CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Since they were first deployed as reconnaissance and attack aircraft, the Predators have been credited with helping to change the tide in counterinsurgency operations.
Now, the Air Force is struggling to keep up with the demand for Predator patrols.
“We’re the victims of our own success,” says Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which was established last year as the Air Force’s first unit dedicated to unmanned aerial systems.
He plays several video clips taken from recent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where all of the Predators now fly armed with laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. “This is really the weapon of choice,” he adds while watching a 14-pound warhead destroy a vehicle.
Last year, Predators fired off 112 such shots. Tallies so far this year indicate a growing trend.
“We’re well aware that there’s a virtually insatiable appetite for these systems and their capabilities,” says Chambliss. “We know we have to generate more of them as quickly as we can, and that’s our goal. No one’s working harder to do that than us.”
In both war zones, ground troops routinely request Predator assets, but some of those pleas go unanswered on a daily basis because the numbers of airplanes are insufficient. “It’s absolutely reasonable to assume that if we had more over there, we could do more with them,” says Chambliss, whose flying career was aboard the F-16 fighter jet.
While Predators don’t have a pilot inside the cockpit, they do require large crews of operators and support staff. “In this unmanned system, there’s a lot of people involved — a lot more than in my F-16, certainly,” he says, underscoring one of the ironies in operating the aerial robotics technology. To fly two Predators requires as many as 80 people, including pilots, sensor operators and maintenance crews, as well as airmen who provide weather and intelligence reports.
The wing is currently flying 28 combat air patrols around the clock — 26 with the Predator, and two with its larger, more advanced sibling, the Reaper.
A single combat air patrol, or CAP, consists of four drones 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 people who are deployed with the aircraft to provide maintenance and the launch and recovery operations, and 30 people who remain at Creech to fly the missions and work the operations center.
About 65 people could fly as many as eight different combat air patrols.
The number of CAPs is expected to increase. The original objective was to provide 21 Predator CAPs by fiscal year 2010 and the wing has surpassed that number already.
“Today we have 27 combat air patrols of Predators and Reapers flying, and we’re building towards 50,” says Gen. John D.W. Corley, commander of Air Combat Command, at a joint war fighting conference in Virginia Beach, Va.
The wing’s 11th Reconnaissance Squadron trains all Predator pilots and sensor operators for the military. Four years ago, the Air Force had trained 30 two-person crews to operate the aircraft. This year the squadron is preparing 160 crews for the 24 CAPs. Next year, it expects to train another 240 crews.
The wing is standing up a second Predator training squadron and will establish a weapons instructor course at Nellis Air Force Base next year. “In essence, our goal is to not let personnel be the limiting factor. We want to reach the point where the equipment is intact, and we will continue to build to stay ahead of that bow wave, as long as we need to,” says Chambliss.
The wing also is standing up another Predator aircraft maintenance squadron to add 200 more maintainers to its force.
Out on the flight line, an MQ-9 Reaper sits under a sunshade. As Col. John Montgomery, vice commander of the wing, walks up to the plane, the distinct scent of jet fuel wafts by on the hot spring breeze. The Reaper is twice the size of the Predator, which pilots half-jokingly compare to flying a toy model aircraft. At an airspeed of about 120 knots, the Predator is comparable to a Cessna, they say. The Reaper, on the other hand, can fly at about 240 knots and up to 50,000 feet and has a wider wingspan than the A-10 Lightning II aircraft.
“It feels like a plane, it smells like one,” says Montgomery, also an F-16 fighter pilot.
Driven by the high demand for the General Atomics-built unmanned aerial vehicles, the military rushed the Reaper to the battlefield last fall — a year early. It began flying operations as part of the 42nd Attack Squadron — the sole unmanned squadron so designated because of the aircraft’s strike capabilities, says Chambliss. The other four Predator squadrons are called reconnaissance squadrons.
“The Reaper is an attack asset,” he says. It’s a much more capable aircraft than the Predator, he adds, because it can carry a much larger weapons load.
The Reaper is armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles along with two types of precision-guided bombs, the GBU-12 Paveway II and the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
“That’s made a huge difference already. We’re putting a lot more ordnance on target supporting the guys on the ground with that airplane,” says Chambliss.
The wing in late spring expected to receive the new GBU-49, a Global Positioning System-guided JDAM bomb, for the Reaper. The 500-pound munition is a laser-guided weapon similar to the Paveway II, but its on-board GPS kit will give Reapers the ability to drop bombs in all weather conditions.
Another addition to the Predator arsenal is a new laser marker for Hellfire missiles that allows them to hit small targets and buildings more precisely. The laser marker also has been useful in guiding manned aircraft to drop weapons on targets — a method known as “buddy lasing.”
Chambliss says while flying in his F-16 two years ago, he might have had only 10 minutes worth of fuel to find a target, put the laser on it and hit it. Today, Predators that have been in the air for hours or even days can point a more accurate laser on the target and allow the fighters to hit them in even less time.
Though the bulk of the Predator missions is devoted to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — totaling 10,413 hours last year and almost 6,000 hours as of June this year — the Predators are involved in at least two raids each day, says Chambliss. Their lasers can spotlight specific buildings for nighttime operations. Last year, they participated in 789 raids. In the first six months of this year, Predators and Reapers already have assisted in 649 raids so far.
Flight hours also are increasing rapidly. In 2006, Predators flew a total of 50,500 hours. Last year, they flew 82,000 hours, and this year Chambliss expects totals of about 120,000 — 10 times the number of hours his last F-16 squadron flew annually. “That’s just a huge presence over the target area, working for the guys on the ground,” he says.
When the Air Force F-15s were grounded late last year after a spate of mishaps, the Predators were the only strike aircraft flying in Afghanistan for some time.
“Back in the old days, it used to be that the UAVs did the dumb, dirty and dangerous. That’s not true anymore. We’re conducting very complex, multi-ship tactics and operations that nobody would ever term as dumb,” he says.
It is unlikely, however, that unmanned systems will put the manned strike aircraft out of business, he says. Rather, a mix of the two aircraft will become the norm in the Air Force, he adds. “The real question is, what can I do with an unmanned asset that frees up a manned asset to go do a more complicated war mission that requires somebody in that cockpit.”