Mideast edition, Thursday, May 3, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — Unmanned flight formally came off the “experimental” list when the Air Force stood up its first unmanned aerial systems wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.

In a Tuesday ceremony, the Air Force reactivated the 432nd Wing, a unit that dates to World War II and is now the first-ever combat wing to be equipped with MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

The wing took over Predator and Reaper UAV squadrons operated by the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, commander of the 12th Air Force, told Pentagon reporters during a video news conference from Creech after the ceremony.

The 57th Wing was already flying 12 combat air patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan every day, with about 28 of its UAVs in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, Seip said.

That operations tempo will stay constant until next year, when the 432nd plans to add three or four daily flights.

By 2010, the wing intends to fly 21 daily combat patrols, Seip said.

The new wing is authorized 160 Predators and 60 Reapers, Wing Commander Col. Christopher Chambliss, said in the briefing.

About 85 of the Predators have been delivered to the wing, with “slightly over half of those deployed forward,” he said.

Other Predators are undergoing factory modifications, or being used for training and testing at Creech.

Six of the more advanced Reapers have been delivered to the wing, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Unlike the Predator, which was developed as a technology demonstrator, the Reaper is more of a strike aircraft, with a larger, more robust airframe, increased speed and a much greater payload, Chambliss said — including not only the Predator’s Hellfire missiles, but also ordnance such as 5,000-pound bombs and the Joint Direct Attack Munition.

The new wing is starting out with about 440 aircrew members, about half of whom are pilots and the other half sensor operators, Chambliss said.

The goal is to increase the number of operations personnel to about 600 over the next three years, he said.

Forty percent of the wing is made up of Air Force reserve component personnel, including members of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, Seip said.

On the maintenance side, the wing has 450 personnel, Chambliss said.

Of those, half the maintenance staff are contractors.

The maintenance force “will double in the next three years,” he said.

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