News>Airmen demonstrate unmanned aircraft systems not merely ‘drones’
Capt. Ryan Jodoi, a UAV pilot, flies an MQ-9 Reaper while Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder controls a full motion video camera at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, March 13, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ismael Lopez, 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron quality assurance technician, inspects an MQ-9 Reaper for cracks and other damage at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, March 13, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconassiance Squadron takes off from Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, March 13, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconassiance Squadron taxis for take off from Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, March 13, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
by Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson
AFCENT Combat Camera News Team
3/25/2009 - KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The door to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron features a drawing of an MQ-1 Predator armed with Hellfire missiles underscored with the words "We're not drones - we fire back."
Often referred to by reporters as "drones," unmanned aircraft systems like the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk are remotely-flown weapons systems flown both locally and stateside from ground stations using satellite uplinks. They're also far more complex than the U.S. military's relatively more simplified radio-controlled drone aircraft used for aerial target practice, according to UAS professionals.
For the Airmen flying and maintaining the lethal Predator and its big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, from Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, and Creech Air Force Base, Nev., the message is demonstrated to their adversaries on a regular basis.
"(Both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are weapons-carrying aircraft,) and both have a hunter-killer role in addition to their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities," said Lt. Col. Scott Miller, 62nd ERQS commander of Las Vegas, who is deployed from the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech AFB.
Performing dual-missions of close air support and ISR taskings, the Predator can stay airborne for more than 12 hours at 50,000 feet and the Reaper can stay up for a longer period of time at even higher altitudes, according to squadron officials. Boasting a full-motion video camera with various modes that can detect enemy movements, the Predator and Reaper also carry the Hellfire missile. In addition to carrying a larger payload of Hellfires, the weapons systems bring to the fight a set of two 500 lbs. laser-guided bombs that allow operators to not only observe and detect hostile forces, but also eliminate them if called upon to do so.
"Both aircraft can initiate and complete the 'killchain'," Colonel Miller said. "With their ability to loiter for long periods of time over a target, eliminate it, stay on station and then provide the (bomb damage assessment,) they provide continuity to a mission and prove to be invaluable assets."
The aircraft systems are flown jointly between the 62nd ERQS crews stationed here with the 451st Air Expeditionary Group and crews back at Creech using satellite uplinks that transfer control from the local pilots who taxi, launch, land and recover the weapons systems (all from trailers adjacent to the flightline) and the Creech aviators flying inside of mission control elements performing missions across Afghanistan. British Royal Air Force counterparts also fly the Reaper.
General Atomics contractors perform maintenance on the Reaper while Predator maintenance responsibility is undertaken by 62nd ERQS Airmen.
"As this aircraft is like 90 percent avionics, it's a pretty unique experience to work on it," said Senior Airman Doug Cox, a 62 ERQS MQ-1 avionics specialist from Creech AFB hailing from Boaz, Ala. "We're asked to do a lot more than our traditional specialties and most of us are trained up on crew chief duties such as performing 60-hour inspections, changing spark plugs, engine oil, and things like that."
First Lieutenant Andrew Dowd of Milwaukee, Wis., also deployed from Creech AFB as the unit's maintenance officer, agreed. "This aircraft does not have hydraulic fluid and operates using electro-servos," he said, also noting the aircraft recently reached a 500,000 flight hour milestone. "It's a very unique platform, but of course, when it's all said and done, it's the $1.2 million camera that runs the show."
After the aircraft are airborne, Creech aviators perform the majority of the traditional mission taskings once the aircraft are handed off to them from the Kandahar crews. The 62nd ERQS Airmen are increasingly taking responsibility for executing missions within the local area to aid and protect coalition forces stationed around Kandahar who are fighting the enemy. Sometimes weapons are dropped, demonstrating the lethality and uniqueness of the 62nd ERQS' mission and aircraft to friends and foes alike.
Notably, some missions are often generated to fly only within the local area, putting the responsibility for the entire mission on the shoulders of the Kandahar-based aircrews.
"It's great to have a direct impact on the war," said Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder, a deployed MQ-9 sensor operator from Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., who maneuvers the system's cameras and sensors as well as directing its munitions when launched. "We provide over-watch for the Canadians fighting the Taliban and then have coffee with them at the end of day (here at Kandahar.) It really makes us feel connected."
Capt. Ryan Jodi, previously a B-1 pilot flying the Reaper from his cockpit position in a ground control element, also acknowledged his preference for performing missions locally as opposed to Creech.
"I really enjoy doing the launches and landings from here - it really gives you more of a flying feeling," he said. "And doing local missions is also great because we can really appreciate the camaraderie we have with our coalition partners who we live with here."
With spring once again arriving in Afghanistan, Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents will once again ramp up hostile operations against coalition forces around the country as they have demonstrated each year during the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom. However, with the planned increase of forces within the area, that means more assets are on the way, with 62 ERQS leaders preparing for additional aircraft and more mission sorties generated from combatant commanders. With nearly 10 additional Reapers coming to supplement the squadron's approximately dozen MQ-9 aircraft, Colonel Miller says that means more work.
"In 2005, we were generating about two sorties a day," he said. "We've more than quadrupled that now and we are going to expect a lot more coming in the future."
Col. Ted Osowski, the 451st AEG's commander, agreed with Colonel Miller on the demand for the ISR hunter/killer platforms in-theater.
"No other asset is more sought after," he said. "Close air support and ISR are very valuable to the ground commanders."