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Eye in the sky: MQ-1, MQ-9s provide increased awareness

An MQ-1 Predator flies overhead during a training mission Dec. 12, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The MQ-1 and the MQ-9 Reaper, help operators provide unique and unmatched situational awareness on the battlefield due to their exceptionally long loiter times. The aircraft can stay in the air for approximately 23 hours attributing to their glider construction, lightweight composite builds and efficient engines. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

An MQ-1B Predator flies a training mission Dec. 12, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. An MQ-1B aircrew destroyed a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device heading toward approximately 850 friendlies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- Situational awareness is the ability to know what is happening around a person at any given time. This is especially important for military members, more specifically, troops on the ground.

For the men and women operating MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, their skills of providing unmatched SA is highly demanded from the ground forces to the combatant commanders.

“Understanding the battlespace, friendly and enemy capabilities and positions are all key to achieving the desired end state (of the mission),” said Maj. Matthew, the 432nd Wing commander’s action group chief. “With RPAs, leaders can essentially view the battlespace from their offices and make well-informed decisions, real-time, based on live events.”

On the battlefront, coalition and friendly forces can better prepare for missions as well as execute them with an eye in the sky.

“RPAs can scan planned routes for threats, provide real-time footage of the route, provide a bird's eye view of the targeted compound and more,” Matthew said.

This means ground forces can be alerted of oncoming danger and avoid improvised explosive devices on the roads or enemies converging on friendly positions.

RPAs have even supported ground troops in indirect combat roles.

“There’s a mission we highlight where an RPA provided over watch for a group of Soldiers while they slept,” Matthew said. “After being awake for 36 hours no one was capable of driving and the convoy continued without them. An RPA crew offered to watch over them to let them sleep a few hours and they felt safe enough to sleep with the crew overhead watching them.”

Once the Soldiers got enough sleep, they were able to catch up to the convoy for a critical mission.

During another mission to support the U.S. Army, RPAs provided armed over watch of a raid to capture a high value individual, but in the process the aircrew noticed the individual fled the compound.

“The RPA crew followed the HVI as he departed, rendezvoused with several accomplices, and then finally hid in a field to avoid capture,” Matthew said. “The RPA crew notified the ground forces commander of the situation, and then fired their Laser Target Marker at the HVI's location. The ground troops' night vision goggles allowed them to see the LTM from the RPA and thus, the HVI's location. The HVI was captured without incident.”

Because of the long loiter times, RPAs are able to provide unique and unmatched oversight.

“These aircraft are designed like motorized gliders with long skinny wings enabling them to fly at relatively slow speeds and have a high lift to drag ratio optimized for endurance at the sacrifice of speed,” said Capt. Joseph, the 432nd Wing Weapons and Tactics chief.

Along with the design, the structure of the aircraft plays a role in endurance. The MQ-1B and MQ-9 use a carbon fiber structure which is lighter and stronger than most metals.

With the glider design and lightweight structure, the MQ-1B and MQ-9 use little fuel for their continuous flight mission.

“We can be (overhead) from start to finish of a mission and don’t need to refuel mid-flight and or get replaced by another asset,” Joseph said. “This ultimately leads to continuity of situational awareness providing ground forces with the same asset or crew for the entire duration.”

Not only can RPAs provide dominant awareness and reconnaissance capabilities, but also employ precision weapons ranging from missiles to 500-pound bombs.

“The crew is able to find, fix and finish targets,” Joseph said. “These steps; find, fix, track, target, engage and assess, are part of the dynamic targeting process. The MQ-9 excels best at the beginning steps while being able to either pass off the target or in some cases provide a kinetic option.”

The increased battlespace awareness also allows MQ-1B and MQ-9 aircrew to use the aircraft lasers to guide weapons from other aircraft to the targets. This is known as buddy lasing.

“The benefits for buddy lasing are basically being able to provide mutual support for other assets who either are unable to find the target, see the target, or we can simply make their tactics easier in the sense that it breaks the workload up,” Joseph said. “With this tactic other aircraft only have to worry about getting the weapon into the ‘basket’ for it to guide to the target.”

The long loiter time, low speed and high fidelity allows MQ-1B and MQ-9 aircrew to accurately assess the environment for precise engagement.

“Generally speaking, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 provide the most stable and accurate platform for buddy lasing in weapons across the inventory,” Joseph said.

While the MQ-1B and MQ-9 missions are no different than other Air Force aircraft, the RPAs unique characteristics allow them to evolve with the battle climate.

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