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November 15, 2013

Two million flight hours tip of untapped RPA capabilities

LAS VEGAS. — Reaching 2 million flight hours for the remotely piloted aircraft community was just the beginning of the still untapped capabilities of the systems and program.

This feat continues to expand the future of the RPA community with infinite possibilities.

Col. James Cluff, 432nd Wing/Air Expeditionary Wing commander, said hitting a milestone with such significance as this, really highlights the tremendous potential of remotely piloted aircraft and its technology.

“For our allies, it is one more opportunity for combined operations and increased chances for interoperability,” he said. “It also highlights that the true strength of our military is our people – this achievement was a direct result of dedicated, innovative Airmen who were given a challenge and did not limit their thinking as they solved a problem. It proves that this is not an ‘unmanned’ system – very far from it. Our people made this possible.”

Misconceptions abound about the RPA community promoting the notion of using the RPA technology to replace current manned assets in the Air Force inventory.

“There is nothing further from the truth,” Cluff said. “Those of us who are part of this amazing enterprise are the first to admit that RPAs have limitations, and that there are some missions and mission areas where we are not capable. The RPA community is a complement to manned assets, not a replacement. We are just one more arrow in the joint warfighter’s quiver.”

When talking about the future of the program, Cluff said, as the community advances forward, it’s important to take what accomplishments have already been achieved and capitalize on those.

“The Marine Corps have used RPAs to move supplies around the battlefield; the Navy is starting to develop remotely piloted capability in order to defend ships,” he said. “We recently saw the use of an MQ-1 as a tool to help fight the Yosemite forest fire. While there are definitely some missions where the technology is not mature enough to use remotely piloted assets such as air-to-air combat, in other areas I think we are more limited by either our current fiscal challenges like air refueling for, or our cultural expectations, the transporting of personnel by unmanned vehicles, than we are by technology.”

The best way to reassure people that RPAs are not used to invade privacy, Cluff said, is by telling the RPA story and exposing citizens to the incredible capabilities.

“I think their fears are a direct result of not being accurately informed rather than as a result of any misdeeds by the military in our employment of this capability,” he said. “We are very cognizant of the federal law with respect to use of military intelligence assets inside the borders of the United States.”

Over the life time of the program, RPA’s have provided support not only to war time missions but have provided immense support to humanitarian operations.

“It would not have been possible for the U.S. Air Force to provide the amount of multi-role support that the joint warfighter needed without the use of remotely piloted aircraft,” Cluff said. “And without a doubt, those 2 million hours of RPA support have directly saved thousands of American and allied lives.

“It should not really surprise anyone that there are significant capabilities that RPAs bring to humanitarian operations. The U.S. military, active duty and the total force, has for years been able to use tools of warfare and adapt their use in order to save lives. Just like in wartime operations, RPAs are proving to be an outstanding complement to manned assets in the area of humanitarian relief and defense support to civil authorities,” he added.

As the role of the Air Force has changed during the last decade, so has the capability of RPA’s to adapt to the ever changing mission set that they face.

“I think the past 10 years have demonstrated that RPAs are a perfect match for the total force,” Cluff said. “The ability to fly combat/operational support missions from stateside allows our total force [Airmen] to continue to support our combatant commanders on a daily basis without having to leave home or be mobilized. Additionally, the use of an MQ-1 to help fight forest fires, as well as recent use of an MQ-9 to perform search and rescue, demonstrates how valuable of an asset RPAs can be for a state beyond just being a combat asset. They are truly multi-role assets, and I fully expect more and more governors to request RPA units and capability for their states.”

Editor’s note: This article is part four of a four-part series.




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