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Afghanistan's Game of Drones

Rugged mountains and rocky plains make Afghanistan a difficult trek for people, but well-suited for drones.

by Kevin Sites
30 July 2013, 8:00am

Geography rules in eastern Afghanistan. Rugged mountains and rocky plains make it a difficult trek for people, but well-suited for donkeys and drones. And these days the region has its share of both.

On NATO’s Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar Province, US Army Staff Sergeant Kane Featherston and Specialist Torrin McDougle, both of 4-3 Brigade’s Special Troops Battalion, prepare a battleship gray drone for launch.

The Shadow 200, made by the AAI Corporation, is the width of a garage door. Depending on its configuration, it can weigh as much as 425 pounds.

While at first glance this unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV doesn’t look much different than a hobbyist’s radio controlled plane, it’s sophisticated guidance, flight and surveillance technology put it in the price range of approximately $1 million.

But officers here believe the small package is worth the price, considering the intelligence it provides Task Force Vanguard.

“It’s the smallest of the big drones and biggest of the small drones,” according to Lieutenant Mark McConnell, the platoon leader in charge of the Shadow’s operations here.

While it can be mounted with weapons, McConnell says that’s not it’s purpose for Task Force Vanguard. The drone is used to gather intelligence about Taliban movements as well as provide and “eye in the sky” overwatch for US and Afghan National Army troops while they’re out on patrol.

Within minutes after Featherston and McDougle load the Shadow onto a hydraulic, nitrogen-powered catapult, the Shadow will accelerate from zero to 70 before it hits the end of its ramp, airborne and scanning the region around Logar and Wardak Provinces.

Pilots operate the drone from a Ground Control System based in the back of a vehicle, moving the aircraft with a computer mouse. Flying the UAV can be a challenge in Afghanistan, winds, updrafts, mountains and other obstacles mean the pilots need to be on highly alert during the six to nine hours the Shadow can remain airborne.

Because American and Afghan troops are patrolling so frequently, a squadron of million-dollar Shadows are logging 36-40 hours of flight time every day here, over the inhospitable and often dangerous terrain below.

Watch the Shadow in action:

All video, text, and photos by Kevin Sites.

Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement”. Kevin is currently travelling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to for more dispatches from Kevin.

More on VICE from Kevin Sites:   The Enduring Art of Afghanistan

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