The U.S. Air Force is widening the use of UAVs such as the MQ-1 Predator. (U.S. Air Force)
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Predator UAVs are becoming key players in the U.S. Air Force’s premier combat exercises — Red Flag — signaling yet another major cultural shift in the way the historically fighter-heavy service operates.
To date, UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper have primarily been used on combat missions to provide ground troops with real-time video of what might be lurking around the corner or across the battlefield.
But by integrating the Predator into Red Flag, the Air Force is widening the aperture of the Predator’s missions and giving a glimpse into how the Pentagon is preparing to fight battles of the future.
The General Atomics-built MQ-1 Predator’s mission in the exercise, which took place here last month: Search for Scud missile launchers and persons of interest on the ground. That reconnaissance was passed back to an operations center and then pumped to an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, which told the strike aircraft where to attack.
It was the first time the Air Force has used the Predator for a mission other than close-air support during Red Flag, an exercise designed to prepare pilots to fight against a near-peer competitor — or as they call it here at Nellis, a World War III scenario.
This year, the Pentagon released a new military strategy that focuses more on the Pacific region and combat in areas where an enemy would possess capabilities that could deny access, such as sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. The Defense Department calls this “anti-access/area denial,” or A2AD.
These types of scenarios have not been prevalent during the conflicts over the past decade where the U.S. has been fighting opponents with no A2AD capability.
“We face a field of battle where our enemy can contest us across multiple domains,” Col. Robert Garland, commandant of the Air Force Weapons School, said Aug. 6. “It’s going to be a contested fight. It’s going to be an operationally degraded fight, and our capabilities can potentially be limited.”
For that reason, the Air Force Weapons School, responsible for studying and understanding the battlefield and then training forces, has evolved over the past 50 years from solely conducting advanced fighter pilot training to incorporating all aspects: air, space and cyber.
A key aspect of the integration of the Predator into Red Flag is changing the perception of what it can provide during a battle.
“The biggest thing that we learned from it was ... unveiling the capabilities of what it brings to the fight for the rest of the participants,” Col. Tod Fingal, the Red Flag commander, said Aug. 7. “When you look at any new weapon system, until we start to tell the story on what it can provide the other participants in the battle, they’re just going to look at that and go, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”
The Predator’s close-air support capabilities were fully understood in Iraq and Afghanistan and are in heavy demand by ground forces.
Over time, the Air Force — steeped in a tradition of go-fast jets and heavy bombers that could pulverize multiple locations in a singe pass — has grown to embrace and institutionalize these unmanned aircraft, some of which are powered by engines similar to those in a snowmobile.
Now, as the Air Force shifts to using the Predator in a contested battle, it will look at developing tactics for employing and protecting it.
“From an airman’s perspective, now how do we utilize that same capability in a heavily contested environment? And that is what we were able to start to show during Red Flag,” Fingal said.
Still, a propeller-driven Predator would not likely be used when there is a significant surface-to-air missile threat or air-to-air threat. In those cases, commanders would likely opt to use high-altitude RQ-4 Global Hawk un-manned aircraft or satellites to gather intelligence.
“We’ve been consistently told [UAVs are] only good for [counterinsurgency], and those naysaying voices have been consistently wrong,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in robotic warfare. “One of the most common mistakes people have made with technology in the past, and often repeat in talking about unmanned systems of today, is to assume a new tech will always remain limited to the original roles and contexts in which the first generation was first introduced.”
The insertion of the Predator is just one way Red Flag — typically held three times a year — is evolving. Another is the frequent use of GPS jamming and other types of cyber threats.
In fact, one of the exercises has been expanded to three weeks, while the other two exercises remain at two weeks. The longest one is meant to incorporate a more extensive space and cyber threats “where we aggressively incorporate the capabilities of all the domains to look for where we have seams in our capabilities [and] our training,” Fingal said.
Large cargo planes, such as the C-17 and smaller C-130, also are frequent players in Red Flag these days.
Other scenarios include rescuing downed pilots using HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters.
Red Flag is held on the Nevada Test and Training Range, a 5,000-square-mile area of restricted space north of Las Vegas. The range is the largest military training complex in the world.
“What we’re replicating now is a near-peer competitor to the coalition force that we put together so that we can train our force in that anti-access/area-denial-type strategy for a very complex war,” Fingal said.
Air Force special tactics squadrons that fly fighter aircraft, operate surface-to-air missile sites and even conduct cyber and space intrusions replicate capabilities the U.S. believes it might face in a future battle.
“We’re not replicating a particular country, we are just trying to go against a very potent foe, a thinking enemy, to best train our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines before they push downrange,” Fingal said.
Aircraft can also fire live weapons at ground targets on the range.
Over the past decade, Red Flag went from focusing primarily on next-war-type scenarios to incorporating missions supporting ground troops, much like the ones experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq over that period.
“We’re realizing a lot of our capabilities have atrophied over the last 10 years because of our heavy engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Fingal said. “Not a complaint. We focused our training correctly based upon what we were asked to do, but we know that the American public is going to demand our ability to counter any threat out there.”
Now Red Flag is pivoting back to what it was created to do.
Fingal predicts Red Flag will continue to focus on A2AD-type missions, while evaluating new types of capabilities.