Fighting From Home

August 2015

By William Matthews
(read online digital version)

Air Force officials are increasingly turning to the Air National Guard to operate remotely piloted aircraft, a flying mission like none other

This weapon is different from the rest," says Col. Ron Wilson, the commander of the Michigan Air National Guard’s 110th Attack Wing. “The RPA was born during war,” and has been operating there ever since, around the world and around the clock.

Even remotely piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators who are still in mission-qualification training find themselves flying in live missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. “A lot of the training you do is real world,” Wilson says. “You could be dropping bombs during training—with an instructor there.”

Wilson’s unit is in the midst of converting into an MQ-9 Reaper RPA unit. After flying combat sorties in A-10 Thunderbolt II fighters until 2009, then transport assignments in C-21 Learjets until 2013, the wing’s pilots are adjusting to flying from work stations that stay on the ground up to half a world away from the mission.

Wilson, a decorated A-10 pilot, has embraced the new assignment. “It’s a good mission. We’re involved at the highest levels, fighting the good fight,” he says. “All the stuff you see on TV, we’re doing it.”

The demand for RPAs is incessant and increasing. Combatant commanders around the world want as many of them as can be kept airborne.

The missions? “About 90 percent of the time,” it’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Wilson says. “But when you take off and you pick up the orbit, it could turn into a strike mission at any time.”

RPAs watch and strike Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. They track and attack the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They hunt for al-Qaida terrorists in Somalia and Yemen. Air Force RPAs have flown missions over war-torn Libya in North Africa, and over Chad, Mali and Niger to search for Islamist insurgents in West Africa.

Some of them are CIA “drones,” but most, about 260, belong to the Air Force. Of those, 48 are assigned to the Air Guard, according to a 2015 RAND Corporation study.

They’re all kept busy. In 2014, MQ-1B Predators, the older and smaller of the Air Force’s two multimission RPAs (box, page 26), and MQ-9 Reapers flew 369,913 flight hours, according to the Air Force. Predators alone flew more hours than every other Air Force aircraft except F-16 fighters and KC-135 tankers.

Demand was expected to decrease after the Iraq war ended and the Afghanistan war began winding down, but instead it has increased.

“We simply underestimated the continued demand,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said at a defense conference last spring. The demand for ISR “remains very, very high and continues to outstrip our supply.”

That high demand for RPAs is taxing the Air Force, putting its pool of pilots and sensor operators “under significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations,” Air Force Secretary Deborah James said during a Pentagon briefing earlier this year.

RPA pilots on active duty might fly 900 to 1,100 hours a year, substantially more than the 200 to 300 hours that manned aircraft pilots typically fly, James said. The high demand for RPAs and a 200-plus shortage of RPA pilots is forcing some to work 13-hour days, six days a week.

Overwork, stress and burnout are prompting many RPA pilots to leave the Air Force, causing a “critical shortage,” James said. The Air Force plans to offer bonuses of $15,000 a year in 2016 to convince RPA pilots to stay. The Air Force is also turning to the Air Guard for help.

Calling more Guard RPA pilots to active duty is one short-term solution. Converting more Air Guard flying units into RPA units like the 110th in Michigan is a longer-term approach. Units in Arkansas, Iowa, New York and Pennsylvania also have given up manned aircraft and are reorganizing as Reaper wings.

Tough Transition

Converting from manned to unmanned aircraft is not easy.

By the time the last of the F-16s left Hancock Field in 2010, the 174th Attack Wing, the Air Guard’s first Reaper unit, had already been flying Reapers for a year. And two-thirds of the F-16 pilots had already left the Syracuse, N.Y.-based unit for other opportunities.

Most of the departing 174th’s fighter pilots “were able to find other jobs in the Air National Guard and continue to fly the F-16,” says Col. Greg Semmel, the wing’s commander.

But finding replacements to fly the newly arrived Reapers was a challenge. Recruiting pilots to fly RPAs “is not as easy as recruiting for the F-16,” Semmel says. “It takes a different type of recruit these days. They have to be interested in flying unmanned aircraft.” And it takes more of them. As a Reaper unit, the 174th now needs 56 pilots compared to the 30 it required as an F-16 unit.

With so many units converting to RPAs and seeking pilots, the Air Guard has only about 57 percent of the pilots it will eventually need, according to the National Guard Bureau. Recruiting efforts include local and national advertising and pitches at air shows and aviation-themed conferences, NGB reports.

