CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — To meet the voracious need for unmanned aircraft surveillance in combat zones, the Air Force’s 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing is creating a new Predator squadron, relocating its training units and expanding base operations.
The 432nd flies the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. It has tripled the number of unmanned aircraft that have been sent to the Middle East since the wing’s formation two years ago.
“We have 34 video feeds over the battlefield right now,” says Col. John Montgomery, the wing’s vice commander.
The wing is standing up a new MQ-1 squadron. “A couple of our squadrons have grown much larger than they should be,” says the 432nd's first wing commander, Col. Chris Chambliss, in a phone interview before he completed his two-year assignment last month. Col. Pete Gersten is the new wing commander. “Our MQ-1 squadrons need to be a certain size to be the most efficient and still be able to maintain operational control. This has grown so quickly that we’ve outstripped a couple squadrons’ size.”
The ideal squadron size is approximately 200 airmen, including crews, intelligence and support personnel, he adds.
That in part is why the wing is producing its sixth Predator squadron, the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron. Some of its personnel and equipment will come from existing organizations.
The Predator carries a suite of sensors, including full-motion video cameras and laser-guided weapons. A two-person crew operates the aircraft from ground control stations located here and at four other bases across the country.
In June 2007, the newly established wing was flying 10 combat air patrols, says Montgomery. A single combat air patrol, or CAP, consists of three to four aircraft and two ground control stations — one deployed in theater to launch and recover the planes and one located in the United States to fly the missions. Each CAP requires about 50 airmen who are deployed with the aircraft to provide maintenance and the launch and recovery operations, and 30 others who remain at
Creech to fly the missions and work the operations center. CAPs co-located at the same base can share maintenance and launch and recovery crews.
Because battlefield commanders’ insatiable appetite for the full motion video was escalating at the time, Pentagon officials set a target for 21 combat air patrols by 2010; the wing surpassed that number in April 2008 and is 60 percent over the goal, says Chambliss.
The wing is flying 35 CAPs around the clock — 31 with the MQ-1B Predator and four with the newer MQ-9 Reaper. Royal Air Force crews from the United Kingdom man the fourth MQ-9 combat air patrol.
There is still a shortage of crews to adequately fly the systems. The Defense Department is pouring some $2 billion into intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs and personnel to help boost the Predator combat air patrols to 50. Officials here are confident that they will meet the goal by 2011.
“My bet is, we’ll get to that before that time,” says Chambliss.
If the rapid on-going construction here is any indication, the Air Force appears on track to attain its objective. In just two years’ time, this so-called “oasis” in the desert has transformed from an auxiliary airfield with temporary buildings into a bona fide base with modern facilities.
Since the mission started, Creech has opened 17 new buildings, with five more ribbon-cutting ceremonies planned this year. The bulk of the wing’s day-to-day operations has relocated to the northeastern corner of the 2,000-acre base, away from the main drag and the Indian Springs community at its gate. In this newly developed section, a backhoe digs near a group of sand-colored trailers that are protected by a fence topped with concertina wire. It is there, inside the ground control stations where Predator and Reaper crews fly their combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a recent morning, an MQ-9 pilot and sensor operator launch a Predator from Creech.
“Today, we’re not actually flying the aircraft,” says a captain, whose name is being withheld for security reasons, as he settles back in his seat. “We handed it off to a squadron that’s doing training. For the rest of the day, I’m a launch and recovery pilot,” he explains.
A New Mexico-based crew took control of the Predator to fly a training mission over California. Later in the day, it will send the plane back to Creech where he will “grab” it and land it on base.
The 432nd Wing is responsible for the initial training of all Predator and Reaper pilots and sensor operators. The Air Force is moving those training organizations to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico so that the wing here can focus on its combat operations.
“Creech was never meant to be able to sustain a training organization that is growing as fast as this is growing,” says Chambliss. Only a few years ago, the wing was training 30 two-person crews annually. This year, that number is 220 crews.
The wing expects to boost that rate to 400 crews in the next two years to be able to meet the 50 CAPs goal, says Chambliss. “That’s why we’re moving the training piece out of the operations down at Creech.”
The plan is to generate 120 crews to staff the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, 120 crews for the new 18th Reconnaissance Squadron, and 120 crews for the MQ-9 Reaper unit, the 42nd Attack Squadron. Air National Guard and Reserve units would help to train the remaining 40 crews to boost the annual rate to 400.
“The goal here is to sustain a training number so that we can have a normal rotational flow in and out of this weapon system, just like we already have in every other weapon system in the Air Force,” says Chambliss.
Rapid fielding of the aircraft and the lack of available airmen to operate and maintain equipment have caused the Air Force to take some drastic measures. Officials have frozen Predator crews in place to ensure there are enough personnel to fly the missions and repair aircraft 24 hours a day. They also have mobilized Guard and Reserve units to support the wing in training and in combat.
“We want to get to the point where the Air National Guard isn’t required to be mobilized in order to support this,” says Chambliss. “To do that, you have to increase the number of crews that you train every year so that they can take the place of people who would be leaving and maybe going back to fly their primary weapon system,” he says. At one point, there was concern about fielding enough aircraft and control stations to meet the demand. The Air Force is buying 70 additional MQ-1B aircraft to bring the inventory to 185 Predators. The wing also owns 28 Reapers. The Air Force is buying nine more this year and wants to acquire 24 in fiscal year 2010.
“We’re training as many as we can to the capacity we have,” says Lt. Col. John Meyer, director of operations for the 78th Reconnaissance Squadron, a reserve unit at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. “Manning is our issue now.”
Officials from the nation’s closest ally, the United Kingdom, echo that sentiment.
