Unmanned Systems

With US assistance, Afghanistan starts flying drones

The United States is continuing to share some of its unmanned aerial system technology with allies, with the Afghan army recently launching its first drone system to provide critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, the Defense Department said this week.

The launch of a ScanEagle UAS in Helmand will be followed by systems stationed at eight additional sites across the country within the next two years. The catapult-launched ScanEagle has a wingspan of just over 10 feet is capable of maritime and land-based ISR, with a ceiling of 15,000 feet and an endurance of up to 20 hours. 

“The ScanEagle systems provide the Afghan National Army with airborne ISR capability, so they can see the battlefield from a different perspective,” said U.S. Army Maj. Jason White, deputy ScanEagle advisor. “Before this technology, they relied on human and signals intelligence. The ScanEagle systems considerably increase their intelligence collection and reconnaissance ability.”

This capability will be an important addition to Afghan forces – especially as fighting against the Taliban and allied insurgents in Afghanistan continues to intensify – and as the United States eyes continued troop withdrawal next year, hoping to empower the Afghans to take greater control of their own security.

While the United States has a special relationship and responsibility to the Afghan nation following the military intervention that toppled the Taliban and established a democracy, it also has shared similar ISR capability with other partners. The U.S announced in October 2015 it would be sharing ScanEagle technology and know-how with the Kenyan and Cameroonian militaries, both of which are facing strong cross-border threats from terrorist organizations.  The assistance included one ScanEagle UAS unit each along with a 12-month Flight Hour Sustainment Package aimed to fill counterterrorism gaps. 

Afghan and American personnel participated in the construction of the ScanEagle facilities, another of which is located at the training center in Mazar-e-Sharif with classroom training for ScanEagle operators.

“We learned how to be a mission commander and how to use the data from the ScanEagle systems,” said Afghan National Army 1st Lt. Sohrab Hakimi, who attended a month-long training program within the United Sates on ScanEagle operation. “We studied how to work with the pilots, and trained on how to coordinate missions with air traffic controllers since we are responsible for tower clearance.”    

“The Afghan National Army is now able to see enemy movements and can visualize enemy tactics,” White said. “This technology helps them better prepare their troops.” Hakimi and Afghan National Army Capt. Torab Ajiz agreed, and elaborated on what this capability means for the Afghan forces. “This technology is important for the Afghan National Army so we can better support troops on the ground,” Hakimi said. 

“The enemy also has a lot of activity at night and now we can see their movements,” Ajiz added.  “After reviewing ScanEagle data we can plan a mission…Then we are ready for our job and can take on the enemy.”

White noted how his team and ScanEagle field service representatives coordinate areas for surveillance missions planning flight routes, clear airspace and plot logistics to support the mission.  White said that the ScanEagle, based on an autopilot system, is preprogrammed but can be overridden if needed. It has two operational cameras: a daytime electro-optical camera with high-definition zoom and an infrared camera for nighttime operation that is sensitive to movement and heat.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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