The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan

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Even Officers Can Play
by James Dunnigan
July 15, 2014

The U.S. Marine Corps has added instruction on how to operate a RQ-11 Raven UAV to what is taught in the 26 week long Basic School officer course. During these six months all new officers are taught the basics of being a marine officers. It includes a lot of training on infantry combat because all marines are taught that no matter what their regular job they are all basically riflemen (infantry).

It only takes a few hours to train someone to use the Raven. The controls are based on those found in most video games, meaning most American troops already know a lot about operating Raven before they hit basic training. Adding Raven training to Basic School recognizes the fact that Raven changed the way troops fight and how combat leaders operate. With the bird's eye view of the battlefield, commanders can move their troops more quickly, confident that they won't be ambushed, and often with certain knowledge of where the unseen enemy is.

The big advantage with Raven is that it’s simple, reliable, and it works. A complete system (controller, spare parts and three UAVs) costs $250,000. The UAV can be quickly taken apart and put into a backpack. It takes off by having the operator start the motor and then throwing it into the air. This can be done from a moving vehicle and the Raven is a popular recon tool for convoys. It lands by coming in low and then turning the motor off. Special Forces troops like to use it at night because the enemy can’t see it and often can’t hear it either.

U.S. Army troops have been the most frequent users of the Raven and took the lead in developing new tactics for Raven. While the Raven can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time.

Much of the work on developing Raven tactics took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both places the enemy quickly learned to avoid confronting U.S. troops directly (this tends to get you killed). So there was an unceasing effort to set up ambushes, plant mines and roadside bombs and fire rockets or mortars at American bases. All of these activities can be messed with by using Raven. U.S. troops know to think like the enemy and quickly figured out the best ambush positions or places to plant mines or fire rockets. By sending Ravens over these spots periodically the enemy is always in danger of being spotted. The enemy knows that getting spotted by a Raven means an attack from American mortars or helicopter gunships may happen real soon. These mind games, of sneaking around trying to get a shot off at the Americans, is more stressful, and dangerous, if the U.S. troops have Ravens. And most of them do. The army and marines have thousands of Ravens deployed and most combat platoons or convoys have some.

This two kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army developed better training methods which enabled operators to get more out of Raven and the marines quickly adopted that and added some improvements of their own. Combat troops use Raven for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below, and often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.

The current Raven (RQ-11B) was introduced in 2007, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam, or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is down there). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour, but usually cruises at between 40 and 50. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation. The U.S. Army has developed wireless technology which allows others in the small unit to share the video via portable electronics (Android smart phones and tablets).

The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft.

The controller allows the operator to capture video, or still pictures, and transmit them to other units or a headquarters. The operator often does this while the Raven is flying a pre-programmed pattern (using GPS). The operator can have the UAV stop and circle, in effect keeping the camera on the same piece of ground below. The operator can also fly the Raven, which is often used when pursuing hostile gunmen.

Another improvements was a "fail safe" mode, where a Raven that has lost contact with its operator, will immediately head for where it was launched from. There is now a location beacon, so that if one crashed over the hill, it can be quickly found. Another improvement is a digital data link, which makes it easier to encrypt the video feed, and makes it possible to operate 16 Ravens within range of each other, rather than only the current four. In development are two new sizes for the Raven, one a little larger (up to 5 kg) and one a little smaller. The larger one would have more range and endurance, plus more powerful sensors. The smaller one would have less, but be easier to carry, and harder for the enemy to spot.

In addition to the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps have adopted it. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) is also a big user. Italy, Australia and Denmark, and several other nations, are also using Raven. The marines, as well as the army and SOCOM all noted that many officers learned how to operate Raven on their own, realizing that this new device had fundamentally changed how small unit combat leaders operate.

 


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