Saturday, March 28, 2009

"We're Not Drones; We Fire Back"

Dispatches from the Front
Aircrews perform a preflight check on an MQ-9 Reaper before it takes off for a mission in Afghanistan. The Reaper is larger and more heavily-armed than the MQ-1 Predator and in addition to its traditional ISR capabilities, is designed to attack time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision. (CENTCOM photo.)

Dispatches from the Front:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, March 28, 2009 -- The door to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron here features a drawing of an MQ-1 Predator armed with Hellfire missiles underscored with the words "We're not drones; we fire back."

Often referred to by news reporters as "drones," unmanned aircraft like the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk are weapons systems flown remotely, in-country or stateside, from ground stations using satellite uplinks. They're also far more complex than the U.S. military's relatively more simplified radio-controlled drone aircraft used for aerial target practice, experts said.

For the airmen flying and maintaining the lethal Predator and its big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, and from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., the message is demonstrated to their adversaries on a regular basis.

Both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are weapons-carrying aircraft, “and both have a hunter-killer role in addition to their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities," said Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Miller, the 62nd ERQS commander, who is deployed from the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base.

Performing dual missions of close-air support and ISR taskings, the Predator can stay airborne for more than 12 hours at 50,000 feet, and the Reaper can stay up longer and at even higher altitudes, squadron officials said. Boasting a full-motion video camera with various modes that can detect enemy movements, the Predator and Reaper also carry the Hellfire missile. The unmanned aircraft bring to the fight a set of two 500-pound, laser-guided bombs that allow operators to not only observe and detect hostile forces, but also eliminate them if called upon to do so.

"Both aircraft can initiate and complete the 'kill chain'," Miller said. "With their ability to loiter for long periods of time over a target, eliminate it, stay on station and then provide the [bomb damage assessment], they provide continuity to a mission and prove to be invaluable assets."

The aircraft are flown jointly by the 62nd ERQS crews stationed here with the 451st Air Expeditionary Group and by crews back at Creech. They use satellite uplinks that transfer control from the local pilots who taxi, launch, land and recover the aircraft -- all from trailers adjacent to the flightline -- and the Creech aviators flying inside of mission control elements.

General Atomics contractors perform maintenance on the Reaper, while responsibility for Predator maintenance is undertaken by 62nd ERQS airmen.

"As this aircraft is like 90 percent avionics, it's a pretty unique experience to work on it," said Senior Airman Doug Cox, a 62nd ERQS MQ-1 avionics specialist deployed from Creech. "We're asked to do a lot more than our traditional specialties, and most of us are trained up on crew chief duties such as performing 60-hour inspections, changing spark plugs, engine oil and things like that."

Air Force 1st Lt. Andrew Dowd, also deployed from Creech as the unit's maintenance officer, agreed.

"This aircraft does not have hydraulic fluid and operates using electro-servos," he said, noting the aircraft recently reached a 500,000 flight-hour milestone. "It's a very unique platform, but of course, when it's all said and done, it's the $1.2 million camera that runs the show."

After the aircraft are airborne and are handed off by the Kandahar crew, Creech aviators perform the majority of traditional mission taskings. However, the 62nd ERQS airmen increasingly are taking responsibility for executing missions within the local area to aid and protect coalition forces stationed around Kandahar who are fighting the enemy. Sometimes weapons are dropped, demonstrating the lethality and uniqueness of the 62nd ERQS' mission and aircraft to friend and foe alike.

Notably, some missions often are generated to fly only within the local area, putting the responsibility for the entire mission on the shoulders of the Kandahar-based aircrews.

It's great to have a direct impact on the war," said Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder, an MQ-9 sensor operator who maneuvers the system's cameras and sensors as well as directs its munitions when launched. "We provide over-watch for the Canadians fighting the Taliban and then have coffee with them at the end of day [here at Kandahar.] It really makes us feel connected."

Air Force Capt. Ryan Jodi, a B-1 pilot who now flies the Reaper from his cockpit position in a ground control element, also acknowledged his preference for performing missions locally as opposed to Creech.

"I really enjoy doing the launches and landings from here," Jodi said. "It really gives you more of a flying feeling. And doing local missions is also great because we can really appreciate the camaraderie we have with our coalition partners who we live with here."

With spring arriving in Afghanistan, Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents once again will likely ramp up hostile operations against coalition forces around the country as they have demonstrated each year during the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom.

However, with the planned increase of forces within the area, that means more assets are on the way, with 62nd ERQS leaders preparing for additional aircraft and more mission sorties generated from combatant commanders. With nearly 10 additional Reapers coming to supplement the squadron's MQ-9 aircraft, which number about a dozen, Miller said that means more work.

"In 2005, we were generating about two sorties a day," he said. "We've more than quadrupled that now, and we are going to expect a lot more coming in the future."

Air Force Col. Ted Osowski, the 451st AEG commander, agreed with Miller on the demand for the ISR hunter and killer platforms in theater.

"No other asset is more sought after," he said. "Close-air support and ISR are very valuable to the ground commanders."

(Report by by Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson, U.S. Air Forces Central News Team.)

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