“We’re not really worried about what goes in the system. I’m more worried about manning it,” says Royal Air Force Wing Cmdr. Andrew Jeffrey, commander of the 39th Squadron. The unit currently operates at Creech with its U.S. counterparts and is trying to increase its numbers to meet the demand from ground forces overseas. It recently created a provisional Predator training course with British instructors on U.K. control stations, but flying U.S. drones.
Some of the continuity in MQ-1B Predator training is a result of the British instructor pilots who are helping U.S. operators learn on their systems. That is providing the 432nd Wing the necessary time and space to concentrate on transitioning crews to the MQ-9 Reaper — the larger and more lethal Predator variant — that will become the centerpiece of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft inventory after this year. The wing’s long-term goal is to provide 50 Reaper combat air patrols by 2016.
Moving the Predator training units to New Mexico doesn’t mean that the ties to Creech will be severed. “We’ll still be flying airplanes here that they’ll be using to train down at Holloman because of some of the unique features of flying in this airspace,” says Chambliss. The nature of the remote split operations concept — being able to control the aircraft from stations in disparate locations — means that Holloman-based airmen training to operate the drones can fly in support of Red Flag, Green Flag and other Air Force combat exercises that take place at Nellis Air Force Base, which is only 45 miles away in Las Vegas.
Shifting the training units to Holloman means that fewer personnel will have to make the daily 45-minute commute to Creech, which does not provide housing for crews. “From a quality-of-life standpoint, if we can base people on a normal main operating base with all the normal facilities that we have, that’s going to be a huge win, not only for the crews that we train, but certainly for the permanent-party crews and folks in the squadrons,” says Chambliss.
To give the crews-in-training some hands-on experience for what they will see and hear over the battlefield, officials at Creech are bringing in joint terminal attack controllers — the airmen on the ground who communicate with the aircrews to help them pinpoint their targets.
“They’ll be out with a vehicle driving around on some of the targets on the range to give crews that are going through training a more realistic, scenario-based look at what they should be doing,” says Chambliss. “It’s going to give us a better-trained crew.”
Rally Point Management, a company based in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., provides those JTACs and ground units the radios and the remotely-operated video-enhanced receiver, or ROVER, that allows them to see video feeds coming off the drones.
“We’re here on a daily basis to facilitate the training, to bring the JTAC realism in communications and coordination,” says Rally Point’s Dru Wasson, a terminal control training and logistics specialist.
Because the pool of qualified pilot candidates for the Predator is running low, the Air Force is putting test groups of non-aviator officers through a new training “pipeline” to meet near-term rapid growth and sustain long-term growing demand for UAS expertise, says Ed Gulick, a spokesman for the Air Force secretary’s office.
The initial group of graduates will go to MQ-1B squadrons. “It is still undecided if the graduates of this new training pipeline will receive an aeronautical rating or not. It is premature to label them ‘non-rated,’” he writes in response to questions from National Defense.
Predator pilots currently come from traditionally rated pilot backgrounds, meaning they have been qualified to fly other Air Force aircraft. But that paradigm does not hold throughout the Defense Department. The Army, for example, flies similar, but smaller drones, and many of its operators do not have any previous flying background.
“Certainly a rated Air Force pilot possesses skill-sets that non-rated airmen don’t. But the key is determining which skill-sets are required to fly UAS,” says Chambliss, an F-16 pilot.
There also are questions of whether the same physical standards for flying the Air Force’s fighters and other aircraft ought to be applied to operators of unmanned aircraft. “Right now, if I sprain my ankle and I have it in a cast, I can’t operate an unmanned aircraft because we have the same rules that we follow with manned airplanes,” Chambliss points out.
Several organizations have been posted at the base to examine the human factors for flying the Predators. “We have one on the ground right now that’s studying that to figure out what the real standard should be so that we can maybe open up the aperture a bit,” he says.
The Air Force will continue to collect and analyze data after the beta-test graduates are flying operational missions. “If the Air Force determines that this new training pipeline, or a modified one, will meet all of its strict requirements for UAS operations, we will begin full-scale production of UAS-only pilots,” Gulick says.
Allowing such pilots to fly Predators could be a boon for a service that has been struggling to keep pace with the endless demand for more “eyes in the sky.”
Last year, the wing flew 134,000 flight hours in support of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chambliss expects that number to increase significantly this year.
“We’re continuing to do everything that we can to increase the capability that we put in the air over Iraq and Afghanistan, to support our folks there on the ground,” says Chambliss. “That is our very sharply-focused, singular mission, and we think we’re doing it well, and we want to do more of it.”
Meanwhile, Creech continues to expand. Workers are building a new 24-hour fitness facility and a new shopette to give airmen some of the creature comforts they would otherwise have on a normal operating base. That’s important, officials say, because crews are immersed in the war-zone daily, even though they are physically thousands of miles away from the battlefield.
“You are part of the battlefield,” says Montgomery, who has flown hundreds of combat sorties over Sadr City, a one-mile by one-mile neighborhood in Baghdad. “I knew where they hung out the laundry. I knew when they took out the trash. And I knew the traffic flow for the hours that I could see, and when that changed, I knew it.”
“Once you know the patterns of life, when things are different or odd, that means something’s up, and that gives the battlefield commander, the joint commander on the ground, a heads up,” he says.
Reconciling the day’s fight in the war zone with their daily lives at home can be a problem, and the Air Force has addressed that by expanding the chaplain corps at Creech.
“It’s an indicator that we’re taking it seriously and want to make sure we’re taking care of our people as best we can during this time of incredible growth in this mission,” says Chambliss.