Area Air National Guard pilots fly drones overseas
- Published: September 12, 2013
This is the first in a two-part series of articles on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the Miami Valley.
You won’t see any Predator drones when you enter the Ohio Air National Guard base at the Springfield-Beckley airport. The sleek white aircraft that stands 7 feet tall, has a wingspan of almost 50 feet and resembles a giant pale insect, won’t be parked on a runway.
But one of the guard base’s most critical missions is flying drones that are participating in American military action somewhere on the other side of the world. About 214 of the base’s 882 guardsman, those with the 178th Fighter Wing Reconnaissance Group, are involved with the drone operations.
The technology involved in flying the unmanned aircraft remains mind boggling to base commander Colonel Gregory Schnulo.
“You move a stick in Springfield and an aircraft on the other side of the world turns,” he said in a recent interview.
The Air Force would prefer that the unmanned aircraft are not referred to as drones, which implies that they operate autonomously, according to Schnulo. Rather, the Air Force’s preferred term is Remote Piloted Aircraft, or RPA, since a human being is actually at the controls, he said. However, “drone” is the term that most people associate with the unmanned aerial vehicles, which are also known as UAVs.
While you won’t find actual drones on the base, what you will find are many buildings that appear to be new, and several that are under construction and are partly related to the drone mission.
“There’s a lot of growth here, and that’s always good,” Master Sargeant Joseph Stahl, 178th Fighter Wing public affairs superintendent, said last month.
In fact, the base is becoming a major economic driver in this area, with 362 full-time employees among its 882 guard members, (including 11 from Yellow Springs). And the base is currently spending about $17 million in federal and state funds on new construction and renovations, according to Stahl.
The new period of growth at the base follows a period of great instability. The Springfield OANG since 1999 has been in the business of training fighter pilots, but that job was taken away by the 2005 BRAC, or base realignment commission, which mandated that the pilot training project end in 2010. Until the base acquired its new missions, its continued existence seemed in doubt, according to a July 17, 2010, article in the Springfield News Sun.
But intense support from elected and local officials for maintaining the base’s jobs led to its being chosen by the Air National Guard as the home of two new and robust missions.
The largest of these is the 178th Fighter Wing Intelligence group, whose 300 guardsmen partner with Wright Patterson National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC, to provide technical, geographical and space-related intelligence.
The second is the Reconnaissance Group, which operates two Predator drone missions. And putting the two groups together gives the Springfield base considerable prestige, according to Schnulo.
“Doing both the Predator and Intel is unique,” he said “There’s no other wing in the Air National Guard that does what we do, and no one in the Air Force.”
Currently, the Springfield base is one of only eight Air National Guard bases nationwide flying the drones, and the first in Ohio, according to Stahl.
After the instability of losing the jet training mission, the base now feels on firm footing.
“I think things are close to being stabilized now,” Schnulo said. “The last piece is completing the construction.”
One of the current construction projects is upgrading a building to house the drone operations. The base is spending about $6 million of federal funds on the project, which should be completed by the end of the year.
When it’s finished, the building will be “one of the premier Predator buildings in the U.S. Air Force,” according to base civil engineer Robert Toney in a news release.
And the base will soon spend $7.2 million in federal funds to convert an existing building to support the intelligence mission, with construction slated to begin next year.
Due to the security needs of both groups, the base is also rerouting State Route 794, a $2 million project managed by the Ohio Department of Transportation that should be finished in December. The rerouting was necessary to bring the road in line with “anti-terrorism/force protection clearance requirements,” according to a base news release — basically, the road was too close to the base.
The Springfield OANG base is one component in an effort by Miami Valley development leaders to make drone research, testing and development a centerpiece of local economic development. Other major players in the effort are Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Sinclair Community College, SAIC, the Dayton Development Coalition, Wright State University, the city of Springfield and the University of Dayton.
Spearheaded by the Dayton Development Coalition’s efforts, local leaders see the drone industry as potentially a huge economic driver in the Miami Valley. According to the Teal Corporation, the industry is expected to double its worldwide spending over the next decade, from about $6.6 billion to almost $12 billion.
And while military missions are what keep the local OANG base vital to national security, its main purpose remains delivering help during emergencies or any sort of crisis to Ohioans, according to Schnulo.
“Our primary mission is to support the citizens of Ohio,” he said, giving as an example last summer’s heat wave, when guardsmen knocked on doors in Dayton to make sure that residents were all right. “What we do is to support the people in the state.”
Drones operate from Springfield
The 178th Fighter Wing Reconnaissance mission began a little more than a year ago out of Springfield, after pilots finished extensive training. Currently, the team’s 214 members include 78 full-time workers, among them pilots and sensor operators who work in teams flying two drone missions 24/7 in unspecified areas of American military involvement.
