Tuesday, August 01, 2017

North Dakota Air National Guard: Don't fear the Reaper

FARGO — Under the chin of the brand new unmanned aircraft at the Air National Guard's airport hangar is a 2-foot wide turret with six gleaming glass panels.

Behind each panel is a powerful camera or a laser used for range-finding and to designate targets for guided missiles.

MQ-9 Reapers like this one have been hunting and killing terrorists in Syria and Iraq. With the Guard's 119th Wing planning to fly a pair of Reapers out of their home base at Hector International Airport, officials are wary that these capabilities might somehow inspire fear in the public.

In a media tour Tuesday, Aug. 1, several officials including Col. Britt Hatley, the wing's commander, stressed that the aircraft wouldn't spy on the public — the military isn't allowed to do this on American soil — and would not haul live weapons.

According to Hatley, the Reapers are a great training tool for the wing's pilots, sensor operators and, especially, maintenance crews. Their previous aircraft, unmanned MQ-1 Predators, were stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base and then later relocated to other U.S. bases making hands-on training difficult. There 119th hasn't had an aircraft stationed here since 2013 when the last C-21 Lear jets left.

With their bright red tail flash bearing the wing's Happy Hooligan's nickname, Hatley expects the new Reapers would also help with recruitment. There are more than 120 openings right now from aircraft mechanic to intelligence specialists, including full-time jobs.

"We are hiring," Hatley said, touting financial incentives such as college tuition. Initial training lasts from six weeks to a year depending on the job, he said.

Staying in control

The Reaper is a spindly aircraft with a wingspan that's nearly twice as long as the fuselage.

A bulge at the front end houses a satellite antenna that allows it to be flown overseas from control rooms at Hector airport. Since October when the Predators were relocated, 119th airmen have been flying Reapers remotely often in overseas missions.

Other protrusions on the aircraft hide antennas that link the aircraft directly to the control rooms. These would be used during training flights between the airport and the Guard's training area at Camp Grafton near Devils Lake.

Despite redundant antennas, it is theoretically possible for controllers to lose contact with the aircraft. If that were to happen, the aircraft is programmed to orbit over a certain area while troubleshooters try to restore contact, according to a pilot that the 119th asked not be named for security reasons.

The military has been hesitant about naming pilots and others involved in anti-terrorist operations since the Islamic State released a "kill list" naming about 100 U.S. service members in 2015, according to Guard spokesman Senior Master Sgt. Dave Lipp.

Hauling bombs

The Reaper's turret is equipped with cameras that can see in visible light and infrared. Behind the turret is a synthetic aperture radar that uses radio waves to form pictures, allowing the aircraft to see through clouds.

The sensors won't be turned off while the Reapers flies over civilian areas — initially they'll limit themselves to flights over Fargo before making the trip to Camp Grafton — Hatley said, but sensor operators won't be tracking any specific person or vehicle and keeping a record of what they do. For that kind of practice, he said, they'll use a simulator with different combat scenarios.

The Hooligans' Reapers are Block 5 models, the latest variant of an aircraft that the Air Force has flown for nearly a decade. The first time a Block 5 flew in combat was in late June when airmen of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., flew a sortie targeting Islamic State militants, according to the Air Force. Their Reaper flew reconnaissance for 16 hours and used a 500-pound GPS-guided bomb and two laser-guided missiles to destroy two "defensive fighting positions," two vehicles and a mortar.

General Atomics, the Reapers' manufacturer, said it can loiter for as many as 27 hours.

The Hooligans' Reapers will be unarmed while flying here, according to the unnamed pilot. If the public did see bomb-like objects hanging from the wings, they would most likely be training rounds without explosives in them.

This is to give pilots practice flying a laden aircraft, Hatley said. Sensor operators also get practice, too, using their turret to check the physical status of the weapons. "The weapons will not come off the airplane."

"I would just say to allay any concerns that the Fargo populace has, we're doing wonderful things with this airplane for this country," he said. "It's going to take off and land here just like any other airplane does."

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