PATROL BASE BOLDAK, Afghanistan — The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, had been taking sporadic enemy fire for most of the morning March 2, while conducting their daily patrol through Boldak, a small town interlaced with green fields and large mud compounds about eight kilometers southeast of Camp Leatherneck.
Due to their position and the unforgiving terrain of the city, the Marines couldn’t locate the shooter.
The Marines radioed their combat operations center at Patrol Base Boldak, a small base just two kilometers away, and asked for aerial surveillance to help locate where the shots were coming from. Within minutes, Marines with Weapons Company, 2nd Bn., 7th Marines, had launched an RQ-LOA Puma AE, a small, unarmed aerial vehicle, to search for potential suspects.
As the Puma positioned over the patrol’s location, a man on a motorcycle was spotted speeding north away from their position. An object was tossed across the man’s lap.
The aerial vehicle followed the man as he drove through the city and across fields, weaving in and out of narrow dirt roads and washed out wadies. The man pulled up to a large compound and parked his motorcycle underneath trees that padded the right side of the road. Multiple men flooded out from inside of the compound to meet the motorcyclist.
The Marines at PB Boldak watched on a television screen as the motorcyclist and the men gathered under the trees. For the next few minutes, people moved back and forth from under the tree line to the inside of the compound. After about ten minutes, the motorcyclist and a female passenger left the compound, but without the object.
Although the Marines couldn’t positively identify the object as a weapon, through the use of the aerial surveillance they were able to identify a possible insurgent compound they would now monitor.
Unarmed Aerial Surveillance
Unconventional warfare has defined Afghanistan for the last 12 years. With an enemy who hides among the population and uses improvised explosive devices, the U.S. military has reinvented and transformed its strategies for defeating insurgency.
Weapons Company, 2/7, is one of the few Marine Corps units in Helmand province still operating independently of the Afghan National Army and remains focused on counterinsurgency operations. Aerial surveillance systems are ideal for them as an infantry unit because they allow them to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights over their battlespace.
Since 2012, the Marine Corps has fielded the Puma surveillance system to units in Afghanistan. And for the last five months, the Puma systems have become a fundamental part of battlefield planning for 2nd Bn., 7th Marines.
“Aerial surveillance has become indispensable to our unit,” said Capt. John Dalby, the company commander of Weapons 2/7. “The Puma system has become a lifeline for our unit, allowing us to observe, detect, and monitor a transparent enemy while operating in a counterinsurgency environment.”
The Puma is a hand-launched unarmed aerial vehicle (UAV) with a range greater than 15 kilometers. It weighs 13 pounds, has a two-hour time of flight and can be operated from a static position or a mobile platform. The Puma’s small size and its ease of use are positives for infantry units because it allows them to operate the systems organically.
“The Puma system is very important, especially for the infantry,” said Lance Cpl. Scott Chase, the Puma flight chief for 2/7.
“When it comes to fighting insurgency, we are attempting to fight an enemy who isn’t directly attacking us. With the Puma system, we can independently observe our battlespace day or night, which allows us to find the enemy before he has the chance to find us,” said the Askov and Sandstone, Minn., native.
Currently, the unit has four Puma systems and four flight operators. The operators, who are all infantryman, fly for approximately eight hours each day and have logged over 1,000 flight hours during their deployment.
According to Lance Cpl. Josh Miller, a Puma flight operator and Garrett, Ind. and Mazon, Ill. native, the system has helped them to locate 12 improvised explosive device (IED) emplacements and numerous enemy firing positions, as well as track multiple insurgents across the battlefield.
The future of UAVs
The use of unarmed aerial vehicles has become commonplace on the battlefield and is poised to define the future of combat. However, Dalby believes the real future of aerial surveillance in the Marine Corps lies within its use in amphibious operations.
Dalby, a native of Arnold, Md., was a former small boat commander with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and he believes the Puma systems have unlimited potential in support of ship-to-shore movements.
“Moving into the future, the use of aerial surveillance will become more important,” said Dalby. “As we return to our amphibious roots, we will adapt the technology into a valuable tool for MEU commanders to use in their decision making process for beach landings."