Paradigm Shift: A Year in Review

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jeffrey A. Weiler
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

“We must be ready to dare all for our country. For history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid. We must acquire proficiency in defense and display stamina in purpose.” - President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Moments of transitions are often noted with a mixture of pain, joy, and anticipation, and the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) community seems to have found itself at such a point in the last few months. Be it known as Operation Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel, or Enduring Sentinel, the Air Force’s embedded role in the nation of Afghanistan has come to an end. In doing so, a rather significant chapter in the history of the U.S. Air Force’s RPA community has also ended. At the beginning of the war, the humble MQ-1 Predator was too slow, flew too low, and carried an unimpressive amount of munitions compared to any other armed combat aircraft in the American inventory. But as the War on Terror unfolded, so did the viability of RPA operations on the modern battlefield.

Aircraft built before most of us were born and designed to destroy whole columns of Soviet tanks, bomb well-fortified command posts, and decimate formations of supersonic interceptors slowly became obsolete. These aircraft were ill-equipped to provide timely, accurate, and highly contained kinetics inside a dynamic urban environment half a world away. They were also wholly incapable of providing hours, days, or even months of intelligence gathering required to enable such a controlled strike; but the RPA could. With a lower price point, longer loiter time, and a plethora of other wartime conveniences, the modest MQ-1 had finally found its war.

As the fight against terrorism spread to new lands across Asia and Africa, a bulked-up RPA, the MQ-9 Reaper, entered the fray. The enemy learned to the silence of unmanned systems rather than the roar of fighter aircraft. But now, at this moment of transition, we find ourselves sobering up to the realities of peacetime service. Namely, how do we prepare for the next war? We have to rigorously transform the way we train and fight.

The rivals we now face are not impressed with our aircraft; they have a modern air force of their own. They also have territories defended by networks of air defenses we cannot overfly, out-stick, or counter. And if for some reason they were bothered enough by our fleet to act directly against us, they also possess the ability to disrupt the electromagnetic spectrum or destroy satellites.

There should be no doubt that open conflict with such a rival would be costly for both sides and likely bloodier than anything we have seen as a service in over half a century. For RPA employment experts to counter such threats, we need to expand our training profiles. This expansion should include integrated flight maneuvers with manned fighter escorts, working with industry partners to field both self-protection suites, and hardened multisource links for our RPA systems. In the short term, we must come to grips that we can no longer stand alone inside enemy airspace.

Theatre survivability, however, is only the start; it must also be complemented with combat viability. We must move away from a blind focus on kinetic effects. We will go far not by replacing our aircraft’s multi-mission role with an attack or fighter aircraft but by embracing and expanding its multi-mission abilities across the current battlefield.

To that end, over the last 12 months, Air Combat Command’s (ACC) MQ-9 community has rotated its flying squadrons off combat lines. These crews drilled a series of mission sets all but foreign to the operational RPA community: namely air interdiction (AI), strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR), and air operations in maritime surface warfare (AOMSW). These profiles allowed crews to focus on tasks for a possible future that looks quite different from the counter-terrorism missions we’ve faced over the last two decades.

With our nation’s forays in the wilds of Asia drawing down, we have handed over many of the overseas airfields that previously allowed us to project combat airpower across most of Southwest Asia easily. The MQ-9 has been tasked to provide sustained ISR collection and timely kinetics to portions of the Central Command’s area of responsibility (AOR). We no longer have ground-based support or suitable airfields for hundreds of miles in any direction. The economy of our aircraft, long leveraged for near indefinite loiter times above high-value targets, is now being used to provide extended-range conventional air support. This eliminates the commitment of a similarly capable manned asset, along with the airborne tankers necessary to drag them to target and back. This opportunity has provided our community with the needed motivation to train in proper transit procedures in civil airspace and ensure safe separation from civilian traffic in airspace devoid of basic air traffic control mechanisms.

These shifts in our training regimen raised our ability to perform these new missions and helped build essential combat mission planning fundamentals. Crews now routinely craft their routing, select appropriate airfields, and mitigate or neutralize threats not commonly found in our traditional AORs. While crucial to the evolution and continued viability of the MQ-9, this flexibility in training areas is not the destination. Instead, this is an important step towards a wide array of possible combat support operations for our airframe. Manned aircraft have known and been preparing for this eventuality since the invention of combat airpower; now, after two decades of near-ceaseless focus on counter-insurgency (COIN), it’s our turn.

Our largely COIN-based, Hellfire-driven employment model needs to be placed on the back burner. Distinct and diverse mission sets will allow our weapon system to advance and reach worldwide relevance in an interwar period. As our community enters its second year of reconstitution, we need to refine our current mission sets and experiment with missions sets suspected to be “beyond our competency.”

The most significant possibility for our success as an enterprise will likely come not from imitating our manned aircraft counterparts but from devising our approaches to future conflicts. Think of it this way: a slick MQ-9 has seven hardpoints on its exterior and up to 70 pounds of ballast on its interior. What else could we put there? Self-protection systems, jamming pods, air-to-air missiles, sonar buoys, even sensors to detect the enrichment of nuclear material from rogue nations, private entities, or what the National Defense Strategy calls “revisionist powers.”

While we are just now focusing on surviving in the next possible conflict, we can employ our airframe in real-time to any of the unified combatant commands to help prevent the next possible shooting war. With the ever-changing balance of power across the world, practically any geopolitical coalition is possible. In the coming years, we could see the MQ-9 flying counter-submarine warfare missions out of Vietnam’s Da Nang Airfield, this time in support of the communist government, attempting to counter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Or perhaps working with the U.S. Marine Corps to construct, defend, and man a litany of island-based airfields across the breadth of the Indo-Pacific. While not the sexiest of missions in the Air Force, the ability to rebalance geopolitical conditions in our nation’s favor can help serve the national interests between our present state and a future technological point where we can be reasonably expected to survive inside contested airspace. At the very least, the MQ-9 can make the price of starting a new shooting war so high as to all but prevent open aggression amongst our long-time global competitors.

The possibilities are limited only by our willingness to experiment with the latest technology, mission sets, and tactics. This can be accomplished in the field and the emerging training platforms of both augmented and virtual reality. Technology will allow our crews to constantly test and refine their approaches to the emerging threats and conflicts of the next generation’s turn at The Great Game.