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Drones projected to be new force in regional economy

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They go by a variety of acronyms, including UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) RPA (remote piloted aircraft) and, most recently, UAS (unmanned aerial system) However, most people know the pilotless jets as drones. Whatever they’re called, they are the fastest growing weapons systems for the Department of Defense, and a growing economic driver in southwestern Ohio.

In 2010, the Springfield Air National Guard base, recently threatened with closure, was awarded a new mission by the Department of Defense and Air Force. The mission was for ground control operations for the MQ-1 Predator, the model of drone most frequently used by this country in both the war on terrorism and undeclared combat in several countries.

“All relevant organizations must adapt to new realities, and here, the reality is an insatiable demand for UAS–borne capabilities, and an evolving relationship between people, machines and the sky,” said General Norton Swartz, Air Force chief of staff at a 2009 graduation of UAS operators in Nevada, according to the Ohio Air National Guard Web site. And at a 2010 ceremony honoring the Springfield base’s new mission, Ohio National Guard Adjutant General Gregory Wayt stated, “You are on the cutting edge of new missions coming into the Air National Guard.”

Drones have become the weapon of choice in this country’s war on terror. According to the CIA, about 600 terrorists have been killed in Pakistan by drones since May 2010, with no civilian deaths. Drones helped to identify the location of Osama Bin Laden before he was killed, and were instrumental in the recent capture of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Recently, a drone killed an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Yemen.

First developed in the 1990s for gathering information over Bosnia, drones were initially brought into the American war on terror by President George W. Bush, but President Obama has significantly increased the number of drone attacks. According to an Oct. 21, 2011 New York Times article, this country currently has 7,000 aerial drones, compared to about 50 a decade ago.

The 2012 Department of Defense budget includes $4.8 million for drones, and that number is expected to more than double, to $15.1 billion, over the decade, according to the Teal Group, a defense analysis firm.

Drones are preferable to manned planes because they are less expensive to operate, and because, according to Ohio National Guard public relations head Dr. Mark Wayda, “You’re not putting people at risk.”

However, some dispute that statement. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit organization, there have been 2,300 to 2,900 people killed in all by U.S. drones since 2003. That number includes from 392 to 781 civilians, including 175 children, according to the BIJ Web site.

Asked to clarify his statement that drone strikes don’t put people at risk, Dr. Wayda said, “Certainly targets are struck and those may include enemy combatants. When I’m talking about not putting people at risk, I’m talking about U.S. personnel.”

Local drone jobs

The Springfield Air National Guard’s new Predator project came after the end of the base’s previous mission of training F-16 pilots, most recently for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. That mission was discontinued as a result of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission, or BRAC, and the base was expected to be closed. However, National Guard leaders and Ohio politicians, including Senator Sherrod Brown, worked to find a new mission for the Springfield base and its 860 employees.

In February, 2011, Senator Brown, who stated that he led a bipartisan effort to keep the base open, announced that the 2012 federal budget included $6.7 million for the construction of a new Predator ground control operations center at the Springfield base.

“The Predator mission will maintain positions for more than 800 Ohioans and preserve southwest Ohio’s position as a stronghold for our nation’s security viability,” Brown stated in a press release.

Along with the continuation of current jobs, the new Predator program is expected to generate new jobs in the area. That job growth has already begun, and last month the state of Ohio Controlling Board announced a grant of $550,000 to Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, to add 180 jobs to its Beavercreek office and 35 in the Springfield area in the next three years in support of the UAS program.

A scientific, engineering and technology applications company with 43,000 employees worldwide, SAIC already has about 380 employees in the Dayton area, according to an SAIC press release. It plans to add “several hundred” more in the next three years to support the Predator research and development, partly at a new UAS facility in the Springfield Research Park near the Springfield guard base. The new jobs recently announced will include mainly engineers, scientists, computer programmers and technicians, the press release said.

SAIC’s expanded presence in the Dayton area is a result of the new emphasis on UAS research and development at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, according to the press release.

