By the time the Air Force announced it would be opening a new MQ-9 Reaper Group at Shaw Air Force Base, the processes were in place to welcome the new unit and begin operations almost …
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What: Two combat lines
Build-out: Small trailers
When: On site now, flying toward the end of February
What: Beefing up the combat lines, adding more airmen in rotation
Build-out: Larger portable trailers
What: Full 487-person unit, eight combat lines
Build-out: $50 million building for hosing, training, dwell and operations
By the time the Air Force announced it would be opening a new MQ-9 Reaper Group at Shaw Air Force Base, the processes were in place to welcome the new unit and begin operations almost immediately.
The unit, which includes airmen, contractors, security and support personnel, carries out intelligence and air-to-ground combat missions with unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft, and Shaw was chosen as the preferred base to grow the mission - a choice that was not finalized until an Environmental Assessment was approved.
A "small advance team" got to the Sumter base in December, with a "main wave of my first block of airmen coming in" this month to begin flying about February, said Lt. Col. David, who commands the detachment and will be the first squadron commander once it activates.
To learn more about the Reapers and their airmen Shaw is welcoming into its community, the following Q&A was formatted as such based on interviews with The Sumter Item.
Q. Why was Shaw chosen as the base for a new unit?
A. "To give, specifically, the RPA air crew members, but also everybody in the unit, more assignment choices and more locations across the U.S. Right now, they're all largely based in the Southwest, Nevada, New Mexico," David said.
Shaw is closer to home for many airmen and can be less harsh than the desert, and a goal of the Air Force is to retain airmen in this job and prevent burnout.
It's about making the community more resilient by putting them in a better situation. At Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, for example, airmen have to work shifts 24-7, 365 days a year with no reprieve. Once the full unit is at Shaw, airmen will be able to "dwell" for a few months at a time between deployments to catch up on schooling, training, family visits, counseling and anything else they need. The unit will be introduced to Shaw in phases, and when it is complete, a $50 million building will be dedicated to them - something they've never had.
"A lot of times ... we've inherited other buildings and had to make them our own.
This is from scratch," said Lt. Col. Andre, director of operations for the squadron. "It's going to be tailor made for us to be able to operate efficiently and comfortably."
Q: How did this process begin?
A: Air Combat Command created a program called the Culture and Process Improvement Plan to, in part, find ways to improve on concerns identified by airmen and their families in the RPA career fields.
"We are increasing the number of squadrons and the numbers of people that do this, but not at the same time increasing the number of aircraft we're flying. We're breaking out of the cycle we've been in for the last decade of 24-hours-a-day shift work where airmen have no chance to rest," David said.
After Shaw was chosen as the preferred base, nothing "irrevocable" such as digging or building could begin until an Environmental Assessment was approved, said Chris Aamold, deputy base civil engineer.
Aamold's role in the process before the first airmen even arrived was vital to allowing for operations to begin as soon as they got here and as quickly as possible after the assessment was approved in November.
"We planned what were the requirements for space, utilities, communications. We could advertise contracts and go up to the actual award. We couldn't award the bid, but we did all the preparatory steps," he said. "It takes three to six months to get any type of facilities assessment."
He said no one wanted to wait that long after they were given the go-ahead.
"If you ask airmen what do you like to see improved, and you don't do anything and it takes years, it looks bad on leadership," Aamold said.
Q: Who will be in the unit?
A: Eventually, it is estimated the 487-person unit will consist of 378 airmen, 44 contractors, 18 security personnel and 47 support personnel.
"Our career field has had a lot of stress with the operations tempo," David said. "They get tired of it. It's not the mission. They like the mission. They get tired of back-to-back assignments in the desert. Volunteers [to join this unit], we've had to turn people away from this. We're all volunteers, and all the time we've been in this [RPA] community, that's never happened before, to my knowledge."
Q: Where will the aircraft be going?
A: "Any major campaign in which U.S. air power is a player in modern warfare, you will find Air Force remotely piloted aircraft. That's anecdotally, but pretty much anywhere you're reading about in the news, we're there, and we can be force multipliers," David said.
The aircraft themselves will not ever be at Shaw. They will take off, land and be housed at other locations.
Q: What is the benefit of using an RPA over manned aircraft?
A: MQ-9 Reapers are boasted as "dominant, persistent, attack and reconnaissance." Dominant "just by nature," David said.
Persistent because they can fly for "many, many hours." During that flight time, the pilot can switch with another because it is remotely piloted.
"The human is no longer the limiting factor," David said.
And it being unmanned takes out the risk to the pilot.
"We can occupy that air space over that battlefield," David said. "We can wait for the bad guys to make the wrong move, and then we can action that.
"The 'M' in the name is really that it is a multi-role aircraft."
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