Winning: ROVER Quietly Takes Over


April 22, 2018: Analyzing the weapons and tactics used to defeat ISIL in Syria and Iraq one surprising development emerged; the pervasive use of Predator and Reaper UAVs for finding targets, and dealing with the most difficult ones. Over 80 percent of all airstrikes depended on UAV surveillance, as well as nearly all the “danger close” strikes. These attacks, usually with laser guided missiles, are very close (often 20 meters or less) to friendly troops. These became more common and dependable (to not injure friendly troops) because of another innovation (ROVER) which is rarely mentioned in media reports. ROVER is a portable (now hand held) video terminal that allows air controllers and local commanders to view what the UAV (or even an aircraft equipped with a targeting pod) can see in real time.

The basic benefit of ROVER is that it allows troops to view real-time video from a UAV or aircraft overhead. Aircraft with targeting pods (like Litening and Sniper) or surveillance gear (like AC-130 gunships) are much more effective when the guys on the ground have a ROVER unit that can receive that video feed and share it with the airmen above. This kind of real-time, "common picture" capability makes air power much more effective and reduces friendly fire incidents. U.S. Special Forces troops and infantry unit commanders use ROVER to obtain a larger view (than their low flying Raven UAVs can provide) of the surrounding area. These ROVER devices use a built in antenna to get the video from overhead UAVs or aircraft. The original ROVER system, as well as the current one, was developed and sent to the troops in record time. So don't let anyone tell you this sort of thing can't happen. However, except in wartime, such rapid technology development usually quite rare.

ROVER came to be in 2002, when a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130, or other aircraft overhead. In particular, the soldiers wanted the capability of the AC-130 getting video from a Predator that had spotted something the AC-130 was being sent to destroy. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from Predators and combat aircraft. At that time the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft or the UAV operators (who were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link). The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.

The air force geeks went to work and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER 1 was not terribly portable but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. As expected this proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER 2 appeared which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, ROVER 3, a 5.5 kg (12 pounds) unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service. In the next five years ROVER got smaller, lighter and more capable. The smallest version was called Tactical ROVER, a 440 gram (one pound) hand held device that uses a variety of display devices (like helmet monocle, laptop, PC or tablet). Tactical ROVER was popular with the Special Forces, who often sneaked into hostile territory on foot and need to minimize their weight load.

The original ROVER gear was initially operated, mostly, by air force ground controllers. By 2012 there were some 4,000 ROVER units out there, this allowed platoon leaders and company commanders access, as well as Special Forces teams and some army or marine ground patrols. Since then the number of ROVERs has more than doubled as it was found useful to provide them to friendly forces (Kurds in Syria and Iraq as well as Iraqi commanders in general). This proliferation of ROVER terminals allowed more expert advice from experienced commanders, especially those who had been operating in an area (like an ISIL held neighborhood in Mosul or Raqqa) for a while and knew how the ISIL personnel were operating.

ISIL documents and prisoners revealed that the Islamic terrorists had deduced that there were no really effective countermeasures to the Reapers/Predators and how they were used. The Islamic terrorists knew little about ROVER although they heard that Iraqi commanders could see the UAV video. What they didn’t realize was that many of these ROVER terminals had touch sensitive screens enabling the user to mark exactly where the target was, especially one that was concealed as best ISIL could manage. The ground troops had come to trust the skill of the UAV operators (communicating via satellite from a base in Nevada) to regularly hit small targets. This often meant having a Hellfire missile go down an alley and hit a specific window on one side of the alley. The ground troops didn’t care if the guy firing the missile was in an aircraft overhead or back in the United States. If the UAV operators successfully carried out these “danger close” shots on a regular basis they were trusted and called on repeatedly.

Fighting in Mosul and Raqqa meant coming up against one successful ISIL tactics, using a lot of tunnels or holes blasted through basement walls that enabled ISIL fighters to appear unexpectedly near (and often behind) friendly troops. In situations like that successful “danger close” missile strikes were essential for the troops to prevail. ISIL survivors confirmed that many ISIL fighters were also surprised by this ability. That was because so few survived these “danger close” missile attacks and after the Mosul and Raqqa battles were over few of the surviving (and captured) ISIL defenders knew that sort of thing was possible. To the ISIL fighters, it seemed like some kind of magic how their fellow fighters died so quickly once in contact with Iraqi or Kurdish troops and that caused a number of the ISIL men to desert or surrender. It was difficult for ISIL defenders to surrender because these “danger close “would arrive so quickly after ISIL had made contact with the advancing troops. The speed with which these Hellfire attacks were called for and delivered was not only a surprise but usually fatal. But sl0wly survivors got back to report why well concealed ISIL defensive positions were so quickly spotted and destroyed.

Ground troops in Mosul and Raqqa considered the surveillance and precision airstrikes of the UAVs a decisive factor in the conquest of these two cities as well as a number of other urban areas. The commanders on the ground knew it wasn’t magic but rather instant access to information and the ability to quickly act on it. This included calling in larger weapons (GPS/laser guided bombs) that were the primary weapon of larger aircraft. The Predator sometimes carried a 500 pound (227 kg) guided bomb but were most useful firing Hellfire laser guided missiles. Manned aircraft and their smart bombs were preferred in open country because the enemy could be spotted farther away. But in city fighting the Reaper and laser guided missiles was the primary weapon. Smart bombs were often called in when ISIL was fighting from a particular building that could be taken down with one or more bombs. But the most dangerous fighting was against an individual or small groups of ISIL gunmen suddenly appearing. Another vital service of Reaper and Hellfires was spotting and destroying rapidly approaching suicide car bombers. Gunfire was often insufficient to stop these vehicles, which often had armor attached to protect the driver. There was no protection from a Hellfire missile aimed at the engine.

By late 2016 it was widely known what the Reaper (Predator was being retired) could do in terms of surveillance, sharing that real-time video with front line commanders and acting quickly with laser guided missiles to deal with even “danger close” situations. It was a secret weapon that most ISIL defenders didn’t find out about until it was too late.


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