Wing commanders say potential pilots are out there if you know where to look. “We’re always recruiting pilots out of college, or we get pilots leaving active duty who want to settle down and keep kids in one school system,” says Lt. Col. Michele Kilgore, the commander of the 174th Operations Group.

At the 110th Attack Wing, which began transitioning to Reapers in 2013, the reaction from pilots was more encouraging. Many stayed for the new mission and others wanted in, Wilson says. “We’ve got a very diverse cross-section of pilots,” including some who formerly flew KC-135s, C-130 Hercules cargo planes, F-16s and RPAs in the active component, he says.

In Arkansas, reaction to the new RPA mission for the 188th Fighter Wing was mixed. When the last A-10 departed in June 2014, some pilots “were ready to retire and get out of the military,” but others “were ready to give up on the A-10” and give the Reaper a try, says Col. Bobbi Doorenbos, the commander of what is now the 188th Wing.

How that will work out remains to be seen. “We still have some openings,” Doorenbos says. But the unit is still standing up and won’t reach initial operating capability until 2016.

Like most of the Air Guard’s RPA units, the 188th will not have its own fleet of aircraft. Instead, its pilots will fly whatever Reapers are out there and need pilots—some might belong to the Guard, others to the active-component Air Force.

With five Air Guard wings in various stages of converting from manned to unmanned aircraft , the RPA flight schools at Hancock in Syracuse, N.Y., and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, are backlogged, wing commanders say.

It’s an Air Force-wide problem, as Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, made clear last winter. “We can only train about 180 people a year, and we need 300 a year trained,” he said during a press conference. On top of that, “we’re losing about 240 from the community each year. Training 180 and losing 240 is not a winning proposition for us.”

RPA pilots “really don’t train like A-10 or F-16 pilots do,” Doorenbos says. After about five months of schoolhouse training, pilots are sent to bases where live RPA missions are flown. “They park you in a chair” and trainees start putting classroom lessons into practice.

“Most of Air National Guard training is accomplished while flying missions overseas,” says Lt. Col. Scott Lovelock, the chief of the Air Guard’s C2/ISR division at NGB.

The Air Guard also squeezes training time in while RPAs are flying from takeoff locations to operating areas, he says. Because only five Air Guard RPA units actually possess aircraft, and most of those are needed overseas, opportunities for more traditional training are limited.

“We operate in combat 24/7. There is no down time,” Doorenbos affirms.

Split Operations

At Battle Creek, Mich., the 110th Attack Wing is building a “remote split-operations center” where pilots, sensor operators and mission-intelligence coordinators will eventually conduct RPA missions.

While construction is underway, the wing’s RPA crews still “have got to keep their skills up, keep flying,” says Wilson, the wing commander. “So we send them out across the country” to other Guard units and to active-component bases, where they “fly all kinds of missions all over the world.”

“Typically, we send guys TDY for one or two weeks.” They return home for a while and then deploy again. The repeated absences from home are “a bit of a grind,” Wilson says. But they will continue for another year or so until the split-operations center is completed. “Split operations” refers to air crews operating in one location while the RPAs are flying in another.

New York’s 174th is one of the Guard RPA units that operates and maintains its own Reapers. As a result, the wing sometimes deploys RPA operators and maintainers to combat zones, where they launch and recover the unit’s RPAs, says Semmel, the wing commander. Once an aircraft has been launched, control is turned over to pilots back at Hancock Field. They fly the RPAs from consoles that communicate with the aircraft through fiber-optic cables and satellites.

There are two main missions for Predators and Reapers—ISR and close-air support, Semmel says. Most of the time it’s ISR, but the transition to strike occurs very quickly, says Lovelock at NGB.

ISR often entails hours, days, weeks or even longer keeping watch over a target. It might mean monitoring the people and vehicles that enter and leave a building, or watching a stretch of road to spot enemies planting IEDs. Predators and Reapers also serve as airborne lookouts that protect U.S. troops on the ground.

When called on for close-air support, “the MQ-9 does the mission just like any other aircraft,” Semmel says. A joint terminal attack controller on the ground will call for help and direct the RPA pilot to strike the target.

In that respect, the Reaper mission “is very similar to what we did in an A-10, except for not being in the aircraft,” Wilson says.

Other parts of the RPA mission are very different, however.

Typically, Air Guard pilots who fly manned aircraft spend most of their careers training at home to be ready to fly and fight when conflict erupts overseas, Wilson says. When they deploy, they’re gone for a set period of time, are completely immersed in the war and separated from life back home.

