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.
As the laptop powered up, another rocket-propelled grenade burst nearby. Harbin reeled. His ears rang from the force of the explosion. He turned back to the Rover. The kit worked, linking with the Predator overhead. The plane’s camera sent an image of the surrounding area to the laptop’s screen.
Harbin searched the video, and pinpointed the insurgents, about 100 yards away. He yelled for the Marine captain and pointed to the enemy mortar position on the screen. The captain called in a strike. The Predator fired a Hellfire missile at the insurgents, killing them.
Harbin and two Marines were injured, one fatally. He would later learn that shrapnel from the grenade had destroyed the hearing in his left ear.
His actions in the fight earned him a Bronze Star Medal for valor, but they ended his days as an Air Force pilot. Harbin and his superiors say the Rover system saved his life and those of many of the Marines on the patrol.
“For sure,” he said, “I would be dead without this technology.”
Harbin was born and raised in the mining and lumber town of Parrish, Ala., in the Appalachian foothills. His parents divorced when he was 7. For most of his childhood, he lived in a trailer with his mother on a small patch of woods.
As a child, Harbin read the World Book encyclopedia obsessively, and inspired by what he read, he led his friends and his brother, Eric, into adventures. One time they built a wooden “submarine” from wooden crates and milk jugs in a pool by an abandoned grist mill. It was not any sort of technological breakthrough, his mother said.
“I went down and watched the submarine go under,” Janice Harbin recalled. “The problem was getting it back up.”
His youthful creativity grew into serious study in high school.
“There were not a lot of highly educated people in Parrish who dreamed big dreams, I guess you could say, but Greg was a big dreamer,” said Stan Randolph, Harbin’s history teacher and football coach. “He had visions for what he wanted to do.”
In Randolph’s class, Harbin took a deep interest in the military history of World War II. Harbin decided to apply to the military academies, and in 1983, he entered the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
He spent the first year on academic probation but his last two years on the dean’s list. After graduation in 1987, he became a pilot and eventually an instructor who flew air shows over NASCAR races on the weekends. It was a typical Air Force pilot’s career, with stints at bases near Oklahoma City; Ellsworth, S.D.; San Antonio and other cities.
Until he met the Rover.
When he returned to the United States after the attack in Fallouja, Harbin’s inner-ear injury left him feeling nauseated and off-balance. As he was recovering, Harbin learned that Shea, his academy classmate, had been killed in Fallouja by an insurgent rocket in September 2004.
Harbin was deeply depressed, but the loss sharpened his focus on trying to speed the military’s acceptance of the Rover, said John P. Wheeler, a top Air Force official.
“People try to live two lives after the death of a friend,” Wheeler said. “You try to do what your friend might have done.”
Over the next few months, Harbin designed a Rover training course and lobbied the Air Force to purchase more.
His next opportunity to use the system did not come until August 2005 -- and it was in the United States.
Harbin arrived in New Orleans 40 hours after Hurricane Katrina. He intended to draw video from a small unmanned aircraft to get an overhead view of New Orleans. But the Federal Aviation Administration would not let the craft fly.
He then taped a Rover video camera to a Black Hawk helicopter, but the image it captured was too shaky.
“That is when Col. Harbin said, ‘Let’s take the high ground,’ ” remembered Kyle Stanbro, a retired Air Force special operations master sergeant, who accompanied Harbin to New Orleans. They climbed 51 floors to the top of a bank building to set up Rover cameras on tripods. The system beamed images of the flooded Lower 9th Ward to the military command in Colorado.
The images quickly demonstrated the need for additional small Coast Guard vessels to help rescue people trapped in their homes. Within hours, the military command, in part because of the Rover images, ordered more than 100 small boats to New Orleans.
“We could show them visually that we needed more boats,” Harbin said. “And those assets showed up a lot faster than they would have.”
In the Pentagon, decisions about procuring weapons systems are made by civilians, not uniformed officers. One of the ways civilian service secretaries create their legacy is to find promising, but underappreciated, technology and get behind it.
For much of 2005, the Air Force was without a permanent civilian leader, but in November, Michael W. Wynne was sworn in as the service’s secretary. He requested briefings on new technologies and initiatives, and Harbin was asked to discuss the use of the Rover in New Orleans. The secretary was sold.
“Greg, what you are about to do is . . . change how we fight,” Wynne recalls saying.
In early 2005, there were 183 Rover units in the field. There are now 1,500 of the 12-pound kits in use mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the service has ordered 2,200 more. So far, the Air Force has spent about $72 million on the Rover.
Still, Air Force officers think the Rover should be as common as a radio. To fully equip active-duty military units, the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. would need 16,544 Rover kits, an Air Force study found.
Wynne and Harbin are also pushing development of the next generation of Rover -- Rover IV, or what airmen call “the John Madden version”: The operator can draw on the screen and a pilot can see the notation, just as television football commentator Madden draws lines during replays. The new version, which costs about $90,000, nearly three times the cost of the current model, is due to go into the field in February.
Air Force officers have no illusions that the Rover technology will single-handedly change the course of the war in Iraq. But it has increased the accuracy of bombs: In 2003, “danger close” -- the minimum distance away from U.S. forces a bomb could be dropped -- was 2,000 meters or about 18 football fields. Today, thanks to smaller bombs and the improved accuracy the Rover system allows, it is 75 meters, less than one football field. Harbin says equipping helicopters with Rover technology could help pilots avoid insurgents armed with shoulder-fired missiles. And the Rover system helps units minimize accidental civilian deaths.
This spring, Harbin was sent to Afghanistan to show NATO forces fighting the Taliban how to use the Rover.
In May, a Canadian army regiment got a call from someone in a village near Kandahar. A group of Taliban had killed two women in the town. Harbin and his NATO team used the Rover to help track the Taliban fighters. They told a NATO fighter plane to hold off as the fighters moved through the alleyways of the village. When the fighters stepped on a road, Harbin’s team called in the strike. A 500-pound bomb from the NATO plane killed five fighters. One Taliban fighter escaped, but Harbin tracked him on the Rover, and called for the Predator to launch a Hellfire missile.
As the missile neared the target, Harbin noticed a second “heat signature” on the Rover screen and called for a course correction. The Hellfire struck the fighter, but spared the first target indicated on the Rover, which turned out to be a dog.
“We found them, tracked them, then picked the time and the place to strike in order to minimize collateral damage,” Harbin said. “We were so precise that the dog got away.”
Now, back from Afghanistan, Harbin walks the halls of the Pentagon, carrying his Rover laptop in a backpack. He darts from office to office, using videos to sell the system to decision-makers from every service.
Among top Air Force officials, there is little doubt that without Harbin, the Rover might have remained a niche technology used by only a few.
“I am not the guy who invented it. I am not the guy who built it. I am not the only one who believes in it,” Harbin said. “My role was to get it out there.”
Sitting in a Pentagon cafeteria lined with vending machines, his Rover at his feet, Harbin paused between meetings to consider what he had achieved.
“When you believe in something, you can’t just talk about it and make PowerPoint slides. You have to go out to the battlefield and show how it works,” he said. “I knew it would be useful. I didn’t know it would change the way we fight.”