Michael Deguzman is not a pilot, but he will have a bird's-eye view of the battlefield if U.S. forces are ordered to invade Iraq. That's because the 21-year-old lance corporal is the only Marine in his battalion with an airplane in his backpack.
Deguzman, an intelligence analyst from Glendale, Calif., operates the military's newest, and smallest, unmanned aerial vehicle, a battery-powered drone called the Dragon Eye. With a four-foot wingspan, it soars hundreds of feet in the air, recording images shot by a camera mounted on its nose. Wearing goggles linked electronically to the drone camera, Deguzman can see what the plane sees, and he directs its flight by typing grid coordinates into a laptop computer.
"It's a great challenge using such high-tech gear," Deguzman said as he unpacked pieces of the white fiberglass plane from a black carrying case. He said what he likes best about the Dragon Eye is that it could save the lives of some of his fellow Marines.
"We'd normally have to send scouts into harm's way to find the enemy," he said. "The plane can move more quickly and cover more ground, without putting people at risk. It'll also help prevent friendly fire when units are working real close together."
The Pentagon is increasingly relying on drones for missions that once required men to be put in the line of fire. The Air Force's Predator was used heavily in Afghanistan, where it became the first U.S. drone aircraft to be armed. Outfitted with potent Hellfire antitank missiles, it was used to conduct several airstrikes in the Afghan war during the fall of 2001. Last November, the lethal Predator was used by the CIA in Yemen to kill six alleged al Qaeda terrorists. The Air Force's big Global Hawk reconnaissance plane, which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 737's, also had its first operational flight in Afghanistan and is expected to be used heavily in any war with Iraq to monitor suspected caches of chemical and biological weapons for hours at a time. The Navy and Marines have a medium-sized reconnaissance drone, the Pioneer, that is stationed with the Predator at a pair of air bases in Kuwait. The Army also uses drone aircraft.
The Dragon Eye, a fraction of the size of the Global Hawk, is one of the first in what military analysts say will be a new generation of drones to be deployed directly by commanders of small units in the middle of the fighting, rather than from far away, as was the Predator. Put into service a few months ago -- earlier than originally planned -- by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va., the Dragon Eye can be carried, launched and operated by a single Marine. It has never been used in combat before but will likely make its debut if U.S. forces are sent into Iraq. Deguzman said each drone, manufactured by AeroVironment in Monrovia, Calif., costs between $40,000 and $60,000. Landing on uneven terrain can be rough on the planes. Deguzman said they are usually expected to hold up for about 40 flights before falling apart.
"It looks like something my kids would play with. I couldn't believe it actually works, but it does," said Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, 44, of Falls Church, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, to which Deguzman is assigned. "I could have him pop it over a ridgeline to see what's on the other side. It goes where you don't want to send a pilot or a scout, so it's a big advantage. We've got plans for it, and [Deguzman] will be the one doing the flying."
Deguzman was assigned to operate the Dragon Eye after three years of analyzing satellite images, surveying terrain maps and filling other intelligence-related jobs that would have kept him at a rear command post during combat. Now, if an invasion is ordered, he will take his plane across the border with the battalion's weapons company, which operates artillery, machine guns and other heavy arms.
His job requires a special ability, his commanding officers said, and Deguzman was one of just a handful of Marines selected for an intense month-long training session on the Dragon Eye in November, as the newest version of the drone was finishing production. Deguzman has the compact build of a wrestler, but his thick thatch of brown hair is tinged orange from long days spent surfing back in Huntington Beach, Calif. Good-natured and articulate, he speaks Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
"He's the only guy we have that can fly it," said Sgt. Maj. Henry Bergeron. "And that says something about him. I like to kid him that it must get pretty cramped in that cockpit."
The appeal of cutting-edge technology is what led Deguzman to the military in the first place. But the Marine Corps, which prides itself on getting by with fewer high-tech gadgets than the other service branches, was an unlikely spot for him to land. "I have three uncles in the Navy, so that might have seemed more obvious," he said. "I chose the Marines because they give young grunts a lot of responsibility. And I'm a good example of that."
Being in charge of such a sophisticated piece of equipment has earned the young Marine attention among the thousands of troops stationed at this desert camp, 45 miles north of Kuwait City. When he assembled the Dragon Eye recently, a crowd gathered quickly to get a glimpse and ask him when the next flight would be. A few days ago, Deguzman test-flew his plane for just the fourth time since arriving in Kuwait in late January. With the help of an assistant, he launched it slingshot-style, propelling it into the sky with a bungee cord. The five-pound craft can also be thrown into flight like a paper airplane, he said, adding that he is not yet approved to launch it that way. "It's a bit too expensive to play around with like that," he said.
To make sure he's ready when needed, Deguzman spends several hours each day reviewing tapes of old test flights conducted over the camp. The images are wobbly, as the small plane gets jostled about by the wind, but on a five-inch TV screen he can clearly make out different types of vehicles and get a rough count of personnel standing outside a tent. He can also make out geographic obstacles like valleys or hills, as well as man-made formations like roads, trenches and berms.
Deguzman also practices assembling the plane for launch. It takes him about 10 minutes to get ready from the time he gets the order, he said.
"Because I am one of the only guys flying it out here, there's a lot I have to figure out on my own," Deguzman said.
Fortunately, learning to operate the Dragon Eye is not the hardest aerial mission he has undertaken. Back at Twentynine Palms, Calif., where his battalion is based, he keeps a hawk as a pet. He caught the bird there last summer and has been training it to fly around the camp and then return to his arm. The Dragon Eye, he said, is much more reliable. "In the end, that bird does whatever it wants," he said. "As long as we operate it right, the plane is always under control."