SOUTHWEST ASIA: Leaders at every level need battlefield information, and because of Airmen with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron … now they know.
With their RQ-4 Global Hawk and U-2 aircraft, the Airmen excel at providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for everyone from combatant commanders to troops on the ground.
According to Lt. Col. Kirt Stallings, the squadron commander, their mission is as much a tactical one as it is strategic. The pilots provide leaders with the knowledge they need to make more informed decisions about operations. But the pilots also communicate with joint terminal attack controllers embedded with Army and Marine units, as well as coalition partners.
“When a pilot is overhead, they can talk directly to troops so if guys on the ground need to know what’s beyond that next ridge, we can let them know,” said Colonel Stallings, a Houston native. “If a JTAC on the ground needs air support, a U-2 pilot can let them know what assets are available for that as well.”
Both the U-2 and Global Hawk, deployed from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., have a plethora of sensors, but each aircraft is used in different ways. The U-2 flies above 70,000 feet so it’s able to record both signals and still imagery intelligence over a larger area. But because the Global Hawk doesn’t have an onboard pilot, it can stay overhead longer than the typical ten hour U-2 sorties.
“Global Hawks and U-2s complement each other,” Colonel Stallings explained. “For example, if a U-2 pilot finds four different hot spots that need monitoring, they can reach out to other assets, like Global Hawks, to provide ISR needs. A U-2 is more capable, but a Global Hawk can remain on station after a U-2 has to turn back.”
The Global Hawk pilots in theater are responsible for the takeoff and landing; operators back at Beale actually give it commands during most of its mission. Keeping the bulk of Global Hawk operations stateside means a smaller footprint at their deployed location, Maj. Scott Zeller said.
“Having some RQ-4 pilots in theater is a safety net to make sure launches and recoveries go smoothly,” said Major Zeller, a Denver native. “Once the aircraft is in the air, we hand-off operations to the pilots back at Beale and they can fly it for the next 20 hours from there.”
Unmanned aerial systems provide “an amazing capability” for coalition forces, Major Zeller said. Those capabilities will only get better in the future. The squadron is currently preparing for the newest version of the aircraft, which boasts a larger wingspan and upgraded sensors.
“The Global Hawk is the future of the high-altitude ISR mission,” said New Jersey native Maj. Andrew McVicker, the 99th ERS director of operations. “But in the interim, nothing compares to what the U-2 can do. The most impressive thing about our community is that we’ve been flying the U-2 for more than 50 years and it’s just as important today as ever — it’s the stalwart of the battlefield.
“Either way, ISR keeps commanders in the know,” Major McVicker said, “and knowing is half the battle.”