Piecing the puzzle together, RPAs provide crucial CAP capabilities: Planning the mission

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

 It’s a common myth that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA’s) such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper fly themselves as autonomous super machines. Another misconception surrounding RPA’s is the aircraft require only a single pilot and sensor operator to function.

In fact, the RPA enterprise of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers is maintained or operated by multiple Air Force Specialty Codes, each one playing a key role in supporting every combat air patrol (CAP) thus enabling combatant commanders access to 24/7/365 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

All together more than 30 AFSC’s contribute to making one CAP possible.

A CAP is essentially having an aircraft in the air providing the joint combatant commanders with dominant ISR and real-time munitions capability at all times. Today, the RPA enterprise flies a total of 60 CAPs in a 24-hour period requiring thousands of Airmen from pilots and sensor operators to maintainers, intelligence personnel, and weather.

Planning the mission

Before the RPA capability can be utilized, an authorization order must first be given from a joint combatant commander. From there the order falls down the chain of command until it reaches a squadron director of operations (DO) or operations superintendent.

The DO will work with the wing operations center (WOC) to ensure all logistical necessities are in place in order to complete the specific mission order.

“Mission planning in a new area of responsibility (AOR) can be intense and require additional documentation such as airspace control plans, air operations directives, air tasking orders, and rules of engagements,” said Lt. Col. Ronnie, 42nd Attack Squadron DO. “It would be my job as well as other shops to disseminate these documents. I’m also responsible for ensuring the squadron is fully manned and ready to operate in combat 24/7/365.”

The DO is also accountable for the weapons and tactics shop, scheduling, training, plans and programs, and squadron aviation resource managers.

According to Ronnie, all these shops, while different, each ensure the mission completion by validating the proper weapons are chosen to meet mission requirements, the crews have the proper training to use those weapons, and the correct aircrew is flying and has the necessary flight requirements.

“Before we can even plan a mission, we first have to figure out where we’re going to get the manpower needed to fly the aircraft,” said Maj Steven, 432nd Wing WOC deputy director. “After that we have to coordinate a launch and recovery site, the ground control stations, and get planes to the location.”

Once the mission logistics are good to go, intelligence Airmen must ensure the aircrew has the necessary qualifications and information to fly in the AOR.

“When we go into a new AOR we have to first make sure the aircrew is qualified to operate in that location,” said Senior Airman Aaron, 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing intelligence evaluator. “After that’s done, then we can began to gather the necessary information to fly a successful mission.”

At this point, a mission support analyst (MSA) collects information to have situational awareness of the overall environment. Information included is the type of mission, specific targets (if any), combatant groups, common practices and beliefs of said groups, the terrain, and overall geographic familiarization and more.

With this information in hand, the MSA briefs the pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence coordinator, to ensure the aircrew is aware of anything specific to the operating environment that could hinder or help mission success.

“We, as intel[ligence personnel], must make sure that the aircrew and supported units flying the mission are completely aware of everything that could hurt or help the mission so we can get the job done,” Aaron said.

Also during this briefing, a mission control element (MCE) made up of the pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence coordinator, discuss information provided by the MSA as well as tactics, techniques and procedures, and safety checklists. They ensure everyone in the MCE is physically and emotionally able to fly the mission.

Once the mission is planned, weather Airmen must step in. Gathering the latest and most up to date information they determine if it’s safe for the aircraft to fly.

According to Senior Master Sgt. Ken, 432nd Operations Support Squadron weather flight superintendent, compared to a fighter, bomber, or airline aircraft, RPA’s can be just as, if not more susceptible to inclement weather. 

With the mission planning portion of the CAP complete, five AFSC’s and even more shops have been involved in starting a CAP. Each one adding their own instrumental piece to the puzzle that makes global RPA operations a reality, ultimately eliminating enemy combatants and saving American and coalition lives downrange.

(Editor’s note: The last names of certain individuals in this story have been removed for security reasons.)