From Rifles to Ravens: Infantrymen cross train with unmanned aircraft systems

Lance Cpl. Anthony Nolley-Crosson, an intelligence clerk with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, prepares to launch an RQ-11B Raven Unmanned Aircraft System.

Lance Cpl. Anthony Nolley-Crosson, an intelligence clerk with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, prepares to launch an RQ-11B Raven Unmanned Aircraft System. In only a few short months, Nolley-Crosson and his unit will use the Raven UAS in Afghanistan to gather intelligence.

MARINE CORPS TRAINING AREA BELLOWS, Hawaii (November 28, 2011) – Carefully wielding the controls of an unmanned aircraft vehicle and system pricier than his annual salary, Lance Cpl. Michael Cuneo stands static, his neck craned skyward and eyes fixed on the tiny speck as the UAV buzzes 300 feet above him.

Though Cuneo specializes as a rifleman with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, his grip has, for now, transferred from his rifle to the controls of an RQ-11B Raven.

Viewing the ground from high in the air, infantrymen and intelligence specialists from the battalion used the Raven's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities during flight operations at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii.

"The Raven is another set of eyes we can deploy up to 10 kilometers out," Cuneo said. "A person's view can sometimes be limited, but flying the Raven over an area provides more context and gives us an idea of what is happening there. The operator's imagination is the limit with regard to what the system can be used for."

As the Marines' pre-deployment training program progresses toward their upcoming fall deployment to Afghanistan, Cuneo volunteered to begin training as an intelligence specialist for India's company-level intelligence cell, which includes learning to employ the Raven.

"Gathering intelligence makes an impact on a daily basis," Cuneo said. "If I can gather intelligence for my squad and send it up to higher, I can make an impact at a larger level than just in my squad's area of operation."

Whether serving as an infantrymen or filling a role as an intelligence specialist, Cuneo said using Ravens to contribute to intelligence gathering allows Marines on the ground to gain real-time information in a manner less intrusive than sending a patrol.

"Having an infantryman on hand who knows how to use the Raven means a company is able to have aerial observation over an area, given any situation,"said Lance Cpl. Andrew Donnelley, a team leader with Kilo Company, 3/3.

"This allows the combat operations center much better access to intelligence, and the commanding officer to have direct vision over the battlefield," Donnelley said.

After spending 20 hours in classes spanning topics from Raven assembly to flight operations, several two-Marine teams took to the field to fly the 4.2-pound remote-controlled aircraft.

Splitting into one of two roles, the Marines either functioned as a vehicle operator, controlling the unmanned aircraft system with a directional pad and viewfinder device, or as a mission operator, communicating mission information such as grid coordinates and elevation to the vehicle operator using a laptop linked to the Raven.

After assembling and preparing the Raven, the teams received their missions. With a forward hand outstretched and the other gripping the aircraft, the mission operators leaned back, counted down and lunged forward, launching the Ravens into flight. Simultaneously, the vehicle operator managed the controls, shooting the aircraft skyward and into its mission.

Lance Cpl. John Shaffer, an anti-tank missile man with Weapons Company, 3/3, likened controlling a Raven to playing a video game, but said the UAS would be valuable in locating improvised explosive devices, enemy gatherings and ambushes in advance of Marine patrols.

Flying between 300 and 1,000 feet over the training area, the Raven's cameras collected real-time video, transmitting and recording the information through the laptop. In only a few short months across the globe, this capability to gather intelligence will allow unit leaders to analyze and use the information for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.

By affording the opportunity to examine a mission's setting from afar, Cuneo said Ravens enable infantrymen and intelligence specialists to remain vigilant well before they set out on another patrol — all while helping maintain Afghans' trust and keeping Marines safe.

"The Raven can be helpful to the Afghans because it allows them to see we're still present and that we're there to watch out for them, not just to shake up their lives," Cuneo said. "It also prevents another Marine from having to use his combat lifesaver training, or a quick reaction force from having to respond to an emergency."

MARINES MAG is the Marine Corps' Official Magazine and is maintained by Marine Corps News at the Defense Media Activity Marine Corps Element.