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RPAs prove vital in fight against ISIL

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- From August 2014 to August 2015, the 432nd Wing has directly supported Operation Inherent Resolve, a U.S. Central Command and partner nation's campaign to conduct targeted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as part of the comprehensive strategy to degrade and defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"OIR has highlighted the strengths of (remotely piloted aircraft) operations, namely a single-weapon system that can (find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess) with flexibility, endurance and precision," said Lt. Col. Erik, the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron commander. "In addition, we have the communications necessary to reach back to multiple supporting agencies, and disseminate our (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) feed real-time to multiple end users. This builds situational awareness of the (area of responsibility), which is especially important due to the dynamic nature of OIR combat operations."

While the RPA mission in Iraq and Syria initially focused on information gathering and battlespace awareness, the 432nd WG's involvement quickly escalated as the demand for ISR grew to accurately capture real-time operations.

"Things progressed very quickly, we were playing a reactive part, now we are much more established and proactive," said Senior Airman Jeffery, a MQ-1B Predator intelligence instructor. "The nature of the mission is much more clear and precise then it was at the beginning which has allowed us to be as effective as possible."

In OIR, the 432nd WG/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing has contributed approximately 4,300 sorties, employed 1,000 weapons and conducted 400 'buddy lase.' A buddy lase is when aircrew from one aircraft uses a combat laser to guide weapons released another aircraft to a target. A majority of the sorties and strikes were performed by the 432nd WG. The strikes are an experience Capt. Ryan, a 15th RS Predator pilot, knows all too well.

"I had the first RPA strike of OIR," Ryan recalled. "It was exciting to know what the threat was and to protect the guys on the ground was exhilarating. I felt like I was able to directly contribute."

Although many sorties were flown by RPAs, joint efforts capitalized on the capabilities of the joint warfighter thus integrating manned and unmanned assets to assist friendly ground forces.

"This has been one of the biggest improvements to RPA operations in recent years," Erik said. "One of the strengths of RPA cockpits is the ability to use multiple means of communication (computer, phone and airborne radio) to integrate with other assets. The challenge facing our crews is how to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of these various communication means, and we have made great strides in OIR to optimize this."

As part of this integration process, manned aircraft like the Navy F-18 Hornets use RPAs to buddy lase targets.

To some, changing the misconceptions associated with this revolutionary aircraft is sometimes a mission in itself, but illustrating the platforms capability in combat is setting the stage to clear up misunderstandings associated with RPAs.

"Before OIR many people may not have known what an RPA was truly capable of," Ryan said. "Now before combatant commanders take the risk of potentially losing a manned aircraft they will come to us and ask if we've found them targets. We have 24/7 coverage, so we know what the battlefield looks like and how it has changed. They're using us for their situational awareness which improves their safety as well."

A unique aspect of the RPA enterprise is that these aircrew members will see sustained direct combat support very early in their Air Force careers, which is less common in other aircraft platforms.

"From the very beginning, I've felt I've had impact in the mission that we are doing," Jeffrey said. "I don't feel I would have had this experience and impact had I been in another career field. It's a great thing to be in the RPA enterprise as a brand new Airman starting out."

In the RPA career field today, the average age of Airmen flying combat missions is 18-24 years old, something rarely seen in traditionally manned aircraft career fields.

"I can't be more proud of our crews and the professional airmanship they exhibit on a daily basis," Erik said. "Due to the growth of the RPA community, we have a large percentage of relatively young crew members. Based on the nature of our combat operations, they build experience at a much faster rate than the norm. Their pride, motivation and discipline are unquestionable and directly lead to our success in combat operations."

As OIR passed the one year mark on Aug. 8, Ryan said morale is high and the men and women of his unit are the most professional people he has had the pleasure of working with.

"Every day they surprise me with how they act and react to the changing environment of war," Ryan said. "I am extremely proud of what I do. Our motto is P2P, which is short for perform to prevent. The meaning behind it is that we perform at our best to keep Soldiers from deploying into harm's way. It pushes us to do our jobs, which is to save American lives."

According to Defense Department as of Aug. 7, 2015, airstrikes have been responsible for damaging or destroying more than 10,684 targets that further deny the enemy the capability to inflict damage to America or its allies.

"It's an honor to know that we are able to lead the way, and rapidly execute missions in a new AOR based on orders from our national leadership," Erik said. "It's also true that this is an honor shared by the entire RPA community. Collectively, we present unique and effective airpower options for our combatant commanders to achieve their objectives."