Queens is a warren of drab concrete houses lining dirt roads, with scant vegetation. For most of the day, the Watchdogs see few lucrative targets. In midafternoon, though, the Pioneer’s camera records a series of red flashes from a courtyard, which instantly catches the Marines’ attention.
The half-completed building looks like a small soccer stadium, with a wall several stories high enclosing an oval courtyard. A single mortar tube in the courtyard points north toward Camp Fallujah, the sprawling command and logistics hub of the coalition operation. Every 10 minutes or so, three insurgents sprint from a house a few hundred meters north of the building and disappear under the eaves of the courtyard wall. A few minutes later, they dash into the courtyard. Each man drops a round down the tube and sprints back to the house. The mortar attack breaks the usual shoot-and-scoot pattern seen during the Fallujah engagement. This mortar crew is staying and fighting.
After six rounds explode around Camp Fallujah, Ramshur takes a phone call from the Army 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division–the Blackjack Brigade.
“Air’s not available,” Ramshur says to his crew. “Arty has the target.”
The Marines murmur. Artillery is an area-fire weapon, not a precision instrument. But it is all that is immediately available.
Saliba places the crosshairs of the Pioneer’s optical camera on the mortar tube and reads off the 10-digit grid on the screen. The coordinates are sent to the Tactical Fusion Center and the Blackjack Brigade.
After several minutes, Ramshur finally says, “Shot out.”
The Marines crane forward to watch the explosion from a 155mm artillery shell fired from nearly 3 miles away. When a large gray puff pops up a football field away from the tube, the crew measures the miss distance and types in: Add one hundred, right fifty. That is, fire the shell 100 meters farther and 50 meters to the right.
Several minutes later, a large cloud of dirt erupts inside the courtyard. The crew’s next command: Fire for effect.
A few minutes later, two bright orange flashes light up the courtyard, with a third about 100 meters to the south. When the smoke clears, the tube is still standing. The next volley delivers the same result–close but not effective. No secondary explosions. No visible damage to the tube.
During the ensuing lull, the three insurgents run from the safe house, pick up three mortar rounds, drop them down the tube and run back to the house.
“You wouldn’t catch me playing dodge with 155s,” one of the Watchdogs says.
Ramshur calls the Blackjack Brigade Intelligence Center, then tells his crew, “We’re getting Predator.”
Launched from a site near Baghdad, the Predator is 13 ft. longer than the Pioneer and packs a Hellfire missile with an 18-pound warhead. The most remarkable aspect of the Predator deployment is that a crew at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada–7500 miles away–is guiding the UAV. A few weeks earlier, the Watchdogs helped a Predator destroy a moving pickup with a mounted machine gun–one robot leading another robot to the target.
“Break, break,” Ramshur says. “Predator’s been diverted. Anvil has the mission. Stand by for talk on.”
Anvil is the call sign for a flight of two Marine AV-8B Harrier jets flying at 19,000 ft. Meanwhile, the insurgents make another round trip sprint. Twelve rounds have been launched at Camp Fallujah–each one with the potential to add to coalition casualties. The brass wants the duel to end.
“What do you think, guys?” asks Ramshur. “The tube or the house?”
“House!” chorus the Marines.
The house where the insurgents are hiding between rounds has a dome roof, a walled courtyard and an overhang at the front door, where a sentry is posted. Once the Harriers close in, Ramshur radios the details of the house’s location to a Forward Air Controller, who lines up the jets.
“The house is the first one north of the vacant lot on the northeast corner,” Ramshur says. “Has a dome roof. Wait–it’s where that truck is. Got it?”
A truck pulls up to the house and five men walk inside, carrying something in their arms.
“Supper time,” says Sgt. Roneil Sampson, an imagery analyst. “They’re changing shifts. Domino’s delivery.”
Ramshur reads a secure text message: Air is cleared hot.
Impact is less than a minute away. The courtyard door opens. A man walks to the truck and slowly drives off.
“Boot muj sent out to get the Coke,” says one Marine. “Luckiest bastard on the planet.” Both video screens flash bright white, as if a fuse has blown. When the picture comes back into focus, the Marines see that the center of the roof is now a huge black hole.
“Now that’s what I call a shack,” Ramshur says. “Great job, Watchdogs. Great job.”
Operation al-Fajr continued for another 11 days–sector by sector, block by block, house by house–until the Multi-National Forces had secured most of the city. The death toll: 38 U.S. troops, six Iraqi troops and an estimated 1200 insurgents. By mid-December exiled residents began to return to their homes.
A former Marine and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Bing West is the author of three books. In May, Bantam Books will publish his fourth volume, No True Glory: Fallujah And The Struggle In Iraq–A Frontline Account. Portions of this article originally appeared in West’s online diary at http://www.slate.com.