Pilotless aircraft's debut nearing

The day that remotely-piloted Reaper attack planes controlled from ground stations in Southern Nevada will patrol the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan is only months away, an Air Force spokesman said Monday.

"They are in the training phase now, and they are slated to have their first deployment sometime in the near future. I don't know if that's fall or the beginning of next year," Nellis Air Force Base spokesman Capt. Justin McVay said about the Reaper's imminent debut in what military analysts are calling the "air surge" in the nation's wars on terrorism.

Pilots and sensor operators will be able to control the Reaper, much like its little brother, the Predator, from ground stations at Creech and Nellis Air Force bases and elsewhere in the United States where satellites can relay signals from the unmanned aerial vehicles flying overseas.

McVay said the 42nd Attack Squadron, which is the Reaper squadron at Creech, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas, now has "a handful" of the $10 million aircraft made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego.

The 42nd Attack Squadron is the formal training unit for Reaper pilots and sensor operators, who fly the plane remotely from computer consoles in ground stations. The squadron was activated in November, and the first Reaper assigned to it landed at Creech on March 13.

The MQ-9 Reaper at 300 mph can fly twice as fast the MQ-1 Predator in responding to combat situations. The Reaper can carry 3,000-pounds of ordnance mixed between laser-guided Hellfire missiles and an assortment of smart bombs compared to only two 100-pound Hellfire missiles that a Predator is capable of hauling under its wings.

Both can spy on the enemy by loitering overhead with near-real-time video and infrared cameras, and both can be controlled via satellite links at Creech or Nellis, thousands of miles from the battlefields they are launched over from bases in or near Iraq and Afghanistan.

Plans call for expanding ground control operations to locations in Arizona, California and North Dakota where Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and active duty airmen will be at the controls.

Meanwhile, Air Force officials say they will accelerate the role the MQ-1 Predator will play in daily combat operations.

On Friday, Air Force officials said in a statement that Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley intends to increase daily combat air patrols by MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles from a dozen to 21 next year. That would be a year ahead of the previous projected goal for December 2009.

The statement quotes Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, saying, "The Predator provides a tremendous capability for our joint and coalition forces on the ground. The Air force is pushing to expand Predator air patrols for (U.S. Central Command commander Adm. William J.) Fallon's use as quickly as possible."

The Air Force is building a 400,000-square-foot expansion of the concrete ramp area now used for Predators at Balad, the biggest U.S. air base in Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad. That new staging area could be turned over to Reapers.

The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq, as the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort, offering round-the-clock airborne "eyes" watching over road convoys, tracking nighttime insurgent movements via infrared sensors, and occasionally unleashing one of their two Hellfire missiles on a target.

The Air Force's 432nd Wing, an unmanned-aerial vehicle unit formally established May 1 in a ceremony at Creech , is to eventually fly 60 Reapers and 160 Predators.

The use of unmanned aircraft in Iraq has surged by nearly a third since the buildup of U.S. forces began this year. UAVs are racking up more than 14,000 hours a month in the battlefield skies.

The increase in unmanned aircraft, from high-altitude Global Hawks to short-range reconnaissance Ravens that soldiers fling into the air, has fueled a struggle among the military services over who will control their use and the more than $12 billion that will be spent on the programs over the next five years.

The Air Force wants to centralize command of the drones, saying better coordination could eliminate airspace conflicts that can endanger U.S. troops.

A little more than a year ago, about 700 unmanned aircraft were operating in Iraq. By December, according to Army data, that number had grown to about 950, and it's expected to soon hit 1,250.

At least 500 are the smaller Ravens that are used by the Army. The rest include Hunters and Shadows, the Army's medium-altitude aircraft that can carry weapons, as well as Predators.

Larger Global Hawks are used for high-tech surveillance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.