WASHINGTON — When an active duty MQ-9 Reaper pilot gets ready to fly a mission, he or she might be working side-by-side with a reservist. Col. Ross Anderson, the commander of the 926th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, oversees the integration of about 1,400 Air Force Reserve personnel, including about 400 reservists who operate unmanned aircraft at other bases such as Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Defense News spoke with Anderson on Feb. 1 during a trip to Creech AFB., where his wing regularly engages in combat using the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs). Here, reservists are "classically associated" with the active-duty 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing—meaning that they are completely and seamlessly integrated, taking on the same roles, duties and missions as active-duty airmen.
The Air Force Reserves play a critical role in the service’s unmanned aircraft enterprise. With an ongoing shortage of drone pilots, sensor operators and maintainers, the service relies on reservists to help meet combatant commander demands for ISR and help bring relief to active-duty RPA personnel, which are already overtaxed. Reservists also bring a host of other unique qualifications, such as experience in the commercial sector and greater experience with RPA technology, Anderson told Defense News.
Can you talk a little bit about the role that the Reserve plays with the Predator and the Reaper? Are there any differences in terms of what a reservist could do compared to active duty?
My mission is the exact same mission as Col. [Case] Cunningham in the 432nd Wing. His success is my success. What we bring as reservists is really capturing the continuity, capturing the experience gained on active duty and rather than having that experience just walk away when they get out of active duty, I can bring that experience back and I can put that right back into the units.
The active duty teammates really, really appreciate all the background, all the training that has come up with my reservists as they’ve matured and rather than just seeing that walk away, they get to have them right back in the squadron again.
Are most of the reservists that you command former active-duty Predator and Reaper pilots or do they come from other communities?
Mostly they’re coming straight from active duty. Our goal is to capture that talent. We don’t really want to grow our own if we can. One, it’s expensive and two, it’s not really the point or the purpose of the reserves. For the most part, 80 to 90 percent are all coming from the RPA community, but some do cross-train in and come from a street. We have commissioned our own officers and brought our own intelligence operators in as well, but that’s very rare.
As you mentioned, reservists are doing the same missions as active duty, both as pilots and sensor operators. Are they also operating the aircraft that are flying in the Middle East against ISIS and missions like that? What role are they playing there?
As reservists, we don’t really stand alone in that respect. We do exactly what is happening with our active-duty teammates. We support them. We strengthen the team with the experience we bring, but we don’t have any differences as far as reserves go and the mission sets.
Can you talk a little bit about what it takes to mobilize the reserve force here? When they’re coming from their normal job and getting back to do this job, what does it take to make sure that they’re trained up and they’re ready to go?
If there's an extensive break in training, we’ll send them back to a formal course with specific objectives to bring them back up to speed. That’s more the not-normal. The norm is to take no more than a month off and with one supervised instructed sortie back in the airplane again, they’re back up to speed and they’re as full as they ever would be.
My reservists give an average of five to eight days a month of flying activities up here, so with five to eight days a month, they’re very proficient when they get here. They don’t really deploy. They’re always in a deployed status 24/7, 365 days a year. This mission is always going on here at Creech.
The only deployments we do is downrange to support the launch and recovery of the aircraft. Otherwise, it’s that 45-minute drive from Las Vegas up here to Creech is their deployment every day.
Is that just training or is that operations?
Typically, maybe one of those flights is a training flight, but the rest are all in combat operations.
What about if they’re doing their normal civilian job? How do they train and keep their skills fresh?
It is a challenge sometimes and sometimes life takes our folks away for a period of time to do their civilian job. We are fully understanding with that. When they have had an extensive break for whatever reason, we’ll bring them back, like I said, for one supervised instructed sortie typically. That brings them back up to speed.
We have a really robust program here to make sure that we capture lessons learned, changes in procedures, changes in software let’s say in the airplane, that’s all captured and documented. Before the pilot or sensor can go back in the cockpit, they need to make sure they’ve read all that.
How much interaction do the reservists have with active duty pilots and sensors?
We’re seamless. I flew this morning and I had a sensor operator [that was] an active duty [airman]. ... We do not try to keep reservist crews or active duty crews.
What is the civilian expertise that reservists bring? How does that affect the RPA fight?
Our airmen, often times when they come back to duty, they’re very highly sought after by the unmanned aerial system commercial community. Southern Nevada is a huge unmanned aerial system developing location, so they’re in high demand. They’re hired rather quickly. The beauty of that is, they can bring it back to the military side as well.
They get to see the first evolutions of the next unmanned aerial system. They get to see the changes in technology and they can bring what they’ve learned with the research being done on the commercial side. They can bring it back to us. Together, we make ourselves stronger and we can move forward faster and better together. It’s exciting. It’s one of the best parts about being on the reserve side where we can bring the civilian community back into the military and keep those bonds tight.
Unmanned vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles used to be pretty much the province of the military, and now the commercial sector and civil sector is becoming more and more interested in that. As a reservist who has people that work for aerospace companies, what do you think each side has to learn from each other?
The technology is booming. It’s much like the internet when it first came out, we didn’t have much use for it. We didn’t really understand it and new ideas came out almost daily on how to put that technology to use. The RPA unmanned aerial system community is exactly the same way.
Every day, there's new ways to take this technology and help. You’ve heard about the Amazon delivery vehicle potential. I think unmanned automobiles you see on the roads today, those are all an evolution of the unmanned aerial systems that we have been working on with the technology of the location services and how it finds itself, how it sees. That’s all come from military technology.
Another example is mapping and layout of buildings and facilities. They’ll plant a GPS point in the facility and then they’ll fly a drone around the facility, taking pictures, taking very finite views of a structure as it goes up and that becomes the blueprint for the building. It happens almost instantly as opposed to taking weeks if not months to map a building. They can take pictures as it's being built and they have the blueprint right there.
It’s a neat evolution of how this military evolved technology has become so useful in industry and it’s become almost commonplace.
Do you see that going the opposite direction, where maybe stuff from the civilian sector might filter back into the military?
I can’t help but think it has to happen that way eventually. Everything we’ve gained from the military side has come from a commercial endeavor. General Atomics is a great example. They are the ones that came up with the platform to start with. They said, hey, do you think this is something you might want, and then we, of course, grabbed it and ran with it and made it as good as we can. Now we’re feeding back into the commercial side as well with that same kind of evolving technology.