After Iran missiles hit Iraq base, the US military lost contact with multiple Predator drones
It’s a scenario the US trains for but rarely encounters- losing their air superiority edge during an armed confrontation.
In one way or another, however, such a scenario became very real during a January 8 retaliatory attack against US forces by Iran.
Seven US Army UAVs were airborne at the time of the attack, including the MQ-1C Gray Eagles, which are built off the Predator line of UAVs and can carry four Hellfire missiles.
“We thought it may lead to a ground assault, so we kept the aircraft up,” said one of the pilots, 26-year-old Staff Sergeant Costin Herwig.
Herwig was at the controls of an MQ-1Cwhen the Iranians struck the Iraq-based American operations facility, a form of payback for the killing of an Iranian general days prior.
Despite the myth that UAV pilots are never in any real danger, the 14 individuals controlling the 7 drones were exposed to rocket attacks for the duration of the assault, and even were so close that dust from an explosion blew into their “cockpits,” located inside of shipping containers.
“We thought we were basically done,” he said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the base personnel (outside of its defenders, that is) were taking shelter inside of bunkers.
The attack killed no one, but the drones suffered a heavy toll from the attack- the fibre lines needed to relay information were destroyed.
“No more than a minute after the last round hit, I was heading over to the bunkers on the far back side and saw the fire was burning all through our fibre lines,” said First Sergeant Wesley Kilpatrick. “With the fibre lines burnt, there was no control.”
The Gray Eagles were now flying blind and without telemetry, thanks to a lucky hit from a rocket.
“It’s a pretty big deal, because it’s so expensive and there’s a lot of stuff on them that we don’t want other people to have or the enemy to get,” said Herwig.
After the shelling stopped, the troopers got to work to replace the cables and reconnect the UAVs to their feed relays.
After regaining control of their aircraft, the pilots then had to land on a damaged and abandoned airfield.
“The airfield was shut down so we had to land without talking to anybody. We didn’t know where any (other) aircraft was. That part was pretty stressful,” said Herwig.
According to Agence France Presse, the drones were all accounted for, and enlisted men such as Kilpatrick and Herwig were the heroes of the day.
“We landed all our own birds back on site,” said Kilpatrick. “It was quite a feat.”
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