Protecting skies over war zones gets tougher
The airspace over Iraqi cities has become a traffic controller's nightmare. And it could get much worse, officials predict.
The multitude of surveillance and cargo aircraft flying in war zones there continues to get larger - as it becomes more dangerous to move by ground. Air traffic congestion just adds another complication for U.S. commanders planning missions in Iraq.
The Army general in charge of air-missile-defense forces, Maj. Gen. Robert P. Lennox, says that managing the complex airspace in Iraq is a major piece of the planning that goes into every mission.
"The air picture is more important and more complicated than it's ever been before," says Lennox, who commands the Army Air Defense Artillery Center in Fort Bliss, Texas.
U.S. forces so far have not contended with any significant threats from enemy aircraft or drones, but have been subject to insurgents' mortar attacks, and do not discount the possibility of 9/11-like suicide missions. Sorting out friendly unmanned aircraft, helicopters, fixed wing airplanes, artillery and mortar rounds increasingly requires sophisticated technologies that fuse data and provide tactical commanders with a consolidated picture of every friendly and enemy aircraft and missile in the area of operations.
The airborne threats in Iraq or Afghanistan are non-traditional, and range from rockets, artillery and mortars, to kamikaze planes, Lennox says. "Depending on the time, we have provided air defense of areas in and around Baghdad because of 9/11 type threats, for example. Air defense soldiers have been doing that job off and on for the past couple of years."
Embedded in every Army brigade in Iraq is an "air defense airspace management cell," whose job is to keep the brigade commander aware of what's going on in the airspace.
While Air Force controllers keep track of fixed-wing aviation, the Army must monitor the flight paths of hundreds of helicopters, artillery projectiles and surveillance drones.
Although there are no indications that insurgents operate UAVs in Iraq, that could change, and the Army would be responsible for locating them and, if necessary, destroying them, says Lennox. "In the future, if bad guys have UAVs, our job will be to sort out bad guys' UAVs from friendly ones. You don't want a bad guy's UAV hovering over your head. You have to know who it is and what they are doing. If necessary, you have to shoot them down."
Lennox is working with other senior Army officials to secure funding for technologies that help commanders create a cohesive picture of the airspace. One existing technology, called the "advanced warfare environment," started out as experimental software designed to link the sensors and weapons in Patriot (anti-missile) and Avenger (anti-aircraft) air-defense units. With this software, the Army Space and Missile Defense Command created a "fire coordination cell" that allows air-defense battalions to merge the radar feeds from the Patriot and the Sentinel into a single picture. Although the technology is still experimental, the results have been promising, Lennox says.
In a broader sense, technologies that assist in air traffic management and …