U.S. forces involved in Operation Anaconda weren't just being watched by enemy eyes peering from the cavernous mountain terrain in Afghanistan. High above the action, a live video feed was being transmitted to American commanders.
"The nice thing about video is it is in real time," a senior Air Force official at the Pentagon said in a telephone interview. "You are seeing a live broadcast of movement, of what people are doing. For force protection and real time prosecution of targets, video is a great aide," he said.
Video spying is the primary function of the Predator, an unmanned surveillance aircraft that has proven invaluable to American troops as they work to conquer the Afghan terrain. It was a Predator video feed that allowed military commanders to witness portions of the Anaconda operation where Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell from a U.S. helicopter that was being fired on by Al Qaeda forces.
Whether Roberts was executed by Al Qaeda troops after falling from the helicopter or died in the fall is sill being debated. But the episode only highlighted the benefits of video surveillance technology as an essential component for modern warfare.
"Information is needed for targeting, battle damage assessment, and intelligence," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst for The Federation of American Scientists. "The way that weaponry is evolving is not to become more explosive or more powerful in terms of explosive effect, but to become more precise in its application."
The main advantage of the Predator, the Air Force’s most widely used surveillance equipment, is its ability to stay in flight for long periods of time and dwell in a particular area – allowing various commanders working in the field and elsewhere to observe future targets or ongoing operations.
"It’s going to get even better," one official said, pointing to high definition TV as the kind of technology in the works for military use. "We need to work on it to get better clarity and more definition so we can begin to approach the quality of imagery we get from still photos - which we haven’t achieved yet."
Surveillance drones have been used for years by the U.S. military, in places like Bosnia and Desert Storm. But the technology has really come into its own with Operation Enduring Freedom, experts said.
"The difference between the Gulf War and the current operation is vastly increased bandwidth," said Aftergood. "It’s much easier to disseminate large quantities of audio and video information quickly to and from the battlefield," he noted. "The Predator is in greater use today because there are more of them, they are more sophisticated and carry more capable equipment."
The Predator carries a Verstron Skyball camera, synthetic aperture radar, UHF/VHF radio relay and a digital UHF satellite communications link. Other features proposed for the aircraft include a laser radar and foliage-penetrating radar and chemical and biological agent detectors, according to Jane's Information Group.
The Predator can not only gather intelligence before potential military operations, it can also return to the scene of a battle to determine what kind of damage has been inflicted and what targets may have been hit.
The Predator's cameras cannot yet — and may never be able to — cover the scene across an entire battlefield, said Aftergood. But its current capabilities are crucial for Operation Enduring Freedom’s dangerous missions.
The Predators worked particularly well with AC-130 Spectre gunships in the areas around Al Qaeda cave complexes in Khost Province, according to the Air Force.
In the past, AC-130 gunships had to spend much of their time targeting and preparing to fire on the enemy. The relatively slow and noisy planes were vulnerable to air defenses and allowed enemy forces to run and hide.
But the Predator's direct video feed can now be fed to the AC-130 before it reaches the target area, allowing the aircraft to sweep in and knock out enemy positions much more effectively.
Today’s video technology is what makes it possible to fight a smart war, said Aftergood. "The greater your awareness of the battlefield, the more precisely and effectively you can target the enemy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.