“Scan Eagle”: the Navy drone that protected special operations in Iraq

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The Eleventh Squadron of the Spanish Navy set sail last Friday for its sixth mission aboard the frigate Reina Sofía. As in the previous ones, the objective is man the «Scan Eagle» drones to get video images of settlements on the coast that are likely to be piracy bases. Images of suspicious skiffs or motherships are also captured. Both day and night. “In this way it is possible to know the life pattern of the inhabitants to confirm or rule out the possible presence of pirates there,” Lieutenant Commander Agustín García Santamaría, head of the Eleventh Aircraft Squadron of the Navy, explained to ABC. 2014.

Since that year the EU’s Operation Atalanta against Somali piracy has been one of the two main scenarios of its deployment. The other was Iraq where “the Eleventh” carried out the same intelligence work from the ground during the decisive years of the defeat of Daesh, between 2017 and 2019.

“The mission consisted of supporting the Spanish and allied forces that were training the Iraqi Army to confront the Islamic State groups that controlled large areas of the country. The “Scan Eagle” aircraft offered protection from the air to Spanish special operations teams who, in their training, accompanied Iraqi soldiers in their forays against the insurgency. In this way, you could detect any threats in advance for them such as improvised explosive devices or ambushes ”, explains the head of this young unit of the Navy. These drones in no case carry weapons only cameras.

The “Scan Eagle”, manufactured by the American company Boeing Insitu, is a very discreet aircraft thanks to its small size and its very quiet engine. It is launched with a catapult and picked up after colliding with a mast and a net.

It can stay up to 18 hours on top of a settlement or a ship without being detected. The images and videos obtained during the flight are transmitted in real time to the ship and other control centers at sea or on land. This functionality of the «Scan Eagle» contributes to the command decision-making process.

The environment in Iraq also made a difference during the two and a half years of the deployment: extreme temperatures and contrasts between day and night or sand storms were another challenge for the nine military personnel, two of them pilots, who made up the so-called Shadow detachment.

After the Iraqi experience and the great results offered in Operation Atalanta – more than 2,500 flight hours – the Ministry of Defense is now preparing to modernize the ten unmanned aircraft that the Eleventh Squadron now has.

“Starting in 2021, the Navy will begin to modernize the existing systems that are analog to digital. This will open a transition phase in which both systems will coexist for a time. This step is very important because it involves not only improving the capabilities of the «Scan Eagle» but also dealing with the obsolescence of many of its components that over time, will no longer be supported by the manufacturer», Explains Lieutenant Commander García Santamaría. His team is made up of 68 officers, NCOs and sailors in the facilities that the Navy has in Torregorda (Cádiz).

Since 2008 the boost given to drones in the Armed Forces is obvious. Land with the Israeli “Searcher Mk-IIJ ‘O American «Raven», the Navy with the «Scan Eagle», Air with the recently acquired «Predator B» or the EMU with different test models have opened a path that has no turning back.

The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has also revealed the importance of drones in any conflict. A technology that definitely came to stay.

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