‘Every brigade has its own drone’: An interview with Major General Jeff Buchanan

Major General Jeff Buchanan, chief spokesman for the Unites States Forces in Iraq (USFI), spoke to the Bureau last month about the role that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have played in the Iraq War. A veteran of three tours in Iraq, he argues that intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are the fields that have benefited the most from drone technology.

Could we start first by talking broadly about how the US’ use of UAVs in Iraq has changed over the years? Use of UAVs has increased quite dramatically since they were introduced back in 2007, but particularly in the last year. To what extent is this an indication of their effectiveness?

Remotely piloted aircraft [RPAs] have been very useful here over the years and their use has, like any system over almost nine years of use – across all our nine years of experience in Iraq, many of our systems have changed as the conditions have changed. I think this is broadly reflecting the fact that the military really works hard to be a learning organisation. We look at our tactics, how we use the systems we employ, the nature of our joint and inter-agency coordination – all of these things have changed over the last nine or ten years as we’ve learned from other nations, from our inter-agency partners, from our own forces and from the Iraqis that we’ve dealt with.

So we’ve changed our use of all things, and I think that RPAs are just one of those. And technology has evolved over time as well, so what started out as a system that was only available in few numbers and controlled at the highest levels has now made it down. Every one of our brigades has its own RPA. That’s part of our structure, so we have the tools that these aircraft provide available at a much lower level than before.

Courtesy USFI

I think that the dominant use in Iraq has not been for providing ground attack or things like that. It’s really all been about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as a tool for commanders to help better understand what’s going on. We’ve used RPAs in combination with piloted aircraft, working directly for ground commanders, providing extended surveillance on key communication routes or oil pipelines or borders. There’s all sorts of things that have developed about enhancing the understanding that commanders have of what’s actually happening in the environment.

With RPA – especially with the numbers of them we’ve had – there are different challenges. It’s much more difficult, when you have more than one in the environment, to work through your controls so you don’t have things that go bump in the night, if you will. We work very closely with the entire theatre to determine routes and de-conflict airspace through different coordinating altitudes to ensure that every piece of equipment – and this could be everything from RPA to helicopters to jets to artillery rounds moving through the airspace – all go where they’re authorised to go, so that we don’t have inadvertent problems.

So drones are very much integrated with the broader theatre of war?

Absolutely. When you have an area that has a high concentration of different things using the same airspace, the controls are that much more important. You’ve got a system of procedural controls – things like specified routes and altitudes that different system can fly – to positive control, which is actually somebody in communication with the controller deconflicting things, person to person.

In terms of integrating UAV technology with other elements the US combat capability – piloted aircraft and other assets – what are the advantages that the UAV armada in particular can bring?

Broadly speaking, duration – their endurance, the amount of hours they can fly with limited maintenance. They’re smaller: the wingspan on one of these things is only several feet, as opposed to something as large as a manned aircraft, and they’re employed by lower-level commanders who don’t typically have intelligence platforms. [Those commanders would otherwise] have to rely on somebody else to provide their intelligence. And of course for days [those drones] aren’t operating at such a range that requires a large aircraft or system with many hours of endurance, like some of our largest RPAs have.

It’s a great tool. None of them are a panacea for all the problems one might encounter on the modern battlefield, but it does enhance the toolkit. Commanders now have an additional tool to collect information. If they see something through use of an ISR platform like an RPA then they can make a decision: do I need to move something else there, do I need to check it out with something on the ground, is there a point of concern to the point where I need to avoid going to an area? All the way down to surveillance of pipelines. You have miles and miles of empty pipeline going across the desert. It’s far more efficient and effective if you maintain surveillance on it through the use of UAVs than if you sustain an assault every 200m.

We have over the years here employed lethal fires from RPAs but really it’s only been a handful of times

And we’ve seen great, great use of UAVs spearheaded by our Navy down in Iraq’s territorial waters, and the Iraqi navy is getting its own version of UAVs – Scan Eagles – that they’re going to employ to help maintain surveillance over Iraq’s territorial waters. And it really does extend the legs of the guys who are on the patrol boats out there maintaining security, because they can see that much more just by getting a little bit of altitude for observation.

