The Air Force will train more pilots to fly unmanned aerial systems from ground operations centers this year than pilots to fly fighter or bomber aircraft, Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, the commander of Air Education and Training Command, told an audience Friday.
Lorentz's remark illustrates the major transformation occurring within that service. In a Pentagon session last month, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Will Fraser told reporters that the unmanned systems are "delivering game-changing capabilities today, and ones that I'm confident will continue to be invaluable in the future."
At that July 23 briefing, Air Force officers spelled out the growth of what they call the "ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] transformation" of their service.
Today, the Air Force is flying both Predators and the more capable Reapers over Iraq and Afghanistan in 35 simultaneous orbits, each of which is a combat mission that keeps an aircraft aloft 24 hours a day. The target is to have 50 orbits by 2011.
A Predator was used over Pakistan last week in an attack that apparently killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Right now there is basically one sensor in each Predator whose surveillance system provides 10 full motion video images simultaneously to forces on the ground, according to Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR. Deptula also attended the July briefing. The newest version of the Reaper flies faster than the Predator, up to 250 miles per hour, carries more arms and will beam back to ground forces up to 30 video images. Troops on the ground, using new equipment called Rover (remote operations video enhanced receivers), literally see what the aircraft's sensor and the ground-based Reaper pilot -- thousands of miles away -- see. Rover also allows ground troops to send queries up to the aircraft.
Where Reaper with its four sensors can cover over six square miles, a more advanced version with six sensors, scheduled to be available in 2013, will be able to cover over 20 square miles. It also will beam back 65 separate video images to the ground.
What these aircraft bring "to the table is the ability to stay in position or maneuver over large areas for a long period of time, and that's where a person in an aircraft becomes a limitation," Deptula said. Without individuals in the aircraft "you can maintain your position for a long period of time with the opportunity to either watch or strike." Today one ground-based pilot flies one Predator, assisted by two analysts. By 2013 the Air Force expects technology to permit one pilot to fly three Reapers, and to fly four in a crisis.
Another advantage over manned aircraft is that there is always a fresh crew on the ground, "which enables any sort of persistence," said Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force UAS Task Force, at the July briefing. There are 1,000 Air Force personnel flying these unmanned operations today and none is in harm's way, according to charts at the briefing.
He added that an unmanned aircraft could be designed to stay airborne for five years, "and I can man it that entire five years with little fatigue." In fact, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency has a project called Vulture that is trying to do just that.
While there are five launch and recovery units in the Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, the global operations center is at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., with five other centers in North Dakota, upstate New York, Arizona, Texas and California.
The hasty push of unmanned systems into the Iraq-Afghanistan battle area has shown some vulnerabilities, however, including the need for a better sorting, processing and distribution of the massive amounts of intelligence collected. That problem will only get worse with the new sensors.
In addition, the House Armed Services Committee complained in its report on the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill that money meant to fund the Predator portion of the planned fleet was redirected to the Reaper program, which doesn't have enough aircraft in the pipeline to meet the 50-orbit goal.
A long-term issue for the unmanned systems such as the Predator and Reaper aircraft is how to protect them when they operate in an area where the enemy has sophisticated air defenses and the United States does not control the airspace. Deptula conceded survivability is a concern. He said the service is looking at countermeasures and "low observability," which means stealth aircraft that fly fast -- even at hypersonic speeds -- and cannot be picked up on radar.
Will the unmanned aircraft ever completely replace either bombers or fighters? In delivering weapons on target, Deptula said, "Yes, you bet." But when it comes to controlling airspace, flying against enemy fighters, the general said, the technology cannot yet achieve 360-degree awareness. A human brain is still superior in the assimilation of information and responding to it.
"Someday we might be able to, but until then, we'll still have manned aircraft," the general said.