The drone that tipped the scales at the Battle of Takur Ghar
A once quiet landscape turned battlefield, the clash of gunfire and shouts ripped through the Shahi-Kot Valley in the early hours of March 4, 2002. As part of an early war effort that targeted al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the Battle of Roberts Ridge is still known as one of the deadliest engagements during Operation Anaconda.
Above the Takur Ghar mountain top, an MQ-1 Predator aircrew became an unforeseen, close air support asset for a desperate joint special operations team in their time of need.
Deep, black smoke from a crashed, bullet-riddled MH-47 Chinook helicopter filled the air. Among the wreckage were the lead combat controller on the ground, Maj. Gabe Brown, then a staff sergeant, along with the rest of the special operations team who worked to secure casualties and defend their position on the summit.
Pinned down on the landing zone and under direct fire, Brown established communications with an MQ-1 aircrew in the area who had visual of the team. Col. Stephen Jones, then captain and Predator pilot, had already been in the cockpit and was ordered to support just moments after the crash.
Before Jones arrived on station that early morning, he had no idea what he and his team were in for.
An MH-47 Chinook Helicopter.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway)
"I remember coming in on shift that night and there was a lot of commotion," Jones said. "I was told to get out to the ground control station as soon as possible."
Throughout the day, Brown said he developed rapport with the Predator pilot as he gave situational awareness updates and assisted with targeting enemy combatants.
"When I had fighters check in, he would buddy lase for those inbound fighters and would help me with the talk-on, so it cut my workload dramatically having him there," Brown said.
Many other U.S. and coalition aircraft were simultaneously entering and exiting the area. Before authorizing a strike, Brown needed to "talk-on" the respective aircrew, which meant he briefed the situation on the ground to every aircraft that entered the airspace.
With a bird's-eye view, Jones and his aircrew alleviated some of Brown's duties and took control of liaising information within the zone, while serving as forward air controllers in the battle.
"(From our cockpits) we were serving as forward air controllers airborne or FACA, and I was serving as the on-scene commander," Jones said.
He began looking after the survivors, deconflicting airspace for coalition aircraft coming in and out, as well as communicating back to the joint command and control elements about the survivors' condition as they put together an evacuation plan.
"Gabe was doing a phenomenal job being a controller on the ground calling in close air support, but it was a lot of work," Jones said. "There were a ton of coalition aircraft coming in and out and some of them didn't have much play time, meaning they had to get in, develop an understanding of what was going on, receive a nine-line and then drop bombs or shoot their missiles."
The aircrew took some of the burden from Brown who remained on frequency with Jones, ready to voice commands at any moment.
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)
Brown was able to conserve radio battery life due to the aircrew's initiative and the MQ-1's ability to loiter over the battlefield for extended periods of time.
Ground forces were still pinned down from continuous bunker fire when Jones relayed the evacuation plan to Brown. Their team was in need of a precise airstrike that could eliminate the enemy hunkered down deep in the mountainous terrain.
Brown first called upon fighter aircraft.
"We were basically trying to use walk-in ordinance off the fighters, using 500-pound bombs to frag (blast) the enemy out of the bunker and we were unable," Brown said.
After numerous attempts, Brown and his team were running out of options and daybreak quickly approached…
Brown and his team were considered danger-close due to their proximity to the target, causing concern for aircrew and senior leaders. However, Brown's need for immediate aerial support outweighed any apprehension.
"It was late in the morning, he (Jones and aircrew) had one shot left and we had been on the ground for a few hours," Brown said. "I gave my own initials and cleared him hot."
Jones released the hellfire missile and successfully destroyed the bunker, which allowed U.S. forces on the ground to recuperate and devise a mission plan going forward.
"When that hellfire went into that bunker, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that bunker had been neutralized," Brown said.
The enemy may not have seen the MQ-1 as it soared overhead, but radical terrorists felt the Predator's wrath.
Jones and the rest of the MQ-1 aircrew loitered above the combat zone for approximately 14 hours, relaying critical information and laser-guided munitions during the entire fight. Their actions provided key reconnaissance for senior leaders commanding the situation, and directly enabled visual relay between forces on the ground and the combatant commander.
"I credit that pilot, the technology and that airframe with saving my life, as well as the team's and getting the wounded and KIA (killed in action) off the hilltop that day," he said.
This article originally appeared on the United States Air Force. Follow @usairforce on Twitter.