[Aewa] Former AWACS pilot helps the war
Bunting, Larry E Civ 557 ACSS/GFIAB
Larry.Bunting at tinker.af.mil
Fri Sep 14 12:54:33 CDT 2007
Hope this gets on the AEWA net. Its a great success story. Greg Harbin
was the aircraft commander during the accidental Blackhawk shootdown.
Looks like he made the most out of a military career.
Los Angeles Times
September 13, 2007
U.S. Pilot Helped Clear The Fog Of War
Greg Harbin saw a way to streamline airstrikes. The solution -- and his
cause -- was the Rover, a device that would one day save his life.
By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
In the summer of 2003, an Air Force pilot named Greg Harbin was doing
desk duty at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
Day in and day out, Harbin sat in front of five computer screens,
scanning photographs and video sent by unmanned planes flying 1,200
miles away, over Iraq and Afghanistan.
His job was to take that information, along with reports from ground
troops, and identify fresh targets -- Taliban fighters or Iraqi
But one thing puzzled him.
When regular units called for an attack by a Predator drone, the request
went to Harbin, and then, if approved by a general, to "pilots" in
Nevada, who fired the missile by remote control. The process often took
as long as 45 minutes.
By contrast, special operations forces could call in attacks by unmanned
Predator aircraft in less than a minute.
The difference, Harbin learned, was that a handful of special ops units
were equipped with a device called the Rover, which gave them the same
view as the pilots in Nevada. This greatly simplified communications.
Why don't all American fighting units have the Rover? he asked himself.
Then he put the question to his boss, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan,
commander of the Air Force in the Middle East. Buchanan's reply: Why
Buchanan dispatched Harbin to Texas to get a crash course in the Rover,
a combination video receiver and laptop computer, and to bring back
several of the kits with him. Seventy-two hours after he left Texas with
four Rovers, Harbin was in Fallouja, Iraq, teaching members of the 82nd
Airborne Division how to use it.
Harbin's days sitting in front of a computer were over. Over the next
four years, Harbin would take a niche technology, spread it throughout
the military -- and help change how the Air Force fights wars.
One day, it would save his life.
The Rover, or the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver, was born in
2002, shortly after the Afghanistan war began.
Christopher Manuel, an Army Special Forces chief warrant officer, had
long wanted ground units to see, in real time, the video footage shot by
Predators. After serving in Afghanistan, he traveled to Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base in Ohio to make his case. Engineers quickly developed a
prototype of the Rover system.
Over the next year, it was used exclusively by special operations
forces. Harbin's mission to widen access to the technology began with
the 82nd Airborne, the first conventional forces to use the system. His
next stop was Mosul, Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division, which
happened to be his brother Eric's unit.
There, Harbin realized a limitation of the Rover: It could communicate
only with Predators, and that day the Predators were grounded by bad
weather. F-15s were flying, and he wondered why the Rover could not
connect with the cameras mounted on them.
So Harbin sent an e-mail to Air Force officials. "Why . . . can't I see
what the pilot sees on his targeting pod????? We can do it with
Predator, this shouldn't be so goddam hard," he wrote.
"I was mad," Harbin said later. "I wanted my brother and his unit to
have the best protection they could."
An Air Force officer wrote back: "Harbs, we got it." The message touched
off a chain of events leading to a new version of the Rover that also
could communicate with fighter planes, bombers and some helicopters.
Harbin, now a lieutenant colonel, is 43 and 5 feet 9, with receding
blond hair that gets a little longer and wilder when he is deployed. A
slight Alabama cadence gives his voice a relaxed, measured feel that
nevertheless has an edge of urgency. He is a man in a hurry.
Throughout the early months of 2004, Harbin shuttled from Mosul to
Baghdad to Najaf, wherever violence was flaring, teaching people how to
use the Rover. By April, he was near the end of his tour. But on his way
to Baghdad for his flight home, he was dropped off in Fallouja.
He used the quick stop to show the Rover to Marine Maj. Kevin Shea, a
friend from the Air Force Academy.
