Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter is in the running for a new Air Force wing of remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones.
The wing could carry 1,000 or more jobs, but the timeline for making a decision is “years, not months” away, an Air Force spokesman said.
The new MQ-9 Reaper wing would control from the United States remote aircraft flying combat strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as well as other missions around the world. The aircraft are known as “hunter-killers” and can carry a wide range of ordnance such as missiles and machine guns.
The Air Force frowns on the term “drone” because the MQ-9 is a propeller-driven, fixed wing aircraft that doesn’t hover. It is about the same size as a civilian Cessna airplane.
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The new unit could be located at one base, or split between two – one base strictly as mission control, the other for training and maintenance. Shaw is the only base on the list of finalists for both units.
“We may not win this, but the fact that we made the top four speaks well of Shaw and South Carolina, the quality of life here and our facilities,” said former Sumter mayor Steven Creech, who is that city’s representative on the S.C. Military Base Task Force, which exists to protect and expand missions at the state’s major military installations.
To host the mission control operations, the Air Force also identified Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. MQ-9 crews at the base chosen for this mission will control the remotely piloted aircraft in combat missions. No aircraft will be assigned to that unit.
Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are also candidates for the training and maintenance unit. The base that is chosen for those missions would host a full MQ-9 wing, including both a launch and recovery element and mission control element, as well as a maintenance group and operational support personnel.
That location is expected to have up to 24 MQ-9 aircraft assigned.
The Air Force has a shortage of remote pilots and crew, even as the use of remote aircraft is rapidly expanding. “So there is increasing demand on the aircraft’s infrastructure,” Air Force spokesman Ben Newell told The State from Air Combat Command headquarters in Langley, Va.
Currently, only two bases host the MQ-9 aircraft and control elements – Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico.
The remote, desert locations of the two bases makes it difficult to recruit airmen to the service, particularly those with families, Creech said. The job is also a difficult one, with remote pilots working around the clock in missions half a world away.
The Air Force recently offered a $15,000 annual bonus to experienced operators.
Newell said the timeline for a decision on the new bases is open, probably taking “years not months.”
Air Combat Command will begin conducting site surveys at all eight locations, he said. Site survey teams will evaluate each location on whether it meets the requirements for the aircraft, the impact on existing missions, infrastructure and cost.
Quality of life in the host community and public support for the military will also weigh heavily in the decision, Newell said.
South Carolina is known nationally as being very supportive of the military. Shaw is already home to 20th Fighter Wing, the nation’s largest F-16 fighter jet wing and Ninth Air Force. It also hosts U.S. Army Central and Air Force Central commands, which control the air and ground wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
“The important part is to get this decision right,” Newell said. “We want to stand up this wing where it can generate efficiencies, and we love working where we have good relationships with the community.”