Unmanned aerial vehicles and other so-called "stand-off" weapons, whether currently used or in secret testing, belong to a developing high-tech arsenal that the U.S. military says will help minimize casualties as it battles insurgents.
Most of the systems are slated for continued, if not intensified, use as Iraqi forces train to take over the bulk of combat operations from the Americans — though when that might happen remains uncertain.
More than 1,120 U.S. soldiers have died in the conflict at a current rate of more than two each day.
By the light of flashlights and a crescent moon, the three-member crew catapults a 300-lb. pilotless airplane into the sky.
Minutes later, other U.S. soldiers behind a computer screen inside a shed monitor video images from the plane, known as a Shadow, as it loiters over a traffic circle frequently attacked by insurgent bombs.
"We fill some of the gaps in the intelligence field. We put one of these in harm's way instead of a soldier. It's all about saving lives," says Sgt. Francisco Huereque, who is in charge of the night's launch.
In units like the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, several surveillance drones and specially equipped terrestrial vehicles are deployed daily to protect soldiers against what persists as the deadliest killer — roadside explosives.
An armored, tractor-like vehicle called the Meerkat is often dispatched to detect suspected improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, while soldiers stand safely back. The South African-made vehicle, which can be driven by a soldier or operated by remote control, can withstand the simultaneous blast of three anti-tank mines, said Staff Sgt. Darrell Theurer, a Bismarck, N.D., native.
Combing the roads around this provincial capital 35 miles north of Baghdad, Theurer's unit also trots out the Buffalo, a massive, heavily armored machine that can run Meerkats by remote control and plow through a minefield to scoop up explosives with its retractable arm.
In other missions, robots are called in to shoot video of the insides of cars suspected of carrying bombs.
Jamming the terrorists
The life-protecting technologies extend to the airwaves.
A system installed in Humvees called Warlock, made by EDO Corp. of New York, can jam signals from mobile telephones, garage door openers and other remote-control devices used by insurgents to detonate explosives.
Officers say that without such technologies, casualties would unquestionably be higher.
The Pentagon estimates some 40 percent of improvised explosive devices are now discovered before rebels set them off.
Higher up the military chain from the brigade, still classified technology to ferret out roadside bombs is being tried out while in the wings are other intelligence-gatherers that may or may not make it to the Iraqi battlefield.
On the ground, a variety of new unmanned vehicles are expected to enter the field in coming years.
Among them is the Military R-Gator, built by tractor-maker Deere & Co. and iRobot, which makes the far smaller remote-controlled PackBot robots already deployed to scout out dangerous locations and dispose of explosives. The R-Gator, set to begin full production in 2006, will be autonomous, meaning it will navigate and perform some tasks without any input from humans.
In the air, military officials are investigating the use of stationary, spherical "spy in the sky" airships and a digital camera packed into a mortar shell that transmits photos to a soldier's laptop while the shell floats to the ground attached to a parachute.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, were flying over Iraq even before the war began and now range from the high-altitude, super-sophisticated Global Hawk to the Raven, which comes in a carrying case and is launched by just flipping it into the air.
The tiny Raven is just 3 feet long, with a wing span of 4 1/2 feet, and weighs 4 pounds. It can fly as far away as nine miles and stay in the air for 80 minutes.
Military officials will not reveal the total number of UAVs being used in Iraq, citing operational security. But Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank in Washington, said he has heard that UAVs across all branches are performing about 400 sorties a day in Iraq.
The U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., which developed the Raven, said in May that more than 100 of the tiny UAVs were being deployed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's clear from the troops on the ground that they'll take as many as they can get. "It's such a sought-after commodity, they can't churn them out fast enough," says Sgt. Michael Lucas, a pilotless-craft mission commander from Jerseyville, Ill. Soldiers are also being streamed out of the nine-month UAV training school.
This brigade operates four Shadows, which are used mainly to snoop for roadside explosives, car bombs, rebel mortar positions, urban snipers and insurgents who may be stalking U.S. convoys.
Soldiers with Huereque, who is from Prineville, Ore., say a Shadow will be in the air 45 minutes after an order is given, much quicker than it takes for the unit to receive images from satellites.
One Shadow recently tracked a van driving from a mortar emplacement as it dropped off four individuals at various points before arriving at a house.
Alerted about what the Shadow had seen, ground troops moved in to round up six insurgents who were carrying incriminating evidence: the insurgents' own video of mortars being fired at U.S. bases, according to 2nd Lt. Liesel Himmelberger, who monitors real-time images from UAVs in the brigade's operation center.
It's also suspected that as a UAV flies overhead, its mere sound — described as "a lawnmower on steroids" — may help save lives.
"If you're doing something nasty and you have one buzzing over your head at 5,000 feet you might just break off," says Himmelberger, of Newburgh, N.Y.
The brigade's intelligence officer, Maj. Kreg Schnell, says the unit that replaces theirs when it leaves Iraq in February will be more digitally advanced.
But Schnell, from Seattle, is skeptical about how many lives can be saved as the Americans seek to put more unmanned machines in the line of fire and relegate soldiers to the role of intelligence collectors.
"It's a force-oriented enemy that will still come after us," Schnell predicts. "Economic and political well-being for the Iraqis, that will save American lives."