Small spy planes make big difference on Afghan battlefield

An member of the Afghan Special Mission Wing and a U.S. air adviser conduct surveillance for Afghan National Police commando units during a Sept. 1, 2015 reconnaissance mission. The wing is the primary source for real-time intelligence for the country's special operations forces.


By CARLO MUNOZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mizzou, an intelligence operator with the Afghan army’s special mission wing, stared at two black images transmitted by an infrared camera to his heads-up display inside a PC-12 Pilatus surveillance aircraft.

“Are those people? Are they moving?” an American air adviser sitting next to him asked quietly. About 16,000 feet below, a police commando unit held its position outside a compound on the outskirts of Kabul, waiting for the answer.

Manipulating the camera’s video-game-like controls, Mizzou zoomed in for a closer look.

After a minute, he replied: “No.” The commando unit’s leader was told that the objects were not threats and that his men could begin their assault.

Throughout the nearly two-hour mission, Mizzou would pan and scan the aircraft’s camera, confirming or dismissing potential threats as the spy plane circled slowly in the sky above the country’s capital.

When the wing was created some six years ago, this type of real-time intelligence was a pipe-dream to Afghanistan’s nascent national security forces. Now, its 450-man crew is responsible for 17 PC-12 single-engine turboprops, along with 30 Russian-built Mil Mi-17 transport helicopters, equipped with machine guns and rockets and fitted with Kevlar armor plating.

The Afghan air force has 52 more Mi-17s in its inventory.

The Pilatus planes were bought by the U.S. for the Afghan army’s special operations forces under a $218 million contract.

The team conducts all of the nighttime operations for special operations units for the country’s military and police. It is also responsible for all aerial surveillance and reconnaissance flights for those ground units.


The city lights of Kabul glow in the distance during an Sept. 1, 2015 aerial surveillance mission by Afghan Special Mission Wing.