The Army's killer drones: How a secretive special ops unit decimated ISIS

As the Islamic State’s physical caliphate shrinks to nothing after an almost five-year campaign led by U.S. special operations forces, military insiders say one small unit has killed more of the extremists than any other: the company of Gray Eagle drones in the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Although the military has thrown a cloak of secrecy over its operations, the unit — officially called E (or “Echo”) Company of the regiment’s Second Battalion and established less than a decade ago — is increasingly being lauded in special operations and Army aviation circles.

“They are doing the most killing of anyone in the national mission force,” said a former 160th officer, referring to Joint Special Operations Command, which runs counterterrorism task forces in Afghanistan, and does battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and the Horn of Africa. “They’re out there doing the nation’s bidding in a ferocious way.”

Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Echo Company is credited with “well over 340 enemy killed in action” in Afghanistan and the Iraq-Syria theater between August 2014 and July 2015, according to a November 2015 Army write-up of an award for the unit. The company has also played a key role in a special operations task force established in Iraq in 2014 to roll back the Islamic State’s physical caliphate and hunt its leaders. Flying from a base in Iraq to attack targets in Syria, the drone company has launched “more than a thousand” Hellfire missiles in the last two to three years, the former 160th officer told Yahoo News. “That means to me they’ve been very busy in Syria.”

Echo Company’s achievements are remarkable, in part, because unlike the Air Force, whose drones are operated from air-conditioned trailers in Nevada and flown by officers, the pilots in this Army aviation company are mainly enlisted soldiers who are deployed in combat theaters.

The destroyed vehicle in which Taliban leader Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was traveling in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border
The destroyed vehicle in which Taliban leader Mohammad Akhtar Mansour was traveling in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, May 22, 2016. (Photo: Abdul Salam Khan/AP)

The U.S. drone campaign against Islamist militants has been enmeshed in controversy since it began in 2001, with accusations that some attacks caused needless civilian casualties or hit the wrong target altogether. On Wednesday, President Trump rescinded an executive order that required the intelligence community to disclose information about U.S. drone strikes outside of declared war zones, including civilian casualties. The White House last year had already ignored the requirement, put in place by President Barack Obama. Trump’s order does not affect a law that requires the Defense Department to send Congress an annual report detailing civilian casualties.

“U.S. armed drones have played a key role in the fight against ISIS, with its Reapers and Predators contributing up to 7 percent of all strikes, according to official data released back in 2017,” Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that tracks airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya, wrote in an email. “Thousands of civilians have locally been alleged killed in Coalition actions — with our own minimum estimate at more than 7,500 deaths. However, what proportion of these deaths resulted solely from drones we can’t say.”

It is even less clear if any of Echo Company’s strikes resulted in civilian casualties; no allegations have been directed at its operations, which have been kept under tight wrap by the Defense Department.

John Evans
Former head of U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command Brig. Gen. John Evans. (Photo via YouTube)

Citing the classified nature of Echo Company’s missions, U.S. Special Operations Command declined to provide any information about the unit, which, like its parent battalion and regiment, is based at Fort Campbell, Ky. But insights into the unit’s history can be found on the website of the Army Aviation Association of America, a nonprofit organization that supports the Army’s aviation branch. The association has awarded Echo Company its “Unmanned Aerial Systems Unit of the Year” award four times since 2011.

“Echo Company [is] the most lethal company in the Army, and it may very well be the most lethal company-size element in all of [the Defense Department],” Brig. Gen. John Evans, at the time the head of U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command, told attendees at the aviation association’s conference in April 2017.

The record still holds today, according to a retired senior Army aviation officer. “This is the most lethal Army unit this year,” he said. “The whole Army, including artillery, including everything.”

One of the few Army units that fly fixed-wing aircraft, the company apparently has been more lethal than its Army helicopter counterparts and all Air Force fixed-wing outfits, manned and unmanned. Even in Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization that includes special mission units like Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, Echo Company’s performance stands out, according to those familiar with its operations.

