The U.S. Air Force doesn't just want to modernize its fleet of drones, it wants to update the infrastructure in place for airmen to fly them.
Together, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper medium-altitude unmanned aircraft represent the "largest major weapons system the Air Force has right now," officials recently told Military.com.
Some 700 active-duty pilots and just as many sensor operators -- and more than 300 additional Guard and Reserve pilots -- operate the remotely piloted aircraft, according to statistics provided by Air Combat Command. But it's not enough.
Due to a pilot shortage and high operational tempo, the service plans to bring on even more operators. It also wants to establish new installations for the aircraft as part of an ambitious effort to redefine what such a "base should look like," according to a lieutenant colonel involved in planning at Air Combat Command whose name was withheld so he could freely discuss the matter.
"Unlike weapons systems where you take 10 to 15 years on to how best methodically work through it, this has been a ... continual surge to add just one more, add just one more, and we didn't really have the opportunity to do it right," the lieutenant colonel said during a recent interview with Military.com.
"It's what got us to this point today where we're at this stress in the career field, and trying to build it for a sustainable, long-term operation instead of 15 years of wartime surge," he added.
Earlier in September, the Air Force announced eight potential bases to host new RPA units. The service is now conducting additional environmental studies at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Tyndall AFB, also in Florida; Vandenberg AFB, California; and Shaw AFB to host a full MQ-9 wing, as well as a maintenance group and operations support personnel, the service said.
The service is transitioning from the MQ-1 -- which proved itself as a strike and surveillance platform early on in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and which is expected to be retired by 2019 -- to the larger MQ-9. Both aircraft are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego.
The Air Force is also considering locations to host an operations group with mission-control elements, but not aircraft. The sites include Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona; Moody AFB, Georgia; Mountain Home AFB, Idaho; Offutt AFB, Nebraska; and Shaw AFB, South Carolina
"This has been a very strategic effort about how we're going to grow opportunities," said an RPA operations chief at ACC, also a lieutenant colonel whose name was withheld.
The chief said some key factors that will determine the best bases: The ability to fly aircraft at designated locations, airspace, weather, and the capacity for maintenance groups to have adequate space to work. The Air Force hopes to distribute "1,500 airmen at one base and 400 at the second," he said.
"With that effort, we're going to get more leadership positions for our guys so they have the opportunity to move up in the Air Force," the chief said.
From an enlisted, sensor operator perspective, he said this could boast more chief master sergeant and senior master sergeant openings. For officers, the RPA community wants to create more squadron, group or wing commander positions.
At the core of it all is improved training.
The demand is so high, "we're doing majority of our training during combat operations. Now, that does not interfere with our combat operations, but rather, as time is available," the chief said.
"What the new bases will do for us is give additional airspace, facilities and equipment ... and being able to train and adequately answer the call for the next conflict."
As far as how the MQ-1s and MQ-9s have evolved, the "capabilities have always been there," the chief said, but drone pilots are likely to use refined tactics such as dynamic targeting more than before.
"In Afghanistan it was counterinsurgency warfare. You had an enemy that was blended in with the population that was spread out. The difference is that ISIS, we know where they are, and we have lines of effort against where they are, which is more aligned with traditional warfare or aligned with a major contingency operation," he said, referring to the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.
In 2015, MQ-1s and MQ-9s flew 5,983 sorties over the CENTCOM region; so far in 2016, they've flown 5,003; The Predators and Reapers shot off 2,439 weapons in 2015; by comparison, 2,210 have been employed so far this year, according to Lt. Col. Eric Winterbottom, chief of the Commander's Action Group, U.S. Air Forces Central Command. "The bulk of it has been over Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan," Winterbottom told Military.com on Monday.
At times controllers are using multiple Reapers, Predators or both "combined in a formation to go out and execute, because we know they're more efficient in using their sensors when they're tasked together, having airmen leading airmen," the RPA chief said.
"If you have two aircraft working the same target, then one can guide the weapon in, while the other one takes a larger, zoomed out view to look for things you don't want the missile to hit," said Winterbottom, also an RPA pilot. "Additionally you can actually have the aircraft that launches the weapon not be the one that [is] laser-guiding the weapon...making it a smoother shot."
RPAs are likely the first aircraft dictating "strike or no strike calls based off what we're seeing" from the sensors. It's why officials continuously ask for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to ease pressure put on manned aircraft and to minimize civilian collateral damage in the Central Command theater.
Overall, MQ-1s and MQ-9s, account for 15.6 percent of strikes in Operation Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon's name for the air war against ISIS, said ACC spokesman Benjamin Newell. They also account for 8.6 percent of all Combined Forces Air Component weapons dropped in OIR. "They are involved in nearly every operation in OIR, in one capacity or another," Newell said.
Combatant commanders have asked for close air support, ISR, air interdiction, combat search and rescue all from this one platform, the RPA chief said, but the Air Force is now looking to integrate better technologies to make the MQ-9 more survivable in contested and dynamically changing environments, such as Syria.
"Everything that we're doing right now is kind of off the cuff, you have smart people out there with some good experience, however the more time we have to train for these [missions] the better [the] effect that we can bring," he said. The next step is to better train airmen in the equipment and technologies so that "they are better at protecting the...persistent mission tasked to them" especially in the presence of hostile aircraft. The chief cited how the U.S. for the first time under OIR scrambled aircraft after two Syrian government fighter jets launched bombs near Hasakah, Syria, last month.
"MQ-1s and MQ-9s are being pushed out front," he said. "They develop the target areas, and they will either strike it themselves, integrate with manned aircraft...or pass information off to manned aircraft, so they are a force multiplier or force enabler for the manned aircraft."
'Pushing' the Aircraft
Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, is the main training hub for RPA pilots designated to Predators and Reapers. Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, which oversees majority of the platforms' operations, has begun process of transitioning its airmen solely to the MQ-9. Some maintenance crews too receive training at March Air Reserve Base, California; and Hancock Airfield Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York, also trains MQ-9 technicians.
In 2015, the service announced that Holloman Air Force Base's RPA training squadrons would increase from 603 pilots and sensor operator students in fiscal year 2015 up to an estimated 818 students in fiscal 2016. Now, Newell said, through what the Air Force calls the Culture and Process Improvement Program, "we plan to add 2,500-3,000 personnel to the RPA enterprise" as a whole.
"This career field is going to be operating out of pretty different locations in the United States than it was able to before we expanded," Newell said, referring to the additional options for the two bases coming onboard. "We haven't been able to push this aircraft as far as we'd like to, and do new things with it, so we want to expand this capability" given the additional benefits, the ACC planning officer said.
The RPA chief added, "I look at it from a perspective of, 'Look at what we're doing right now. We're shooting 11 Hellfire [missiles] a day, we're providing combat effects on multiple continents in multiple [theaters] and if that's what we can do today, whether it's ISR, combat search and rescue, close air support, interdiction, think about what we'll be able to do tomorrow'."