RPAs defeat Drones in air superiority

  • Published
  • By By Airman 1st Class Emily Kenney
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
Holloman Air Force Base is home to two distinct aircraft.

RPAs at Holloman are used for training student pilots and sensor operators. They learn how to fly real-world combat missions as well as perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in RPAs.

The QF-4 Drones are used by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, Detachment 1, as aerial targets for next-generation aircraft weapons testing and air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons tests over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. They can also be flown manned or unmanned.

The QF-4 is flown using remotes in a path with sites that send signals to the aircraft. When the aircraft passes a site, it continues flying in its orbit. If there is no signal detected at one of the sites, the aircraft is designed to fly to a predetermined location and self-destruct.

"Our mission at Holloman is to provide full-scale aerial targets for the Department of Defense and foreign military partner customers," said Lt. Col. Ron King, the 82nd ATS, Det. 1 commander. "A few weeks ago, we went out and used the drones to test weapons systems on a Naval ship over WSMR. We sent the drones up, unmanned, and the Navy's desert ship out there shot it down, proving the effectiveness of their weapons systems."

While Holloman's drones are proving combat capabilities, the RPAs at Holloman are used only to train for combat operations.

Students come to Holloman after completing Basic Military Training or their commissioning program. They then go through a four-month technical school where they learn to be either a pilot or sensor operator.

"It's often portrayed that RPAs are drones because when people think of drones, they think of a plane with no one in the cockpit," said Master Sgt. Brian, the 6th Reconnaissance Squadron superintendent. "The real difference is that there is always a human element involved with the RPAs. No matter what, there is a human at the controls of that aircraft."

This misunderstanding is often at the heart of many people's concerns.

"The scare that is out there with the general public is that RPAs are just sent up in the sky and go drop bombs on people," said Brian. "That's really not how it works at all. The pilots operate that aircraft from take-off to landing. Whenever we employ weapons we follow approved rules of engagement, just like any fighter aircraft."

Another key difference between RPAs and drones is the type of aircraft that is used.

When the term RPA is used, it refers to either an MQ-1 Predator or an MQ-9 Reaper.

However, when the term drone is used here, it refers to an F-4 Phantom, which has been converted to be a QF-4 Drone.

The F-4 has served the U.S. military faithfully over the last 57 years, both as an operational aircraft and now as a drone. By 2017, the QF-4 will be officially retired and replaced by QF-16s.

Despite any changes to the drone operations, RPA operations will continue their prime missions of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance while projecting combat airpower into contested airspaces without endangering the lives of the aircrew.

(Editor's note: Last names of Airmen from the 9th Attack Squadron, 29th Attack Squadron and 6th Reconnaissance Squadron have been withheld for security reasons.)