Deployed Tiger Brigade’s UAS platoon takes to the air

Photos and story by 1st Lt. Angela Fry
256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE, Iraq — Armed with a passion for flying and the determination to assist roops, the Louisiana National Guard’s Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems platoon formally took to the sky May 21 out of Contingency Operating Base Adder on their first mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The 16-Soldier UAS platoon with the Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) arrived in theater in March to assist in the upcoming responsible drawdown of U.S. troops and equipment in Iraq.

“The platoon was first fielded last summer,” said Staff Sgt. Brandon Smith, readiness noncommissioned officer with the platoon and a Gardner, La., native.  “Since that time, we have been pretty much on continuous orders in preparation for this mission and training at Camp Shelby (Miss.) with the rest of the brigade.”

The aircraft the “Tiger Brigade” platoon operates, formally known as the RQ-7B Shadow, is a 275-pound unmanned aerial vehicle used to gather intelligence, and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance to support U.S. armed forces deployed in combat zones.

"The plane may be called an unmanned aircraft," saidWarrant Officer Mike Gray, a Pineville, La., native.  "But this system is anything but 'unmanned.'  This aircraft is flown and maintained by humans and the video and the intelligence it captures is interpreted by humans.  We are flying the aircraft … just not physically in it."

Gray, the UAS platoon leader, said another six Soldiers will report to Iraq to augment the mission within the next couple of months.  At that time, the Soldiers will be able to utilize the unit’s $40-million equipment completely, which includes four fully-functioning Shadows.

“Once we have the full platoon, we will be able to fly two planes at a time,” Smith said.  “We have all completed a minimum of six months to a year of schooling as pilots and maintainers, and know how to get the job done.”

Although the UAS platoon’s primary mission is to assist Soldiers on the ground in Iraq, the use of this unmanned aircraft is also invaluable back in the United States in support of the National Guard mission.

“I can fly my entire system of four planes for seven days on the same amount of fuel it takes to fly three Black Hawks (helicopters) on one mission,” Gray said.  “Post-hurricane, it is important to have that situational awareness … to be able to survey that damage via the video imagery when communications and infrastructure are down.”

As Louisiana has been inundated with four catastrophic storms over the past five years, Gray is adamant about the importance of the unmanned system and the potential for its future growth, he said.

“With this system, we can push out in front of the storm, wait for the storm, then launch the aircraft,” Gray said.  “With the information we collect, we can give the commander the ability to go in and determine the priorities of work.  He can know what the first focus should be; whether search and rescue operations or to stop the flood.”

The ability to instill that same confidence in a commander in a combat zone by providing real-time video to a ground control station via the aircraft’s digitally-stabilized, infrared camera is another aspect to the system in which Gray takes pride.

“Stopping someone from planting an improvised explosive device is one part of this system,” he said.  “But being able to tell that commander that there is no IED on that convoy route is just as important.  Having eyes on a target, even when an IED goes off, gives us the ability to react with information that is timely and accurate.”

The troops of the UAS platoon look forward to the future growth of the program with dreams of an even larger and more-state-of-the-art unmanned system.

“We have our eyes on the Gray Eagle,” Gray said, referring to the Army’s version of the Air Force’s Predator UAV.  “This aircraft has a 56-foot wing span, is 38-feet long, weighs 4,000 lbs and is armed with Hellfire missiles.”

Even though the pilots and crew chiefs joke about their jobs’ likeness to video games, the importance of this mission is always the priority for them.

“I have some of the greatest Soldiers in this platoon,” Gray said.  “We have a 100-percent volunteer acceptance for this mission.”

“Whatever we do here and when everything is said and done, my 16 Soldiers are here to win,” he said.  “We are cheap, deadly and effective.  For us, going out and finding the bad guys is what we are here for.  This mission is much bigger than us.”

 

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Pfc. Travis Hampton (from left), a Jonesboro, La., native, Staff Sgt. Donald Segura and Sgt. Mike Lejeune, both Lafayette, La., natives, complete pre-combat checks and inspections on the RQ-7B Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System May 21 before its first flight from Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq. The Soldiers are deployed with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Platoon, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Angela Fry)

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The RQ-7B Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System is launched on its first flight May 21 out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unmanned plane, used to gather intelligence, and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, is one of four systems fielded by the Unmanned Aircraft System Platoon, 256th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary). (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Angela Fry)