Thursday, December 9, 2010

From the Pages - Predator

To the enemy, they are the modern war’s version of the angel of death. To friendlies below, they are a much different kind of angel. They are the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)—the rarely seen, often-impactful aircraft of the 21st century battlefield. 

In the following excerpt from Predator: The Remote-Control Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot's Story, LTC Matthew J. Martin recounts hunting insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq with his MQ-1 Predator.


Hunting terrorists and insurgent fighters required indefatigable patience. The business of intelligence gathering was long, slow, tedious, unglamorous work only occasionally punctuated by intrigue and excitement. That was true whether in the clandestine “in the enemy’s camp” business or flying a reconnaissance RPA. We could have sent troops busting through Fallujah rooting out the cancer house by house, except that would have been extremely dangerous and would have taken a lot of troops. Fallujah was a big city. Instead, we used spies and informants on the ground and Predator in the air to locate and track bad guys until we could take them out. With prejudice.

The process of locating a suspected terrorist or an insurgency leader more or less followed a set pattern. It often began with some snitch sneaking up to one of the marine outposts that still ringed the city. Most of the time he came in the middle of the night to keep from being seen or recognized by his neighbors or fellow Iraqis. If al Qaeda learned of his perfidy, he became the next dead man hung from a light post or left beheaded in the middle of the street.

His motive for informing, therefore, had to be strong enough to overcome his fear. Frequently, he sought revenge for some slight or perceived wrong committed against him, which made the information he supplied less reliable than if he were prompted by mere greed. Greed produced the best information.

“I know of a house where they have many weapons. You pay me, I tell where it is . . .”

The marines would get on the horn to the Predator Operations Center in Nevada or the LRE at Balad and request Predator to set up surveillance on the house and watch for activity. If we spotted anything suspicious—say, four or five Hajjis coming and going with AK-47s or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which certainly set off a red light—we marked the spot for special attention by Uncle Sam’s ordnance depot. Either that or we used it as a pivot point to work on discovering the rest of the network. That generally entailed following people in vehicles around the city. Predator could tail them wherever they went—and they never seemed to catch on.

One morning when I showed up for my shift at the GCS, cup of coffee in hand and fresh from out of a warm bed with my wife, Capt. “Chili” Chalifax, the off-going pilot, was tracking an older-model Suburban through the pre-dusk streets of northwest Fallujah in the Jolan district.

“I’ve been following the goofy bastard all day,” Chili said. “We think he’s part of an  IED [improvised explosive device] team—but so far we haven’t seen him do squat. Blast his ass if you get a reason.”

I had yet to blast anyone—and it wasn’t in the cards for me to blast this guy either. At least not today. He went home and stayed all night; the time difference between Iraq and Nevada was about twelve hours, which meant that when the sun rose over Nevada, it was sinking in Iraq. He was still holed up, apparently snoozing away, when I went off-duty and headed home to the little apartment I shared in Las Vegas with Trisha.

Like a cop on his beat, I grew increasingly suspicious on-duty of everyone and everything. I wasted an hour in orbit one day studying a satellite TV dish on a rooftop trying to decide if it might be a camouflaged mortar tube or a rocket launcher. I trailed an old rusty Ford through heavy morning traffic as the driver went about his errands, some innocent, others possibly nefarious. I spied a group of young men hanging around on street corners shucking ’n jiving like American street gangs in Chicago or Los Angeles. I watched some men in a courtyard around a house unloading a bongo truck. Even with the longest lens in the world and excellent computer screen resolution, it was sometimes hard at ten thousand feet to distinguish contraband from legitimate cargo.

Anytime insurgents fired a rocket or a mortar round from a location, intel marked the particular site for future reference. We checked it again and again throughout a shift to see if the enemy might return to the scene of the crime. I combed a park one night for three hours on that expectation, but, as so often happened, nothing happened.

Insurgents were always sneaking about alleys and rooftops to take potshots at U.S. troops manning roadblocks and checkpoints that closed off thoroughfares to and from the city. One night, marines issued what police would have called a BOLO (be on lookout) for a faded green Toyota pickup with a. 50-caliber machine gun mounted in its bed. That was certainly a distinguishing characteristic. It had sped past a marine checkpoint, pounding away with the gun. Marines returned fire, but the Toyota and its ragtag load of fighters escaped.

For the next three days, pilots at Nellis searched relentlessly for some sign of the Toyota. One afternoon, something out of place in a vacant lot in the southern industrial district of the city caught my eye. I circled. The lot contained a few pieces of broken farm equipment and an abandoned ambulance. What attracted my attention, however, was a small pickup truck partly covered with a tarp. The Iraqis covered only things they didn’t want us to find or recognize.

