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Building the UAS operator community

Building the USA operator community

Apr. 7, 2008 - 03:45AM   |  
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Col. Christopher R. Chambliss finds himself at the center of one of military aviation's greatest revolutions. As commander of the U.S. Air Force's first unmanned aerial systems (UAS) wing — the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. — Chambliss works daily to prepare ground-based pilots to fly the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper air vehicles over Afghanistan and Iraq. He must ensure that the vehicles are flown efficiently as one element of intelligence and weapons-delivery systems that include sensors and data links.

Chambliss entered the Air Force in 1983 through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Kansas State University. He has spent most of his 25 years in the service as a pilot and teacher. He is a command-rated F-16 pilot who has instructed students on T-37 trainers. Before moving into the world of unmanned aircraft last May, Chambliss served as vice commander of the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, which, at the time, flew both F-15 and F-16 fighters.

Chambliss spoke with correspondent Tim Mahon about problems and solutions in unmanned aviation.

Q What is the 432nd Wing's role?

A The vast majority of the training we do here at Creech is for ISR-type missions — whether that is the traditional intelligence gathering for big-picture analysis and use by the ground or air component commander, or an overwatch role for local commanders. It could also — literally — be taking a look over the next hill to survey the convoy route the guys on the ground are about to drive through.

We do emphasize what I call the back end. We refer to our assets as unmanned aerial systems rather than unmanned aerial vehicles mainly because we recognize it is the system that's important. The aircraft — or air vehicle — is good, but it's only as good as the imagery and intelligence it can deliver. The back end is the whole chain from here through to the image analysis center or wherever the imagery has to get to in order to be used. That's the payback benefit of what we do — getting actionable intelligence into the hands of the user, whether that's the commanding general or an individual soldier on the ground.

Q What have been the principal challenges in standing up the wing?

A There are really two areas of interest here. First has been the overall unmanned aspect of what we do. We have to go to great lengths, for example, to be able to fly in national airspace, and that's largely because of the perspective folks have regarding unmanned aircraft. We have had to convince people that operating an aircraft system 8,000 miles away from where we are right now is just as useful — and just as doable— as the soldier launching a Scan Eagle over the hill right next to him in theater. That's a huge challenge of instilling our conviction in other people. But we're slowly winning that battle.

Then there's the mission itself — how to make sure that we get what we gather to where it needs to be — the back-end payoff I just mentioned. There are technology and bureaucratic challenges here, though, quite frankly. Most of the technology issues have now been resolved. As long as the comm pipe is big enough — and that's a huge issue all round — then we can get our product to where it needs to be. Another huge challenge for the present and the future is how to ensure we have sufficient quantity and quality of folks trained to be able to use the material we can provide. That's an intel-community issue rather than one for me here in the operational community. But to scope the size of the issue, we flew 82,000 hours in Predator and Reaper in 2007. All but about 6,000 training hours of that is full-motion video in theater. And that compares with about 50,000 hours in 2006. So you can see the growth is arithmetic rather than logarithmic, but it's still pretty considerable.

Q Are there organizational or operational barriers in your way and, if so, how have you overcome them?

A The biggest problem, I think, was the lack of a focus wing to be the advocate of this weapon system. So when we stood up the 432nd on 1st May 2007, we moved out from under the shadow of the USAF Warfare Center and into the responsibility of a numbered Air Force commander. That was an enormous step forward — you can make a phone call as a colonel and you can make a phone call as a wing commander, and the wing commander will win every time. We have just got more organizational leverage now.

From an operational perspective, we operate in incredibly complex airspace every day, and that situation is only becoming more and more difficult. We consider ourselves to be the asset responsible for theaterwide ISR in [Iraq and Afghanistan], and we have to mesh our activities with the airspace demands from a large number of other users. We have to make sure we can jink around any restrictions and still get our mission accomplished.

Q What are the principal lessons learned from recent operational experience, and how is that experience fed back into your training programs?

A Let me give you a scale to start. In 2003, our training squadron trained 30 two-man crews. In 2007, we trained 166, and that's just on MQ-1 [Predator]. As far as the MQ-9 [Reaper] is concerned, the operational squadron is also training new guys on the system, as well as flying operationally. So, since we first deployed Reaper in October 2007, we have learned plenty of lessons. We are using the [Reaper] system as a strike asset in just the same way you might use an F-16 or an A-10. Predator is an ISR rather than a strike asset, and the combat squadrons feed lessons learned into the loop every month. So when we start a new training course every three weeks, we do so with a whole new set of recent experiences. We also have an exchange program to take guys out of the training squadron and put them in with combat crews for several weeks — and the great thing is they only have to walk across the street here in order to achieve that step change in understanding.

Q Your aircraft regularly transit civil airspace in Nevada. How have you dealt with the safety and regulatory issues?

A It has not been achieved without a lot of coordination. Our national airspace operates on visual flight rules (VFR) below 18,000 feet and instrument flight rules (IFR) above that height. So we have essentially done a deal with the aviation authorities that if we have to transit airspace in which civil aircraft might be flying we will climb to 18,000 — so that we don't run the risk of coming across aircraft in VFR mode — and we will then fly on IFR rules and be monitored, controlled and separated just like any other aircraft transiting that airspace. Here at Creech, we have to do this pretty much every day as we move to alternate training areas, and we have developed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Aviation Administration to enable us to do this effectively.

Q How can the wing's experience be leveraged for future UAS operations — for U.S. and other forces?

A There's a relationship here I need to explain. We have had British colleagues and counterparts embedded in the system here from the start, and we recently saw the Royal Air Force re-establish its 39 Squadron here to operate the Reapers it has recently acquired. The squadron is now actively flying its own combat air patrols in Afghanistan from here. We have also trained other international airmen here, and that's something that is only going to increase.

So from Day One, we had a big opportunity here to achieve great commonality, not just as far as operational synergies are concerned but in common methods of flying strike, battle damage assessment, ISR or any other sort of mission. We have used this opportunity to get as many people as possible operating off of the same page so I know that when I am flying in the same airspace next to a Brit colleague, he's going to fly, work and react in the same manner. What we have found is the airframe doesn't really make a lot of difference — it can be MQ-1, MQ-9 or any other system — what we're doing here is building the foundation for the development of common tactics, techniques and procedures.

In order to better operate, the Brits initially embedded their people in our units, but as they have transitioned to MQ-9 and to greater operational autonomy, they have greater separation. But it's a valuable relationship: On Thanksgiving morning, I found that volunteer British crews had occupied every duty spot except for squadron commander. Right now, if I know there is a British [combat air patrol], that's one less CAP I have to try to fly. We now pretty much automatically include the Brit CAPs in our count.

Q What does the future hold for military UAS operators? How will your successors fare 10 years from now?

A I think very, very soon we're going to see tactical-theater-level UAS operations — I mean in the next few years — training more aircrew than tactical aviation. The capabilities and utility of these weapons systems will grow this community so that it will soon be on a par with other communities throughout the U.S. Air Force. Just as there is, and has been, a bomber-pilot community and a fighter-pilot community, so there will be a UAS operator community — and I say that as a 20-year fighter pilot.

The crews we are training now will move on to other UAS and manned squadrons — and will have a huge impact in every area from operational planning to acquisition strategy. We are planting seed corn right now in young captains, staff sergeants and senior airmen. In 10 years time, they will be in more senior positions, exercising authority from the perspective of having been there and done that in combat.

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