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December 22, 2005A new piece of battlefield technology is rapidly changing the dynamic of close air support on the front lines of the War on Terror.

Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Harbin says the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver—or ROVER, for short—“may be the most significant military technology since the invention of the two way radio.”

Harbin, who is the assistant director of operations for the 609th Combat Operations Squadron, Shaw AFB, S.C., is an old hand at urban close air support in the War on Terror—with three Iraq tours under his belt—and help with hurricane relief operations in New Orleans.  He calls ROVER the most in-demand hardware in Southwest Asia.

Simply put, the system allows troops on the ground to utilize “actionable imagery,” as Harbin explains, to establish the look of the target, how many civilians are in the area, and what kind of weapon can be used. It can provide near-real-time imagery taken by an intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance platform—unmanned aerial vehicle or manned aircraft—to a laptop computer in the hands of a joint terminal attack controller. From a spot 10 miles away, a JTAC can zoom in with the ROVER system to within about three meters of a target.

Harbin and SSgt. Jason Cry, a JTAC with the 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron at Shaw and a ROVER instructor, talked with reporters at the Pentagon about the now third generation technology. 

They said that, since its introduction in 2003, the demand for ROVER technology has ballooned. Currently there are approximately 200 units in the US Central Command theater of operations. Ground operators and commanders are using the ROVER system to communicate with Predator UAV operators at Creech AFB, Nev., to direct Hellfire-armed Predators to take out improvised explosive devices as the IEDs are being planted in the paths of coalition convoys. 

Harbin and Cry unrolled an unclassified ROVER video to demonstrate its capability. The video shows a Hellfire missile striking a team of anti-Iraqi forces laying an IED in the path of an incoming coalition convoy. Note that there is a car in the image shortly before the Hellfire strikes and see it still traveling after the strike. (Harbin said that the Hellfire with its limited blast radius took out its target—the IED-planting enemy—but not the car traveling nearby.) The UAV fed ROVER live video, armed one of its missiles, and took action all in the space of a few minutes.

One other thing that makes the ROVER system invaluable to battlefield airmen is that it is light. The laptop, antennas, and main component weigh about 15 pounds, and the system is easy to use, said Cry.

The system can handle imagery from more than 100 different manned and unmanned ISR assets. The ROVER technology enables the user to push the imagery via the Internet to various units and decision-makers. However, its use of UHF frequencies has introduced a bandwidth issue, said Harbin. His answer: Assign frequencies by unit.

Air Combat Command also is working on an interactive uplink capability for the ROVER. This would enable JTACs to transmit back up to pilots the video images they have telestrated by circling key targets. Currently, ROVER only provides a downlink capability from the ISR platform to the battlefield airman.