It’s interesting to hear you say that ISR has benefited the most from this kind of technology. A lot of the reaction we observe in the public sphere equates drones with combat drones, specifically things like Predators and Reapers launching Hellfire missiles. So it’s interesting to hear you say that ISR is the principal field in which they’ve made a contribution.

We have over the years here employed lethal fires from RPAs but really it’s only been a handful of times, and when you look at the thousands and thousands of sorties that these platforms fly, it’s a tool that can be employed but it’s very, very seldomly used. Much more frequently, RPAs will detect something and then based on that we’ll make another decision – do I vector in a manned aircraft? Do I send somebody on the ground? Are we going to continue to surveil an area? For example, if a drone detects something that looks like an emplaced IED, what decision are we going to make? Well one of the first we might make is to stop traffic, so that we don’t cause risk while we figure out what happens.

But the greatest contribution – I can really only speak to Iraq – by far is really about enhancing our understanding of what’s happening in the environment, given all the different sorts of imagery intelligence that can be employed through an RPA, can enhance the understanding of what’s happening. At night you’ve got different systems to be able to see heat and those add to the understanding of what’s going on.

Let’s talk about Task Force Odin, wherein drones were used to neutralise IEDs. That’s really one of the great successes of the drone contribution.

It is. As you know, Task Force Odin started here, then was adapted specifically for Afghanistan. So it’s a little different there than it has been in Iraq, but it has been a great combat multiplier. It has had a significant effect in our ability to – as the name would lead you to believe – observe, defend, identify, and neutralise various types of IEDs. And it’s not all about RPAs or piloted aircraft: it’s a combination. It’s an organisation that was built around seeing a need to structure, and the capabilities of the organisation over time have changed, much as the ground counter-IED fight has evolved as conditions have changed.

Various terrorist organisations employ different types of munitions and different types of triggering devices. We devise ways to counter those and you see that in both air and ground. Although we think of Odin as an organisation that is geared around flying, it’s obviously part of a larger system of tools as well. So you could have Odin detect something, and it may be that part of neutralising an IED requires an infantryman to go out and actually do something about it. It’s a combined arms approach to every one of these.

Moving on, we’ve talked a bit about the proliferation of UAV technology and how it’s given ISR to various ground brigades that might not have had that before. To what extent have commanders embraced UAV tech, and to what extent have pilots embraced it? Making that transition from the cockpit to the remote piloting interface – would you describe that as having had a positive reaction, or is that something that still needs getting used to?

We see it all as an opportunity to enhance one’s ability, whether that’s to collect intelligence or to see threats. Commanders appreciate having access to the information. Now, it’s not every commander’s job to become an expert on the characteristics, capabilities and limitations of a UAV, but what he starts with is really an identification of ‘what do I need to know? What do I need to know about the enemy, the terrain and myself in order to make decisions?’. Then based on that, the staff works together and the commanders help to develop a plan to collect information. Part of that information collection plan regularly includes the use of RPA, whether they’re his own or he’s going to ask for some help from a higher organisation.

And some of that depends on what specific capabilities are needed, whether or not he has them, whether he’s got something that‘s going to give him the range and all the observation capabilities, or if he’s going to heed help from a theatre-level asset. So we go through that process, but clearly they’ve embraced it because it enhances our ability to understand what’s happening. And UAVs can certainly be employed to understand what’s happening with the terrain – it’s not all just about the enemy situation. You can send a UAV up ahead to find out whether or not a bridge is out. If you have that edge at your disposal it keeps you from sending your own troops into an area, which might take a lot more time.