Harbin accepted an invitation to join a Marine patrol, an opportunity to
demonstrate the Rover. Not long after the patrol rolled out of the camp,
a rocket-propelled grenade flashed by with a whoosh, and a mortar shell
landed with a crack. As the Marines around him scrambled to return fire,
Harbin sat mesmerized.
Through the din, Harbin heard a radio crackle and a voice report that a
Predator was flying overhead. Through the dust of the battle, Harbin
looked out the window of the Humvee for a place to work his Rover kit.
This would be no demonstration; this would be survival.
He jumped from his vehicle and sprinted across the road toward another
Humvee. The laptop's battery was dead, and the Humvee had no power
outlet. Undeterred, Harbin cut off the electrical cord and hot-wired the
laptop to the Humvee's battery.
As the laptop powered up, another rocket-propelled grenade burst nearby.
Harbin reeled. His ears rang from the force of the explosion. He turned
back to the Rover. The kit worked, linking with the Predator overhead.
The plane's camera sent an image of the surrounding area to the laptop's
Harbin searched the video, and pinpointed the insurgents, about 100
yards away. He yelled for the Marine captain and pointed to the enemy
mortar position on the screen. The captain called in a strike. The
Predator fired a Hellfire missile at the insurgents, killing them.
Harbin and two Marines were injured, one fatally. He would later learn
that shrapnel from the grenade had destroyed the hearing in his left
His actions in the fight earned him a Bronze Star Medal for valor, but
they ended his days as an Air Force pilot. Harbin and his superiors say
the Rover system saved his life and those of many of the Marines on the
"For sure," he said, "I would be dead without this technology."
Harbin was born and raised in the mining and lumber town of Parrish,
Ala., in the Appalachian foothills. His parents divorced when he was 7.
For most of his childhood, he lived in a trailer with his mother on a
small patch of woods.
As a child, Harbin read the World Book encyclopedia obsessively, and
inspired by what he read, he led his friends and his brother, Eric, into
adventures. One time they built a wooden "submarine" from wooden crates
and milk jugs in a pool by an abandoned grist mill. It was not any sort
of technological breakthrough, his mother said.
"I went down and watched the submarine go under," Janice Harbin
recalled. "The problem was getting it back up."
His youthful creativity grew into serious study in high school.
"There were not a lot of highly educated people in Parrish who dreamed
big dreams, I guess you could say, but Greg was a big dreamer," said
Stan Randolph, Harbin's history teacher and football coach. "He had
visions for what he wanted to do."
In Randolph's class, Harbin took a deep interest in the military history
of World War II. Harbin decided to apply to the military academies, and
in 1983, he entered the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
He spent the first year on academic probation but his last two years on
the dean's list. After graduation in 1987, he became a pilot and
eventually an instructor who flew air shows over NASCAR races on the
weekends. It was a typical Air Force pilot's career, with stints at
bases near Oklahoma City; Ellsworth, S.D.; San Antonio and other cities.
Until he met the Rover.
When he returned to the United States after the attack in Fallouja,
Harbin's inner-ear injury left him feeling nauseated and off-balance. As
he was recovering, Harbin learned that Shea, his academy classmate, had
been killed in Fallouja by an insurgent rocket in September 2004.
Harbin was deeply depressed, but the loss sharpened his focus on trying
to speed the military's acceptance of the Rover, said John P. Wheeler, a
top Air Force official.
"People try to live two lives after the death of a friend," Wheeler
said. "You try to do what your friend might have done."
Over the next few months, Harbin designed a Rover training course and
lobbied the Air Force to purchase more.
His next opportunity to use the system did not come until August 2005 --
and it was in the United States.
Harbin arrived in New Orleans 40 hours after Hurricane Katrina. He
intended to draw video from a small unmanned aircraft to get an overhead
view of New Orleans. But the Federal Aviation Administration would not
let the craft fly.
He then taped a Rover video camera to a Black Hawk helicopter, but the
image it captured was too shaky.
