Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Reaper and the Royal Marines

My Wife spotted this article in the "Globe and Laurel" magazine ( The Royal Marines bi-Monthly Magazine) which at first seemed a strange place to find an article about the Reaper unmanned aircraft. All will be explained when you read the article, which should be available online shortly. I reproduce it in full so it's fairly long. With the 100th British Forces member being killed today it is hoped that these aircraft might help make a difference in this war.

The Globe & Laurel March/April 2008

The Reaper.. or ‘Viva Lost Wages’
by Sgt Gaz Farrimond RM, 39 Squadron RAF

It is usually an ominous day when your Spec Advisor telephones you whilst you are in the middle of a course away from the Corps. It was April of last year when WOl Phil Slocombe called me at the Defence College of Intelligence (DCI) Chicksands with the words ‘Gaz; I need to speak to you about something but not over the phone. Are you on camp tonight?’ The first three things that flashed through my head were, in order; ‘Who have I upset?’ then, ‘Who have I upset?’ and lastly, ‘Who have I upset?’ So it was with some trepidation that I awaited the visit.
WOl Slocombe, as Spec Advisor for Combat Intelligence, spends a fair bit of time at the DCI and was on one of his visits. The knock came on my cabin door and after pleasantries and wets were put aside, out it came; ‘How would you like to take the Reaper draft?’ This was the last thing on my mind, and came as a big surprise. But, rather than shout ‘Yes’, common sense prevailed and I asked for time to think it over as it was a decision that would impact on my wife and family in a very big way.

Fast forward a week and after much phoning, emailing and wrangling with the family I gave the reply of ‘Yes, I’ll take the job’; and this is where it all started going wrong! Without delving too deep, anything that could go wrong did. The admin involved in being the first Bootneck to join a brand new RAF Squadron was complicated enough, made more so by deploying to the US and being accompanied by my family. It is only now, six months after deploying and nine months after starting the whole process, that family life is finally settling down and I am getting paid properly! By the way, many thanks to all those involved in sorting out the admin.

Now, I can hear you all asking ‘What’s Reaper?’ In a nutshell, it is the MQ9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system that the UK has purchased from the USAF, and 39 Sqn RAF are the sole UK users. The Squadron is administered by RAF Waddington near Lincoln, but (and this is where I’ll hear the cries of ‘He’s having a giraffe, it’s just a jolly!’) the Squadron is based at Creech Air Force Base, Indian Springs, Nevada. The base is 30 miles north of Las Vegas, where all the Squadron personnel are housed in the Summerlin area to the west of the city.

Fortunately, it isn’t down The Strip every night for booze and gambling, as our operational tempo is quite hectic. But I will give a few words on Vegas
- Blackpool with heat! The city has got very tired very quickly, and to be honest it is a bonus being housed so far away from the hustle of The Strip. A car is a requirement but Nevada has the highest auto insurance in the US because Vegas is lucky enough to have the highest incidents of driving while under the influence (booze and drugs) across the whole continental USA. Driving, most of the time, is similar to Manchester City centre on the last Saturday before Christmas. Countering this, the housing is far superior to that in the UK and we are very close to some beautiful natural areas such as Mount Charleston, Red Rock Canyon, and the man-made Lake Mead. To be honest, I can think of a lot worse places to be - RM Condor springs to mind!

So, what is 39 Squadron and what do we do? The Squadron’s mission is to provide persistent ISTAR support to coalition forces in operational theatres. We do this by utilising a variety of different sensors. We can provide full motion video (FMV) in real time, up-to-date still images of target areas, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images, and once we are authorised to carry bombs and missiles we will have a strike capability. All this is to support the commander and troops on the ground. Originally the Squadron was known as 1115 Flight, it was formed in January 2004 and embedded in 15th Reconnaissance Squadron USAF, where operational missions began in May 2004. Throughout 2004 to 2006, the unit honed its skills with Predator and the first UK crews trained on MQ9 Reaper in October 2006. In March 2007 39 Squadron formally stood up and the Squadron’s Colours were consecrated on 23 January 2008.

But what is the role of Royal in all this? To answer this, some of my job background will help; I am a RM Combat Intelligence Specialist, and an additional qualification required for some of our posts is an Imagery Analyst (IA). This involves studying aerial photography where we are looking for change detection, AFV identification, building identification, defence workings etc. The list goes on. The UK Imagery Analyst Course is a 16-week in-service course and is run at the DCI.

In early 2007, WOI Phil Slocombe and Lt Col Gary Green acquired my post in 39 Intelligence (there are other Combat int IA posts elsewhere) but official confirmation of the position only came in April 2007 (while I was on course). The joining date (in the USA) of August 2007 meant it was a pretty tight schedule in terms of getting the course finished, house let, and family moved.

My job is Mission Coordinator and I am responsible for establishing and maintaining communications between the crew, other agencies, and the customer. I am also responsible for providing an intelligence assessment from the imagery we analyse, providing video and still imagery again with an assessment or annotations, and writing up any pertinent reports regarding the mission. I also bring to the table ‘boots on the ground’ type operational experience from Afghanistan, which is of huge benefit to the Intelligence, especially regarding enemy forces tactics, techniques and procedures, plus general knowledge on Afghan patterns of life.

Who do we support? Basically anyone who bids for us in Afghanistan, yes anyone. Admittedly the lion’s share of our missions so far have been in support of UKSF but we have also provided support for other organisations including US-SF, ISAF, and various other nationalities. I have personally been in the chair on a number of the occasions when we have directly supported 40 Cdo around Kajaki and Sangin. As the Intelligence now has two airframes and enough trained crews to man them, we are now increasing up from the 18-24 flying days a month we currently have, to daily operations, which should increase support to non SF units. All will be ready in time for the next Brigade deployment later this year.

And what is to come? Reaper is a massive asset for a commander on the ground to utilise. The aircraft can be everything from a flying OP providing 360-degree video, to a close air support platform once we begin carrying weapons. It is far superior in endurance, image quality, video quality and real time assessment than Hermes 450 or any other UAV utilised by the UK military at this time. The Royal Marines are actively involved, and our profile within the UAV community is rising.

Finally, if you are a commander on the ground, request us and use us. You will not be disappointed. The more you request us, the greater chance you’ll get the support.