Operational Demands Limit Readiness Of Air Force RPA Operators

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--The constant pace of Air Force unmanned aircraft operations in war zones is limiting the readiness of the crews that operate these systems, the head of Air Combat Command said this week.

The Air Force is “pretty good” at performing the missions with the Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) despite their original assignation as experimental systems “but we have limited readiness across the full mission set that the aircraft are capable of performing,” Gen. James “Mike” Holmes said on Tuesday at the annual Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

RQ-4 Global Hawk Photo: Northrop Grumman

RQ-4 Global Hawk
Photo: Northrop Grumman

These issues affect the medium and high-altitude RPAs, Holmes said. His command provides combat forces for combatant commanders. In the case of the RPAs, the medium-altitude missions are performed by General Atomics-built MQ-1 and MQ-9 Predators, and the high-altitude aircraft are the Northrop Grumman [NOC]-built RQ-4 Global Hawks.

Holmes highlighted training as a key issue that needs to be addressed. He said “a lot of training” is being done during combat sorties, which is the only time to get it done, noting that in the case of the Predators, which perform strike and surveillance missions, an operator during a training flight may have to make way for a qualified operator to fire a Hellfire missile on target.

“You’re not qualified for it yet but your training and upgrading on the combat mission and we need to do better,” Holmes said.

Col. Larry Broadwell, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., which operates the Global Hawks and manned U-2 surveillance aircraft, said on the same panel that the RQ-4 fleet is afflicted with the same “symptoms” that limit the readiness of the Predators.

“I see on a day to day basis that we’re not reaching the full potential of the aircraft, “ Broadwell said in his opening remarks on the panel. He said the 93 percent of flight hours for the Global Hawk are in support of the combatant commands, adding that there isn’t adequate time to developing tactics, techniques and procedures for crew training.

The Predator fleet operates around the clock, Col. Julian “Ghost” Cheater, commander of the 432nd Expeditionary Wing, said on the panel. In 2016 the wing conducted about 3,000 strikes and flew about 370,000 hours, he said. This year, the wing will strike about 2,000 targets and fly 200,000 hours, he added.

In addition to Predators, Cheater’s wing also operates the RQ-170 Sentinel for the CIA. The Sentinels are built by Lockheed Martin [LMT].

Cheater said the wing’s aircraft are very integrated into the joint environment and with coalition partners. He said the aircraft “frequently buddy lase” for other aircraft such as Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jets, Navy F/A-18 strike fighters, and Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. Buddy lasing refers to highlighting a target with a laser system so that a laser-guided weapon can follow the path to the target.

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