CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — While the words "close-air support" bring to mind the venerable A-10 Warthog, unmanned Predator and Reaper drones are increasingly assuming that role in battles against the Islamic State group, particularly in constrained urban environments like that of Mosul.
Unmanned aircraft, called remotely piloted aircraft or RPAs in the U.S. Air Force's parlance, have been a cornerstone of the U.S. military's air campaign against ISIS over the past two years.
But although RPAs are still being tasked with reconnaissance missions and strikes against high-value targets, close-air support is a regular and growing responsibility for MQ-1 and MQ-9 operators, who have seen demands grow in Iraq and Syria since the rise of ISIS, said Col. Case Cunningham, commander of the Creech Air Force Base's 432nd Wing and 432nd Expeditionary Wing.
The 432nd Wing is home to MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper squadrons tasked with operations all over the world. After pilots located in theater take off, they hand control of the RPAs off to pilots located stateside at places like Creech AFB, in Nevada, who then fly 16- to 21-hour sorties.
"Often as close as 30 meters from supported friendly forces on the ground, our aircrews are very professionally, very precisely employing weapons to take ISIL off the battlefield in those situations," Cunningham told Defense News during a February trip to the base, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
"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."
Data provided by the 432nd Wing shows a sharp uptick in MQ-9 and MQ-1 munitions drops worldwide over the past four years. In 2013, Predator and Reaper pilots from the wing employed about 500 munitions. That grew to about 1,000 in 2014, ballooned to 2,000 in 2015 and shot past 3,000 in 2016.
"In Iraq and Syria, over calendar year 2016 alone, MQ1s and MQ-9s have deployed over 1,500 weapons against ISIS on the ground," Cunningham said. They also provided laser guidance capability for other air assets — what the troops call a "buddy lase"— on 300 weapons.
The 432nd Wing clocked in a whopping 250,000 flight hours in 2016. Cunningham estimated that about 98 percent of those hours were spent conducting combat operations, which are becoming more complex and challenging as unmanned aircraft become more integrated alongside conventional air assets and troops on the ground.
In one of his last public events as head of Air Combat Command, retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle told reporters of a young MQ-9 pilot who launched a Hellfire missile just a scant 13 minutes into his first operational mission.
"That is a seasoning of a force that is just incredible, and it was perfectly executed, by the way, with a direct hit," he said.
"We're learning a lot about MQ-9s and urban CAS," Carlisle added. "Some of the things we can do, multi ship with the MQ-9s, are really paying dividends just because of the attributes of those airplanes, with both the sensor suite combined with the weapons and the ability to do things together."
The Predator and Reaper are controlled by a two-person aircrew. The pilot is tasked with flying the aircraft and manually releases weapons, while the sensor operator manipulates the RPA’s suite of cameras and uses the laser designator to track targets.
"Our highest-task intensity missions — [such as] close-air support near friendly forces — those are very demanding missions," Cunningham said. "I’ve flown the F-15 and the F-16 and the F-22. I would say when I fly the MQ-9 in combat in some of these high task intensity scenarios, it’s just as demanding, often more, than the mission sets that I flew on those previous platforms.
"There is a misconception that it’s … a video game. It takes hand-eye coordination, just like flying any of those other airplanes," he added. "Our air crews are flying an airplane close and employing weapons within close proximity to friendly forces."
A 'Swiss army knife' in the skies
The Air Force is phasing out the MQ-1 Predator in favor of the larger, more lethal MQ-9 Reaper, but both aircraft — made by General Atomics — share several key features. First and foremost is its ability to loiter, using its sensor suite to follow targets of interest and build up intelligence about their patterns of life. Both aircraft employ the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which includes a daytime camera, infrared sensor, image-intensified camera and a laser designator and illuminator.
And then there are the weapons. The Predator can carry two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfires at a time. The Reaper has more firepower, and can carry up to four Hellfires and two 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs.
Those systems give the Predator and Reaper some unique advantages when fighting in highly populated cities like Mosul, Cunningham said. Not only can the aircraft stay on station for hours building a battlefield picture, but once operators confirm a target of interest is in the area, they can use its precision weaponry to destroy targets without harming friendly troops or civilians.
"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 [for casualties] — in fact, we want to protect the civilian population to the max extent possible — our precision is very, very capable in that environment," he said.
"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."
The battlefield is so dynamic that reconnaissance missions can quickly transform into close-air support runs, where the MQ-9 might be tasked with helping coalition troops under ISIS fire, said 1st Lt. Gregg, a Reaper pilot since 2016. Defense News agreed to identify RPA pilots and sensor operators by their first names only to protect their identities.
"The MQ-9 is kind of, in essence, a Swiss army knife. We can fill in here, we can fill in there," Gregg said. "We just may be there doing scans and looking for things, but they'll call us up and want us to go to this location to help these guys out. Keeping flexibility is key to all of it."
"Things change on the ground," added Tech. Sgt. Joe, who became an MQ-9 sensor operator in 2013 after working as a maintainer for six years. "We don't have control of that, but we do train to that."
Photo Credit: Lars Schwetje/Staff
Although Gregg and Joe shied away from sharing information about specific encounters with ISIL, they stressed the interplay between the RPA pilot and sensor operator that takes place during close-air support missions—as well as the ongoing dialogue with the Joint Terminal Air Controller, or JTAC, the key figure on the ground calling for airstrikes.
During a CAS operation, RPA pilots are in constant contact with the JTAC to clarify the battlefield picture and verify where U.S. troops and other friendly forces are located, Gregg said. Because the JTAC often has a better idea of the combatant commander’s goals, Predator and Reaper often will offer up different options for engaging a target, letting the JTAC choose the path forward based on what he is seeing on the ground.
"There's a lot of communication there in terms of, ‘OK, how do you want us to employ this [weapon]? What are your concerns?’ And then a lot of times we will provide recommendations based on our experience," Gregg said. Sometimes small details — such as whether a Hellfire missile is shot through the roof of a building or through the wall — can make a big difference in the course of a battle.
At the same time, the pilot and sensor operator must work together during a strike to optimize the position of the aircraft and the timing of the weapon’s release — both controlled by the pilot —so that the sensor can use a laser to direct the Hellfire to its destination.
"Once I release the weapon, it's all on him to guide that weapon in," Gregg said. "So I've got to make sure he's ready, he's got his cameras ready, he's comfortable with the employment. Maybe he doesn't feel comfortable with it and we'd rather be patient and wait. We can do that."