With plans by President Barack Obama to withdraw U.S. ground forces in Iraq and end their combat operations by August 2010, air support from remotely piloted Predator spy planes controlled from Creech Air Force Base probably will continue, a Nevada-based commander said this week.
"The last three months, we’ve seen no change in the number of hours and number of CAPs (combat air patrols) that we’ve flown," said Lt. Col. Rob Kiebler, commander of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"Obviously, the civilian authorities and the political administration will make determinations on troop levels, how much we’re going to commit to both Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "But what we see forward is both Iraq and Afghanistan continuing operations and actually increasing our Predator and Reaper CAPs flying over both theaters."
With up to 50,000 troops left to train Iraqi security forces until 2011, ground commanders will continue to need support from MQ-1 Predators armed with Hellfire missiles to prevent insurgents from launching attacks with roadside bombs, small-arms and vehicles laden with explosives.
Likewise, MQ-9 Reapers that can deliver laser-guided missiles as well as 500-pound bombs on targets will continue to conduct combat air patrols in Afghanistan as more troops are deployed to counter the build up of Taliban forces.
As U.S. troops pull back, "I believe we are going to continue to increase the ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) provided to folks on the ground," said Kiebler, a 38-year-old, former A-10 Thunderbolt pilot.
If troops are pulled out of Iraq or if the situation changes in Afghanistan, it’s likely, he said, that Predator and Reaper combat air patrols will continue to support the operations.
"The way we’re going to do that and the way we’re going to protect Americans is through the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that we provide every day," he said.
His comments came Wednesday at the Creech base at Indian Springs during an interview about a milestone the Air Force reached Feb. 18 in its Predator operations: flying 500,000 hours.
The Predator fleet, which began at Indian Springs more than a dozen years ago, has expanded to several other U.S. locations including California, North Dakota, Arizona and Texas. At Creech and these other locations, pilots and sensor operators can control the planes and fire missiles via satellite links after Predators and Reapers are launched thousands of miles away in the war zones.
The 500,000th hour milestone is significant because it indicates the demand on unmanned aerial systems in fighting the global war on terrorism.
"It took us 12 years to reach the milestone for 250,000 hours. Since then, it’s only taken us another two years to reach 500,000 hours," Kiebler said.
"At the current rate, we’re flying approximately 100,000 hours every six months. So we will very soon be reaching the 1 million mark, probably in about 21/2 to three years," he said.
At any given time, there are 34 combat air patrols for Predators and Reapers combined operating in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of ground forces.
For the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron that means there are 21 to 30 pilots, sensor operators and intelligence personnel per day working to fight the wars from Creech for one combat air patrol. The squadron handles nine combat air patrols a day which means there would be up to 270 personnel involved. The figure doesn’t include airmen who launch and maintain the planes overseas and provide support at the base.
"We consider ourselves deployed in garrison, which means every day when they come into work, they’ve got to shift their focus from family, from living in a civilian environment to arriving here at Creech and focusing on combat operations," Kiebler said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.Video
VIDEOS OF MISSIONS AVAILABLE
Predator strike videos
Declassified videos of MQ-1 Predator missile strikes provided by U.S. Air Forces Central Command show surveillance and targeting of insurgents and militants after they’ve engaged U.S. troops with small-arms fire or were seen planting roadside bombs or fleeing in vehicles.
The videos were taken last year and in 2007 by combat air patrols flying over such locations as Karbala, Baghdad and Basra in Iraq, and Sawar and Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Hellfire missile strikes by Predator unmanned aircraft systems result from tasking orders from the Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia.
According to Air Force officials, Predator combat air patrols are flown in support of ground forces commanders who direct the strikes. Ground commanders communicate with Predator squadrons and crew to identify insurgents or militants who have launched attacks or been linked to roadside bomb sites or bomb-making materials.
The crew includes an intelligence specialist in addition to the pilot and sensor operator who control the plane and fire laser-guided missiles via satellite link to computer consoles in secure stations sometimes thousands of miles from the war zone.
After ground commanders identify targets, they clear the crew to fire missiles at those locations.