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Airmen demonstrate unmanned aircraft not merely 'drones'

Tech. Sgt. Ismael Lopez inspects an MQ-9 Reaper for cracks and other damage March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.  Sergeant Lopez is a quality assurance technician with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Tech. Sgt. Ismael Lopez inspects an MQ-9 Reaper for cracks and other damage March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan. Sergeant Lopez is a quality assurance technician with the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Capt. Ryan Jodoi (rear) flies an MQ-9 Reaper while Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder controls a full motion video camera March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

Capt. Ryan Jodoi (rear) flies an MQ-9 Reaper while Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder controls a full motion video camera March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron taxis for take off March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, for a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron taxis for take off March 13 at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, for a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off March 13 from Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, for a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper from the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off March 13 from Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, for a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- The door to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron features a drawing of an MQ-1 Predator armed with Hellfire missiles underscored with the words "We're not drones - we fire back."

Often referred to by reporters as "drones," unmanned aircraft like the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk are remotely-flown weapons systems flown both locally and stateside from ground stations using satellite uplinks. They're also far more complex than the U.S. military's relatively more simplified radio-controlled drone aircraft used for aerial target practice, according to unmanned aircraft system professionals.

For the Airmen flying and maintaining the lethal Predator and its big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper, from Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, and from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., the message is demonstrated to their adversaries on a regular basis.

"(Both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are weapons-carrying aircraft,) and both have a hunter-killer role in addition to their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities," said Lt. Col. Scott Miller, the 62nd ERS commander, who is deployed from the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech AFB.

Performing dual-missions of close-air support and ISR taskings, the Predator can stay airborne for more than 12 hours at 50,000 feet and the Reaper can stay up for a longer period of time at even higher altitudes, according to squadron officials. Boasting a full-motion video camera with various modes that can detect enemy movements, the Predator and Reaper also carry the Hellfire missile. In addition to carrying a larger payload of Hellfires, the UAs bring to the fight a set of two 500 lbs. laser-guided bombs that allow operators to not only observe and detect hostile forces, but also eliminate them if called upon to do so.

"Both aircraft can initiate and complete the 'killchain'," Colonel Miller said. "With their ability to loiter for long periods of time over a target, eliminate it, stay on station and then provide the (bomb damage assessment,) they provide continuity to a mission and prove to be invaluable assets."

The aircraft are flown jointly by the 62nd ERS crews stationed here with the 451st Air Expeditionary Group and by crews back at Creech using satellite uplinks that transfer control from the local pilots who taxi, launch, land and recover the aircraft (all from trailers adjacent to the flightline) and the Creech aviators flying inside of mission control elements performing missions across Afghanistan. British Royal Air Force counterparts also fly the Reaper.

General Atomics contractors perform maintenance on the Reaper while responsibility for Predator maintenance is undertaken by 62nd ERS Airmen.

"As this aircraft is like 90 percent avionics, it's a pretty unique experience to work on it," said Senior Airman Doug Cox, a 62nd ERS MQ-1 avionics specialist from Creech AFB. "We're asked to do a lot more than our traditional specialties and most of us are trained up on crew chief duties such as performing 60-hour inspections, changing spark plugs, engine oil and things like that."

First Lt. Andrew Dowd, also deployed from Creech AFB as the unit's maintenance officer, agreed. 

"This aircraft does not have hydraulic fluid and operates using electro-servos," he said, also noting the aircraft recently reached a 500,000 flight hour milestone. "It's a very unique platform, but of course, when it's all said and done, it's the $1.2 million camera that runs the show."

After the aircraft are airborne and are handed off by the Kandahar crew, Creech aviators perform the majority of traditional mission taskings. However, the 62nd ERS Airmen increasingly are taking responsibility for executing missions within the local area to aid and protect coalition forces stationed around Kandahar who are fighting the enemy. Sometimes weapons are dropped, demonstrating the lethality and uniqueness of the 62nd ERS' mission and aircraft to friends and foes alike.

Notably, some missions are often generated to fly only within the local area, putting the responsibility for the entire mission on the shoulders of the Kandahar-based aircrews. 

It's great to have a direct impact on the war," said Airman 1st Class Patrick Snyder, an MQ-9 sensor operator who maneuvers the system's cameras and sensors as well as directs its munitions when launched. "We provide over-watch for the Canadians fighting the Taliban and then have coffee with them at the end of day (here at Kandahar.) It really makes us feel connected."

Capt. Ryan Jodi, a B-1 pilot who now flies the Reaper from his cockpit position in a ground control element, also acknowledged his preference for performing missions locally as opposed to Creech.

"I really enjoy doing the launches and landings from here," he said.  "It really gives you more of a flying feeling. And doing local missions is also great because we can really appreciate the camaraderie we have with our coalition partners who we live with here." 

With spring arriving in Afghanistan, Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents once again will ramp up hostile operations against coalition forces around the country as they have demonstrated each year during the duration of Operation Enduring Freedom.

 However, with the planned increase of forces within the area, that means more assets are on the way, with 62nd ERS leaders preparing for additional aircraft and more mission sorties generated from combatant commanders. With nearly 10 additional Reapers coming to supplement the squadron's approximately dozen MQ-9 aircraft, Colonel Miller says that means more work.

"In 2005, we were generating about two sorties a day," he said. "We've more than quadrupled that now and we are going to expect a lot more coming in the future." 

Col. Ted Osowski, the 451st AEG commander, agreed with Colonel Miller on the demand for the ISR hunter/killer platforms in-theater.

"No other asset is more sought after," he said. "Close air support and ISR are very valuable to the ground commanders."

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