Not so for RPA crews. They “deploy on station” and fight the war during their work shifts, then go back to their civilian lives until the next day. RPA crews are able to eat dinner with their families, go to their kids’ soccer games and not miss birthdays and holidays. That might seem like a major lifestyle improvement, but it can come with consequences.

In a 2014 study of RPA pilots, the Government Accountability Office found that “being deployed on station negatively affected their quality of life, as it was challenging for them to balance their warfighting responsibilities with their personal lives for extended periods of time.”

“It is difficult for some people because they cannot compartmentalize,” Wilson says. When deployed overseas, troops can focus on the mission and draw support from colleagues stuck in the same situation. “When you’re stateside and doing a mission you have to switch back and forth” between warfighting and ordinary daily life.

And even half a world away, combat as seen from an RPA can be disturbing. “It is very vivid and real when you blow something up,” Wilson says. “You stay around after the fact and see a lot more than you would in an F-16.”

For some, it becomes too “up close and personal.” Predator pilots have described traumatic experiences of watching their targets for prolonged periods, seeming to know them, and then incinerating them with the blast of a Hellfire missile. Others have told of watching live infrared video as their attack victims bled to death, fading from view as their heat signatures dissipated.

Taking Fire

Stress from the job is compounded by persistent “anti-drone” protestors who show up at some of the Air Guard’s RPA bases. Protesters have repeatedly blocked the gates at New York’s Hancock Field and Michigan’s Battle Creek Air Guard Base.

In March, more than 100 protesters tangled with police at entrances to Creech Air Force Base, Nev., where they said they gathered to “spotlight war crimes” committed by active-component and Guard personnel there. Creech is home to the Nevada Air Guard’s 232nd Operations Squadron. That time, 34 protesters were arrested.

Wilson says he is puzzled by the protesters. “We’re not doing anything different from what we did when we had the A-10s, and we didn’t have protesters then,” he says.

In a 2013 interview, Col. Bryan Davis, now commander of Ohio’s 178th Wing, told the Dayton Daily News that the protests take a toll. “We are not popular among the American public,” he said. “It doesn’t make you feel warm inside.”

While the Guard’s RPA units take on more overseas missions for the Air Force, the Guard is also examining whether it can also fly Predators and Reapers in support of domestic operations. It has already been done a couple of times.

In 2013 the California Air Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing became the first to use an RPA during a state emergency when it flew a Predator over a massive wildfire to provide firefighters with realtime video as flames swept through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and charred parts of Yosemite National Park.

The Predator’s 24-hour-plus endurance proved a key improvement over the previously used helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that had to refuel and change crews frequently.

The unit has since converted to Reapers. Last month it launched one at the request of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to help look for a motorcyclist missing in the El Dorado Forest east of Sacramento.

Guard leaders and governors have long suggested that RPAs might be ideal for surveillance during floods, damage assessments after tornados, to help find missing hikers and assist in drug busts.

Doorenbos, the Arkansas commander, agrees, but says “there are a lot of legal hoops that we have to jump through first.”

To use an RPA in a domestic operation now, “you need the secretary of defense’s approval,” says Semmel of New York. And that’s just the beginning. RPA units must write a “proper-use memorandum” spelling out the mission, the intended use of any imagery that’s collected, and the safeguards put in place to prevent misuse of the imagery, say researchers at RAND Corp.

Even then, RPAs can’t fly until they receive a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Beyond the bureaucratic hurdles, RAND researchers point out that domestic RPA use is likely to stir up “public sensitivities over air safety and civil liberties.”

Even so, RAND suggests that Guard RPAs would be useful for border surveillance, counterdrug operations at sea, incident surveillance such as the California wildfire, and fixed-target surveillance such as watching certain buildings or vehicles.

Wilson of Michigan is optimistic that eventually “domestic missions will come along. At some point they will get this solved,” he says.

In the meantime, the Air Guard plans to continue building its RPA force to 12 units. All of them will eventually fly Reapers as the Air Force retires the smaller and less capable Predators.

By 2017, the Air Guard will have the capability to fly 20 to 25 percent of the Total Air Force RPA requirements, Lovelock says.

It is clear that “the demand for the RPA mission is not going to go away. All of the combatant commanders around the globe are asking for this mission,” Semmel says. “This mission is going to be around for a long time.”

WILLIAM MATTHEWS is a Springfield, Va.-based freelance writer who specializes in military matters. He can be contacted via