Story by Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys 455th Air Expeditionary Wing
JALABAD AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – In a small, fenced-in compound on Jalalabad Airfield, an equally small unit of Air Force pilots and sensor operators are playing a large role in the Department of Defense’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission.
Although the Air Force is progressing toward an all-MQ-9 fleet by fiscal year 2019 as the MQ-1s are phased out, the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Detachment 1’s mission is very much alive in Afghanistan.
The MQ-1B, an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets.
“We have two combat air patrols in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel,” said Capt. Steven, 62nd ERS Detachment 1 commander. “We provide full-motion video ISR as well as close air support capabilities to troops on the ground and feedback back to our home station and headquarters.”
The Predator carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which integrates an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser designator and laser illuminator. The full-motion video from each of the imaging sensors can be viewed as separate video streams or fused. The aircraft can employ two laser-guided missiles, Air-to-Ground Missile-114 Hellfire, that possess highly accurate, low-collateral damage, and anti-armor, anti-personnel engagement capabilities.
In Afghanistan, the MQ-1B provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.
“Here at Jalalabad, we do the launch and recovery aspect of the MQ-1,” said Steven. “We don’t fly any missions here. We launch a plane and then hand it over to a stateside mission control element crew who will fly the sortie and come back, and then we will land it.”
The primary concept of operations, remote split operations, employs a launch-and-recovery ground control element for take-off and landing operations at the forward operating location, while the crew based in the United States executes command and control of the remainder of the mission via beyond-line-of-sight links.
Remote split operations result in a smaller number of personnel deployed to a forward location, consolidate control of the different flights in one location, and as such, simplify command and control functions as well as the logistical supply challenges for the weapons system.
That does not mean that the 62nd’s mission isn’t a critical one in Afghanistan.
“Without us here at JBAD, the planes don’t get airborne and the missions don’t fly,” said Steven. “The importance of that is, it keeps costs down for the Air Force. It allows them to deploy a few pilots to launch and recover 24-hour operations verses deploying dozens of pilots who have to fly the constant sorties.”
The basic crew for the Predator is a rated pilot to control the aircraft and command the mission, and an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and weapons as well as a mission coordinator, when required. The crew employs the aircraft from inside the ground control station via a line-of-sight data link or a satellite data link for beyond line-of-sight operations.
This basic configuration is often one not known or understood by those outside of the remotely piloted aircraft community.
“The misunderstood aspect of this is that people often use the word ‘drone,’” said Steven. “The Air Force doesn’t like that term because it implies autonomy. Our planes are not autonomous in any way, shape or form. At all times a pilot and a sensor operator are in control of that aircraft. There is no point in time where there isn’t a pilot in control.”
In fact, any kinetic strikes performed by MQ-1B Predators are more coordinated that many would expect.
“As an RPA pilot, I’ve been over the same target for a week, watching the same building, watching the same person, every day, building patterns of life. If I’ve been watching a target for 10 hours on just a one day alone, I know who’s in the area, what’s safe, what’s not safe, where children are, where the school is, where the mosque is, which buildings to avoid, and I know which people are the bad guys with utmost certainty. Any pilot or sensor operator that that takes control of the aircraft at any given time is intimately aware of the layout of the village or location.”
Sensor operators at the 62nd ERS Detachment 1 play an equally important role in the mission at Jalalabad.
“The sensor operators here act more as a copilot than they do a sensor operator. In the launch and recovery portion there’s no ISR to do,” said Steven. “They back us up when we do the engine run-ups. They scan temperatures, fluid levels and things like that. When we are airborne they are backing us up on making sure we are at appropriate air speeds for takeoffs and landings, checking altitudes, and boresighting lasers used for targeting.”
Stateside, the sensor operators are in control of the camera and help find and develop targets. Pilots and sensor operators work in unison to put the aircraft and camera in the best position possible to get the best view for ISR and weapons delivery.
“Stateside we’ll run the camera and track targets. Here, we’re more of a copilot,” said Senior Airman Adam, 62nd ERS Detachment 1, MQ-1B sensor operator. “We’re running checklists for the pilot, monitoring systems on the airplane and making sure everything is good to go, as well as calculating speeds and weights for the aircraft in flight.”
All in all, the 62nd ERS acts as the tip of the spear by monitoring and mitigating enemy activity without adding unnecessary human risk to U.S military personnel.
“Our mission is real,” said Steven. “We’re flying full-sized aircraft with live ordinance on board, taking care of the mission and eliminating threats to the American people.”