“Due to the prolific growth in demand for UAS technology…SAIC is consolidating many aspects of the UAS business in the Dayton region — aligning it with the Air Force UAS research and development and testing vision in rapid UAS technology transition to the warfighter,” according to SAIC Dayton Regional Executive Director Dennis Andersh in an e-mail.

SAIC’s project partners on the UAS project include the Wright State University Research Institute, the Ohio Department of Development, the cities of Springfield and Beavercreek and the Dayton Development Coalition.

How it works

The Springfield Predator control center has not yet been built, and is scheduled to begin construction in 2012, according to Communications Director James Sims of the Ohio National Guard. Out of the base’s 866 employees, about 300 will be involved in the Predator control center. Some of the Springfield guard employees are already performing Predator operations control work, but in locations that Sims said he could not disclose.

“Overall this mission is not a secret, but there are some aspects that I can’t talk about for reasons of operational security,” he said.

According to Sims, at the control center each drone has an operations team of three specialists who study real-time images taking place thousands of miles away. The pilot controls the plane, the sensor operator operates the various cameras on board and a mission intelligence operator gathers the information.

The number of Predators controlled by the Springfield base operators will vary according to the daily needs of the commanders on the ground, Sims said.

For security reasons Sims said he could not say where the Predators controlled by the Springfield guard members are actually flying. Asked if the Predators controlled by Springfield operate in Pakistan, Sims said, “I can’t say specifically, I can only say they include Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world.”

Defense Department Predators have seen combat in at least six countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and recently Libya.

Sims said he was also not sure if the operators are aware of the location of the Predators that they control.

No Predators will actually be located at Springfield. Rather, pilots in areas nearer to the combat area launch the planes, and then switch control of the aircraft to the three-person operations team at one of the bases used for drone operations in the United States, such as the one at Springfield, which, according to Sims, is the only such center in Ohio.

The Springfield base operators will only be responsible for gathering information, and will send that information to others who will decide if the information calls for action, according to Sims.

The operators “can provide information to others to direct fire based on what the UAV is seeing,” according to Wayda of the National Guard.

Asked who makes the decisions based on the data — which involves dropping bombs on suspected enemy combatants — Sims said he did not know. After checking with National Guard employees, Sims stated that those who work in control operations were not sure who made the decisions to bomb targets.

“Our folks say they’re not sure who makes this decision,” Sims said. “All they know is that decisions to take actions on targets are made at a higher level.”

The National Guard employees who work with UAV operations are proud of their mission, Sims said.

“They joined [the Guard] because they want to make a difference to keep our nation safe.”

Protest growing

In Pakistan, protest about civilian deaths from drone strikes is growing, according to a Nov. 2 BBC news report. That day the BBC reported on an Oct. 28 Islamabad protest against drones, attended by several thousand people.

In that report Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar spoke about why civilians as well as terrorists have been killed.

“A Taliban or non-Taliban would be dressed in the same way,” he said. “Everyone has a beard, a turban and an AK-47 because every person carries a weapon in that area, so anyone could be target.”

In a separate meeting that weekend, about 60 tribal elders met with Western representatives to talk about their concerns over civilian deaths, and the terror unleashed on innocent lives by the American effort, according to the Nov. 4 New York Times, in an op ed piece by American lawyer Clive Smith, who attended the meeting. The elders were told that physical evidence would help make the case that there have been civilian deaths from drone strikes.

One teen-ager offered to take on the dangerous job of collecting evidence. But he was not able to do so, according to the article. Only a few days later the boy, 16-year-old Tariq Khan, and his 12-year-old cousin, who were walking along a road to see a relative, were killed by Hellfire missiles dropped by drones overhead, according to Smith.

Asked about his response to the growing protest in Pakistan around civilian deaths from drones, Sims said he was not able to answer the question.

“The question you’re talking about is on a policy level and I’m not qualified to answer,” he said.


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