Defend Our Marines | July 23, 2007


Eye in the sky over Haditha What you see is what you get

by Nathaniel R. Helms

Revelations of a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle flying over the site of the alleged ‘massacre’ at Haditha, Iraq shows conclusively that combat commanders up the chain of command from Kilo Company to the 2nd Marine Division were able in ‘real time’ to witness what was unfolding on the battlefield, several career Marines said.

Their comments fly in the face of prosecution charges that the battlefield commanders from company to regimental level failed to adequately investigate or inform 2nd Marine Division Commander Richard A. Huck what transpired at Haditha. At a minimum his intelligence chief (G-2) and operations officer (G-3) were receiving real time reports and live digital image downloads of the battle as it progressed, the Marines agreed.

Currently former 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani is waiting to discover whether he will face general courts-martial for both failing to keep his superiors informed or investigating the circumstances of the incident after the fact. The fight at Haditha left 24 Iraqis and one Marine dead and more than a dozen Kilo Company Marines wounded.

With a wingspan of 10 feet and weighing about 33 pounds, the $100,000 light-weight composite spy plane looks more toy than military plane. The ScanEagle can fly more than 15 hours nonstop at a speed of 50 nautical miles per hour and an elevation of 16,000 feet. It is virtually undetectable to the naked eye at altitude. It is launched from a portable “slingshot” launcher and recovered in a trap of sorts that catches and slows down the little plane using bungee cords, according to the Marine Corps.

A Marine said that ScanEagle UAV missions were usually tasked from higher headquarters in a complicated arrangement requiring coordination with the air wing, the UAV squadron providing the ScanEagle, the regimental or division G-2 (intelligence officers)  and G-3 (operations officers), as well as the unit requesting support. ScanEagle’s primary purpose that day was to provide ‘eyes’ for the AH -1W Super Cobra attack helicopters and fixed wing assets that were also orbiting the battlefield, he said.

During the fight a Marine F-18 fighter bomber destroyed a house and killed five insurgents after a Cobra called in by Chessani was unable to fire its Hellfire missiles, according to evidence already introduced. Two other insurgents and a large cache of arms were also captured. The insurgents were tracked to the house from the location where Wuterich’s squad was under attack. Both types of aircraft as well as Chessani’s staff were receiving targeting information from the ScanEagle operators, the Marine said.

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An officer who fought at Fallujah but not present at Haditha said a battalion intelligence officer such as Capt. Jeffrey Dinsmore, the Marine who revealed the ScanEagle’s presence in Chessani’s recent Article 32 investigation – would have to request such a high-value asset through the chain of command. Dinsmore testified that he called for and obtained a ScanEagle UAV less than an hour after a squad-sized element of Kilo Company Marines was ambushed at Haditha. The officer said Dinsmore’s request would have probably been denied unless there was compelling reasons to believe a full-fledged battle was in the making.

“There was nothing else going on that day,” an officer who was there said. “I think we got the ScanEagle from VMU-1.”

According to public Marine Corps sources Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 (VMU-1) was deployed to Al Asad in support of Coalition forces in the Sunni Triangle at the time. VMU-1 uses both the older Pioneer UAV and the more efficient ScanEagle, the press reports said. Nobody from VMU-1 has been called as a witness in the proceedings of Chessani or two of the three enlisted Marines accused of murdering old men, woman and children while Chessani and three other officers covered it up. The ScanEagle is controlled by a remote pilot who can be a civilian and an enlisted Marine camera operator called an ‘intelligence analyst’ working under the supervision of a senior NCO.

Last year Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha, fuelled by unsubstantiated reports from Time magazine, claimed the Marines eventually charged with murder at Haditha were on a rampage when they killed 24 ‘defenseless’ Iraqi civilians. The arine Corps began its investigation after Time reporter Tim McGirk reported that Kilo Marines slaughtered the Iraqis in retaliation for an IED attack that killed Lance Corporal Miguel ‘T.J.’ Terrazas and wounded two more Marines.

Dinsmore testified that reports of firefights were coming in from all over the area when he called for the UAV an hour after the fighting started. His testimony is supported by two Kilo Company infantrymen from another platoon who were wounded in the subsequent running battle and never called as witnesses.

Former Kilo Weapons Platoon members corporals Joe Haman and Josh Karlen were both wounded in one of the firefights Murtha repeatedly told reporters didn’t happen. Haman had fought with Kilo at Fallujah the preceding year. Both men said they heard the initial ambush erupt about 600 meters from their position, followed by a sustained firefight that grew in intensity until they were called into action 30 minutes later. When it was over at least nine Marines in their platoon were wounded in a series of grenade battles with insurgents fleeing the Wuterich ambush site. Both men say it was the most intense combat of their deployment.

In late April or early May 2006 Karlen told Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents he saw three or four Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles were leaning against the white taxicab that drove into the ambush site several hours after the IED exploded. NCIS failed to turn over Karlen’s testimony to the defense despite being interrogated for four hours. Five Iraqis riding in the vehicle were killed in the opening moments of the battle. McGirk said they were innocent students on their way to school. Marine Corps intelligence specialists later identified them as known insurgents. Last Friday Cpl. Robert Stafford, the former Armory Custodian for Kilo Co., testified that he believed an AK-47 was recovered from the white car.