There are limitations, particularly on duration and on weather – if you have a very bad thunderstorm or high winds, certain temperatures – all those are limiting factors for employment of UAVs. But we have limiting factors to every one of [our] systems, including the regular infantryman – he’s got limiting factors as well. And so I think that, as with anything, the UAVs or RPAs are a great addition to the toolkit and they enhance what’s available, but I don’t necessarily see them as being revolutionary in and of themselves. It is different, it has to be accounted for and it can be a great tool if you recognise the capabilities and limitations.

And what about from the pilot’s perspective?

Are you talking about the ground pilot or the air pilot? The guy who’s operating UAV, or a helicopter pilot for example?

A sense of to what extent pilots who would normally fly a helicopter or piloted aircraft and have been moved onto RPAs, and what the reaction has been like from those officers who’ve had to make that adaptation?

I couldn’t speak to that, but my assumption is very, very few people who are qualified aviators, either helicopter or fixed-wing, are now involved in operating RPAs. It’s a completely different career field. They may be involved in the planning, and certainly the coordination. Some of our UAVs can in fact be controlled from the cockpit of an aircraft, which is obviously a different dimension. Some of the little things can be dynamically tasked from the cockpit of an aircraft, and it’s just another tool that commanders can employ to extend their ability to observe what’s going on. Obviously the information that RPAs are collecting can be made available to a piloted aircraft in realtime. So if an RPA is observing something and we want to check it out, one of the ways we can do that is connect the two and they can pass information realtime, and the pilot of a helicopter or a jet can fly and check it out with his systems as well.

Very few people who are qualified aviators, either helicopter or fixed-wing, are now involved in operating RPAs. It’s a completely different career field.

So it’s the system, the architecture and how these things all talk to each other that make it such a powerful addition to our capabilities. They aren’t all discrete capabilities that aren’t all interconnected; in fact it’s their connection that makes them real powerful.

And going back to the discussion about the public discourse on drones, as I say, a lot of the conversation that we see is very much discussion of ground attack potential and one of the criticisms that sometimes gets leveled at the Pentagon is that the data isn’t issued on those killed or injured by drone strikes. Is that something that the Pentagon hears and understands? What’s your reaction to that criticism?

I can only talk about Iraq – RPA have been employed only a handful of times in lethal engagements here in Iraq, and every one of those were for discrete targeting. An example would be a couple of guys placing an IED on a remote road – those kinds of things have happened. But any consideration of potentially injuring non-combatants is always part of a discussion and part of a decision. We do absolutely everything that we can to minimise the risk and many times, if there is a significant risk of engaging anybody, and this is either by RPAs or manned aircraft or an infantryman with a rifle, we put the decision at the hands of the commander who’s on the scene at the time. People who are making decisions about engagement within Iraq on IEDs are usually the ground commanders who are responsible for that area. So these aren’t decisions that are taken lightly, and concern about potential casualties or damage to structures are always part of the decision. If you’re asking me if we’re concerned about it, the answer is yes, we’re always concerned about it. If you’re asking me have we had those issues, no we haven’t, but again Iraq is not Afghanistan or Pakistan. It provides its own series of limitations and challenges, but it’s a very different place.

Let’s talk about specific issues around drones. There was an incident in 2009 when an Iranian drone was shot down – reported to have been surveilling Camp Ashraf as well as a US military base. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that – it’s drones from the other side, as it were, and the discussion is always about the US use of them.

We have had occasional UAVs come across the border from Iran. And we see them regularly flying on their side of the border. I do remember the incident you’re talking about. It was shot down in Diyala province but more specific than that – what its purpose was – I don’t know.

Would you say the number of surveillance drones you’ve seen on the Iranian side of the border has increased, or is this something that hasn’t changed from their side?

You know, I’m not an expert on it and I’d be hesitant to speculate about levels, but just as my observation of it, over the last three or four years it’s been fairly steady. Not a great number, but we have seen incidents. I haven’t seen any specific change in the trend.

A separate issue that’s cropped up is that it was reported that AQ in Iraq got hold of Russian filesharing software and had managed to access the camera feeds from certain drones operating in Iraq. How serious was that, has it been solved?

