U.S. military to deploy more surveillance planes to Afghanistan

The move by the Army and Air Force comes in response to criticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The military is expanding the number of airplanes for reconnaissance and surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to demands from the Pentagon chief to assume a "war footing" in getting more planes into the air.

The US Army is sending a new unit of remote-controlled aircraft, similar to one it fielded in Iraq two years ago, to Afghanistan to monitor insurgents and enemy targets. The Air Force, meanwhile, is deploying about three dozen small turboprop planes with reconnaissance and surveillance crews to add to the unmanned planes already being used there. Both services are also trying to put more laptop computers in the hands of soldiers on the ground so they can benefit from the data provided by the "eyes in the sky."

The moves are prompted by criticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has said it was like "pulling teeth" to get the services to provide more remote controlled aircraft over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The unmanned planes produce "full motion video" for commanders attempting to locate insurgents or track their activity. The planes range from small, hand-launched craft to much larger planes that can fly at 65,000 feet for hours. Their value comes in how much they can do for long periods of time. It took nearly 600 hours of air time, for instance, before the US military could find the leader of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US airstrike in June 2006.

Gen. David McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said at the Pentagon last week that he has an immediate need for more such planes in Afghanistan, where the US is desperate to turn around the battlefield equation but probably won't be able to provide more troops for months to come.

Mr. Gates believes the services have been slow to respond to this critical need in a time of war, seeking instead ideal solutions that can take much longer. The issue has been on Gates's mind since spring, when he created a special task force to prod the services to move faster on providing surveillance capability. Last week, Gates reiterated the need for the military to adapt its acquisition mindset.

"Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years," he told students at the National Defense University in Washington. "Stability and counterinsurgency missions, the wars we are in, require 75 percent solutions in months."

The push from the top has triggered an exchange of recriminations and one-upmanship between the Army and the Air Force as the two race to provide more capability to war commanders. But recent initiatives show that both services are to some extent listening to what Gates is saying.

The Air Force, which has as much as 88 percent of its "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" or ISR capability in the battle zones now, says it expects to expand by December the number of air patrols by unmanned aircraft. In addition, it will also send a few dozen Beech C-12 Huron twin turboprop manned planes under the banner Project Liberty. Although manned, these aircraft have been modified to allow them to perform many of the same duties as unmanned planes.

"We're trying to get every bit of capacity downrange to support the combatant commander," says Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force in Washington.

The Army has also stepped up its efforts to "thicken" the amount of surveillance and reconnaissance it can provide, officials say. They will send an aircraft unit called Task Force ODIN to Afghanistan, similar to one in 2006 that "helped change the tide in Iraq," says Col. Randolph Rotte, deputy director of Army aviation.

The Army, which has been criticized for keeping too many remote-control planes at home for training, is also deploying more Shadow remote-control planes to the war zone, and modifying them to fly longer. Colonel Rotte emphasizes that the Army's answer to the demand for more reconnaissance and surveillance in the battle zones is not just about getting new platforms but adapting existing ones.

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