US Air Force's class of 2009: pilots who won't fly

The graduation of eight officers without flight training points to the increased use of remote-controlled aircraft for reconnaissance and intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The US Air Force has graduated eight officers from an experimental training program for the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.
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The US Air Force is marking something of a milestone as it positions itself to better address the need for round-the-clock intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, the service graduated the first class of pilots without flight training.

Just eight officers graduated from an experimental training program for the MQ-1 Predator, a remote-controlled aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). But it marks a shift for a service that has defined its leaders by their prowess as flyboys and that is now coming to terms with the less glamorous but critical demands of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also suggests the Defense Department's shift to fighting so-called irregular warfare is starting to be institutionalized across the department.

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Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, calls the graduation a "transition point" for the Air Force in terms of the way it trains the kind of pilots that are needed today.

"It's a departure from how we've selected and trained pilots for remotely-controlled planes before," he says. Unlike most of the service's other UAV pilots who have undergone 12- to 18-month pilot training for their various aircraft, the eight officers have never flown Air Force planes. And they may never do so. The new training program is four to six months and includes basic flight screening and equipment training.

Deptula emphasizes that this is a test program, and he's not yet sure it will become permanent.

The experimental training is spurred by the insatiable appetite that ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to have for the quick intelligence provided by surveillance and reconnaissance missions undertaken by remotely-controlled aircraft. Such pilots an maintain a persistent presence in the sky, monitoring terrorist or other insurgent activity for hours on end and feeding "real-time" video imagery to the people who need it on the ground.

These eyes-in-the-skies can help commanders to make better tactical decisions before they send ground forces into harm's way. The data can also help them to identify broader trends among insurgents – about where fighters are coming from, for example.

Many of the pilots who fly these unmanned aerial vehicles are actually based at Air Force bases in the US, such as the one at Creech Air Force Base in suburban Las Vegas, which flies UAVs over Afghan skies thousands of miles away.

The Air Force has a short-term goal of flying 50 remote-controlled planes over Iraq or Afghanistan at any one time by 2010. Currently, the service flies about 36 remote-controlled airplanes over the two war theaters.

For years, the Air Force has been accused of focusing too much on potential future threats from "near-peer" countries such as Russia or China, at the expense of immediate needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But more recently – and with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' pointed encouragement – the service has redirected its energies to better support ground commanders in the current conflicts.

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