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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — As Marines head back to Iraq in the coming months, they’re taking their new Dragon Eye unmanned aerial surveillance plane, an asset in short supply but in heavy demand when they battled this spring to topple Saddam Hussein.

The Corps is pushing to equip its infantry units with the five- to 10-pound aerial vehicle that provides immediate intelligence to the ground troops.

“The true value of it is that it’s right there in the hand of the guy who needs the info and needs the intel,” said Col. Jim Howcroft, who served as the intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Division in Iraq. “It was literally in his hip pocket … and gives him info on what he wants to find and gets it back, no kidding, as it’s flying.”

The Corps had planned to field 35 systems in fiscal 2005, but with roughly 25,000 Marines Iraq-bound, they’ve moved up the time line to buy 41 to 60 this year, said Program Manager Marine Lt. Col. Don Bruce.

Dragon Eye is a long-term plan for the Corps.

“If the budget gods continue to smile on us, we plan for a five-year buy of 323 … so we could provide pretty much every maneuver company commander in the Marine Corps with a system of their own,” Bruce said.

The attractiveness of the bird with a 45-inch wingspan also is in its simplicity, said Howcroft, now the intelligence officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

“The average rifleman can be trained with a couple of hours of training. It doesn’t take a pilot to fly this,” Howcroft said.

“The beauty of the Dragon Eye is we put the tool into in the hands of Marines and said, ‘We think this is a good piece of gear,’ and they figured out how to make it work and what tactical situations to use it in. It was not a bunch of colonels … who wrote this huge book on how to employ it tactically.”

It does have its drawbacks.

“It’s somewhat fragile … and its range isn’t huge,” he said.

It optimally flies about 300 feet above ground and is difficult to maneuver in an urban setting. It flies for about an hour on batteries.

“It wouldn’t be good to fly a whole border area, but if a company commander wanted to look at a valley or wadi [a dry water channel] … they could put the Dragon Eye up and survey that,” Howcroft said.

While Dragon Eye is unique to the Corps, some aspects are shared with other services. For example, the autopilot mechanism is the same the Air Force’s Desert Hawk UAV.

“The receivers and transmitters in our UAV are virtually identical to those in the Army’s small UAV they’re looking at,” Bruce said.

In December, the Corps awarded the production contract to the Simi Valley, Calif.-based AeroVironment to buy up to 1,026 air vehicles, 342 ground control stations and field support kits, and the associated technical and logistics support.

Each system, which consists of three planes, a ground station and a field support kit, costs roughly $100,000.

The tally for research and development totaled $3 million in fiscal 2001 and $2.2 million in 2002.

“Unlike the Global Hawk that costs millions of dollars, or a Pioneer that costs a couple hundred thousand, a Dragon Eye is relatively inexpensive and therefore, it’s expendable,” Bruce said.

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