The 174th Fighter Wing based at Hancock Field in Syracuse is about to begin operating an unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-9, out of Fort Drum. The 174th already conducts MQ-9 flights in Afghanistan, flights which are controlled from an operations center at Hancock Field. The partnership with Fort Drum will allow the unit to train Air Force and Air National Guard troops from around the country on flying the MQ-9.
The MQ-9 looks like a small commuter aircraft, with a wingspan of maybe 45 feet, minus any windows. A ground crew prepares it for flight and controls takeoff and landing, but a flight crew from anywhere in the world can take over controls and fly it via satellite link once it reaches a certain altitude.
A ball-shaped camera underneath the front of the MQ-9 takes surveillance video and beams it back to controllers and ground troops in real time. Commanders can login over the Internet to view the video as well.
A soldier on the ground wears a special helmet that includes a small attached video screen. It looks a bit like a rearview mirror on a bicycle helmet. Colonel Chuck Dorsey is vice wing commander of the 174th Fighter Wing.
"You have that little, that little camera in front of his eye can see what that ball is looking at at say 18,000 feet," said Col. Dorsey. "So, you can see what a huge advantage that is for those ground troops to have that overwatch overhead, to see what's waiting for them over the hill, to see what's waiting for them in the next irrigation ditch as they, as they maneuver through Afghanistan."
Major Anthony Pasquale used a vehicle a lot like the MQ-9 in Afghanistan.
"We got a report that there were individuals digging in a road," said Maj. Paquale. "And we knew that there was gonna be a large convoy of vehicles, Army convoys, coming down. Ah, we got an asset much like this MQ-9 show up, confirm that yes, there are three individuals, one of which is armed, digging in the road."
The troops were able to track the three people as they went to a house. They sent Afghan Army and police units there to see what the three people were up to.
"And they went, and went to their house and found numerous weapons that were stored there," said Maj. Pasquale. "So, as opposed to the old days, where maybe, maybe we do a kinetic operation, and maybe we try and capture those individuals and they wouldn't talk, we were able to track them back to their house because this, as opposed to some of the fixed-wing aircraft, has a, has a longer loiter time, so we were able to watch them, see where they went, see who they talked to, confirm, so that the ground commander has so much more information now to make the right decision that's gonna support the strategic objectives."
Four MQ-9s will be kept at Fort Drum for training flights. There are two kept at Hancock Airport for maintenance training. Flights out of Fort Drum will begin at three per week, increasing to six by next summer.
The vehicles are small enough and fly at high enough altitudes that they will usually be undetectable from the ground. They will be flown most often within 30 to 50 miles of Fort Drum, but also may fly in airspace over Lake Ontario.
Military officials say the aircraft won't peer into the lives of civilians on the ground, something that's prohibited by federal law. The aircraft will turn their cameras only on random objects, they say. Sometimes military vehicles will be sent out on the roads for the cameras to target.
Most of the students in the training program will be sent to Syracuse from the regular Air Force and from the Air National Guard on temporary duty for about three months. But not all students using the MQ-9s at Fort Drum will have to be located in Syracuse, Dorsey says.
"We could be launching sorties here at Fort Drum that a student in New Mexico takes control and trains, and there will also be, could be sorties launched in Nevada that our students are training on," said Col. Dorsey. "It's, it's a whole new way of looking at operations, when you talk about remotely piloted aircraft."
Eventually a $5.4 million facility to launch and recover the MQ-9 will be built at Wheeler-Sack Army airfield at Fort Drum.