JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va --
As technology advances, older technology is replaced or retired to provide the best equipment to the warfighter; such is the case with the MQ-1 Predator. The MQ-1 officially retired from Air Force inventory on March 9, 2018 with the Air Force shifting to solely using the MQ-9 Reaper.
Former Air Force Distributed Common Ground System Airmen who worked with the MQ-1 reflect upon their experiences with the platform and the unique capability it brought to the intelligence mission.
“It’s interesting coming from the aspect of seeing it from the beginning and now talking to Lieutenants, Captains, NCO’s and Airmen that use it day to day,” said Mr. Edward Blitt, a retired AF DCGS Squadron Commander, “It’s night and day between how much we were able to use it then and how it is being used now. In the beginning, still photography was the primary source of intelligence collection but the MQ-1 introduced full motion video capabilities.”
In his former duties, Blitt had multiple interactions with the Predator and AF DCGS to include the early Contingency Airborne Reconnaissance Systems to the weapons system we have today.
“Early on when we first started it, it was very supplemental because obviously we didn’t know how we were going to employ it into a higher aspect of intelligence and operations,” said Blitt. “In the beginning it was more supplementary and additional collection and then it became more ingrained into the ways that collection managers would divvy out the tasking based on what was needed to be collected in the area.“
“We actually deployed in 1999 and each imagery analyst had two VCRs,” said Blitt. “What they would do is record the video as it came in so they could exploit it in real time and they could also rewind the video to exploit it again before they sent the reports out to make sure they captured all the right information. It transformed from a somewhat makeshift deployed exploitation capability into a larger networked weapons system. It’s interesting from where it came from to where it is now.”
An MQ-1 platform and a portion of the MQ-1 aircrew are normally separated, often by thousands of miles, based on a practice called ‘remote split operations’. AF DCGS executes similarly; analysts are stationed at sites around the globe and the ISR data (collected by the MQ-1) is sent to the exploitation nodes via a vast network architecture. Since September 11, 2001 it is estimated over 912K hours of MQ-1 FMV footage has been exploited.
Mr. Ron Zechman worked with the MQ-1 both as an AF DCGS analyst and a platform sensor operator. Zechman, a retired senior NCO and imagery analyst, stated “I started working with the MQ-1 Predator around 2000 during Operation SOUTHERN WATCH as a Mission Supervisor at DGS-1; I also had the opportunity to deploy as a forward screener. In those days there were no remote split operations, so an entire MQ-1 squadron would deploy to fly the missions. My job was to guide the sensors onto the targets. I thought the Predator was a great addition to the ISR arsenal.”
“The quality of the FMV was amazing when compared to all the images we were used to seeing from still imagery platforms.” Zechman added, “The MQ-1 also had the ability to dwell on a target allowing extensive pattern of life analysis. This provided much more intelligence data to the decision makers. Once the AF started arming the Predators we were able to fulfill the entire Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess targeting cycle with a single aircraft.”
“In the 1990’s, our mission was far more strategic. Intelligence was still operating based on the Cold War mentality and everything was strategically planned days (or more) in advance,” said Ms. Linda Nichols, a retired Senior NCO and former AF DCGS Superintendent. “Intelligence seemed very structured and strategically managed. When we got into the post 9/11 timeframe we found out our world, and how we approached imagery intelligence, was never going to be the same again.”
Nichols remembers when the MQ-1 platform acceleration began in earnest and the way AF DCGS rose to meet the challenge. “9/11 changed the whole dynamic of our weapon system, from a massively strategic picture down to a combat operation. We had to evolve -- what happened in the world dictated it. There was no way to be successful at what we were tasked to do by using our former platforms and methods.”
Nichols added, “The MQ-1 was so much more dynamic – we had to be on our toes at all times because we were now exploiting in near-real-time. You couldn’t just get up and take a break -- you had to have your eyes on the target. It was a totally different mission. I remember most of my teams preferred MQ-1 exploitation to the other platforms -- the environment was new, exciting, and ever-changing.”
The Predator may have flown its last flight but the impact it made will endure.
“I knew at some point there was going to be a sunset for the MQ-1 Predator,” Blitt stated. “I think it served its purpose and now we’ve taken that capability and been able to enhance other similar capabilities.”
“The Predator has been a game changer on the battlefield for almost 25 years,” said Zechman. “We’ve advanced our RPA technology even further with the MQ-9 Reaper in recent years. Now that there are enough Reapers to keep up with the demand for FMV, retiring the Predator makes sense.”
Nichols added, “The MQ-1 was the right platform at the right time and was exactly what we needed. It’s now been replaced by a bigger, faster, next generation RPA. That said, it has definitely earned retirement.”