Objective: Rapid Results

How the Air Force is Using Quickly Deployable Predator teams to Achieve Success

By George Jagels

MQ 1

Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) have supported U.S. forces in major overseas operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Millions of hours have been flown by medium altitude long endurance (MALE) platforms such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper in support of ground troops, intelligence gathering missions, and precision strike operations. Just as the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review predicted, the demand for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) continues to rise, yet these platforms are slated for budget reductions.

The Air Force FY 15 budget cuts the number of combat air patrols from 65 to 55 while eventually phasing out the MQ-1. The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan accounts for some of this decrease, as does a different mission set for the Asia-Pacific region, where airspace will likely be less favorable to slow, defenseless RPAs.

For Special Operations Forces (SOF), however, maintaining the capabilities of MALE platforms could prove critical as they continue to work worldwide. According to Brigadier General Albert M. “Buck” Elton II, director of plans, programs, requirements, and assessments for the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), combat airmen will operate in austere environments and ungoverned spaces, such as sub-Saharan Africa, with minimal infrastructure, exactly where these aircraft flourish.

On Mission in Four Hours 

In response to a threat environment characterized by sudden, emerging crises in unstable, underdeveloped regions, AFSOC created a Predator rapid deployment capability to provide immediate ISR capabilities for persistent situational awareness and other intelligence updates to joint SOF.

To make this possible, Elton told an Air Force conference last year that “some very smart people” figured out how to install quick disconnects on the aircraft’s wings, landing gear, and engine area. The full package consists of two MQ-1s, a ground control station, fuel, weapons, and the necessary crew, who number about 30—all of which fits snuggly into a C-17 transport plane.

Now fully operational with several deployments to its credit, the Predator rapid reaction package can load up in four hours and, upon arrival, get an RPA airborne in the same amount of time. Once on the ground, forward presence is minimal, Elton told UTS recently. Infrastructure in the host country is also optional, as the crew brings its own electricity generation, food, shelter, and communications. The rapid reaction team can hand off the Predator to U.S.-based crews for the majority of the mission.

An Ideal Asset

“The speed at which it can be deployed and readied for operational missions—hours versus weeks—makes it an ideal ISR capability as a first responder asset to provide combatant commanders with an immediate situational awareness tool,” Elton said of the rapid deployment Predator. SOF rarely operate in large formations, and although they have successfully integrated small RPAs for tactical operations, their diverse and unpredictable missions call for wide-area ISR.

“AFSOC ISR operations usually support the special operator on the ground with very detailed information and armed overwatch,” Elton said. “Our mission sets vary widely from direct action operations, which may require extremely detailed real time intelligence, to counterinsurgency operations, which may require persistent, long term ‘pattern of life’ information.”

Samuel J. Brannen, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told UTS that the Air Force’s desire to partially divest from MALE platforms raises concerns over who will provide ISR to ground forces, including SOF. “There’s an insatiable demand signal for more ISR in all areas of operations,” he said. “There’s already not enough, and the Air Force is going to cut it more deeply.

“This is the new way that wars are being fought, and you can’t get enough [ISR] right now,” he continued. A former DoD official, Brannen referenced the shortage of such assets in the European, Southern, and African commands, noting that the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) probably deals with the same problem. “SOCOM is meeting their demands at the tactical level, but I think the next-level ISR requirements will be more difficult to meet. These rapid deployment forces are definitely not duplicative and still definitely not enough.”

Upping the Ante

AFSOC plans on standing up a rapid deployment force of MQ-9 Reapers in the coming years. The Reaper has a significantly larger payload—approaching 4,000 pounds—and is twice as fast as the Predator, according to General Atomics, which manufactures both platforms. Though SOCOM’s budget appears more protected than those of the services, using a proven platform such as the MQ-9 could keep costs down; moreover, the Air Force has proven its ability to constantly revamp and upgrade manned and unmanned systems.

Brannen said that the Reaper operators he’s spoken with believe that only 30 percent of the platform’s capabilities are exploited. To fulfill the RPA’s promise, he mentioned innovating tactics and procedures, automating tiresome functions, improving sensors, and integration with other platforms and data solutions. “People were very impressed with the Reaper in Libya, where it showed success at taking down air defenses,” Brannen said. “You also have very well-trained Reaper pilots out there … and there are ways to extend the platform’s range and loiter time.”

Like many unmanned systems, the Reaper’s payloads are modular, and Elton noted that future RPA capabilities relevant to SOF “would include extended range and longer endurance … with improved high fidelity sensors and overall aircraft performance.”

Regarding weapons, the brigadier general mentioned exploring directed energy and improving armaments with lower collateral damage. In a recent report entitled “RPA Vector: Vision and Enabling Concepts 2013-2038,” the Air Force called attention to the potential of groups of expendable, lethal air-launched small unmanned aircraft systems outfitted on MQ-1s and MQ-9s to disrupt enemy operations, such as air defenses, with beyond line-of-sight data links.

Beyond Combat

RPAs can also supplement AFSOC’s non-combat missions. In the past four years, the command has conducted several humanitarian and disaster relief operations: Operation Unified Response for the Haiti earthquake (January 2010); Operation Tomodachi for the massive tsunami response in Japan (March 2011); and Operation Damayan in the Philippines for the disaster response to Super Typhoon Haiyan (November 2013).

Elton led a team of over 200 personnel to Haiti the day after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed over 200,000 people there in order to reopen the main airport for the arrival of massive amounts of international aid. While their principal objective was to direct air traffic, AFSOC personnel had to secure the airport, provide critical medical services, evacuate survivors—some of whom were U.S. citizens—and move outside the wire by rotorcraft to distribute aid.

One can imagine each of the above functions being made more efficient and safer through well-integrated unmanned systems. Noting the capabilities of AFSOC’s RPAs, Elton said, “It is very likely that unmanned systems could be considered for immediate response [humanitarian] missions … which require situational awareness or persistent overwatch.”

AFSOC personnel survey a relief supply drop zone in Haiti in 2010. Unmanned systems might be useful in future humanitarian operations, according to General Elton.

AFSOC personnel survey a relief supply drop zone in Haiti in 2010. Unmanned systems might be useful in future humanitarian operations, according to General Elton. (AFSOC)

The Air Force echoed this sentiment in RPA Vector, “In the past, Predator and Global Hawk have supported humanitarian assistance missions after natural and man-made disasters by tracking wildfires, flood impact areas, nuclear reactor damage, and locations of isolated personnel. This role will increase for National Guard units especially with integration of new platform capabilities.”

The report stated that the service’s still-conceptual, remotely piloted cargo aircraft, the CQ-X, may deliver supplies (e.g., food, water, blankets) or land to recover personnel in a disaster response scenario. The Air Force envisions the CQ-X as being able to deliver up to 18,000 pounds of supplies through contested airspace to remote SOF units, and having autonomous unloading and precision air drop capabilities.

Top photo caption: An MQ-1 Predator

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions magazine.