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Tabassum Zakaria: Growing demand for drones in US
April 24, 2013
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The tide of war may be receding, as President Barack Obama is fond of saying, but US military demand for unmanned drones and their remote pilots is growing.

Here in the New Mexico desert, the US Air Force has ramped up training of drone operators — even as the nation increasingly debates their use and US forces prepare to leave Afghanistan.

“Every combatant commander in the world is asking for these things. Down in Southcom, Africom, Pacom, they’re all asking for these assets, so it is in very high demand,” said Lt Col Mike Weaver, 16th Training Squadron commander at Holloman Air Force Base, referring to the military’s Southern, Africa and Pacific commands.

Weaver is an example of a fighter jet pilot turned pilot of Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPA, as the Air Force insists on calling drones. He flew F-15 fighter jets over Iraq and, after those squadrons were drawn down, trained on drones and flew them over Afghanistan.

“With the growth of the RPAs being what it is, a fast-growing industry in the Air Force really, you’ve got pilots coming from all different walks of life to fill the shoes,” Weaver, clad in a green flight suit, said in his office here.

The use of drones to target and kill individuals has become increasingly controversial, and lawmakers have questioned Obama’s legal justifications for using them to kill militants overseas who are US citizens. Obama has promised more transparency and, officials say, he and CIA Director John Brennan are deciding whether to remove the spy agency from the drone business and leave it to the Pentagon.

“Things are moving in that direction — moving more of these (CIA) operations to the military,” a US official told the media.

On Tuesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee will hold a rare public hearing on the administration’s drone policy.

The Holloman base is a 90-minute drive from El Paso, Texas, through desert and low-lying scrub, on a road where a handful of vehicles would be considered rush hour. In this sparsely populated expanse near Alamogordo and the dunes of the White Sands Missile Range, the military has expanded training over the last four years on the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft made by General Atomics.

At the Holloman “schoolhouse,” there will be 678 pilot and sensor operator students for fiscal year 2013 that started in October, up from 136 in 2009, when training was done solely on the Reaper. About two years ago, the Air Force established a special category, 18x, for drone pilots who came into training having never flown a manned military aircraft.

Right up front, Weaver explains why pilots bristle at the use of the word drone, which in the Air Force refers to targets that pilots practice shooting down. “We do not like the name ‘drones’ because it has the connotation that it is this autonomous machine out there operating.” Drone pilots make up less than 10 per cent of Air Force pilots, but the service says in recent years it has trained more pilots to fly drones than fighters and bombers combined — 350 drone pilots in fiscal year 2011 compared with a total of 250 fighter and bomber pilots.


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