A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter patrols Mogadishu, Somalia
A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter patrols Mogadishu, Somalia, in the wake of gun battles between militants and U.N. peacekeepers, June 8, 1993. (Photo: Kathy Willens/AP)

When it was created in 2009, Echo Company represented something new for the 160th, an elite special operations helicopter unit established in the wake of the failed effort in 1980 to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The regiment’s distinctive black helicopters have featured in virtually every high-profile special operations mission since then, including the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.

Since 2001, the 160th has been heavily engaged as part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, pronounced “jay-sock”) task forces in Afghanistan and, since 2003, in Iraq. The unit’s most prominent members have always been the warrant officers and commissioned officers who fly the regiment’s helicopters, from the small, nimble AH-6 “Little Bird” gunships to the twin-rotor MH-47 Chinook assault aircraft.

But unlike those Army pilots, or the pilots of the Air Force’s better-known Predator and Reaper drones, the soldiers who fly the Gray Eagles are mainly enlisted service members, according to the retired senior Army aviation officer. “They are lethal as all get-out,” he said.

Made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., the same firm that produces the MQ-1 Predator, which the Air Force retired in 2018, and its successor, the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle is a derivative of the Predator and falls somewhere between the two in terms of capability. Armed with up to four Hellfire missiles or a mix of other munitions, the Gray Eagle also carries a suite of surveillance gear that includes signals intelligence equipment and high-resolution cameras that can read a license plate from 15,000 feet. The basic Gray Eagle can fly for up to 25 hours, while an extended range version has a maximum endurance of 42 hours.

For its first deployments to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, the unit consisted of little more than a platoon of four Gray Eagles manned by 17 soldiers and 35 contractors (As of late 2013, Echo Company had 12 Gray Eagles and about 165 soldiers, according to an article written by an Army public affairs officer).

Nonetheless, it immediately made an impact. In late 2010, an Echo Company Gray Eagle became the first Army unmanned aerial system to conduct an airstrike, when it provided close air support to coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to former Capt. Tae Kim, who commanded the company. He recalled the mission in matter-of-fact terms. “There were two or three different groups of enemy fighters in a firefight with our guys and we followed one particular group — I think it was only two or three guys — and then at some point they called in a fire mission and we got them,” he said. “We were more relieved at being able to support [the troops], more so than being aware of the significance of it.”

Within 18 months of that first airstrike, the unit was running 24-hour operations in Afghanistan and starting to make its mark as not just a surveillance and reconnaissance tool, but as a lethal attack aircraft. During the unit’s summer 2011 to summer 2012 deployment, it conducted 20 airstrikes with Hellfire missiles, “resulting in 32 enemy combatants killed in action,” according to a document that supported Echo Company’s nomination for its 2012 AAAA award. Representatives from the special operations units the company supported were frequently surprised to find that the drone pilots they heard on the radio were not “senior Air Force officers” but “Army enlisted soldiers that were actually in theater — not in Vegas,” the document states.

Echo Company has also seen extensive service in Africa, where JSOC has used its Gray Eagles “to go after high-value targets” in counterterrorism missions in East, North and West Africa, according to a former official at U.S. Africa Command. A small number of Gray Eagles also deployed to Garoua, Cameroon, to help other U.S. special operations forces and their partners in the region in their campaigns against Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa, according to the former Africa Command official.

Echo Company has also seen extensive service in Africa, where JSOC has used its Gray Eagles “to go after high-value targets” in counterterrorism missions in East, North and West Africa
Echo Company has also seen extensive service in Africa, where JSOC has used its Gray Eagles “to go after high-value targets” in counterterrorism missions in East, North and West Africa. (Photo: Courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)

Still others, flying from the East African nation of Djibouti, were used periodically to search for the Lord’s Resistance Army. But only the Gray Eagles hunting high-value targets for JSOC were armed. In the other missions, U.S. special operations forces just used the Gray Eagles for surveillance and signals intelligence. “They never pulled the trigger,” said a special operations officer with recent experience in the Middle East.

