John T. Metzger
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have forever changed the way we fight wars. Colorado Springs will be getting a taste of this new technology in the coming fall. The United States Air Force Academy’s fledgling remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) program is rapidly reaching maturity.
This year, for the first time ever, several cadets have qualified as instructors to teach their peers how to operate drone aircraft. These cadets have years of experience with UAVs under their belts, and they will certainly be relying on their skills this fall as they teach others to fly a new aircraft they have never flown themselves.
The rigorous training regimen at the academy is closely styled after the actual training future Predator drone pilots receive in the operational Air Force and it is designed to give cadets a real UAV experience. Part of this training involves cadets using the drones to search for enemy combatants, detecting roadside bombs and conducting surveillance — skills that are in high demand and could allow them to save lives in the very near future.
This year the academy upgraded its drone aircraft from the Scan Eagle to the new Aerosond Mk 4.7. None of the new cadet instructor pilots have ever flown the Aerosond, but their experience allows them to teach their peers how to do so.
In the opinion of Lt. Col. John McCurdy, the director of the academy’s RPA program, the cadet instructor pilots are “literally the most experienced UAV pilots in the Air Force.”
The growing demand for drone pilots stems from the increased demand for drone aircraft for U.S. forces in the Middle East. A veteran drone pilot and academy instructor, Lt. Col. David Kent describes drone aircraft as “a game changing technology” and claims that the surveillance capabilities of drone aircraft are unmatched.
This vast ability to observe and remain undetected allows drone pilots to track known terrorists for very long periods of time. Kent paints the picture of a drone operator painstakingly following one suspected enemy combatant to another. As connections between individuals are made a web slowly forms, linking suspects with terrorist activity. Such a web can include every enemy combatant in a village or town. And once the information is verified, the same drones that uncovered the terrorist cell can be used to neutralize it; without risking the lives of American soldiers.
However, drone warfare is not without its flaws. One of the worst incidents occurred on Jan. 13, 2006, when a drone attack killed 18 civilians in Damadola, Pakistan. A senior al-Qaeda leader was believed to have been in the village at the time, but later investigation could not link any of those killed to al-Qaeda. Such mishaps have severely injured the U.S.’s standing with the people of Pakistan and put a strain on the tenuous alliance between Pakistan and the U.S.
Cadets who become drone pilots after graduating from the academy will face similar moral dilemmas and the RPA program at the academy is working to prepare them for those tough decisions.
McCurdy’s vision is for the unmanned aircraft program to give cadets as near to a real-world experience as possible, and that includes the tough ethical choices cadets may have to make. Even if cadets decide to pursue another career field, the program gives them valuable experience in the Air Force’s newest weapon system; experience that will be vital to the success of our Air Force both today and for many years to come.