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Air Force sees high-tech as the key to finding its role in counterinsurgency combat.

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. Air Force has begun deploying the heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft in Iraq for the first time, highlighting the service's increased use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, and other high technology as it adjusts to its new roles in counterinsurgency.

With a wingspan of 66 feet, the Reaper is larger than the MQ-1 Predator, and can carry a much larger weapons payload. Designed as a hunter-killer aircraft that can stay in the air for 30 hours, it has a range of over 3,600 miles -- nine times that of its smaller and older sibling the Predator, according to the Air Force and its manufacturer, General Atomics Inc.

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The Reaper was deployed last month in Iraq, the theater where the Air Force first flew armed UAVs, back in the fall of 2000, when Predators equipped with Hellfire missiles became part of Operation Southern Watch -- enforcing the U.N. "no fly zone" against Saddam Hussein's regime.

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Air Force officials say the Reaper has better surveillance instruments than the Predator, as well as a much heavier weapons package -- which can include 500-pound laser-guided smart bombs.

"It is a very good ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform, it is a very good kinetic platform, too, if needed," said Maj. Gen. William Rew, who ran the air war in Iraq in 2003-04 and is now director of operational planning, policy and strategy for USAF Headquarters at the Pentagon.

The Reapers are being flown from ground stations by two-person crews, including a fully qualified pilot. "For the way we fly them right now" -- fully integrated into air operations and often flying missions alongside manned aircraft -- "we want pilots to fly them," Rew told UPI in a telephone interview.

But analysts say the demands on the time of Reapers and other aircraft is likely to continue to grow by leaps and bounds, now that the Air Force can provide troops on the ground with live video from the skies through satellite links to special laptops -- a system known as Rover.

"The demand for overhead imagery is insatiable," said Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired magazine's national security blog, Danger Room. "Who wouldn't want that God's-eye view?"

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Rew said the Air Force has deployed 4,000 of the laptops with a special satellite uplink. "Word spread like wildfire" about the system, he said. "They love it," he added of U.S. ground forces' attitude to Rover. "They can't get enough of it."

Critics have charged that the Air Force's insistence on qualified pilots flying UAVs is a bottleneck to expanding their deployment -- and the availability of overhead imagery. The Army, for instance, uses specially trained -- but not pilot-level qualified -- operators to fly some kinds of UAV.

Officials say not all Air Force UAVs are flown by pilots, and that the service is looking hard at options to maximize the number it can deploy.

"Looking to the future, we will be challenged by resource issues. … The number of pilots available to fly the Reaper (and other UAVs) is not unlimited," Rew said. "We're being challenged to find the smartest way to do this in the future."

Shachtman said bandwidth limitations were another possible bottleneck. "Does the military have the network capacity to handle all that video being beamed around?" he asked.

Last week, The New York Times reported that, as U.S. troop numbers are drawn down in Iraq, commanders there expect an increasing role for air power to ensure the safety of ground forces, and Rew confirmed this to UPI.

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"As the ground forces draw down, there will be more reliance on air power," he said.

Critics say that an over-reliance on air power in Afghanistan has led to highly publicized incidents of civilians accidentally being killed -- undermining the hearts-and-mind mission of counterinsurgency.

Rew said officials hope a greater reliance on air power won't mean a greater use of it -- believing that an improving security situation will reduce the number of combat situations in which troops might have to call in air support.

"Air power is going to be required for quite some time (in Iraq) -- as insurance, as security, in case anyone needs it -- in what we call an armed over-watch or armed surveillance position," Rew said.

And he echoed the pride many USAF officers express in the service's ability to get swiftly to the aid of troops in trouble.

"We will be there if coalition or U.S. forces on the ground (need us). ... If they make what we call a 911 call … anywhere in Iraq, we can have a jet overhead within a few minutes," he said.

He challenged those who have criticized the service for being too wedded to huge, multi-year and multi-billion acquisition programs for new jets; and lacking the flexibility to field new equipment to deal with so-called "pop-up threats" -- swiftly emerging new enemy weapons or tactics.

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Rew said the provision of live video to troops on the ground refuted that criticism. Except on specifically designed surveillance craft like UAVs, the pictures come from specially adapted pods, known as ATPs for Advanced Targeting Pods, which were originally designed to help guide smart bombs to their targets.

"We very rapidly put them on aircraft they were not originally designed to go on," said Rew of the modified ATPs. "We used them in a non-traditional role" for surveillance, he added.

Rew said the card that transmits the pictures to forces on the ground with Rover laptops was developed "within months."

Shachtman called it a "simple idea -- get the imagery to the guys that need it the most." He said the U.S. ground forces he had spoken to about the system "spoke very highly" of it. But he said it was "a game enhancer, not a game changer" in counterinsurgency.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has accused all the services of suffering from next-war-itis -- planning for the next war and ignoring the one being fought now -- and some have seen the the Air Force struggling to define its role in counterinsurgency conflicts like Iraq.

Shachtman said the service is touting Rover as its "main technological innovation for counterinsurgency warfare."

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Air Force officials say it is just one among many. "The use of technology in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency is only going to increase," said Rew.

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