How the Pioneer Robot Plane Helped Win an Artillery Duel

The daytime optical camera on the Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, yields rich colors, and so the quick red flashes from the mosque courtyard instantly caught the Marines’ attention. The operation to seize back Fallujah was going well on the afternoon of Nov. 8. Seven battalions were advancing from the north, and the Pioneer was circling a four-square kilometer district to the south, called Queens. Long the lair of criminal gangs, terrorists, kidnappers, and jihadists, Queens was a jumble of a few thousand drab cement two-story houses and dirt roads, with scant vegetation.

Spotting insurgents was not a problem for “The Watchdogs”—Marine Air Wing unit VMU-1 that operated the Pioneer. Based in a tent next to a runway a few miles outside Fallujah, the Watchdogs had flown several hundred surveillance missions over the city during the past five months. The insurgents had no place to hide. When they came out of doors, they were seen, tracked, and attacked—day after day. Several times the Watchdogs had seen pickups suddenly swerve into empty lots, the occupants jumping out, setting up long tubes, firing a few rockets and scurrying off before a response attack could be launched.

“We followed one pickup after it fired some rockets,” Staff Sgt. Francisco Tataje, the intelligence chief, said. “It swung up onto the main highway and we had it intercepted. The driver had a perfect ID. No incriminating stuff. We gave the interrogation team a copy of our video. They called back to say the guy confessed.”

Today’s mortar attack from the mosque, though, broke the usual shoot-and-scoot pattern. This time the mortar crew was staying and fighting back. The half-completed mosque looked like a small soccer stadium, with an oval-shaped courtyard wall several stories high and an empty interior court. In the center of the court was a single mortar tube pointed north toward Camp Fallujah, the logistics hub of the coalition operation. Every 10 minutes or so, three insurgents sprinted from a large house a few hundred meters north of the mosque and disappeared under the eaves of the wall. A few minutes later, they dashed out, each dropping one round down the tube and madly sprinting back to the house.

After six mortar rounds randomly exploded around the huge Camp Fallujah, Lt. Col. John Neumann, the Watchdogs’ mission commander, took a phone call from the Fusion Center, which integrated all intelligence sources and assigned targets to firing units.

“Air’s not available. Arty has the target,” Neumann said to his 10-man crew clustered around two video displays and four computer monitors.

Artillery was an area-fire weapon, most useful against troops in the open but not intended for point targets. It was not the first choice for this sort of mission. But artillery was all that was immediately available.

Lance Cpl. Jonathan Salisibrarra, the payload operator, placed the crosshairs of the Pioneer’s optical camera on the mortar tube and read off the 10-digit grid that appeared on the screen. The coordinates were typed and sent to the Fusion Center and the firing battery. The crew waited for several minutes, saying little, as the Pioneer circled several thousand feet above, camera locked on the shiny mortar tube. When Neumann said, “Shot out,” they craned forward to watch the explosion.

When a large gray puff popped up a football field away from the tube, the crew measured the miss distance and typed in, Add one hundred, right fifty.Several minutes later, a large cloud of dirt erupted inside the courtyard. Among several cries of All right! the next command was Fire for effect. A few minutes later, two bright orange flashes lighted up the courtyard, with a third about 100 meters to the south. When the smoke cleared, the tube was still standing. The crew called for another volley. Same result—close but not effective. No secondary explosions. No visible damage to the tube.

During the ensuing lull, the three insurgents again ran from the safe house to the mosque wall, picked up shells, dropped them down the tube, and ran back to the house.

The Watchdogs exchanged exclamations.

“They’re hanging in there.”

“You wouldn’t catch me playing dodge with 155s.”

“Suckers are dead meat if they guess wrong when the next volley is.”

“We’re getting Predator,” Neumann said after calling the Fusion Center.

Launched from a site near Baghdad, the Predator UAV carried a Hellfire missile. Its crew and its video feeds were back in California. A few weeks earlier, the Watchdogs had employed Predator to hit a moving pickup with a mounted machine gun—one robot leading another robot to the target. NFL games on television allow the viewer to see the same play from different angles. But the digital pipes for battlefield imagery weren’t large enough to permit the Watchdogs and the Predator crew in California to see each other’s video. Instead, the Predator and Pioneer crews used e-mail chat and GPS coordinates to align their platforms.

“Break, break,” Neumann said, “Predator’s been diverted. Profane is on station and has the mission. Stand by for talk on.”

Profane was the call sign for a flight of two Marine AV-8B jets hovering at 19,000 feet above the city. The Watchdogs would use voice and data to talk to the Forward Air Controller Airborne (or FACA) who would line up the jets for the attack.

In the meantime, the insurgents had made another round-trip sprint. Twelve rounds had been launched at Camp Fallujah. The Fusion Center wanted this duel over with.

“What do you think, guys?” asked Neumann, whose leadership style was inclusive. “The tube or the house?”

“House!” came back the chorus.

The two-story cement house where the insurgents were hiding between rounds had a dome roof, a large courtyard with an outside wall, and an overhang at the front door, where a sentry was posted. The Watchdogs had counted five men outside, assuming it was the same sprinters making the round trip to the mortar each time. Once Profane had locked on the mosque, Neumann talked the FACA on.

“The house is the first one north of the vacant lot on the northeast corner. Has a dome roof. Wait—it’s where that truck is. Got it?”

A truck had pulled up and five men had walked inside, carrying something in their arms. Three dogs had trotted up.

“Supper time. They’re changing shifts,” Sgt. Roneil Sampson, an imagery analyst, said. “Domino’s delivery.”

“Cleared hot,” Neumann said. Impact was less than a minute away.

Word had spread to the off-duty crew and over two dozen Marines had squeezed into the small op center, murmuring back and forth.

“I like dogs. Get out of there dogs.”

“Stay in there, muj. You’re almost in paradise. Don’t leave now. Don’t leave.”

The courtyard door opened, and a man walked to the truck and slowly drove away.

“Boot muj sent out to get the Coke. Luckiest bastard on the planet.”

Both video screens suddenly flashed bright white, as if a fuse had blown. There was a collective Damn! from the watching Marines. The center of the roof was now a huge black hole.

“That’s a shack,” Neumann said. “Now that’s what I call a shack!”

“I feel sorry for the dogs,” someone shouted.

“Great job, Watchdogs,” Neumann said. “Great job.”