Sources were more reluctant to discuss specific missions for which the Gray Eagle has been used in Afghanistan, the Middle East or Africa, on the grounds that they were all classified. “It’s been involved in some pretty major things,” said the retired senior Army aviation officer.

The Gray Eagles aren’t the only armed drones used in the U.S. military campaigns against Islamist militants. The Predator and the Reaper enjoy a much higher media profile, but Echo Company’s Gray Eagles have surprised military leaders by how much more effective they have been on the battlefield, according to the retired senior Army aviation officer. “We were kind of used to watching how the Air Force operated first the Predator and then the Reaper,” he said. “They can be very effective, but this is a different mindset.”

There are several factors behind Echo Company’s success, according to sources familiar with its operations.

First, while the Air Force’s Predators and Reapers — and even the conventional Army divisions’ Gray Eagle companies — are used mostly for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and more occasionally for striking targets, Echo Company’s Gray Eagles are primarily used in either close air support or “hunter-killer” missions, according to sources familiar with Echo Company’s role. “They’re worried about killing targets and getting the next bad guy and basically going down the merit list of who needs to die,” said the special operations officer with recent experience in the Middle East.

The Echo Company pilots “have a very streamlined permission to execute, based upon [the fact] that they’ve already done target folders for these people and things like that,” said the retired senior Army aviation officer.

Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER)
The Gray Eagle Extended Range is a next-generation advanced derivative of the battle-proven Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System. (Photo: Courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)

A second factor, according to sources familiar with Echo Company’s operations, is that, unlike the Air Force’s armed drones, which are remotely piloted at Creech and Nellis Air Force Bases in Nevada, the Gray Eagle pilots are deployed in the combat theaters as part of the JSOC task forces that run counterterrorism campaigns and hunt high-value targets. Using Air Force drones “is like you’re leasing an aircraft for 12 hours from Creech Air Force Base,” said the retired senior Army aviation officer. “They’re operated by somebody who lives in Nevada and goes home to their wife at night, or their husband.”

With the Echo Company pilots, he said, “they’re deployed with you, you’re talking to them at the mess hall” and having “face-to-face meetings” to plan missions. “It’s a very different way of going about business.” An Air Force spokesman declined to comment.

But Tae Kim, who commanded Echo Company from 2009 to 2011, said the importance of having the pilots co-located with the task force was exaggerated. “If you have a Reaper or a Predator above you and you need fire support, it doesn’t really matter that they’re located on the other side of the globe,” said Kim, who is now the chief operating officer for Martin UAV. “For the guys on the ground, they don’t really care how they get it so long as they get that support.”

More important to Echo Company’s extraordinary record of lethality, according to Kim, is that it falls directly under the command of the task force. “What really matters,” he said, when explaining Echo Company’s success, “is do you have this asset under the task force control so that you have more access to it.”

In addition to close air support for troops in contact, the Gray Eagle’s range, ability to fly for many hours, and the fact that it can attack from an altitude that makes it virtually invisible to those on the ground, mean it can be used for missions that would not make sense for helicopters. The drones get the call when “a helicopter cannot get there or a helicopter would give up the gig with rotor noise,” said a former senior 160th official.

The Gray Eagles are ideal for missions in which the goal is not to capture someone or to seize materials of intelligence value, but to simply kill one or more individuals, according to a former 160th officer. “If you’re looking to whack somebody who needs whacking, then send the Gray Eagle,” he said.

The battlefield demand for Echo Company is so high that the 160th is getting a second Gray Eagle company, and despite all the secrecy, the word about the Gray Eagle’s battlefield effectiveness is starting to spread.

“It’s a phenomenal capability” that will continue to be in high demand, said retired Special Forces Col. Stu Bradin, president of the Global Special Operations Forces Foundation. “The requirements for it only grow. It’s a lifesaver.”

The Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System
The Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System is a technologically advanced derivative of the combat-proven Predator. (Photo: Courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)


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