Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations and is headquartered at Langley, unveiled a plan late last week to add as many as 3,500 airmen as pilots and support staff, and to double the number of squadrons flying MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers from eight to 17. The command also wants to create a new wing to oversee the operations.
"Expanding our RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) basing to potential sites such as Davis-Monthan (Air Force Base, Ariz.), Langley (AFB, Va.), and a few overseas locations is a discussion we need to entertain as we stand up a new wing," said Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the ACC commander, in a statement. "We would look to take advantage of the synergy between RPA operations and command and control or intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination nodes."
Langley is a contender because two wings there already collect, analyze and report on the flood of data gathered from unmanned aircraft and spy planes that patrol the world. One -- the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing -- is the largest ISR wing in the Air Force, pointing to the synergy Carlisle hopes to embrace.
But Carlisle seemed to soften expectations locally by saying "of course we must follow the established strategic basing decision process."
The announcement came the same week the Hampton base was selected to host a new Air National Guard cyber squadron, which will add 70 jobs. But that still leaves a large hole from the 742 positions cut -- most from the Air Combat Command -- as a result of Air Force downsizing.
Bruce Sturk, director of Federal Facilities Support for the City of Hampton, said he's heard no specifics about drone expansion at Langley.
"We continue to work with officials at Langley on any expansion they are pursuing," Sturk said. "Officials there have said Langley has the space to accommodate more aircraft and operation centers. We support anything that that will add net jobs to the city, rather than see them cut."
Sturk said the base is posturing to make room for other units in case of closures at other bases.
While ACC's outline of the plan doesn't include a timeline for implementation or a price tag, the Los Angeles Times reported the expansion would take five years and cost $3 billion, which must be approved by Congress.
The expansion is part of a larger effort to lessen the workload of current drone operators who are struggling to keep up with the demand from combatant commanders.
Pilots operate drones an average of 900 hours a year each, or more than three times more than fighter pilots, the Times said. Carlisle added that these missions are nearly all combat related.