Air Force officials began preparing for using remotely piloted Predator and Reaper armed spy planes in the Libyan crisis on March 18, when President Barack Obama gave Moammar Gadhafi an ultimatum to abide by a cease-fire on rebels trying to overthrow his regime.
Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the nation’s hub for unmanned aerial systems that can be launched near combat zones and controlled via satellite link by pilots and sensor operators in ground stations thousands of miles away.
The drones, with the capability of these so-called “remote split operations” are in high demand by commanders in Afghanistan, where they are routinely used to spy on Taliban and insurgent activities and launch missile strikes against them.
MQ-1 Predators can loiter for more than 20 hours over targets and fire laser-guided Hellfire missiles. They can provide field commanders with near real time video and infrared images. They can also be used in “buddy lasing” strikes in which a sensor operator holds a Predator’s laser spot on a target while other aircraft use the beam to deliver larger munitions than a Predator can carry.
During the Iraq War, Predators controlled remotely in Nevada helped U.S. soldiers capture Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They were also involved in the rescue of Jessica Lynch, the Army supply clerk who was held prisoner at a hospital in Nasiriya, Iraq, in the early stages of the war.
MQ-9 Reapers are better suited for countering terrorist activities in Afghanistan. They can fly higher and faster and carry more weapons than Predators and provide more brute force from 500-pound bombs in addition to Hellfire missiles.