MQ-1s, MQ-9s provide ‘buddy lase’ capability against ISIL

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CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev.—As U.S. Central Command approaches the two year anniversary of supporting Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the Airmen of the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing reflect on their contributions using the remotely piloted MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

The OIR campaign is a U.S. Central Command and partner nation’s endeavor conducting targeted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as part of the comprehensive strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL.

The 432nd WG has tirelessly provided persistent attack and reconnaissance capability to this operation with precision and professionalism.

“Our long endurance time allows us to build and maintain long-term situational awareness on the battlefield,” said Lt. Col. James, a 432nd Wing squadron commander.

While the MQ-1 and MQ-9 mission in Iraq and Syria initially focused on information gathering and battlespace awareness, the 432nd Wing’s involvement quickly evolved, providing a persistent attack capability due to the precision effects provided by the MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircraft. Escalating in parallel with their own strikes from the MQ-1/9, the 432 WG has also provided a significant number of ‘buddy lases.’

The term ‘buddy lase’ is used to describe a situation in which a laser-equipped aircraft provides the final guidance for a laser-guided weapon (LGM) delivered by another aircraft.

“At first we were asked to buddy lase due to us having more target awareness,” said James. “As our success rate [buddy lasing] stayed high, we were asked by certain units to continue because they knew they could trust our performance.”

Partnering with other aircraft and ground forces, like Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), has become a common practice that allows the wing to debunk misperceptions surrounding the MQ-1 and MQ-9 capabilities with sister services and coalition forces.

“We work hard every day to provide the best the Air Force has to offer,” said Senior Airman Travis, 432nd Wing sensor operator. “We provide a service that is unmatched and is very versatile in the war on terrorism.”

To date, buddy lasing has allowed MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews to partner with other U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy platforms to include: the B-1B Lancer, A-10 Warthog, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Viper, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier.

“This technique has proven to increase the probability of success and it also offers more flexibility to the JTAC and ground force commander,” said Captain Grant, 432nd Wing MQ-1 pilot.

Known for its ability to operate in austere conditions, coupled with the location of operations, and the need to provide ISR capabilities, MQ-1 aircrews were chosen to provide assistance when the risk to other aircraft was too great or they were not suited for such conditions.

“It [buddy lasing] enables rapid precision effects with laser munitions,” said James. “Many of our buddy lases were performed with us below the cloud decks with the fighter above the clouds. This reduced the manned assets risk to enemy fire while still utilizing their munitions.”

The attack squadron buddy lased 196 LGMs on moving objects striking 353 targets on the battlefield. The small Air Force unit from the 432nd WG has also achieved success in the fight against ISIL by deploying its own munitions.

“We fly the most MQ-1 lines of any AF squadron and all are in OIR,” said James. “We executed 170 hellfire strikes in 2015 with a 90 percent success rate with 230 targets neutralized.”

Still, performing such a complex maneuver to achieve military objectives does not come without its own unique challenges.

“Challenges that I have encountered during a buddy lase scenario include communication, unpredictable enemies, and sometimes the stress of knowing friendly forces are very close,” said Captain Ahmad, 432nd WG MQ-1 instructor pilot.

Like with every military campaign, training and safety remain at the forefront to ensure the least amount of collateral damage is inflicted while achieving mission success.

Training requirements associated with buddy lasing such as aircraft placement, de-confliction between designator and shooter, laser missile codes, and communication between multiple aircraft in the airspace are standard training at all levels.

“It’s important we train on these aspects to further improve ourselves and each other with practice missions within these scenarios,” said Senior Airman Shawn, 432nd Wing sensor operator. 

Still, developing the skills needed to buddy lase takes experience. Airmen assigned to buddy lase have learned through repetition and have performed an average of 10 to 16 missions each.

“The repetition of the daily mission takes a toll on our young Airmen, but they are resilient, and their professionalism and dedication yields consistent results,” said James. “We have the youngest MQ-1 squadron in the Air Force, and yet our young and inexperienced crews continue to perform well under stressful conditions.”

The experiences gained by performing buddy lase missions in the MQ-1 and MQ-9 community is something Airmen take great pride in.

“The best part of my job is that I find, track, target and engage those who would see the U.S. and her allies harmed,” said Shawn. “I protect those who cannot protect themselves, to be the eyes, ears and voice over the battle field.”

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