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He helped clear the fog of war

A U.S. pilot saw a way to streamline airstrikes. The solution -- and his cause -- was the Rover, a device that would one day save his life.

September 13, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 2003, an Air Force pilot named Greg Harbin was doing desk duty at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.

Day in and day out, Harbin sat in front of five computer screens, scanning photographs and video sent by unmanned planes flying 1,200 miles away, over Iraq and Afghanistan.

His job was to take that information, along with reports from ground troops, and identify fresh targets -- Taliban fighters or Iraqi insurgents.

But one thing puzzled him.

When regular units called for an attack by a Predator drone, the request went to Harbin, and then, if approved by a general, to "pilots" in Nevada, who fired the missile by remote control. The process often took as long as 45 minutes.

By contrast, special operations forces could call in attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft in less than a minute.

The difference, Harbin learned, was that a handful of special ops units were equipped with a device called the Rover, which gave them the same view as the pilots in Nevada. This greatly simplified communications.

Why don't all American fighting units have the Rover? he asked himself. Then he put the question to his boss, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, commander of the Air Force in the Middle East. Buchanan's reply: Why indeed.

Buchanan dispatched Harbin to Texas to get a crash course in the Rover, a combination video receiver and laptop computer, and to bring back several of the kits with him. Seventy-two hours after he left Texas with four Rovers, Harbin was in Fallouja, Iraq, teaching members of the 82nd Airborne Division how to use it.

Harbin's days sitting in front of a computer were over. Over the next four years, Harbin would take a niche technology, spread it throughout the military -- and help change how the Air Force fights wars.

One day, it would save his life.


The Rover, or the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver, was born in 2002, shortly after the Afghanistan war began.

Christopher Manuel, an Army Special Forces chief warrant officer, had long wanted ground units to see, in real time, the video footage shot by Predators. After serving in Afghanistan, he traveled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to make his case. Engineers quickly developed a prototype of the Rover system.

Over the next year, it was used exclusively by special operations forces. Harbin's mission to widen access to the technology began with the 82nd Airborne, the first conventional forces to use the system. His next stop was Mosul, Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division, which happened to be his brother Eric's unit.

There, Harbin realized a limitation of the Rover: It could communicate only with Predators, and that day the Predators were grounded by bad weather. F-15s were flying, and he wondered why the Rover could not connect with the cameras mounted on them.

So Harbin sent an e-mail to Air Force officials. "Why . . . can't I see what the pilot sees on his targeting pod????? We can do it with Predator, this shouldn't be so goddam hard," he wrote.

"I was mad," Harbin said later. "I wanted my brother and his unit to have the best protection they could."

An Air Force officer wrote back: "Harbs, we got it." The message touched off a chain of events leading to a new version of the Rover that also could communicate with fighter planes, bombers and some helicopters.

Harbin, now a lieutenant colonel, is 43 and 5 feet 9, with receding blond hair that gets a little longer and wilder when he is deployed. A slight Alabama cadence gives his voice a relaxed, measured feel that nevertheless has an edge of urgency. He is a man in a hurry.

Throughout the early months of 2004, Harbin shuttled from Mosul to Baghdad to Najaf, wherever violence was flaring, teaching people how to use the Rover. By April, he was near the end of his tour. But on his way to Baghdad for his flight home, he was dropped off in Fallouja.

He used the quick stop to show the Rover to Marine Maj. Kevin Shea, a friend from the Air Force Academy.

Harbin accepted an invitation to join a Marine patrol, an opportunity to demonstrate the Rover. Not long after the patrol rolled out of the camp, a rocket-propelled grenade flashed by with a whoosh, and a mortar shell landed with a crack. As the Marines around him scrambled to return fire, Harbin sat mesmerized.

Through the din, Harbin heard a radio crackle and a voice report that a Predator was flying overhead. Through the dust of the battle, Harbin looked out the window of the Humvee for a place to work his Rover kit. This would be no demonstration; this would be survival.

He jumped from his vehicle and sprinted across the road toward another Humvee. The laptop's battery was dead, and the Humvee had no power outlet. Undeterred, Harbin cut off the electrical cord and hot-wired the laptop to the Humvee's battery.

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