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A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team sits in the platoon hangar Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan.

A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team sits in the platoon hangar Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team sits in the platoon hangar Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan.

A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team sits in the platoon hangar Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team launches Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan.

A Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle operated by the Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team launches Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Sgt. Jeremy Squires, 26, from Wellsboro, Pa., checks a Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle shortly before launch Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. Squires, a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Special Troops Battalion's Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon, is deployed from Bamberg, Germany.

Sgt. Jeremy Squires, 26, from Wellsboro, Pa., checks a Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle shortly before launch Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. Squires, a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Special Troops Battalion's Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon, is deployed from Bamberg, Germany. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Sgt. Anh Huynh (left), 29, from Philadelphia, and Staff Sgt. Alton Jefferson, 29, from Gordon Heights, N.Y., both of Company B, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Special Troops Battalion, man the starter for a Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle prior to a launch Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan.

Sgt. Anh Huynh (left), 29, from Philadelphia, and Staff Sgt. Alton Jefferson, 29, from Gordon Heights, N.Y., both of Company B, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team Special Troops Battalion, man the starter for a Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle prior to a launch Tuesday at Jalalabad Air Field, Afghanistan. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Mideast edition, Saturday, July 21, 2007

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — From enemies planting roadside bombs to pockets of militia hiding in the mountains, the 22 men and one woman of Company B’s Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon will find them.

A mile down the runway from the 173rd’s tactical operations center on Forward Operating Base Fenty, they launch Shadow UAVs multiple times every day, usually flying for eight or nine hours.

Whether stumbling upon activity while performing routine reconnaissance or providing a bird’s-eye view for troops engaged in combat below, the platoon, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team’s Special Troops Battalion, patrols the skies of Nangahar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman provinces, helping protect the thousands of American and Afghan soldiers within.

With only one other unit flying Shadows in Afghanistan, the 13 pilots, 17 maintainers and three leaders know how valuable they are.

“We’re usually the first asset requested (when troops come under fire). We’re an asset to the ground commander, providing a sense of security … not only to the ground commander, but to the entire chain of command,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Cuevas, 32, a platoon sergeant from Pomona, Calif.

“There’s a large sense of pride within the platoon,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles Whitbeck, 32, from Rushville, N.Y., a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot and the platoon’s leader. With seven troops having deployed and used Shadows in combat before, there’s also a lot of experience, added Cuevas, who has been working with and flying UAVs for the Army for 10 years.

More than 100 sorties and 450 flight hours have been flown in the less than two months they’ve been deployed, and those numbers are about to dramatically rise.

Recently gaining two pilots fresh from school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the platoon is about go from 12- to 24-hour operations, said Sgt. John Fenter, of Texarkana, Texas. As the platoon’s standardization pilot, Fenter is in charge of training the new troops.

In addition to using the Shadow cameras to see what’s going on, the platoon also uses infrared targeting capabilities when needed, telling Global Positioning System-guided bombs, Air Force and Army aviation assets or ground artillery where to attack.

Another tactic the platoon uses is noise. Enemies in the region can recognize the sound of a Shadow’s propeller, Whitbeck said, and they’ve flown into enemy areas hoping that the fear of being seen will keep insurgents pinned down and nearby soldiers safe.

At $650,000 a pop, the Shadows are understandably babied. Still, two of the four that the platoon arrived with have crashed due to mechanical failure. One was found by local Afghans about 25 kilometers away from home. Hoping for a reward, they turned it in to American authorities, and it eventually made its way back into the right hands.

The other was never recovered.

Still, every time a Shadow reaches the end of its 30-foot launch track, it’s traveling at 70 mph with about eight Gs of force behind it — out of sight within seconds, but with 23 pairs of trained eyes monitoring every move.


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