Metro-East News

Roger That: Air Force aims to cut stress for drone pilots

Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mike Fitzgerald.
Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mike Fitzgerald. News-Democrat

The Air Force is looking to relieve stress on drone pilots by reducing the number of missions they fly and adding more contractor support, according to the Air Force Times.

The remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, have been flying nonstop for years. They will now fly 60 missions per day instead of 65, a service spokesman said.

“Sustained surge operations present risk in the areas of training, manning, retention and combat capability," Lt. Col. Christopher Karns told Air Force Times. “The RPA community has been operating at surge capacity for eight years. This pace cannot be sustained without accepting risk. The Air Force must take time and actions to normalize the tempo to ensure the viability of this platform and community for years to come.”

In 2014, the Defense Department tried to reduce the number of combat air patrols that drone pilots fly to 55 per day as the U.S. mission in Afghanistan wound down. But that summer the Islamic State group conquered large parts of Iraq, so the U.S. suddenly needed more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Syria.

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A mysterious space plane rocketed into orbit Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying no crew but a full load of technology experiments, according to a story on the website Space.com.

This is the fourth flight for the X-37B military research program, which is shrouded in secrecy. The last X-37B mission lasted 674 days and ended with a California touchdown. The first three X-37B flights spanned 1,367 days, or 3.5 years.

The Air Force has refused to say how long this particular mission will last or where it will end. The Air Force owns two X-37B spacecraft, each with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 m) and a payload bay the size of a pickup-truck bed. The X-37B launches vertically and lands horizontally, on a runway, as the space shuttle did.

The secrecy surrounding X-37B missions has led to Internet speculation that the mini-shuttle is some sort of space weapon designed either to spy on or cripple enemy nations’ satellites, for example. But Air Force officials have long denied that idea, saying the X-37B is simply testing out technologies for re-usable vehicles and future spacecraft.

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President Barack Obama has defined action on climate change as a national security issue. Obama on Wednesday told cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Conn., that those who deny global warming are putting at risk the United States and the military sworn to defend it, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Obama has long pushed for action on climate change as a matter of health, environmental protection and international obligation. On Wednesday, he added national security, telling the cadets failure to act would be "dereliction of duty," their commander in chief said.

He said climate change and rising sea levels jeopardize the readiness of U.S. forces and threaten to aggravate social tensions and political instability around the globe.

“Denying it or refusing to deal with it undermines our national security,” Obama said. "Make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. We need to act and we need to act now."

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The military must recruit more people with science, technology, engineering and math skills to keep up with the technology advancements of potential adversaries, the Air Force's top scientist said Wednesday, according to an Air Force Times story.

While the Air Force has been more successful than other services in recruiting scientists and engineers, the military as a whole needs to appeal to a sense of service and patriotism to recruit the best talent, Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley said.

The military should “appeal to scientists and engineers who don't want to just make the cool app, they want to make something of value,” Endsley told reporters at the Pentagon. “Something that could save lives. Something that could make us stronger as a country.”

The U.S. has begun to lag as a leader of science and engineering. The U.S. led all countries for research published in engineering-related publications in 2000, Endsley said. By 2007, China had caught up. In 2013, China had twice as many publications, according to the story.

Roger That is a regular feature by BND military beat reporter Mike Fitzgerald. He can be reached at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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