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CANDIDLY CREECH: A sit-down discussion with Brig. Gen. Stewart Hammonds on the future of the Air Force’s RPA mission

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stephen J. Collier
  • 432nd Wing/432 Air Expeditionary Wing PA

It’s not every day a community of Airmen working with a specific airframe like the MQ-9 can hear from its top general officer in the Air Force, and at one location in time like Creech. Public Affairs had an opportunity to sit down with Brig. Gen. Stewart Hammons, Air Force Director of Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities and one of the service’s top RPA advocates. Hammons provided some of his insights from the Headquarters Air Force level not only on the impact of REAPER SMOKE, but how he saw the future of the RPA enterprise going.

Public Affairs is providing the entirety of the interview below for readers to better understand the importance of the RPA mission into the future.

We’d like to get the strategic perspective from you, Sir, on the RPA enterprise. Your bio highlights you as one of the key RPA advocates for all of the Air Force with your background in both the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. How do you see this mission set from your vantage point?

That falls in one of the primary products in my portfolio which is to essentially look at where we are going with RPAs as well as our entire ISR asset portfolio, which includes RC-135s, RQ-4s, and U-2s, as well as where the Air Force trending, what its future force design is, and how that incorporates our current RPA force into our structure. It really ties into not only being a champion for RPAs, but really an honest broker of what we do and do not bring to the fight, and more specifically, the context of that fight. So whether it’s the competition phase, the crisis phase, or the conflict phase, each one of those has a different answer to them when it comes to these weapon systems.

When you think of what we’re doing here with REAPER SMOKE and what MQ-9s bring to the fight, what is it that you hope aircrews get out of this experience, especially as they move up the chain of command and onto the next levels of leadership?

So, REAPER SMOKE, and we’re not the only ones that do something like this in the RPA community – the exercise is really designed to do a couple of different things. First and foremost, it allows us to hone some of the tactical acumen that our crews have ready which are inherent to their training programs and where they are in their careers, but also an opportunity to take it to another level in a friendly competition event, in which competition builds a great deal of camaraderie. You’re going to walk away knowing people from the RPA enterprise and meeting people who you’ve never worked with before. You’re going to have conversations about what one base is doing that no one else was tracking, and that’s exactly how we start building out advanced tactics, techniques and procedures. And lastly, it’s a way for the community to come together and celebrate our victories and our losses and figure out, as a community, how to be better.

The future of the RPA enterprise runs right through your office sir, and the challenges and opportunities affecting RPAs may keep you up at night. With all this considered, what does the future of the Air Force’s RPA mission look like to you.

RPAs will be, in my opinion, part of our Air Force for years to come. The (Secretary of the Air Force) has already indicated how much he appreciates what remotely-piloted vehicles bring to the current fight and the strategic opportunity that allows and affords you what you need to do. Now, is that going to look like what we’re doing today? I can’t tell you that because the strategic environment and the context behind that is changing. Some of the things that we’re currently doing is we went into (U.S. European Command), and eventually into (U.S. Pacific Command); that’s going to be different than counter [violent extremist organization] missions we’ve been doing for the last 15 years. But that’s all part of our evolution, and as our RPA operators and subject matter experts, we need to continue to evolve with that strategic landscape.

So does it keep me up at night? No, it actually doesn’t, and the reason why I say that is the men and women that I’m out here with on REAPER SMOKE are the people who will be sitting in my chair 5-10 years from now and they will already have gone through this iteration; just like I did from the “1” to the “9,” there is a natural maturation process that works. So I know we’re growing the right people to come in and take this enterprise on moving forward. So the force development that we’ve actually gone down the pathway for our RPA operators means I can sleep at night because we’re going to have the right men and women leading this organization.

In reading our coverage on REAPER SMOKE, what is one, key thing you would want readers to take away from either what is going on at Creech this week, or the RPA mission in general?

I think the one thing I would love for readers to take away is just how diverse the RPA community is within our Total Force structure. When you look out here, we have organizations that span across roughly 20 states under our [Total Force Integration] relationship from California all the way out to New Jersey. And when people think about RPAs, they almost exclusively think Creech, with a second order effect of Cannon as (Air Force Special Operations Command) contributions to the mission, but there is a lot going on across our Total Force for this enterprise. It’s not just active-duty components sitting at select air force installations; it has much more holistic touchpoints across the Guard and Reserve Total Force, as well as the other bases that we stood up from the active duty side, like Hurlburt Field and Shaw [AFB] and Holloman [AFB], which was stood up when we moved training from Creech a number of years ago to Holloman. This is all part of the maturation of this weapon system, and I’m not sure people understand just how mature and imbedded we are with the TFI relationship as it exists today.