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Analysis

When drones and mercenaries collide

The January/February C4ISR Journal reports on the latest in Pentagon outsourcing: turning over battlefield operations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to private contractors:

Starting in March, the Air Force hopes to begin turning maintenance of Predators at deployed locations, such as Balad [Air Base in Iraq], to civilian contractors employed by General Atomics, builder of the Predator. Also, civilian pilots hired by General Atomics would fly Predators during the takeoff and landing phases at deployed locations.

Predator UAVs conduct intelligence and some have a limited attack capability (there has been some controversy surrounding its capabilities). They are used to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Air Force crews at the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squandron at Balad Air Base in Iraq, which fly and maintain Predators, say they are grossly overworked due to their small numbers, yet there is great demand for the Predator's use. This is the argument for having contractors operate these US military aircraft.

But wait a minute, Lt. Col. Eric Matthewson at the Air Force's Air Combat Command says that "a large majority of Predator airmen spend 90 days or less annually on overseas deployments." For example, the article says that "Of the 336 airmen assigned to the Predator's home maintenance unit, the 336th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, only 17 were deployed for 120 days or more in fiscal 2004." It seems like the crews at Balad aren't being replaced by fresh ones from the States. If this is the case, why aren't they? Otherwise, the Air Force should step up training of new crews.

The article states that even the Air Combat Command contract office (responsible for awarding the contract) realizes that "having civilians fly and repair combat aircraft in combat zones would seem to be a first for Air Combat Command."

This development raises some serious questions. Are these "civilian contractors" essentially mercenaries (it's hard to believe they will only pilot the Predators during "takeoff and landing")? Do we want to turn over intelligence gathering and combat capabilities to corporations? Are some roles inherently governmental? Like the military itself?