Imagery experts who monitored our video feed in POC’s mission command compared the photo of the tarp-covered truck with the satellite photo snapped of the Toyota in action a few days earlier. Enough of the pickup was exposed to make a positive identification. Back came the response through my chatroom.

Confirmed. It’s a match. That’s our guy.

It was up to ground commanders in-country to make decisions on what action to take. I was in support of the intelligence analyst imbedded with Fallujah marines. He obtained permission from the J-3 chief of operations at the Combined Operations Center in Qatar to eliminate the target. My excitement began to mount. This would be my first opportunity to employ live ordnance against the enemy. Lasing targets for fast movers or a C-130 gunship didn’t count. Blowing up the Toyota would send a message to the insurgents that they needed to do a better job hiding their stuff.

The MQ-1 Predator could deploy three different types of missiles. The M-Model Hellfire with the nine-millisecond delay fuse was designed to bust through concrete walls and destroy whatever was inside, thus limiting damage to surrounding structures and people.

The K-Model Hellfire was originally designed for helicopters to use against tanks and other armored vehicles. Its two shape charges directed its explosive energy into a single point moving forward with the missile. It first punched through the toughest armor, then exploded inside the vehicle. A nasty piece of ordnance.

We called the third Hellfire “Special K,” a regular K Model with an even nastier antipersonnel bonus. When the two charges, wrapped in a sleeve of scoured steel, detonated, the sleeve shattered along its scour lines and blasted out razor-sharp shrapnel in all directions to slice and dice anyone within a twenty-foot radius. Even those out to fifty feet might not escape its wrath.

I carried an M under one wing and a Special K under the other. I selected the M to hurl against the unoccupied truck and flew the Predator out to a distance of about ten klicks (kilometers) before turning inbound to start my target run. The optimum altitude to launch a missile was ten thousand feet, the range distance window for release between seven and a half and nine klicks. Too near the target and the missile would likely overfly it. Too far away and it would run out of energy and hit short.

I powered up the missile and tested it while my sensor operator in the next seat locked on to the target. My palms were sweaty and my heart pounded. Flight Lieutenant Gambold, one of our attached British pilots, hurried into the GCS trailer to act as safety observer. He stood behind my seat, bent over my shoulder with his gaze glued on the monitoring screen. I barely noticed, I was so intensely focused on the Toyota in my crosshairs, waiting another second or so to close in before release. I wanted the shot, my first, to be a good one.

The laser was locked. I took a deep breath. Once a missile was ignited, it couldn’t be turned off or recalled.

At the last moment, a man unexpectedly appeared on the live-action screen, walking across the vacant lot and up to the truck, glancing about surreptitiously as though he felt someone watching but couldn’t see anyone. I wondered if a mouse might not feel like that just before a hawk dropped out of the sky to snatch it up with piercing talons.

Poor bastard. It looked like he was about to get into the Toyota and drive off to pick up his buddies and go shoot up some more marines. Or that might at least have been what he was thinking.

Call him a bonus. Truck and driver. Blue light special, KMart shoppers. Two for the price of one.

My right index finger tightened on the control stick trigger, the “pickle.” I was concentrating entirely on the shot and its technical aspects. Right range, right speed, locked in. The man wasn’t really a human being. He was so far away and only a high-tech image on a computer screen. The moral aspects of it—that I was about to assassinate a fellow human being from ambush—didn’t factor in. Not at the moment. Not yet.

Suddenly, just before I fired, the screen blacked out. Alarms began sounding and warnings flashed on the heads-down display. There had been a power outage in the satellite uplink in Germany. I had no further control of the plane. It automatically shut down its lasers and weapons and turned away from the target to fly a lost link profile.

It took several minutes to get things sorted out and regain control. By then, the drone was flying its preprogrammed pattern several miles away. By the time I flew back to the target, the truck was gone and I couldn’t find it again. Although I may have been somewhat relieved that I hadn’t had to kill a man today, I was far more frustrated that an enemy had escaped and was, at that moment, possibly on his way to kill Americans. A technical glitch had robbed me of my first shot. That was one lucky bastard down there.

Several days later, the Toyota reappeared on the vacant lot, covered up with the tarp as before. The on-duty Predator crew took it out. The abandoned ambulance next to it got beat up a little. By the time Al-Jazeera TV finished with the story, it had the ambulance fleeing with a load of women and children when Americans bombed it.

Nellis Air Force Base covered nearly twelve thousand acres of scrub and desert in southern Nevada, the main post only seven miles northeast of the central business district of Las Vegas. Trisha and I had our own little apartment in Las Vegas proper. I lived a schizophrenic existence between two worlds, one as a combat pilot fighting a war halfway around the world, the other as an ordinary American citizen. No one who saw me off-base and out of uniform would have ever guessed what I did for a living.

