CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 MICHAEL AKERS
C Company, 4-2 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion
Camp Humphreys, Korea
As an aviation safety officer at Kandahar Air Base assigned to Task Force Out Front, I was a pilot in command (PC) and air mission commander (AMC) and flew more than 150 combat missions responding to numerous troops-in-contact calls in Kandahar province. During my deployment, we had a mid-air collision with an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) because communication and tracking of UASs between ground units within the same brigade was ineffective. Here’s what happened.
A scout weapons team (SWT) responded to a troops-in-contact call from Iron 6, which reported indirect and direct fire on “Fort Iron.” After arriving on station, the ground unit in contact informed the SWT that an RQ-11 Raven was operating over the target area at 3,580 feet mean sea level (MSL) altitude. This information was not previously reported to the SWT during the check-in procedures with the battle space owners. The lead aircraft was below the reported altitude of the RQ-11 and informed the ground unit that the SWT would remain under that altitude so friendly and enemy positions could be quickly identified by the SWT, and the Raven should be moved to a higher altitude away from the target area.
The ground unit acknowledged this course of action, and the SWT proceeded to identify friendly and enemy positions. Suddenly, the trail aircraft collided with the Raven at about 3,250 feet MSL, shattering the left side windscreen and damaging the left side of the glare shield, a digital camera and an M4 carbine. The SWT aircraft recovered to Forward Operating Base Ramrod without further incident and no injuries to either crewmember. To prevent such mishaps, I think special emphasis should be made for all battle space owners to retain timely and accurate information of all assets — including UASs, controlled detonations, other aircraft and indirect fires — at all times so this information can be communicated to all aircraft operating within their area.
So why did this mishap happen? First, the AMC chose to remain in an active UAS restricted operations zone (ROZ) after realizing the UAS was still in it, resulting in a collision. This could be prevented if aviators who find they are inadvertently in any type of ROZ take immediate action to exit it, regardless of the tactical situation. As aviators, it is easy to get caught up in the moment.
The ground unit was also at fault. The radio operator agreed to coordinate the airspace by altitude separation. The information was not received by the UAS operator in a timely manner. This airspace deconfliction measure proved ineffective. Without positive two-way communication between an aircrew and a UAS operator, airspace deconfliction cannot be made in a timely manner for an aircraft to enter an ROZ.
Because of the lack of situational awareness of the airspace, an RQ-11 should always be provided horizontal separation rather than vertical separation. Even though clearance had been afforded to the SWT from brigade and squadron battle space owners, and the ground unit had, apparently, agreed to vertical separation between the SWT and the UAS, the SWT was not necessarily communicating directly with the UAS operator. Steps taken to deconflict aircraft were not communicated to that operator quickly enough to take effect. The collision occurred as a direct result of the ground unit’s lack of battle tracking of their UAS, insufficient airspace deconfliction, lack of communication between the RQ-11 operator and the OH-58D aircrews, and the haste of all parties involved inherent with combat action.
This mishap could have been avoided with better communication between the aircrews and the battle space owners. Combat action can afford a short tactical pause to ensure friendly elements do not interfere with each other when locating and engaging enemy forces. A coordinated effort must be in place to integrate ground and air forces before actions are taken. It is incumbent upon all PCs and AMCs to reduce the number of hazards to a reasonable level when conducting combat operations, even with little or no notice of the operation.