That pre-dated my time here. I really don’t know much about that. Actually it was probably between my tours.

As the drawdown continues, are drones going to continue to fly, are combat hours going to be scaled down? How soon is that happening?

We continue to operate them through the rest of our time in the country and we’re set to completely honour our commitment to both Iraq and the United States bilateral security agreement we signed in 2008. That mandates that our troops are withdrawn by the end of December this year, and we’re on track completely to do that. We’re down now to about 20,000 troops; that’s from a high of about 165,000 during the surge, and then we for most of the last year we stayed between 45 and 49,000 under Operation New Dawn.

And of course, our primary purpose had changed when we went from Operation Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn, from focusing on security ourselves to actually helping the Iraqis doing the Advise, Train, Assist and Equip mission, to help them prove their capabilities as they took the lead for security. We maintained a fairly steady level of troops: we’re now down to just eight bases, from a high of 505 bases and about 20,000 troops.

We’re going to continue to employ RPAs throughout. They’re integral to all of our operations, because every one of these redeployments of equipment we approach as a combined arms organisation, and obviously intelligence plays one of the key roles. We collect intelligence, we maintain surveillance, we send patrols out. Of course they’re talking to the intel collectors and in this case a number of them are RPAs. We clear the routes, we coordinate security with the Iraqi forces so they perform part of it, then our troops actually move in these convoys as we move equipment out. We keep manned aircraft up and available to provide attack aircraft support as well as ‘medevac’ [medical evacuation] aircraft, so every one of these is a combined [operation] and RPAs are part of every one.

And what now for the drones that are in Iraq? As the drawdown continues, where are they going to be relocated? There was a report a week ago that four of them were going to based in Incirlik in Turkey; what about the rest of them?

Most of them, the ones that are organic to our ground forces, will redeploy with those forces. I can’t speculate about what decisions the Centcom [Central Command] commander may make or the National Command Authority [may make] but we have requirements all around the world, and when we move all of our troops and equipment out of Iraq there are requirements there still to be met and there are decisions made about what do we do with what’s available. Do we move them all back to the US or do we employ them elsewhere? And the same goes for systems like RPAs or satellites that have been dedicated for particular purposes or support by USFI. When they leave there’s potentially some satellite time freed up. These kinds of things are all part of the assets that have been employed here over the years that will change when USFI leaves Iraq completely. What we won’t have is RPAs from the US military operating in Iraq any more because the USFI are leaving. So some of them will be redeployed and some will go elsewhere.

Are some UAVs going to be moved to other airbases around the region?

That certainly exceeds my lane – I can’t answer that. It’s certainly possible, but those decisions are really above and beyond what happens here in Iraq. All we know is once we no longer need something then it is made available to the decision makers and it could be employed elsewhere or redeployed and prepared for the next mission. I did mention just very briefly how the Iraqi Navy is getting its own Scan Eagles. There will still be some RPAs operating in Iraq, but under the Iraqi security forces.

Can you give me any indication of scale? How will the US’s volume of drones compare to the Iraqi forces’ own UAV capacity?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that we’ve been averaging over the last four years between 8,000-11,000 ISR sorties per year. Obviously the numbers that will be available to the Iraqi security forces will be far less than that. But eventually they could build more of that capability – it’s really up to them to make that decision about how best to observe and secure and maintain their sovereignty.

But I think that surveillance of Iraq’s territorial waters and their employment in the maritime domain is a perfect example of how RPAs can be used by commanders of the navy and help them provide security not just for the territorial waters but also for the offshore oil platforms that are so critical to Iraq’s economy.

And this will be chiefly Scan Eagles?

What the Iraqi Navy is getting is Scan Eagles. If there are any other desires for something bigger, broader or for more of them, I don’t know about them. But that doesn’t mean that the army might not be amongst the future decisions that the Iraqi government makes.

Major General, thank you for your time.