The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions.
For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls “combat air patrols,” daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.
Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand that to 10 a day by 2019. Each patrol involves up to four drones.
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SAN DIEGO – 18 November 2015 – General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA‑ASI), a leading manufacturer of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) systems, radars, and electro-optic and related mission systems solutions, today announced that a U.S. Army Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) recently conducted manned-unmanned teaming exercises in South Korea. Exercise support was conducted in August 2015 from Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
“These flights represent a major milestone for the MQ-1C Gray Eagle as they successfully demonstrated manned-unmanned teaming in South Korea and proved the aircraft’s ability to conduct operations in diverse weather conditions that are typical on the Korean Peninsula,” said Frank W. Pace, president, Aircraft Systems, GA-ASI. “They also marked a new company milestone for Gray Eagle with its first mission in South Korean airspace.”
During the exercise, the Gray Eagle UAS streamed video and metadata via a line-of-sight data link directly to a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopter from extended distances. The Apache subsequently was able to re-transmit the imagery to a One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT), allowing ground forces to view the video from the helicopter. Field commanders within the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) were able to receive both live Gray Eagle streaming video and re-transmitted video sent by the Apache. Once Gray Eagle was airborne, U.S. ground forces passed contact reports and target coordinates to operators in the aircraft’s One System Ground Control Station (OSGCS). The operators were then able to direct the Gray Eagle’s sensors to positively identify and track the targets.
Technologically advanced and combat proven, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle is an Army Division and Echelons Above Division organic asset directly controlled by Army field commanders. Its expansive mission set includes persistent, broad-area Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition (RSTA); communications relay; convoy protection; Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detection; pattern of life analysis; and precision weapons delivery. A key force multiplier, Gray Eagle has an endurance of up to 25 hours, an operating altitude of up to 25,000 feet, and payload capacity of over 1,000 pounds.
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Deep in the 60,000 acres of desert on this desolate air base, past a billboard that shows a Predator soaring in the sky, lies a high-security compound where America’s drone pilots learn to hunt and kill from half a world away.
But “the Farm,” as the little-known Air Force boot camp is known, faces a crisis.
Experienced pilots and crews complain of too much work, too much strain and too little chance for promotion operating the Predator and Reaper drones that provide surveillance and that fire missiles in Iraq, Syria and other war zones. Partly as a result, too few young officers want to join their ranks.
The Air Force has struggled with a drone pilot shortage since at least 2007, records show. In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force trained 180 new pilots while 240 veterans left the field.
“It’s extremely stressful and extremely difficult,” said Peter “Pepe” LeHew, who retired in 2012 and joined private industry. He called the work, which sometimes involved flying surveillance in one country in the morning and bombing another in the afternoon, “mentally fatiguing.”
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