Shaw Air Force Base's newest unit, which flies remotely piloted aircraft to protect Americans and their allies throughout the world, recently welcomed a new group of airmen to the East …
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This article was originally published in Life is Good in Sumter 2019, a publication of The Sumter Item that is co-sponsored by the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce and the Sumter Economic Development Board. To see a digital version of the entire magazine, click on the following link:' https://issuu.com/theitem/docs/lig_2019_pages_web2'
Shaw Air Force Base's newest unit, which flies remotely piloted aircraft to protect Americans and their allies throughout the world, recently welcomed a new group of airmen to the East Coast. Base leaders, airmen, their families and community members attended an activation of command ceremony at Hangar 1200 on the base for the 25th Attack Group, the airmen who pilot the Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper aircraft.
The addition of these airmen marked the initial expansion of the MQ-9 Reaper enterprise at Shaw after the first round arrived and activated in February 2018.
"Through intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, it sounds like big fancy words, but they're guarding and protecting those on the ground against those that would do us harm," said Col. Travis Norton, commander of the 25th ATKG, who took command at the ceremony. "They're able to sit out there and loiter and be airborne for a long time."
The Air Force has promoted the MQ-9 Reaper as an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance RPA that can target enemy systems and serve as an intelligence collection asset, according to previous coverage in The Sumter Item and fact sheets. The "M" is the Department of Defense designation for multi-role, while the "Q" means it is remotely piloted, and the numerical value represents it is the ninth in the series of RPA systems.
The RPA aspect takes out the risk of human life and allows for less airmen to be deployed.
With those positives come challenges. The Air Force’s response to those challenges is the reason MQ-9 Reaper pilots are at Shaw.
Norton said the Air Force has been using RPA for “several decades.”
“We’ve had so many of these airmen stuck, well not stuck, but located in one location primarily, which has been out in the western desert,” he said, referring to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. “And our airmen talked and said, ‘Hey, for the sake of our families and the love of what we need to do to keep serving, we need other locations to serve from.’ The Air Force answered with Shaw.”
Airmen, whose schedules are based on time zones across the world, work in an enclosed trailer to destroy enemies and can see the strikes hit or miss targets, a difference from manned aircraft where the pilot is focused on what's in front of him or her. Being stationed at Shaw gives them the chance to live around green and to be on the East Coast, often closer to family.
It gives the military spouses and children more activities and social opportunities and an Air Force-wide known supportive community in Sumter.
Norton said more than 100 airmen have volunteered to come to Shaw. Everyone who is here is so because he or she wants to be.
“It’s a place that isn’t as hustle-and-bustle with traffic. Just good values and people (where) manners (are) still a thing,” he said.
The 25th ATKG is helping to fly two combat lines and provides direct support to the 50th Attack Squadron, the 482nd ATKS, which was activated raround the same time, and the 25th Operational Support Squadron, which was to be activated last fall.
“Just look at what the 50th ATKS airmen have done. Just a skeleton crew, and in a few months they did what people said couldn’t be done in years,” Norton said.
Since February 2018, the MQ-9 Reaper airmen at Shaw have gone on more than 400 missions, recorded more than 7,000 flight hours, completed more than 75 air strikes and successfully targeted 134 enemies, including multiple high-value individuals captured, according to Col. Julian Cheater, 432nd Wing and 432nd Expeditionary Wing commander.
The work is grueling and hard on the airmen and their families. That skeleton crew has not had a break since starting.
“Fighting combat from home is a weird mindset to then go home at night, pick up your wife and go to an Air Force ball, go dance, go take care of the kids at soccer practice ... the community is important,” Norton said. “You can only do that for so long if you’re by yourself.”
Now, with these new airmen on board, the units can establish reconstruction periods following combat engagements where commanders can “develop upcoming leaders and hone aircrew readiness skills by having the time to foster unit cohesion, cultivate stronger relationships and encourage professional growth.”
“When you have a community around you to support you and to love you and be there so that when you have a rough day and you’ve seen some things go really tough for guys on the ground, the ability to have a community wrap around you is really important,” Norton said, “and I think that’s what we’ve found here, which is great.”