John Berry / The Post-StandardThe Reaper control station in Syracuse, operated by National Guardsmen, features a terminal with joy sticks and monitors. Master Sgt. Daniel Olmstead shows the seats where a pilot and a sensor operator sit at Hancock Airfield.
National Guardsmen pursue the enemy in Afghanistan with a joystick in Syracuse, carefully confirming targets, but distancing fighters from their foes.
Leaving their homes and families, they pass through the security gate at Hancock Airfield, park outside the Reaper operation center, swap computer stations with the previous shift and sometimes take over control of an armed, remote-controlled Reaper already cruising the sky over Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away.
“The MQ-9 is redefining how we think and how we use air power,” Col. Kevin Bradley, the 174th’s commander, told reporters in October.
The future of warfare has come to Central New York, changing the way war is fought. From a safe seat at a computer terminal in Syracuse, the unmanned flights can appear virtual. They’re not.
On Wednesday the guard announced that it was flying its first Reaper wartime missions around the clock. The flights over Afghanistan “focus primarily on providing over watch of American soldiers and marines on the ground,” the guard said in a release.
Commanders have been reticent to speak about the mission, generally limiting interviews to open houses in June and October. Pilots and crews asked not to be identified publicly.
The unit’s transition from flying F-16 fighter jets in theater to operating unmanned aircraft from the suburbs is more than a tactical shift. It assured the future of the base at Hancock Field. In 2008, former U.S. Rep. James Walsh, who helped land tens of millions of dollars in federal tax money for the base, marveled at the prospect of the coming capability: “The pilots could be literally fighting a war in Iraq and at the end of their shift go home and be playing with their kids in Camillus.”
Last week, it came to pass. The Syracuse Air National Guard unit is the first in the nation to fly the remotely controlled Reaper. The craft carries up to four anti-armor missiles and two 500-pound bombs. The technology has been around since the early 1990s, when remotely controlled Predator aircraft flew surveillance missions in Bosnia.
John Berry / The Post-StandardThe 174th Fighter Wing of the state Air National Guard showed off its MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft, at a public ribbon-cutting in October at its refurbished field training headquarters at Hancock Field in Syracuse.
The war in Afghanistan has turned out to be the perfect test lab: a war against insurgents who have virtually no air defense, in a rugged, sparsely populated country, where lethal roadside and suicide bombers have been an intractable problem for U.S. and allied ground forces.
This year the Air Force will train more pilots of unmanned aerial systems than pilots of fighter or bomber aircraft. Proponents of the Reaper cite its extraordinary surveillance capabilities, which they say can reduce civilian or “friendly force” casualties.
Cruising at roughly 200 mph, Reapers can fly up to 40 hours on one fueling, as high as 40,000 feet. The plane’s long “loiter” time over an area gives its ground-based crews in places like Syracuse more time, days even, to watch and confirm the importance and identity of suspected targets, like people planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
The plane’s infrared and radar equipment produce extremely high resolution video through clouds and darkness. The crew can communicate directly with soldiers on the ground.
Ground-based crews of Reapers can launch missiles and bombs, too, a capability that critics say further detaches pilots from their victims.
The Reaper “makes it a lot easier to kill,” said Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent who grew up in Syracuse and who wrote “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” “The more distant you are, the easier it is to kill. It’s finally only the infantry that knows war.”
Paul Schempp, a retired brigadier general and former wing commander of the 174th, said while pilots have always been detached from their targets, “they have a moral and legal obligation to use whatever means possible to identify their target. They are mothers and fathers doing their job for the military.”
The Reaper has already changed the 174th Fighter Wing.
Nearly two-thirds of the unit’s 31 F-16 fighter pilots either transferred to other units, retired or left the Air Guard. Eleven took Reaper positions within the wing, swapping a pilot’s seat for a computer chair.
Full-time personnel have increased, from 158 to 186. Part-time numbers have dropped, from 500 to 437.
In October, the 174th Fighter Wing cut the ribbon on its new Reaper maintenance school, where it trains technicians from across the country, from all military branches.
But most of the 174th’s personnel will be involved in the operations side of the Reaper.
This year’s Air Force budget allotted $11 million to support Reaper operations at Hancock. In late 2010, the wing plans to fly Reapers that will be based at Wheeler Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum. Launch and recovery of Reapers at Hancock is likely years off, requiring technology improvements and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Instead of going overseas every 15 months or two years, air crews will stay right here in their hometowns,” Col. John Balbierer, maintenance group commander, said in October.
Reapers are flown with a four-person team: a pilot, a sensor operator (who controls and monitors what the Reaper cameras see), a communications expert and an intelligence expert.
All Reaper pilots with the 174th have actual flight experience and a commercial pilot’s license. The Air Force, however, is experimenting with a group of new Reaper pilots who have never flown a real plane.
“The training is really geared toward a younger generation that has experience operating video games,” said Lindsay Voss, a defense industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. Unmanned drones are “basically operated with the kind of joystick you hook up with a PlayStation.”
One former F-16 pilot with the 174th who stayed on to fly Reapers said the comfortable control room environment of a Reaper operations center is not such a psychological barrier to the battlefield.
“When you’re supporting the guy on the ground, talking to him, you feel like you’re there,” the pilot said.
But air guard commanders are concerned about how commuting Reaper operators transition from home to war and back again on a daily basis.
Col. Bob Becklund, chairman of the Air National Guard’s council on Unmanned Aerial Systems, and commander of the 119th Wing in Fargo, N.D., which flies Predators, said at an August conference that keeping “in the fight” is the biggest challenge facing remote operators of Reapers.
When you deploy with a unit, “it is a lot easier to focus on the mission,” Becklund said. “But when you’re at home flying these combat missions ... it’s harder to turn it on and turn it off every day.”
Other questions loom about the move toward remote-controlled warfare.
“We’re going to war without being in war,” said William C. Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “It’s a very serious ethical challenge. On one hand, you’re doing all you can to protect your soldiers. And, through the use of this technology, you necessarily increase the risk that you’ll have collateral harm or disproportionate harm trying to pick out our targets.”
Voss, the defense industry analyst, wonders if we’re making it easier to engage in war.
“There’s a big difference between man-to-man physical combat and using an aircraft to attack people when you’re not even there,” Voss said. “If there’s a lot fewer pilots going into harm’s way, does that weigh in on our decision to start something?”
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