Eye in the sky

Story by Brian Murphy, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Charles Lee, of the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion, performs his external operator duties while landing the MQ-5B Hunter unmanned aerial system at Robert Gray Army Airfield, Fort Hood, Texas. (U.S. Army photo by Brian Murphy)

Staff Sgt. Charles Lee, of the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion, performs his external operator duties while landing the MQ-5B Hunter unmanned aerial system at Robert Gray Army Airfield, Fort Hood, Texas. (U.S. Army photo by Brian Murphy)

It goes without saying that Soldiers have a significant tactical advantage when they are able to identify, detect and track hostile activity during a mission, as opposed to kicking down a door without a clue of what’s waiting on the other side.

Along the same lines, it’s a safe bet that a firefighter’s success rate is much greater when they know what they’re up against.

Whether home or abroad, these are just a few of the real-world scenarios in which the Soldiers of the 15th Military Intelligence Battalion continue to prove their worth.

The 15th MI Battalion, based at Fort Hood, Texas, plays an integral part in the Army’s aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleet by providing aerial imagery and signals intelligence support to warfighters.

The battalion’s aircraft of choice to accomplish its wide range of missions is the MQ-5B Hunter unmanned aerial system – a legacy aircraft that is the only multi-engine UAS in the Army’s inventory.

The Hunter UAS is a remote-controlled system that provides commanders on the ground the ability to access real-time video to paint a clearer picture of their immediate surroundings.

“The only difference between a UAS and any other aircraft on autopilot is our keyboard for entering the commands is just a little more remote than what that pilot has in the cockpit,” said Jeff Wagner, chief of UAS operations and training, 15th MI Battalion.

With apologies to today’s video game-loving generation, this isn’t an occupation any kid with a joystick and a gaming system can master in a weekend. Typically, it takes two years to fully grasp everything necessary to fly the Hunter UAS.

“My job is to stand near the runway with a remote control and fly the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Charles Lee, Hunter UAS external operator, 15th MI Battalion. “You’ve got to look out for other aircraft, birds, clouds and everything else you can possibly think of that’s floating around in the sky. Obviously it can be a little challenging, not being in a cockpit.”

In 2006, the 15th MI Battalion became the first and only UAS program to share an airfield with both military and civilian air traffic, thanks to a unique arrangement at Robert Gray Army Airfield.

Additionally, the program is the only one of its kind with Federal Aviation Administration certification to simultaneously conduct both manned and unmanned aircraft missions within the National Airspace System.

“Nobody else is doing anything even remotely along those same lines,” said Wagner, who retired as a chief warrant officer 5 with 29 years of service before transitioning into his current role. “But we put our heads together, overcame a couple obstacles and determined that it was a way forward that provided the Army the greatest access to the National Airspace System and gave our aviators the training they needed to operate in the same type of busy environment that they’d see in theater.”

That agreement has worked well for everyone involved. Last summer, the Soldiers of the 15th MI Battalion reached a significant milestone – completing 1,000 incident-free flight hours on the Hunter UAS.

“When you think about a thousand hours over six years, it might not sound like a lot,” said Wagner. “But when you add in all of the facts – since 2006, this unit has been continuously deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and now Operation Enduring Freedom – it’s a pretty significant achievement.

“It’s taken us a little while to get here, but that’s only because of our operating environment,” Wagner continued. “We’ve had everything forward deployed to support these efforts, which left minimal assets back to fly.”

Regardless of how long it took to get here, the Soldiers of the 15th MI Battalion believe it’s a significant milestone and enjoyed reflecting on the last six years’ worth of flights.

“It means a lot to reach a thousand flight hours because I’ve been here for all of them,” Lee said. “I feel it’s a huge accomplishment for everyone who played a part in it, going back to when I was just a young Soldier.”

When the 15th MI Battalion is deployed to places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, the Hunter UAS provides real-time intelligence, which is instantaneously delivered via a handheld device to Soldiers who could potentially be in harm’s way.

“Our mission sets are so diverse that it’s difficult to boil it down to one or two sentences,” Wagner said. “But what most people think of when it comes to the Hunter UAS is providing video to allow those Soldiers on the ground to maneuver around an obstacle or opposing forces – putting them in a better position to accomplish their mission.

“That’s why I feel like UAS operators are the unsung heroes of OIF and OEF,” he continued. “Giving those commanders situational awareness has saved countless lives, and that’s what it’s all about.”

And because these Hunter UAS operators are used to sharing such a crowded airspace when they’re training in Texas, they’re more prepared for the challenges of doing the job halfway around the world. That’s one of the primary reasons other units eagerly send Soldiers to train with the battalion.

“What the Army really loves about what we’ve established at Fort Hood is the operating environment,” said Wagner. “The hardest thing for Soldiers preparing for a deployment to anticipate is what it’s like to operate out of Jalalabad, Kandahar or Bagram with all of the other manned aircraft.

“When we were in Balad, Iraq, it was the busiest airport in the world at that time,” Wagner said. “At any given moment, there were probably 30-35 aircraft in the pattern out there. This is the only site in the Army that these UAS operators can come to and replicate that environment.”

What stands out most about these Soldiers is just how much they genuinely enjoy what they do for a living, which explains why it appears Hunter UAS operators look for any excuse to remain proficient at their chosen occupation.

So when a local unit like the 1st Battalion (Training Support) (Engineer), 395th Regiment, asks for assistance during an exercise, the 15th MI Battalion is more than happy to lend a hand.

“They reached out to us as they trained up a National Guard unit preparing to deploy to Afghanistan,” said Capt. Quenton Schultz, commander, Company A, 15th MI Battalion. “We covered them doing counter (improvised explosive device) lanes and when the training was completed, we provided them with a DVD of footage so they could go over everything and see exactly how they did.”

When preparing for a deployment, having that extra set of eyes in the sky is invaluable to a commander, said Schultz.

“I can navigate on the ground fairly decent,” he said. “But if you put me in the air, it’s much easier because there’s so much more you can see. The same holds true for training. You can stand there and watch it from ground level, but you’re only limited to your line of sight. But if you’re utilizing an aerial platform, like the Hunter UAS, you can see the whole unit moving and the bigger picture.”

The Soldiers of the 15th MI Battalion can also play a key role in non-traditional situations, such as the Fort Hood wildfires in 2011.

“We had individuals from the Texas Department of Emergency Services come out and work with our operators so they could position their forces to help fight the fires,” said Schultz.

Whether deployed halfway around the world or supporting others closer to home, the 15th MI Battalion continues to answer the call. Even though the battalion has fewer than 50 Soldiers, it’s clear the unit’s impact is much larger.

“Reaching a thousand flight hours shows that Army aviation is doing something right with the Hunter UAS and the training of its operators,” Schultz said. “And through this unit, we’re helping lead the … Department of Defense toward the future in operating UAS in the National Airspace System.”