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Airmen drive RPA innovation with new electronic combat officer course

Airmen from the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing pose with their instructor, Capt. Craig, 26th Weapon Squadron MQ-9 Pilot (center), after graduating from the U.S. Air Force’s first-ever Electronic Combat Officers course. The course focuses on training aircrews of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft to mitigate potential signal interruptions thus reducing the potential risks to RPAs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nadine Barclay)

Airmen from the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing stand with their instructor, Capt. Craig, center, a 26th Weapon Squadron MQ-9 Reaper pilot, after graduating from the Air Force’s first Electronic Combat Officer’s course. The course focuses on training aircrews of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft to mitigate potential signal interruptions thus reducing the potential risks to RPAs. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Nadine Barclay)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- In an effort to neutralize the enemy and their ability to impact combat operations, Airmen have created the Air Force’s first MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft Electronic Combat Officers (ECO) course.

“We’ve been working for the last year and half or so to build the ECO course for the RPA community,” said Capt. Craig, a 26th Weapons Squadron MQ-9 pilot and ECO course creator. “It’s very fulfilling to see it’s finally coming into fruition.”

Squadron members joined with Airmen from the 57th Wing and 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing to establish the course.

Since the insatiable demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability grew faster than the Air Force could produce qualified MQ-1/9 aircrews; the reality of low manning, platform sustainability and training became a constant concern.

As MQ-1/9 aircraft require satellite signals to operate, it becomes extremely important for aircrews to train toward mitigating potential signal interruptions. RPA ECOs integrate with the affected MQ-1/9 aircrews, the relay site, space command, and others at the air operations center to mitigate signal interruptions.

“I had this vision back in 2013, when I wrote the syllabus for the first time,” Craig said. “I didn’t think it would end up turning into an actual ACC (Air Combat Command) course.”

Craig, who previously served as a formalized training unit instructor at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, was deemed the most knowledgeable about the satellite communications (SATCOM) threats and how to combat them. He spent the next three years laying the groundwork for the course.

Due to a manning shortage, Craig developed new tactics, techniques and procedures that would allow the current manning to act in a dual-hatted position thus reducing the risks to RPAs.

After taking the course, Airmen will return to their units as trained experts on RPA use of the electromagnetic spectrum to include, but not limited to: area of operation non-kinetic threats, radio communications, GPS, remote-split operations, SATCOM, and Link 16 -- a tactical data exchange network .

“It came to a point where I felt that we will no longer be fighting in a permissive war and it couldn’t just be me that knows how to fight against it, so I drafted up a syllabus on how I would train an ECO to fight a threat,” Craig said. “At the same time the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron was testing how to fight against SATCOM contested threats. I was just at the right place at the right time.”

Since Air Force regulations dictate that every wing or squadron weapons and tactics office will have graduated and certified electronic combat pilots, electronic warfare officers or ECOs, the demand for a certified ECO course for MQ-1 and MQ-9 squadrons grew.

“(U.S. Air Forces Central Command) are in the demand phase for information,” Craig said. “They want to learn what the RPA capabilities are. Leadership’s mindset of the Predator and Reaper’s capabilities in a non-permissive fight are shifting now that we have proven new innovative solutions.

The newly created ECO course is designed to be a three-phase system and walks the students through 15 days of rigorous training.

“The course offered realistic training and challenging missions,” said Maj. Joseph, an ECO student. “It would do us no good to practice in ‘theory’ without real-world, realistic training scenarios that will mirror future/present threats that we may face.”

The first phase begins with the academics portion of the course and teaches students to plan and prepare against a jamming threat.

Next, the students learn to integrate RPAs into the SATCOM during simulated flights, followed by the final hands-on portion in which students execute tactics, techniques and procedures in support of airborne RPA flight operations in the Nevada Test and Training Range.

“One student will sit in the seat and experience what it’s like to receive a jamming signal while flying another student acts as the ‘ECO’ and supports the pilot who has received the threat,” Craig said. “They swap roles and do it all over again so they both get to experience those perspectives, from both the pilot and the ECO.”

In addition, students received help from the 26th Space Aggressors Squadron from Schriever AFB, Colorado, who replicate enemy threats to space-based and space-enabled systems during tests and training exercises.

“Getting to interact with the aggressors was incredible,” Joseph said. “We learned about friendly and adversary capabilities and mindsets, challenges and weaknesses. This program is about preparing for a more advanced adversary, so it's important to train against the best.”

By using GPS and SATCOM jamming techniques, the 26th WPS provides Air Force, joint and coalition military personnel with an understanding of how to recognize, mitigate, counter and defeat these threats.

Still, developing Airmen with the skills needed to win today’s fight and prepare for tomorrow’s threats without directly engaging the enemy doesn’t come without its own challenges.

“One of the misconceptions we have is that, we’re already critically manned,” Craig said. “We can’t divvy out any more bodies to be only ECOs, or deploy them to be a part of this fight at the relay site. The truth is, units don’t lose a pilot or an instructor, but using the current manning to do both they gain an expert in the squadron.”

Being one of only a handful of trained ECOs is something the only fully certified Air Force RPA ECO is set on changing.

“I’m the only RPA ECO in the Air Force community, meaning I don’t have other ECOs that I can go to and ask questions,” Craig said. “Since we only have one dedicated instructor, myself, the ratio is one to four. There will be four students, four times a year and as we continue to train ECOs we will grow in size until we have two to three ECOs in every unit.”

The course, which was conducted jointly between Creech and Nellis AFBs, recently graduated a beta class of five Airmen assigned to the 432nd WG.

Although the training currently focuses on officers, enlisted Airmen in RPA career fields may also attend a modified ECO course prior to deployments.

In a time when Airmen are asked to find vulnerabilities, develop a course of action and implement change to mitigate threats through innovation, Craig offered one final piece of advice.

“We are definitely preparing for tomorrow’s fight through innovation, 100 percent,” he said. “I’d say to other Airmen not to give up on their innovation. Be persistent, perfect your theory, and get it to the right people with influence who will be able to help you in developing that innovation. I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone.”

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