Fears of imminent war between Iran and the United States subsided after the US assassinated a top Iranian commander and Tehran hit bases housing American troops in Iraq with ballistic missiles. But Iran warned the US against further attacks after it launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at the Ain al-Assad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province and a military facility in Erbil on Wednesday.
At the time the attack was launched at 1.35 am on January 8, the US Army was flying seven unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Iraq to monitor bases where US-led coalition forces are deployed.
Most of the other 1,500 US soldiers had been tucked away in bunkers for two hours, after advance warning from superiors. But 14 pilots had stayed in dark containers-turned-cockpits to remotely fly the ‘birds’ and monitor essential feeds from their high-powered cameras. The first missile blasted dust into their shelter but the pilots stayed put.
“No more than a minute after the last round hit, I was heading over to the bunkers on the far backside and saw the fire was burning all through our fibre lines,” said First Sergeant Wesley Kilpatrick.
Those lines link the virtual cockpits to antennas then satellites that send signals to the Gray Eagles and pull the cameras’ feeds back onto the screens at Ain al-Asad.
“With the fibre lines burnt, there was no control,” said Kilpatrick.
The soldiers could no longer locate the drones and we’re left blind to events in the air — and on the ground.
The US army had kept the drones in the air anyway. But as soon as the blasts stopped, soldiers rushed back out and faced a race against time to get their signals up and running so they could find — and land — the drones.
As dawn started to break, soldiers scrambled to replace 500 metres of melted fibre cables and reprogramme satellites so they could reconnect to the UAVs.
The Iranian ballistic missiles had punched holes across Ain al-Asad’s airfield and the control tower was empty.
The pilots worked for hours to land each drone one by one, their adrenaline pumping even as other soldiers were recovering, showering and assessing the damage.
Around 9 am, the final drone was brought down to earth.