Predator squadron commanders at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, the air force's primary training base for what it prefers to call remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) crews, are aware that demand for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator pilots may wane in coming years.
The US Air Force has stopped buying them and has notional plans to replace them with the larger, more powerful MQ-9 Reaper.
But escalating conflicts in the Middle East — namely the threat from Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria — have resuscitated demand for the MQ-1s currently in the inventory. The four-month training school at Holloman is therefore running apace of the steady need for operational unmanned strike and surveillance platforms, Predator and Reaper squadron commanders say.
The pipeline of UAS student pilots and sensor operators at Holloman has hardly stalled in anticipation of a drawdown from Afghanistan, says Lt Col Steven Beattie, commander of the 29th Attack Squadron at Holloman AFB.
“The air force is not buying MQ-1s, so there is a date out in the future somewhere where we’re going to have to start looking at something else completely,” he says. “Because the air force keeps moving that date out into the future, it has continued to be an uncertainty for us, but something that we are interested in and excited about.”
The air force believes it eventually will be more economical and logistically convenient to have a single airframe, namely the MQ-9, says Lt Col Jim Price, commander of the 6th reconnaissance squadron, also stationed at Holloman. But funding to replace the MQ-1 fleet is scarce.
The air force does not have enough money to replace its MQ-1s with more-capable MQ-9s, as much as pilots and commanders would like that to happen. So the Predator continues to fulfill demand from US combat commanders for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We do not have the budget now to replace all those aircraft,” he says. “The MQ-1s exist. They are there. They are bought. The reality is the air force would like to cut some of those airframes to save some money, but there is such a need in Africa, [southwest Asia], et cetera, for this airframe that the air force is continuing to use MQ-1 and continuing to move that date to the right” when the Predator will be phased out.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a more capable aircraft is almost every way than the MQ-1: it can fly faster and farther and stay aloft longer carrying more munitions. The notional date to discontinue the training pipeline for the Predator and funnel all new students into training to either pilot or operate sensors aboard the Reaper is 2017, Price said. The 2016 graduating class would simply be replaced the following year with only Reaper pilot and senior trainees.