"That is when Col. Harbin said, 'Let's take the high ground,' "
remembered Kyle Stanbro, a retired Air Force special operations master
sergeant, who accompanied Harbin to New Orleans. They climbed 51 floors
to the top of a bank building to set up Rover cameras on tripods. The
system beamed images of the flooded Lower 9th Ward to the military
command in Colorado.
The images quickly demonstrated the need for additional small Coast
Guard vessels to help rescue people trapped in their homes. Within
hours, the military command, in part because of the Rover images,
ordered more than 100 small boats to New Orleans.
"We could show them visually that we needed more boats," Harbin said.
"And those assets showed up a lot faster than they would have."
In the Pentagon, decisions about procuring weapons systems are made by
civilians, not uniformed officers. One of the ways civilian service
secretaries create their legacy is to find promising, but
underappreciated, technology and get behind it.
For much of 2005, the Air Force was without a permanent civilian leader,
but in November, Michael W. Wynne was sworn in as the service's
secretary. He requested briefings on new technologies and initiatives,
and Harbin was asked to discuss the use of the Rover in New Orleans. The
secretary was sold.
"Greg, what you are about to do is . . . change how we fight," Wynne
In early 2005, there were 183 Rover units in the field. There are now
1,500 of the 12-pound kits in use mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and
the service has ordered 2,200 more. So far, the Air Force has spent
about $72 million on the Rover.
Still, Air Force officers think the Rover should be as common as a
radio. To fully equip active-duty military units, the National Guard and
the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. would need 16,544 Rover
kits, an Air Force study found.
Wynne and Harbin are also pushing development of the next generation of
Rover -- Rover IV, or what airmen call "the John Madden version": The
operator can draw on the screen and a pilot can see the notation, just
as television football commentator Madden draws lines during replays.
The new version, which costs about $90,000, nearly three times the cost
of the current model, is due to go into the field in February.
Air Force officers have no illusions that the Rover technology will
single-handedly change the course of the war in Iraq. But it has
increased the accuracy of bombs: In 2003, "danger close" -- the minimum
distance away from U.S. forces a bomb could be dropped -- was 2,000
meters or about 18 football fields. Today, thanks to smaller bombs and
the improved accuracy the Rover system allows, it is 75 meters, less
than one football field. Harbin says equipping helicopters with Rover
technology could help pilots avoid insurgents armed with shoulder-fired
missiles. And the Rover system helps units minimize accidental civilian
This spring, Harbin was sent to Afghanistan to show NATO forces fighting
the Taliban how to use the Rover.
In May, a Canadian army regiment got a call from someone in a village
near Kandahar. A group of Taliban had killed two women in the town.
Harbin and his NATO team used the Rover to help track the Taliban
fighters. They told a NATO fighter plane to hold off as the fighters
moved through the alleyways of the village. When the fighters stepped on
a road, Harbin's team called in the strike. A 500-pound bomb from the
NATO plane killed five fighters. One Taliban fighter escaped, but Harbin
tracked him on the Rover, and called for the Predator to launch a
As the missile neared the target, Harbin noticed a second "heat
signature" on the Rover screen and called for a course correction. The
Hellfire struck the fighter, but spared the first target indicated on
the Rover, which turned out to be a dog.
"We found them, tracked them, then picked the time and the place to
strike in order to minimize collateral damage," Harbin said. "We were so
precise that the dog got away."
Now, back from Afghanistan, Harbin walks the halls of the Pentagon,
carrying his Rover laptop in a backpack. He darts from office to office,
using videos to sell the system to decision-makers from every service.
Among top Air Force officials, there is little doubt that without
Harbin, the Rover might have remained a niche technology used by only a
"I am not the guy who invented it. I am not the guy who built it. I am
not the only one who believes in it," Harbin said. "My role was to get
it out there."
Sitting in a Pentagon cafeteria lined with vending machines, his Rover
at his feet, Harbin paused between meetings to consider what he had
"When you believe in something, you can't just talk about it and make
PowerPoint slides. You have to go out to the battlefield and show how it
works," he said. "I knew it would be useful. I didn't know it would
change the way we fight."
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