USAF Retrofits Reapers with extended range/endurance kits

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The contractor for the famed MQ-9 Reaper has announced that it conducted successful test flights with retrofits designed to increase the unmanned aircraft’s endurance.

The retrofits for the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range (ER) Long Wing, as General Atomics calls it, include a 13-foot wingspan extension that takes the expanse of its wings to 79 feet, greater internal fuel capacity and hard points for carrying external stores. The improvements will increase the Reaper’s flight endurance from 27 hours to 40 hours, General Atomics said in a release. Other improvements include short-field takeoff and landing performance and spoilers on the wings to enable precision automatic landings.

“Predator B ER’s new 79-foot wing span not only boosts the RPA’s endurance and range, but also serves as proof-of-concept for the next-generation Predator B aircraft that will be designed for Type-Certification and airspace integration,” said Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics. “The wing was designed to conform to STANAG 4671 [NATO Airworthiness Standard for RPA systems], and includes lightning and bird strike protection, non-destructive testing, and advanced composite and adhesive materials for extreme environments.”

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Pentagon shutters African drone base, moves aircraft to other hot spots

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The Pentagon has closed a drone base in Africa and moved the unmanned aircraft to other locations as it strains to cope with a surge in demand for drones from military commanders fighting the Islamic State and other militant groups.

The U.S. military has stopped flying unarmed Reaper drones from an airfield in Ethi­o­pia that had served as a key hub since 2011 for collecting surveillance on al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate in neighboring Somalia, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops and contractors packed up the Reaper drones and dismantled their small base of operations in the southern city of Arba Minch in September. But the move was kept quiet until last weekend, when U.S. diplomats confirmed it in a report by an Ethio­pian news website.

U.S. officials were vague about why they decided to end the drone flights. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, said the United States and Ethi­o­pia “reached a mutual decision that our presence in Arba Minch is not required at this time.”

Katherine Diop, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital, added in an email that “it is important to know that our presence in Arba Minch was never meant to be permanent.” A spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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Newport News, VA and Tuscon, AZ Should Seek New Opportunities with USAF $3B Drone Expansion Plan

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The Air Force wants to vastly expand its drone program over the next five years by doubling the number of pilots and deploying them to bases around the country to give commanders better intelligence and more firepower.

Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — which stands to lose its biggest mission amid efforts to retire the A-10 ground-attack jet — is mentioned as a possible site for expanded drone operations.

Besides Davis-Monthan, those considered most likely sites for the program include Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, California; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near Honolulu; and Langley Air Force Base near Newport News, Virginia.

The $3 billion drone expansion plan, which must be approved by Congress, was unveiled Thursday after months of study that focused on a drone pilot force that commanders have described as overworked, undermanned and under appreciated.

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Air Force proposes $3-billion plan to vastly expand its drone program

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The Air Force wants to vastly expand its drone program over the next five years by doubling the number of pilots and deploying them to bases in California and elsewhere to give commanders better intelligence and more firepower.

The $3-billion plan, which must be approved by Congress, was unveiled Thursday after months of study that focused on a drone pilot force that commanders have described as overworked, undermanned and underappreciated.

The proposed expansion comes as the Pentagon has intensified airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Pilots and crews who operate the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have struggled to meet a rising demand for aerial surveillance of war zones and other hot spots.

“Right now, 100% of the time, when a MQ-1 or MQ-9 crew goes in, all they do is combat,” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations. “So we really have to build the capacity.”

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USAF buys more Block 30 GCS.. spinning up for increased Combat Air Patrols

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General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems Inc., Poway, California, has been awarded a $32,326,408 delivery order (0010) to previously awarded contract FA8620-15-G-4040 for Block 30 ground control station production undefinitized contract action effort.

Work will be performed at Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by June 30, 2018. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. Fiscal 2015 aircraft procurement funds in the amount of $16,151,200 are being obligated at the time of award.

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Air Force hires contracted drone pilots for combat patrols; critics “drone on” about legality

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The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions.

For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls “combat air patrols,” daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.

Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand that to 10 a day by 2019. Each patrol involves up to four drones.

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USAF struggles to fill drone pilot seats

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Deep in the 60,000 acres of desert on this desolate air base, past a billboard that shows a Predator soaring in the sky, lies a high-security compound where America’s drone pilots learn to hunt and kill from half a world away.

