The U.S. Air Force may add more bases in the U.S. for crews to fly the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
The service is considering creating a new Reaper wing with units at two locations, according to a statement released Tuesday from the service. The move comes in response to surveys of officers and enlisted personnel who said they want more opportunities for such assignments.
The Air Force said it plans to review sites in the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii that don't already host MQ-9s and will decide on the locations using several criteria, including runway length, capacity, environmental requirements and cost.
The first location under consideration "must also have an active-duty flying wing or group that performs at least one core RPA mission and/or is co-located with an active-duty distributed group system," the release states, using the acronym for remotely piloted aircraft. "Crews will fly the MQ-9 from these locations but no aircraft will be associated with these units."
The second location would require an 8,000-foot-long runway to host a full wing of 24 Reapers and be capable of performing launch and recovery and mission control, the release states.
The Reaper, nicknamed the "hunter-killer" for its ability to conduct both strike and surveillance missions, is the bigger brother to the MQ-1 Predator medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Both systems are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego.
The Air Force as of Sept. 30 had a total of 165 MQ-9As in inventory, in addition to 130 MQ-1Bs, according to information previously released by the service. Taken together, the drones account for more than half of the service's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fleet.
The service is desperate to attract more drone pilots. Many airmen in the field have been leaving due to stress and burnout, creating a shortage that has forced commanders to scale back missions.
It recently offered a new $15,000 annual bonus to experienced RPA operators. The so-called critical skills retention bonus took effect Oct. 1 and carries a total value of between $75,000 to $135,000 -- half of which can be paid up front -- to airmen in the 18X specialty code with at least six years of experience.
The private sector is also responding to the workforce shortage. General Atomics recently opened a training academy in Grand Forks, North Dakota, f drone pilots from the U.S. and allied countries.