Busted, top 10 RPA myths debunked

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nadine Barclay
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Drones. The once harmless term has taken on new meaning in recent years largely due to miseducation, Hollywood dramatizations and their growing uses in non-military settings.

For the men and women of the remotely piloted aircraft enterprise who provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to combatant commanders around the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, dispelling myths associated with their mission is now a top priority.

1. Myth: Drones and RPAs are the same.

Fact: In today's mainstream media drones often refers to both small aerial capable vehicles with photo or video capabilities and, incorrectly, to U.S. Air Force RPAs.  In the U.S. Air Force inventory a remotely piloted aircraft requires aircrews to operate but don't have the capability to carry crews on board. Also in the USAF inventory, RPAs such as the Global Hawk are used to provide ISR data by recording imagery and are often incorrectly labeled as "drones."

2. Myth: RPAs fly themselves.

Fact: RPAs are flown by a pilot, with the assistance of a sensor operator for the entire duration of the flight. Additionally, for every RPA combat air patrol there are nearly 200 people supporting the mission in various capacities. This includes pilot, sensor operator, mission intelligence personnel; aircraft and communications maintainers; launch and recovery element personnel; and intelligence personnel conducting production, exploitation, and dissemination operations.

3. Myth: Military RPAs are used to spy on U.S. civilians.

Fact: The Air Force only flies RPAs in the United States for training purposes.  The only exception is with the appropriate level of coordination and approval RPAs can be used to support the aerial imagery needs of civil authorities in rare and urgent cases where local, state, or federal officials cannot use nonmilitary means of support. This level approval usually resides with the Secretary of Defense .

Additionally, the following guideline's structure how training flights work:
- Training is normally conducted in airspace over and near federal installations and unpopulated training ranges that have been set aside for that purpose.
- Information gathered during training missions that is relayed to ground stations is seldom retained after training operations.
- Any information retained after training missions is deleted shortly afterwards in accordance with regulations (typically no more than 90 days).
- During training missions, pilots and sensor operators are not applying or receiving the analytical support necessary to allow them to use imagery to identify individuals beyond gender and approximate age.

4. Myth: RPAs strike randomly.

Fact: The vast majority of the time, the Air Force's RPA fleet is used for ISR, not for strike activity. They are governed by the same procedures as other aircraft capable of employing weapons. RPAs are not 'unmanned,' and do not act autonomously to drop a weapon or choose a target. Human beings are an integral part of the system and will continue to be the decision makers. RPA pilots are not bound by a set timeline to strike a target; they spend days, weeks, and sometimes months observing the patterns-of-life of a subject and provide that information to the network of tactical personnel, intelligence members, databases and decision makers before any action is pursued. They are connected to a huge network of intelligence from multiple sources - including platforms, sensors, people and databases - to national decision makers, combatant commanders, and tactical level personnel. 

5. Myth: RPAs are made from alien technology and are flown from area 51.

Fact: The U.S. Air Force actually has a long history of unmanned flight and we are still learning new and better ways to fly.  We will continue to improve our methods of training, conducting operations and employing new weapon systems. The development and integration of unmanned aircraft represent a continuation of this trend and has been around since the early 1900s. 
The primary installations where RPAs are based and flown are Beale AFB, CA; Holloman AFB, NM; Creech AFB, NV; and Grand Forks AFB, ND.  There are additional Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard installations that are part of the distributed ground stations that support RPA flights and data analysis.

6. Myth: RPAs are unmanned and require less manpower to operate.

Fact:  In order to support ISR missions around the world, every RPA CAP requires the dedication of nearly 200 Airmen in various capacities to maintain 24/7, 365 day vigilance. The pilot, with the help of the sensor operator, fly the RPA for the entire duration of the mission. 

7. Myth: RPA pilots are just "gamers."

Fact: Our Airmen are trained to be the best pilots in the world, regardless of aircraft. Our fully qualified aircrews consistently exceed expectations for both flight safety and operational effectiveness. Like pilots in manned aircraft RPA pilots are required to meet the same qualifications. New RPA pilots undergo a very intense training program before they fly operational missions. This training curriculum lasts approximately one year, and many current Air Force RPA pilots and trainers have already completed undergraduate pilot training in manned aircraft as well.

8. Myth: Everyone in the RPA community suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Fact: According to a 2014 paper from the United Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, studies have shown that 4.3 percent of Air Force RPA operators report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is lower than the 4 to 18% of PTSD reported among those returning from the battlefield and lower than the projected lifetime risk of PTSD for Americans (8.7%, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, Creech Air Force Base established a Human Performance Team in 2011 comprised of an operational psychologist, an operational and aerospace physiologist, three flight surgeons and two Religious Support Teams to aid Airmen in dealing with stressors. 

9. Myth: RPA aircrews are not compassionate to the missions they perform.

Fact: Airmen performing RPA operations receive moral, ethical, psychological and physiological training to build readiness that is sustainable over time. The Air Force will continue to support combatant commanders with RPA missions while also focusing on initiatives that reduce stress on personnel and remain committed to providing the best care possible for every Airman, regardless of the career field with which they are associated.

10. Myth: RPAs will replace manned aircraft

Fact: According to Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark A. Welsh III, "the Air Force needs a number of platforms." He continued by saying this includes manned and unmanned assets to accomplish sustainable air supremacy.  "Air superiority is a mission. It's not a platform, it's a mission. So ideally, you'd have both tools available to you."

Despite the misconceptions surrounding the RPA enterprise Air Force leadership remain optimistic on the future capabilities RPAs can provide.

"What our RPA professionals are doing in today's fight and in preparing for future conflicts is simply incredible. RPAs and their operators are in the highest demand from our combatant commanders because of the situational awareness and strike capabilities that they enable. Despite being some of the newest weapon systems in the Air Force inventory, RPAs fulfill critical demands in every theater 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Gen. Hawk Carlisle, Air Combat Command commander.