But “the Farm,” as the little-known Air Force boot camp is known, faces a crisis.

Experienced pilots and crews complain of too much work, too much strain and too little chance for promotion operating the Predator and Reaper drones that provide surveillance and that fire missiles in Iraq, Syria and other war zones. Partly as a result, too few young officers want to join their ranks.

The Air Force has struggled with a drone pilot shortage since at least 2007, records show. In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force trained 180 new pilots while 240 veterans left the field.

“It’s extremely stressful and extremely difficult,” said Peter “Pepe” LeHew, who retired in 2012 and joined private industry. He called the work, which sometimes involved flying surveillance in one country in the morning and bombing another in the afternoon, “mentally fatiguing.”

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GA-ASI building training school for drone operators

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GRAND FORKS, N.D., Sept. 23 (UPI) — General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. says it is to open a training academy on Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota for operators of its remotely piloted aircraft.

A 10-year lease for its site has been signed and ground breaking is expected soon, with operations beginning next year.

“The mission of the GA-ASI Training Academy is to increase the overall capacity for flight crew training on our aircraft systems,” said Linden P. Blue, GA-ASI chief executive officer. “The Training Academy will complement our customers’ organic training capabilities and fill the growing need across our RPA enterprise to address the pilot shortage.”

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NM Senator Senses Opportunity for NM Drone Pilot Training Jobs

Drone operators fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in this U.S. Air Force handout photo taken October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Airman 1st Class Michael Shoemaker/USAF/Handout

Drone operators fly an MQ-9 Reaper training mission from a ground control station at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday expressing concern over the Pentagon’s plans to dramatically increase drone flights over the next four years amid a drone pilot shortfall.

“There is indeed a need for broadened surveillance and intelligence collection, but I remain very concerned that the anticipated growth is unsustainable without corresponding growth in recruitment, training, and retention,” he wrote in a Sept. 1 letter.

Heinrich is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and represents Holloman Air Force Base and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, which he said are the nation’s premier drone pilot training locations.
Last month, the Pentagon confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that it was planning to increase by 50 percent the number of daily drone flights to cover hotspots including Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, the South China Sea and North Africa.

Heinrich in his letter also urged the Pentagon to complete a report on how it will rectify drone pilot shortfalls.

The senator included language in the 2016 defense policy bill requiring the Air Force to submit a report on drone pilot manning policies and actions the Air Force will take to rectify personnel shortfalls, such as recruitment and retention bonuses, incentive pay, using enlisted personnel, and considerations for promotion.

He also noted in his letter that the Air Force was losing drone pilots faster than it could train new ones, and the force is already stretched thin.

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National Guard Predator Drones Support Rim Fire Firefighters in Cali

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On August 28, 2013, an MQ-1 Predator drone took off from March Air Reserve Base in Southern California and headed north. The Predator’s mission was to provide aerial imagery to support almost 4,000 firefighters battling the Rim Fire, which by then had burned 160,000 acres and was only 20 percent contained. According to a report by the Forest Service, the Predator flew 150 hours in support of the firefighters, identifying the locations where the fire had spread and mapping the perimeter of the blaze. The Predator was operated by the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard, one of dozen or so national guard units across the country that fly military-grade drones.

The Rim Fire was the first time that an Air National Guard Predator or Reaper drone had been used for a domestic mission. More recently, on July 29, California’s 163rd dispatched an MQ-9 Reaper drone to help find Ed Cavanaugh, a schoolteacher and outdoorsman who had gone missing in California’s El Dorado National Park. “This technology allows us to provide persistent coverage of the search area in support of our partner agencies,” Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California’s Adjutant General, said in a statement. In the end, the Reaper did not help find the man.

A growing number of National Guard units from other states besides California are flying drones. In addition to the units that fly the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, many Army National Guard units are training to fly smaller tactical drones like the RQ-7 Shadow. “You can accomplish the mission of saving lives and then go to your 9-year-old’s soccer game,” Colonel Dana Hessheimer, commander of California’s 163rd, said in an interview with Grizzly. In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has come to rely on the Air National Guard units to staff Predator or Reaper surveillance missions over Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these units are now wondering why these drones can’t be put to greater use at home.

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