While a remotely piloted Predator spy plane flew a training mission Tuesday over Creech Air Force Base, an Air Combat Command spokesman in Virginia said such missions will continue despite news last week that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had ordered nearly all Predators to patrol the skies over the Middle East.
"The bottom line is Creech has not received a specific tasking," said Maj. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Nevertheless, he said, while Air Force commanders know that "the overall combat air patrols, the orbits will increase" for MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, the deployment impact (at Creech) will be minimal."
"There'll be more bodies than they have there today but those numbers will be small, for launch and recovery" he said, referring to airmen from Creech, such as ground crew and maintainers, who will be sent to locations in the Middle East for Predator combat operations.
The number of personnel from Creech Air Force Base who will be deployed overseas will be small, Crosson said.
As for equipment, he said he couldn't be specific on how many more Predators would be dispatched to the war zone but "there will be ample airframes at Creech to provide training."
Many of the Air Force's roughly 100 operational Predator spy planes plus a half dozen MQ-9 Reapers, the Predator's more heavily armed big brother, are assigned to Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Each MQ-1 Predator can fire laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
After Gates' order was reported last week, Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force's Predator wing, expressed concern that deploying too many Predators while leaving little for training would put the Air Force on a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back on training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.
"That was the end of their air force, Chambliss told the Los Angeles Times.
While some Predators are used for training at Creech, others are sometimes launched from bases in or near war zones over Iraq and Afghanistan and controlled remotely via satellite link by pilots and sensor operators in ground stations thousands of miles away in Nevada.
In an e-mail Monday, Crosson said unmanned aerial system operators are working around-the-clock to fight the war on terrorism.
Since last year, he said, the Air Force has nearly tripled the number of Predator combat air patrols.
In January, Gates directed the Air Force to "surge" beyond the 21 combat air patrols and stand up 24 such patrols by June 1. The Air Force is on track to meet Gates' direction, Crosson's e-mail reads.
"We realize that the MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reaper provide combatant commanders with persistent hunter-killer firepower against emerging targets as well as unique intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities," his e-mail reads, emphasizing that the unmanned aerial systems save lives in addition to providing valuable intelligence.
"We assume greater risk of losing American lives if we don't meet the demand," he said.