Former Marine Captain James French, once a Staff Judge Advocate as well as the action officer in the Special Operations / Low Intensity Conflict Branch at HQMC, said the ScanEagle UAV gave 2nd Division commander Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck’s G-2 Section (Intelligence) and G-3 (Operations) boss the capability to observe and respond to intelligence gathered by the tiny spy plane when the ambush evolved into a battle.  He opined that at a minimum the 2nd MarDiv G-2 would have been intensely interested in events at Haditha. Situations where enemy troops are observed in the open received the highest priority in the decade-old doctrine for using UAVs, French said.

Insitu Group, who developed the aircraft in conjunction with Boeing Aircraft Corporation, says in its promotional material that ScanEagle provides ‘live, high-quality video to ground commanders to locate and eliminate enemy fighters.’  

ScanEagle was initially introduced as the ‘SeaScan’ by Insitu for tuna fisherman and other industries seeking a high endurance aircraft that could be launched and recovered from fishing boats. Its commercial applications include shipboard imaging reconnaissance, corporate security on land or at sea, and other commercial missions, the manufacturers said.

Maj. John B. Barranco, a ScanEagle detachment commander at Camp Al Qaim, Iraq told reporters on November 15, 2005 that ScanEagle generates images while flying in a large circular pattern above an assigned operational area. It can see everything that goes on inside that orbit, and also hundreds of meters outside. To chase a subject on the ground, the land-based pilots adjust the center of the orbit to keep a target in the flight path of the UAV.

Barranco offered the example of an insurgent mortarman leisurely shelling nearby Marines in the city of Husaybah. He said ScanEagle detected the insurgent at the window of the top story of a three-story building, calmly placing rounds into a mortar tube, lobbing them at a Marine base until a fast mover summoned by a ScanEagle operator blew him to pieces with a large bomb.

Scan Eagle intercepted this truck and followed it to a rendevous
point where it was joined by ten more tankers.

Eleven tankers are photographed by a Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
Squadron 2 ScanEagle
as they rallied after siphoning oil on a remote
highway in Iraq. With the help of VMU-2, the suspects were taken into
custody by 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.

Such was the case four days later at Haditha. Haman said he listened to Marine ‘air’ reporting that insurgent’s were fleeing from behind the houses where Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich’s squad was under heavy attack. Moments later the same ‘air’ asset, which Haman can’t identify, reported that a group of three insurgents had ‘peeled off’ from a larger group of eight or nine insurgents and began running in his direction. Within seconds the insurgents had been identified and helicopters were in pursuit. At the time nobody in his platoon had a visual sighting of the running figures, Haman said.

A Marine non-commissioned officer who worked as an intelligence chief for a VMU squadron said intelligence chiefs (usually senior NCOs) and mud Marines receiving the data at intelligence shops constantly analyze the video feeds. According to public sources 1st Marines was the predominant land force in al Anbar Province at the time.

Current doctrine mandates a sighting from an orbiting ScanEagle be immediately relayed to Marine infantrymen operating in the area. Because the threat is seen in real time, ground commanders can maneuver their men to avoid potential ambushes and plan counter moves without endangering the grunts. The cameras provide high-resolution pictures the remote operator can zoom in on or “slave” (lock) the camera to so the target is followed automatically no matter where it goes. When no ground forces are present aviation assets are instead dispatched to deal with the enemy, the Marine said.

In fact there were at least two and possibly three kinds of UAV’s over Haditha that morning. One type, the Dragon Eye, is a low endurance, relatively simple UAV belonging to the intelligence section of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. It is hand launched and carries a low-definition camera. At least one was over the battlefield all morning. In addition to Dragon Eye and ScanEagle UAVs there are now unconfirmed reports that theater commanders in Baghdad diverted an orbiting RQ-1 Predator medium altitude, high endurance UAV as well. The Predator is operated by the Air Force for the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and other highly classified intelligence authorities. It allows senior commander at the Pentagon to see what is happening in real time as well. The source said it was unlikely confirmation will ever be forthcoming,

Since the revelation that the ScanEagle was recording the fight was revealed by Dinsmore little has been reported about the ScanEagle’s remarkable technological capabilities. The Marine Corps and its manufacturers say the ScanEagle’s command directed cameras are so sophisticated the UAV can detect and identify objects as small as individual weapons and people from five miles away. The unblinking eye of ScanEagle is integrated into an inertially-stabilized pan / tilt nose turret. The operator can command the camera to pan back-and-forth for wide-area search, or to remain locked onto an object while the aircraft maneuvers, according to a Marine who helped introduce the program into the Corps.

He surmised that such sophistication makes it impossible for senior commanders not to know what was happening at Haditha if they chose to do so. ScanEagle can simultaneously transmit its data in digital format to anyone with the equipment to receive the information. Despite MSM reports of “grainy images” suggesting imperfect technology the ScanEagle can record the activities going on below in sharp detail. The notion its imagery leaves lots of wiggle room for interpretation is simply bunk, the Marine said.

“What you see is what you get,” he added.

Nathaniel Helms
Defend Our Marines
23 July 2007

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).