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USAF: Extended Duty Taking Toll On UAV Pilots

Predator Crews Wearing Thin

Critics say the Pentagon is playing the Army and Air Force against one another, in its quest to deploy more combat-proven Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to Iraq. That strategy may help win the battle in the short term... but the Defense Department could lose the war in the long run.

Those concerns came after Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently ordered the USAF to deploy almost all its Predator UAVs to the Middle East, as part of 'surge' efforts to put a decisive end to the ongoing Iraq War.

While the Predator itself is immune to the effects of extended deployments and long hours, the crews guiding and servicing the aircraft aren't... and some officers warn Gates those issues threaten the long-term viability of the Predator program, one of the true success stories of the war on terror.

Predators are used in a range of roles over Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly in observation of insurgent forces and locations of roadside bombs. A few hunter-killer 'Reaper' UAVs, armed with rockets and other explosive ordnance to use against insurgent ground forces, have also seen action.

As they say, success breeds success... or, the desire for more success. One example of that strategy is the German Luftwaffe, which cut back training efforts in World War II in order to get more pilots in the air, sooner.

We all know how that turned out... and Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force's Predator wing, does not wish to see history repeated.

Some officers said pressure from Gates resulted in one plan that could have taken the Air Force down a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.

"That was the end of their air force," Chambliss told The Los Angeles Times.

Aero-News has reported before on the ongoing struggle between the Air Force and Army, over which branch of the armed forces should ultimately control deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy and Marines also want a piece of the UAV action.

The Army wants all the UAVs it can have, to provide cover for ground forces. Gates largely supports that mindset. The Air Force counters, however, that merely sending more UAVs into battle, with no clear end in sight, will tax its resources even more... though some officials have also called for more Predators to be sent overseas, for fear of losing ground to the Army.

One such plan to increase Predator deployments to 36 planes, up from 22 -- which, in turn, would have shut down training operations in the US -- was scaled back in January.
A senior Air Force official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Times such brinkmanship may prove counterproductive very quickly.

"The leadership has to be careful," said the official. "If you keep on pushing them and pushing them and pushing them, and they say, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes,' at some point, they're going to break. Because they ain't going to say no until they break. No one wants to say 'uncle.' "

While the so-called "all-in" approach favored by USAF Chief of Staff Michael Moseley has not been fully implemented, aspects of it already have. The Air Force has already extended tours of duty for Predator crews in Nevada, and has recalled former crewmembers who had completed their tours, and moved on to other assignments.

Predator and Reaper crews have also seen their assignments frozen... meaning those who have already flown UAVs for three years must remain on station in Nevada for at least two more years.

The Air Force admits that scenario isn't likely to encourage much sympathy, compared with front-line foot soldiers serving 15-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan... but the long hours flown by Predator crews pose their own risks.

"Now we're saying: 'Hey, you guys are just going to be here until we stop,'" said Chambliss, comparing the open-ended tours of duty to "a prisoner with a finite term versus a prisoner with a life sentence."

FMI: www.af.mil, www.army.mil, www.defenselink.mil

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