CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --
New developments in Satellite Launch and Recovery (SLR) and Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC) are underway at the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing to revamp remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations.
With the introduction of ATLC-enabled SLR, crews can start, taxi, takeoff and land MQ-9 Reapers from a geographically separated location, reducing the need to place aircrew and equipment in contested environments. This capability is a key enabler for Agile Combat Employment (ACE).
ACE is intended to ensure Airmen are ready for contingencies and can operate from locations with varying levels of capacity and support, ensuring Airmen and aircrew are postured to provide lethal combat power across the spectrum of military operations. Under the ACE construct, we are able to operate from a base, fly out to accomplish the mission and then land at another base depending on what the mission needs. This gives us the best flexibility when executing operations.
MQ-9 Reaper operations are transitioning from the “Legacy” way to the new ATLC-enabled SLR to better support ACE efforts. Currently, forward-deployed line-of-sight launch and recovery elements as well as geographically separated mission control elements are needed to operate MQ-9s in a concept called remote split operations.
Launch and recovery elements include the ground control stations (cockpits), ground data terminals and other equipment needed for takeoff and landing and have a significant logistical footprint. Line-of-sight links are used for manual takeoff and landing due to the time delay in the satellite link. Mission control elements house the pilot and sensor operator operating the aircraft.
“By transitioning to an SLR capability, it will allow us to reduce the footprint downrange and give us more flexibility in how we use the MQ-9 by eliminating the need for [ground data terminals, line-of-sight and launch and recovery elements], and creating new airfields MQ-9 Reapers can divert to,” said Lt. Col. David, 489th Attack Squadron director of operations.
In place of cockpits and ground data terminals, portable aircraft control stations (PACS) will be used. PACS is the system maintenance uses to get the aircraft started and transfer the control to the aircrew for ATLC-enabled SLR. In place of launch and recovery elements, ATLC will enable remote aircrew to takeoff and land the aircraft via autopilot. Aircrew will still supervise all flight and ground operations and can intervene immediately if an unsafe or nonstandard situation arises.
SLR, ATLC and PACS will change how the MQ-9 will be employed in theaters worldwide. With this new capability, new logistics and training are being developed and assessed to determine their effectiveness and efficiency to accomplish the mission.
“Everyone’s been tackling this SLR from different angles,” said Capt. Victor, 489th Attack Squadron flight chief of combat operations. “We have proven the concept, but now we must ascertain the logistics.”
Because the transition involves multiple squadrons and different areas of prior expertise, logistical planning is advancing with prudency. Training is being reworked for new and current aircrew and maintenance Airmen. To date, most MQ-9 aircrew have never launched or landed a Reaper.
“What we’re working toward is with the ACE concept—the ability to refuel, rearm our aircraft, and using a smaller footprint—hopefully makes a more dynamic set of support Airmen who can do that,” said David.
Furthering ACE also expands partner nation capabilities, reduces deployment requirements, enhances interoperability and develops opportunities for strategic access.
By participating in Red Flag, a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise, Airmen evaluated SLR capabilities to further refine this RPA paradigm shift in a realistic, dynamic scenario. Future exercises and training events will incorporate SLR at an increasing rate.
The 432d Wing, along with other wings from across the Total Force will continue maturing and expanding SLR over the course of the coming year, ultimately ceasing all manual takeoff and landing operations at a future date to be determined.