In the past decade, drones have played an increasingly significant role in the American war on terrorism, both overt and covert. While former President George W. Bush authorized about 50 drone strikes during his eight years in office, President Obama has authorized five times that many in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during his first four years in office, according to a 2012 paper by Micah Zenko of the Council of Foreign Relations. The strikes, believed now to top 400, have killed about 3,430 people, most of whom are identified as terrorists by the military, according to Zenko.
Because they are operated remotely, the aircraft dramtically cuts down the loss of American lives. And they also offer other advantages over traditional military aircraft, Admiral Dennis Blair stated in a June 2013 interview with NBC News. Admiral Blair said that with drones, “you more effectively identify and target terrorists than with other types of aircraft.”
But much of the time, the aircraft are used for surveillance only, according to Col. Schnulo.
“If a group of American soldiers is getting ready to go to sleep, they feel more secure if there’s a Predator watching,” he said.
Asked where the drones operated by the Springfield OANG are flying, Schnulo and Stahl said they did not know, and referred the question to OANG communications officer James Simms. Simms said he is not allowed to say, nor to clarify whether the Springfield aircraft are flying in areas of overt or covert military operation.
“I can tell you they’re engaged, but I can’t tell you where,” he said. “We are involved in a number of missions around the world.”
The pilots and sensor operatators who operate the aircraft do not decide how and where they’re used, according to Simms.
“Those decisions are made at a much higher level than the operators,” he said.
While the Predator does not drop bombs, it carries two Hellfire missiles.
“They can kill or take out small vehicles,” Schnulo said.
The number of civilians killed by drones in areas of covert and overt warfare is unknown, with the Obama administration claiming that because drone strikes are more precise than those of manned planes, civilian deaths from drone strikes over the past decade number in “the single digits,” according to Senator Dianne Feinstein during the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan earlier this year.
However, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or BIJ, a British nonprofit that has been tracking the drone strikes, the United States from 2006 to 2009 in Pakistan killed about 147 civilians, including 94 children. That number was reported by Democracy Now July 23 of this year, and came from a leaked Pakistani government report on drone-related deaths. The numbers were reported by tribal leaders, according to the report.
The BIJ recently received the Martha Gelman Journalism Prize for its work covering the covert drone operations.
In May, President Obama announced that the CIA would cut back its use of drones in Pakistan and other covert areas of operation, a policy change partly linked to increasing criticism from the Pakistani government over civilian deaths.
The local base has not felt any effect of the recently announced Obama administration intention to cut back on drone use in Pakistan, Schnulo said.
However, while the unmanned aircraft may be used less in Pakistan in the future, they are playing a larger role in the American war in Afghanistan, and are killing more civilians there, according to a May 30, 2013, article in the National Journal. According to the article, while Afghan and NATO forces were responsible for fewer civilian deaths in 2012 than in previous years, the number of civilians killed by drones rose substantially. American troops made 506 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2012, up from 294 the year before, and killed an estimated 126 Afghan civilians last year, including 52 children.
However, Col. Schnulo of the Springfield base stated that he is comfortable with the many safeguards Predator operators use to prevent civilian deaths.
“It’s a high priority to prevent it,” he said. “There are so many checks and balances.”
Overall, he said, because the unmanned aircraft adds increased capability to the American military and cuts down on American deaths, he does not have concerns about their use.
While the aircraft operators are no longer in physical danger, they still face considerable challenges, Schnulo said. The Predator mission operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with operators in an enclosed space for long hours without breaks. Much of the work around drones is monotonous, according to Col. Schnulo, such as flying the plane in circles to provide reconnaissance for American troops.
“Truthfully, it’s not a mission for everyone,” Schnulo said. “You’re sitting in a box for a long period of time, and 99 percent of the work is mundane, flying in circles. Most of the time, they’re told, ‘go fly over this area’ but they don’t know why.”
The base, which employs a chaplain and a director of psychological health, does its best to support the Reconnaissance team.
“Our goal is to wrap our resources around them,” he said.
Because drone operations are highly classified, the pilots were not available to speak to the media, according to Stahl, who said that even as the base’s public relations superintendent, he is not allowed into the area where drone operators work.
While the base’s Reconnaissance group receives the most attention due to the interest in drones, the 178th Fighter Wing Intelligence segment is actually larger and equally important to national security, Col. Schnulo said. The group’s presence in Springfield is a critical piece in the area’s growing military-related economy.
“The appetite for intelligence just keeps getting bigger,” he said.
It’s the combination of the intelligence and reconnaissance missions at the base that makes Schnulo optimistic that the base is on solid footing.
And both the military and civilian worlds are just beginning to grasp the capabilities of the unmanned aircraft, he believes. As a guard commander, he’s excited about the drones’ potential use doing reconnaissance during natural disasters, for just one example. And the potential uses of the unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes is huge, he said.
“Everyone can see already how much RPAs can do,” he said. “Everyone is scrambling to build the best ones and to get them out the fastest.”
And much of that scrambling is taking place in the Miami Valley. See next week’s article for a look at drones as a growth industry in the Dayton/Springfield area.