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General fears collisions in air over Iraq
Scripps Howard News Service


October 28, 2005

WASHINGTON - The air over Iraq is becoming so cluttered with unmanned vehicles that the top Air Force commander in Iraq said Thursday he's worried that a cargo plane or helicopter may collide with one of them.

Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan, commander of the 9th Air Force and Central Command Air Forces, spoke to reporters about the challenges pilots are facing because of the explosive growth of electronics systems in Iraq.

Each system - like the unmanned Predator and the thousands of radios and roadside bomb jammers in Iraq - adds to the static and signal noise pilots must navigate, he said. Those electronics systems have come into conflict with each other, too, because there is no overall organization of radio frequency use.

With the low-flying Predators and other unmanned aircraft operated by Army, Marines and Air Force units, there's no main "air traffic control" orchestrating the close-to-the-ground flights.

Even with 21,000 jammers on the battlefield and 1,000 unmanned vehicles in the air, both are still in high demand because of their effectiveness in countering insurgent attacks, so more are on the way. Although he is supportive of both systems, Buchanan is worried that a continued lack of organization will lead to losses.

"I understand we have over 1,000 (unmanned vehicles in Iraq)... with the majority of them flying below 3,000 feet," Buchanan said. "That is a very thick environment. We have in fact had occasions where they have run into a helicopter. Thankfully, to my knowledge, we have not hurt anybody yet."

He added, "I fear that the day will come ... " when there is a collision with casualties.

With the jammers, the lack of organization of radio frequency use is causing some friendly systems to jam other friendly systems, known as "electronic fratricide," he said.

The static is reducing the Predator's capabilities as well. In Iraq, the unmanned vehicles have a range of only about 35 miles before their communications with ground controllers are blocked by other radio signals. For comparison in Afghanistan, where there's far less electronics in play, the Predators have a range of about 120 miles, he said.

"This is the first time that you and I have seen the electronic fratricide reach the point that it has," Buchanan said.

Some of the temporary solutions have included sticking Air Force antennae on top of 110-foot poles to get their signals above some of the noise, Buchanan said. But what's really needed is some sort of overall structure that will direct both the unmanned air traffic and the radio frequency activity.


(Contact Tara Copp at CoppT(at)

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