Every Army battalion commander, Air Force targeting cell and special operations team in Iraq wants access to a Predator drone at all times. The demand for these versatile little birds has skyrocketed in recent years. To meet the demand, General Atomics is rolling Predators off the production line as fast as it can. But there's a mismatch on the Air Force side of things. The Predator squadrons have suffered chronic manpower shortages, meaning they've got the birds, but no one to fly them.It's a matter of planning. The Air Force didn't foresee just how popular Predator would be, so it didn't lay the groundwork for a rapid expansion of Predator infrastructure. Now the service is playing catch-up, struggling to meet warfighter's requirements for on-station Predators while training up new operators and forming new squadrons to fly factory-fresh aircraft. It's a huge mess."I learned a lot from Predator and what they were doing," says Col. Christopher Jella, commander of the new 18th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. This year the 18th became that second operational squadron to fly the Global Hawk, Predator's high-altitude, long-endurance, unarmed cousin. According to Jella, the Global Hawk community has had none of the Predator's problems. The two Global Hawk squadrons are, if anything, over-staffed. "We've gotten ahead of the wavefront."It helps that the Global Hawk community has fewer aircraft and needs fewer operators. Still, Jella explains, proper planning is vital when you're standing up any new system: "We said several years ago, this system is coming, it's got a lot of steam behind it. I can see where the production line drops airplanes. I said we need to get ahead of this. So I started hiring folks two years ago and bringing them here."Predator and Global Hawk promise to greatly improve the U.S. military's ability to get intel into the right hands at the right time -- but only if the Air Force can keep operators in seats and birds in the air. The service has plans to iron out Predator's problems, according to Pentagon spokespeople. The plan seems to include throwing a lot of money at the problem. For the sakes of all those battalion commanders and their soldiers on the ground in Iraq, I hope it works.
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