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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

U.S. drones, armed with hellfire missiles, finally go to war in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The U.S. Army has begun using combat unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq.   

Officials said the army has been equipping tactical UAVs with small air-to-ground missiles, including the AGM-114 Hellfire, for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. They said several UAVs have been tested and deployed for combat operations.

"We know we have the capability, but we've never had the opportunity to use it before," Cpl. Phillip Cheng, a UAV operator for the army's 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, said.

On Feb. 23, the brigade directed a Warrior Alpha UAV to fire a missile in a combat operation. The missile, said to have been the Hellfire air-to-ground missile, killed two suspected Al Qaida insurgents in Iraq's Diyala province, Middle East Newsline reported.

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"We neutralized both targets," Sgt. Jerry Rhoades, who operated the UAV, said.

Warrior-Alpha is an extended range, multi-purpose hybrid UAV designed by General Atomics. The UAV platform, a derivative of the MQ-1 Predator and designed for reconnaissance, contains electro-optical/infrared or synthetic aperture radar payloads as well as both a laser rangefinder designator and a laser target marker.

Since 2007, the army has been using UAVs to detect improvised explosive devices and target IED squads in Iraq. The army has also used the Israeli-designed MQ-5 Hunter UAV, enhanced by Northrop Grumman to fire air-to-ground weapons.

"Anytime you can see the enemy and he doesn't know you're watching is a good thing, but not good enough," U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody said in an address to an industry conference in 2007. "You also must be able to do something about it, and that's what we've been able to do."

Officials said Warrior Alpha and the MQ-5 Hunter have been equipped with advanced sensors and other equipment to both detect and strike IED squads. They said at least four additional UAV systems deployed in Iraq would be provided this capability in 2009. The Hunter was said to have been equipped with a sensor titled Green Dart.

"Say we see someone emplacing IEDs," Rhoades said. "If we can see it, our customer can see it, and they can call in a team to diffuse it. But that puts ground troops in harm's way. If we have Hellfires on board, we can get authorization, take out the whole emplacement, and no ground troops get injured."

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