Each working day, like a commuting factory worker or a retail salesman, I reported to the POC for my shift where a sign greeted me with You Are Now Entering CENTCOM AOR. It could just as easily have read You Are Now Entering C. S. Lewis’ Narnia for all that my two worlds intersected.

My first shift out of training was midnights, which meant daylight in Iraq. I drove in at 2300 hours (11:00 p.m.) and received my briefing at the Command Operations Center before I strode casually into the GCS, pausing briefly along the way to exchange a few words of greetings with friends and fellow workers and pick up a cup of coffee. Then I took my seat at the Predator’s controls and became immersed in warfare for the next six to eight hours.

The sun was coming up by the time I drove home again, perhaps stopping along the way to pick up a newspaper or something from the store for Trisha. It could be disorienting, a real disconnect, to live simultaneously in two such different worlds.

The evening after I almost shot the Toyota pickup was my night off. It had been a nerve- wracking shift. I grabbed a few hours’ sleep before Trisha and I drove to the strip for a good steak. Seen from space, Sin City, the “city that never sleeps,” where “what happens here stays here,” was the brightest spot on earth. I hardly noticed all the lights coming on against the approach of nightfall. Trisha observed that I was abnormally quiet, introspective, playing with my food or staring off in deep thought.

“Out with it, Matt,” she finally prompted. Sometimes it was like she read my thoughts. “What happened?”

I took a deep breath. “Trish . . .”

Her nickname, Ruby, seemed appropriate, what with her red hair and green eyes, but I normally called her Trish or Trisha, leaving “Ruby” for the rest of the family to use.

“Trish, I almost killed a man today.” I hesitated before telling her the rest. “Trish, I’m sorry I didn’t kill him.”

Anyone else would have been shocked at such a confession. Trisha merely waited without comment while I briefly told her about how I almost took out the Toyota and its driver, prevented from doing so only because I lost the satellite link. Then I fell silent. She didn’t press. She was not only my wife, she was also my best friend with whom I could discuss anything. She knew when to push and when to let me sort out things in my own way. I would talk it all out when I was ready.

I wasn’t ready. Not yet. Things were still a bit confused in my mind. Dad always said I had a way of analyzing the life out of things. He liked to tease me by calling me “the Professor,” but there was a ring of truth to it. I was a reader, especially of history and philosophy. From such readings and from my own limited experiences so far, I could not but realize that mankind was entering a new era of warfare for which neither history nor philosophy completely prepared us. Profound questions confronted not only me personally but our entire society. What laws and ethical codes applied, I wondered, when men sent out unmanned machines to fight for us?

War, the idea of warfare, was as old as man himself. I abhorred it. Yet what most concerned me personally was that I had considered none of this as I rushed to pull the trigger and annihilate another human being. After all, mission came first. I was beginning to discover that war touched a place in us, as John Keegan noted in A History of Warfare, “where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.” I sometimes pondered how Adam might have gone back to the Garden of Eden and whacked the serpent. That was what I would have done.

I was almost ashamed to admit to Trisha the thrill I felt at the moment I prepared to squeeze the trigger. My thoughts had been fundamentally superficial. I had trained through dozens of practice target runs. I knew how things were supposed to go—and I was ready. I operated solely through my training, focused on one thing. Instinct was, indeed, king.

It had not been quite real, even afterward. I was among the first generation of soldiers working with robots to wage war. The ability to kill people from such great distances, playing God, widened the gap between the reality of war and our perception of it. It was almost like watching an NFL game on TV with its tiny figures on the screen compared to being down there on the field in the mud and the blood in the rain getting your socks knocked off. “The pleasures of a spectacle with the added thrill that it is real for someone, but not the spectator” was how analyst Christopher Coker expressed it. All the potential gains of war without the costs. It could even be mildly entertaining. Could it not also become too easy, too tempting, too much like simulated combat, like the computer game Civilization?

I experienced the psychological disconnect of being “at war” for eight hours or so, shooting weapons at enemy targets, directing hits against the other side, and then I got in my car, drove home, and, that evening, had steak with my wife in Las Vegas. I had wanted to do more while flying C-135s out of Crete at the beginning of Iraqi Freedom. I was now doing more. Before the year was out, more would entail deploying to Iraq to work my rotation with LRE. That meant getting down on the field closer to the mud and the blood and the rain. Taking my own risks and confronting my own demons, as all soldiers must.

Trisha had a way of getting directly to the heart of a matter, of encapsulating its essence in the simplest possible manner. She reached across the table and took my hand.

“Matt,” she said, “what you’re doing is saving lives. Not just American lives but Iraqi lives as well. If it weren’t for you and the other pilots, troops on the ground would have to do the job—with far greater damage and far more carnage.”

I squeezed her hand. “This is why I love you,” I said.

“Eat your steak, Professor.”

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