CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- Since they were first deployed as reconnaissance and attack aircraft, the Predators have been credited with helping to change the tide in counterinsurgency operations.
Now, the Air Force is struggling to keep tip with the demand for Predator patrols.
"We're the victims of our own success," says Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which was established last year as the Air Force's first unit dedicated to unmanned aerial systems.
He plays several video clips taken from recent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where all of the Predators now fly armed with laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. "This is really the weapon of choice," he adds while watching a 14-pound warhead destroy a vehicle.
Last year, Predators fired off 112 such shots. Tallies so far this year indicate a growing trend.
"We're well aware that there's a virtually insatiable appetite for these systems and their capabilities," says Chambliss. "We know we have to generate more of them as quickly as we can, and that's our goal. No one's working harder to do that than us."
In both war zones, ground troops routinely request Predator assets, but some of those pleas go unanswered on a daily basis because the numbers of airplanes are insufficient. "It's absolutely reasonable to assume that if we had more over there, we could do more with them," says Chambliss, whose flying career was aboard the F-16 fighter jet.
While Predators don't have a pilot inside the cockpit, they do require large crews of operators and support staff. "In this unmanned system, there's a lot of people involved--a lot more than in my F-16, certainly," he says, underscoring one of the ironies in operating the aerial robotics technology. To fly two Predators requires as many as 80 people, including pilots, sensor operators and maintenance crews, as well as airmen who provide weather and intelligence reports.
The wing is currently flying 28 combat air patrols around the clock--26 with the Predator, and two with its larger, more advanced sibling, the Reaper.
A single combat air patrol, or CAP, consists of four drones and two ground control stations--one deployed in theater to launch and recover the planes and one located in the United States to fly the missions. Each CAP requires about 50 people who are deployed with the aircraft to provide maintenance and the launch and recovery operations, and 30 people who remain at Creech to...