Air Weapons: The Real Time Video Revolution


October 16, 2008:  The U.S. Army and Air Force are so anxious to get as many UAVs to Afghanistan, or aircraft that can act as UAVs (like fighters with targeting pods, or other manned aircraft with real time video capability), because commanders have discovered that "persistent video" is a crucial battlefield advantage. Time and again, in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the ground commander had enough airborne RTV (real time video), the enemy was at a severe disadvantage. Put simply, with enough RTV, you could see nearly everything the enemy was doing, while the enemy had much less awareness of what U.S. forces were up to, or about to do. Add to that night-vision devices, thermal sensors, and smart bombs and missiles, and you have a combination that produces all those lop-sided victories you read about.

How much RTV is enough? It depends on the battle, but half a dozen Predators (or similar UAVs), or manned aircraft with similar capabilities, will usually do it. Add a few of the micro-UAVs and helicopter gunships (who also have night vision devices, but usually can't share their RTV), and you have the battlefield covered. Where the RTV is really crucial is in "preparing the battlefield." For example, you get a tip that the bad guys are operating in a certain area. Maybe it's a mountain valley in Afghanistan, or a village outside Baghdad. If you can put two or three UAVs over the area for a day or so, you can detect any hostile operations in progress. While many of the enemy are on to this possibility, they cannot stay hidden from the RTV at all times, especially at night (when the cooler temperatures make it easier for the heat sensors to pick out who is moving around down there.) Even Special Forces scouts on stakeout (usually in some remote area, in pursuit of a terrorist big shot) can use some RTV from above to make sure their subject does not slip away.

Once the RTV has detected the enemy up to something, you put some more aircraft up there to follow the bad guys in real time. Since sensors are now accurate enough to tell if weapons are being carried (and what kind), you can sometimes start the battle, as soon as it's obvious the bad guys are up to no good, with some smart munitions (Hellfire missiles, or GPS guided bombs, rockets or artillery shells). Usually, you want to send in ground troops eventually, if only to take prisoners and collect documents. But at times the enemy has taken refuge among civilians, and the ground troops are needed to go take care of that delicate situation.

What is really new is the "persistent" UAVs, which can stake out a location for days, until the enemy shows their hand. In the last decade, sensors have gotten smaller, cheaper and more powerful. That, and the smart weapons, which often allow much of the finding and killing to be done entirely from the air, has revolutionized warfare. But it all starts with the RTV, which is best delivered via UAVs. And that's why the army, air force and marines are trying to get as many UAVs, as quickly as they can.




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