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Painting the Target

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Presumably the pilot was painting so that the helicopters could find us.  Not that the helicopters needed it, but for whatever reason, the pilot began sparkling.  Normally I only see aircraft sparkle when they are relaying information like, “There are about ten men in the tree line to your northwest.  Watch my laser.”  Or they are about to drop a bomb, or they are spotting for a missile shot.

It is possible that any painting that occurred in Benghazi was to identify the mortar position to other ground forces, or maybe for someone overhead.  But again, the idea that there had to be an AC-130 gunship on station (or whatever) before someone would paint, is false.

image002-1000Aircraft painting helicopter LZ in Kandahar Province, 2011. Anybody with a normal video camera could see this from great distance.

The SEAL might have been painting for the Predator, or for the benefit of other guys up on a high floor, or maybe to help others maneuver into a position to kill the mortar crew.  I have zero idea.  Painting a target can also help snipers.  The SEAL could have been painting for someone else who was using a machinegun, a grenade launcher, or some other weapons system.

What can be said is that to crank up an IR laser in a relatively advanced country like Libya risks identifying the lasing source even more than the target.  The Libyans may use normal camera gear, or have cheap night vision gear that can be bought all over the world.  They might just use smart phone cameras.

The enemy is known to do this in Pakistan.  They watch for our lasers to know when missiles or bombs might be on the way.  They use normal cameras to detect people who are emplacing IR beacons for air strikes.  Nothing that I am saying is classified.  I learned these things from paying attention to our enemies.

If US Soldiers do not also know these things, it is a training failure.  The enemy surely knows it.  Al Qaeda figured out how to drop the towers in New York.  They long ago figured out IR sources.  They are savages, but they are smart, and IR lasers and strobes are simple.


IMG 9467-1000pxAir Force IR laser during mission in 2010, Kandahar Province. Modified Canon Mark II 5d camera, but no night vision.

If I were an enemy commander, I would put personnel in key positions in advance with night vision or video cameras specifically to watch for IR sources, with instructions to call me if they see any.  Since I would be attacking Americans who use IR, I would make sure to get this gear and practice with it.

If a laser is coming from the sky, it is time to scatter, or time to get very close to the Americans.  If the IR source is coming from a building, I would prepare forces on the ground with cameras or night vision devices pre-designated to attack all IR sources that they can identify.

The investment required to see our lasers is at most a couple of hundred dollars for a used camera. The moment that the laser operator begins to sparkle the target, his position is burned.

People will be painting tonight in Afghanistan.  It is common practice.  Afghans have been caught with normal video cameras that feature a night mode strapped to their weapons.


IMG-2804-1000pxStreaks in the background are blacked helicopters. Canon Mark II 5d camera is modified to see IR, but no night vision.

We had a helicopter shot down this year in Afghanistan during a pitch-black night while conducting a MEDEVAC.  A suicide bomb detonated and the helicopter launched to rescue casualties.  It is possible that the suicide attack was actually a helicopter ambush.  One pilot told me it was the darkest night that he had ever seen.  The chances are very low of hitting a blacked-out helicopter on a pitch-black night using an RPG.  It is possible that the RPG gunner aimed at the IR strobes using a camera, or he may have used an actual surface-to-air missile.  Anyway that you look at it, it was a lucky shot, but it takes a lot less luck if you can see the IR strobes, and if you are in a position where you know that the helicopter will be low and slow.

Recently in Norway, Norwegian Soldiers told me that in Afghanistan they were ambushed one night by accurate machinegun fire.  When they switched off their IR strobes, the enemy firing stopped.  When they switched their strobes back on, the firing resumed.  They switched them off, and the firing stopped.

We still own the night, but not for long.  It is contested.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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