While the debate over the legality and morality of the military and CIA using drones continues in Washington, that type of mission is now slated for the 107th Air National Guard unit at the Niagara Falls airbase. And it has been up and flying for the past three years in Syracuse.
The 174th Attack Wing of the Air National guard gave up flying their F-16 jet fighters in 2009-10 in exchange for a mission which many say is now a big part of the future for the U.S. Air Force. Their pilots are remotely flying the MQ-9 Reaper drones which are actually launched thousands of miles away in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
174th Commander Colonel Greg Semmel says they run missions on a 24/7 basis from the ground control stations in Syracuse where two person crews use a satellite link to control and monitor the drones in flight. There is a pilot and a sensor operator to control the drone and run its sophisticated cameras and other equipment.
They also operate training facilities for flight operations and maintenance crews. And it is possible the cargo plane air crews from the 107th will train there for their eventual transition to drone flights. Currently the 107th is waiting for exact word on when the transition would begin. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer says about 500 jobs will be created with the drone mission for the 107th. But it is still not clear if the Pentagon will allow them to keep the four C-130 cargo planes they now fly or how many of the 845 positions of the unit will stay otherwise.
Semmel says there was really not much change in staffing when the 174th made the transition from planes to drones with more people transferring from maintenance to operations duties like intelligence and unit support.
Semmel notes that the drones can fly armed with Hellfire laser guided missiles or 500 pound bombs but he says that is only about one percent of their actual missions. Colonel Semmel says most missions are for reconnaissance or intelligence gathering to support U.S. or coalition troops on the ground.
The 174th also flies training missions over the Adirondacks and northern New York state with drones which are based at the air field at Fort Drum.
Eventually drones flown by the Air National Guard may be asked to help with certain Homeland Security missions for Customs and Border Patrol. The CBP currently fly such missions in southwestern states along the border with Mexico.