WASHINGTON — As commander of the 432nd Wing and 432nd Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Col. Case Cunningham is responsible for overseeing the operations and maintenance of the wing’s 130 remotely piloted aircraft, which include 130 MQ-1 Predators, MQ-9 Reapers and the classified RQ-170 Sentinel. Pilots and sensor operators from the 432nd Wing play a major role in Operation Inherent Resolve by conducting daily flights in support of operations against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Predator and Reaper became renowned for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance or taking out high-ranking targets during airstrikes. Now, Cunningham said, their role is changing, as RPAs become more enmeshed in operations with manned aircraft and play a greater role in close-air support missions in Mosul and beyond.
Defense News’ Air Warfare Reporter Valerie Insinna spoke with Cunningham on Jan. 31 during a trip to Creech AFB.
I think a lot of people don’t understand that when an operation is flown with a Predator or Reaper, that’s actually done stateside. The operator is basically flying that aircraft from here at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, not in Iraq or someplace like that. Can you talk a little bit about some of the difficulties and challenges of doing that and how that process works?
So what we do is the crews that are down range, they launch the airplane and then fly it for a certain period of time. Then we will take control of it from here in the states.
When I say "we," our crew is an officer who is a pilot in command of the aircraft who is flying the airplane; then an enlisted sensor operator who is operating the sensor systems and doing the guidance for the weapons. It’s an incredible team of airmen that are taking the flight to the enemy.
Then we will fly the airplane from here for 16 to 21 hours. So we do that with shift work over three shifts during the day. I think a lot of people think because of the physical distance that’s involved, we are thousands of miles away from the fight. But what they don’t recognize is that the emotional distance is very, very close because we are talking to the supporting forces on the ground. We are seeing the fight through our exquisite sensor capabilities.
I will tell you, I fly the MQ-9 in combat. I feel very in that fight, every single day that I am flying an MQ-9. But that persistence that we bring because we can swap crews through the cockpit lets us fly the airplane for long periods of time.
What do you think the public doesn’t quite understand about the role of RPAs in the fight against ISIS right now?
I think one of the major misconceptions probably has to do with a role that we are very, very adept at, which is ISR, but I think many folks think that means that there is nothing else to that. When in fact, in Iraq and Syria, over calendar year 2016 alone, MQ-1 and MQ-9s have deployed over 1,500 weapons against ISIS on the ground.
We also buddy lased — "buddy lase" is terminal guidance for a weapon that comes off of another airplane. We buddy lased over 300 weapons off of other airplanes. So when you think about our persistence and the fact that we can fly 16 to 21 hours unrefueled and that capability that provides over the battlefield, I think that’s a major [but] not well-understood piece of what we are contributing.
What do those weapons engagements look like? Is this a high-value target type of situation or are there other encounters that are more prevalent?
I think that is a great question. What it does is it hits at the conventional air power missions that we are accomplishing in the fight today that most folks don’t know about.
So when you think about close-air support — often as close as 30 meters from supported friendly forces on the ground — our air crews are very professionally, very precisely employing weapons to take ISIL off the battlefield in those situations. I think that is not a well-understood piece of what we are doing and certainly something that commanders on the ground are asking us to do day in and day out multiple times a day.
Is that something that is being done a lot in places like Mosul?
You bet. I think because we are so persistent and because we bring in an exquisite set of sensors to the fight, when the enemy fleetingly presents himself in an urban environment in Mosul, where we have very low tolerance — in fact, we want to protect the civilian population to the max extent possible — our precision is very, very capable in that environment.
So Mosul is a great example. There have been many others over the course of the campaign.
Can we drill down into that a little bit? When you are doing close-air support in a place like Mosul that is highly populated with civilians, what sort of steps do you take to ensure that you are not engaging civilians mistakenly?
So not going into incredible amount of detail, of course, for operational security, but just from a general perspective, we have our full-motion video that provides the awareness of what’s going on on the ground, in addition to the ground forces and that awareness that they are providing.
What we are able to do because we are so persistent is we are able to be very patient and wait for the enemy to separate from the civilian population. Then once they get away from the civilian population, then we are provided the opportunity to target the enemy, their equipment, and help the supported forces on the ground.
Can you talk a little bit about that targeting process? When an operator is out flying a mission, how does he receive his targets? How long does it take them from receiving that information to conducting a strike?
The standard answer is it depends, but the bottom line is that it is a very well-run and very deliberate path of approval to get to an actual strike. So all of those things that I talked about with awareness of the forces on the ground, rolling through operations center where typically a high-level senior officer is making the call to employ those weapons. So that approval process is run time and time again every single day in the fight against ISIS.
What happens after a strike? Do operators stay up in the air to watch what happens?
So because we are flying such long duration sorties, we are there. So often that means that we do a damage assessment after the targets are destroyed and determine what are the following actions to continue to keep the enemy on the run and continue to defeat ISIL in the campaign.
So going back to the example of Mosul, as you see terrorists abandon their strongholds and move out, does that present more of an opportunity to RPA operators? Is there an increase in operations when that happens?
I think, actually, that provides more opportunities for air power writ large in support of our ground forces because the more that the enemy gets away from those urban areas, then we can lobby forth the effects that our power will have. So I wouldn’t say it is just for RPAs but for all kinds of air power.
Could we talk a little bit about what happens during a mission? When operators flying in Iraq against ISIS get incoming intelligence from allies and partners, how can that influence a mission?
So in our aircraft, much as in any other coalition aircraft, it is an all-domain battle over there. Because we are so good at that as a joint coalition war-fighting team, I think we leverage all of those sources in a way that has us defeating ISIL in the fight to the end.
What does success in that fight look like? How do you define that end goal?
I think you are seeing it. In the near term, it’s military defeat of ISIL. As a war fighter, that’s our responsibility to make sure that we are enabling that for our nation and for our coalition partners. I think you are seeing that play out in real time. Then past that, I will leave that discussion to the higher levels of government. But I am incredibly proud of what our airmen are doing as a member of that coalition team in that fight.