By Karl Terry, PNT Managing Editor
Pilots at Cannon Air Force Base eventually may fly missions in faraway lands without ever leaving eastern New Mexico.
The main tool that will allow them to do so is the MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned drone that provides interdiction and reconnaissance against enemy targets as its primary mission.
Several members of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron that are assigned to Predators have already arrived at Cannon and more will follow, according to Major Chris Roberts, 3rd SOS Detachment 1 commander.
“With the 3rd SOS mission, Cannon will be on the leading edge of unmanned aerial employment in the Air Force,” Roberts said. “We will be an integral part of this important new capability and will shape its use in support of special operations forces worldwide.”
Roberts said Cannon will have a Predator Operations Center as well as planes at the base, but the short-term focus will be the POC.
“Aircraft will arrive as available, but a schedule for their arrival hasn’t been determined yet,” Roberts said.
He said the number of Predators Cannon will receive is unknown at this time and will vary greatly over time based on their worldwide combat tasking.
Defense Department figures show the Air Force more than doubled its monthly use of drones between January and October of last year. That demand forced them to take pilots out of the air and shift them to remote flying duty.
The Air Force said in a recent report that it will continue to see a dramatic increase in the development and use of drones over the next 25 years.
“The demand far exceeds all of the Defense Department’s ability to provide (these) assets,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Gurgainous, deputy director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft task force. “And as we buy and field more systems, you will see it continue to go up.”
Roberts expects the squadron at Cannon to grow to an end-strength of 250 personnel. It will grow incrementally over the next year as existing squadron members are moved from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., or new members arrive from other bases.
Existing buildings at Cannon currently are being modified to accommodate the POC, squadron headquarters and hangar, according to Roberts.
“Construction for future growth is planned, but the overall scale has not yet been determined,” Roberts said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
General Characteristics of the MQ-1
• Power Plant: Rotax 914F four-cylinder engine
• Thrust: 115 horsepower
• Wingspan: 48.7 feet
• Length: 27 feet
• Height: 6.9 feet
• Weight: 1,130 pounds
• Maximum takeoff weight: 2,250 pounds
• Fuel capacity: 665 pounds
• Payload: 450 pounds
• Speed: Cruise Speed around 84 mph, up to 135 mph
• Range: 400 nautical miles
• Ceiling: Up to 25,000 feet
• Armament: Two laser-guided Hellfire missiles
• Crew (remote): Two (pilot and sensor operator)
• Initial operational capability: March 2005
• Unit cost: $40 million (fiscal 1997 dollars)
• Inventory: Active force, 97