National Guard Drones

An Air National Guard MQ-1 Predator at the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing in California Credit Air National Guard Photo/ Master Sgt. Julie Avey)
An Air National Guard MQ-1 Predator at the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing in California Credit Air National Guard Photo/ Master Sgt. Julie Avey

By Dan Gettinger

On August 28, 2013, an MQ-1 Predator drone took off from March Air Reserve Base in Southern California and headed north. The Predator’s mission was to provide aerial imagery to support almost 4,000 firefighters battling the Rim Fire, which by then had burned 160,000 acres and was only 20 percent contained. According to a report by the Forest Service, the Predator flew 150 hours in support of the firefighters, identifying the locations where the fire had spread and mapping the perimeter of the blaze. The Predator was operated by the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard, one of dozen or so national guard units across the country that fly military-grade drones.

The Rim Fire was the first time that an Air National Guard Predator or Reaper drone had been used for a domestic mission. More recently, on July 29, California’s 163rd dispatched an MQ-9 Reaper drone to help find Ed Cavanaugh, a schoolteacher and outdoorsman who had gone missing in California’s El Dorado National Park. “This technology allows us to provide persistent coverage of the search area in support of our partner agencies,” Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California’s Adjutant General, said in a statement. In the end, the Reaper did not help find the man.

A growing number of National Guard units from other states besides California are flying drones. In addition to the units that fly the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, many Army National Guard units are training to fly smaller tactical drones like the RQ-7 Shadow. “You can accomplish the mission of saving lives and then go to your 9-year-old’s soccer game,” Colonel Dana Hessheimer, commander of California’s 163rd, said in an interview with Grizzly. In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has come to rely on the Air National Guard units to staff Predator or Reaper surveillance missions over Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these units are now wondering why these drones can’t be put to greater use at home.

Imagine sitting in your Air National Guard unit, just a few miles from your home, and controlling precision-guided munitions in a battle thousands of miles away. As a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Officer, you’ll supervise and lead those missions.

– Air National Guard recruitment advertisement.


Beginning in 2007, some units with the Air Force Air National Guard began phasing out manned aircraft and switching to remotely piloted aircraft—drones. California’s 163rd Reconnaissance Squadron was the first Air National Guard unit to make the switch, giving up the hulking Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a jet-powered aerial refueling aircraft; in its place, it acquired the MQ-1 Predator drone. The 111th Reconnaissance Squadron of the Texas Air National Guard traded F-16s for the Predator on June 7, 2008 and, in 2009, the New York’s 174th Attack Wing also transitioned from the F-16 to the MQ-9 Reaper.

Few of the units that convert to flying drones do so out of choice. Although it varies depending on the situation, some National Guard units transition flying drones after the Air Force, which owns the aircraft that Guard units operate, decides to shift the planes to a different unit. This was the case with New York’s 107th Airlift Wing which moved to start flying the MQ-9 Reaper after the Air Force reallocated their C-130 cargo planes. As a result of the Air Force’s decision, the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station—home to the 107th—was faced with the threat of closure, resulting in a push by state and local lawmakers to convert the 107th to fly drones.

There are at least 14 Air National Guard units from 12 different states that fly drones today. Many ANG units that fly drones today don’t actually have the aircraft based in their state and are instead flying the drones remotely over battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. ANG units account for roughly 18 percent of the Air Force’s personnel that fly long-endurance surveillance drones. According to a National Guard fact sheet, ANG units fly 11 out of the Air Force’s 60 Combat Air Patrols, each of which provides 24-hour coverage of a particular geographic area. Including the crew members who are responsible for flying the drone, a number of Air National Guard units have been created to support these operations by providing services like intelligence analysis. Although Air National Guard units are mainly tasked with flying the Predator and Reaper drones, ANG drone operations could expand to include other aircraft. In the U.S. Senate’s Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) included an amendment requiring the Air Force to submit a report on the feasibility of integrating members of the Air National Guard into RQ-4 Global Hawk operations.

An analysis of Air Force budget documents from the past few years reveals the extent to which ANG drone operations have grown. Since Fiscal Year 2009, the Air Force has spent just over $94 million on building facilities at 10 National Guard bases in Arkansas, New York, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, and California. The majority of these funds are spent on converting existing facilities to support drone operations. For example, according to the proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016, the Air Force is planning a $15 million facility at the Fort Smith Municipal Airport in Arkansas out of which 655 drone operators, intelligence analysts, and targeting experts will be based. The Arkansas 188th Wing of the Air National Guard gave up flying A-10 Thunderbolts for the MQ-9 Reaper in 2014.

The Army National Guard has likewise invested in facilities for fly drones. Unlike the Air Force, the Army National Guard units are training to fly small tactical drones like the hand-launched RQ-11 Raven and the RQ-7 Shadow. In Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, the Army spent $38.5 million on seven tactical unmanned aerial systems (TUAS) facilities at Army National Guard bases in California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, and Minnesota. Each of the ARNG’s 28 Brigade Combat Teams and 2 Special Forces groups have been equipped with a total of 704 Ravens and 32 Shadows.


Domestic Operations

As more Air National Guard units switch to flying drones overseas, some are wondering why the aircraft can’t be used more for domestic operations like in California. In an interview with NPR, Colonel Keith Albritten, the vice commander of the 118th Wing of the Tennessee Air National Guard, expressed interest in bringing the aircraft home to his state. “There’s no iron, there’s no aircraft here in Tennessee,” Albritten said. “I will say we are working to get iron in the state so they’re available for the governor to use in a state of emergency.” The 118th Wing traded C-130s for MQ-9 Reapers in 2012, but the drone crews rarely get to see the actual aircraft which are based at overseas stations.

The Riverdale search and rescue mission and the Rim Fire firefighting mission have bolstered arguments for an expanded role for the drones at home. National Guard units are frequently deployed during emergency situations by state governors and the military drones could be used as part of these deployments to help guide the efforts of first responders. Another potential domestic application for the drones is on the U.S.-Mexican border, where National Guard ground units have often been sent to supplement the ranks of the Customs and Border Patrol. In 2006, President Bush deployed over 2,000 National Guard troops to the border as part of the two-year Operation Jump Start. In 2010, President Obama also sent Guard troops to the border, although their presence was reduced to largely providing aerial surveillance (in manned platforms) by 2011. The experiences on the border have provided a basis for close cooperation between National Guard units and law enforcement agencies.
Fort Huachuca (2)If called upon, the Arizona National Guard is well positioned to provide drone aerial surveillance and reconnaissance over the border. Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army base 20 miles north of the border, is already home to a number of drone units from different services. In
Fiscal Year 2010, the U.S. Army spent $15 million to build training facilities at Fort Huachuca for the 13th Aviation regiment, an Army unit that trains soldiers to fly a variety of different tactical and medium endurance drones. The U.S. Border Patrol, a subset of Customs and Border Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, bases part of its MQ-1 Predator drone fleet at Fort Huachuca. The Arizona Air National Guard’s 214th Reconnaissance Group also has a detachment there. The 214th, which operates the Predator drone and is headquartered at Davis Monthan Air Force Base outside of Phoenix, flies missions out of Fort Huachuca to train new drone pilots and sensor operators. In Fiscal Year 2011, the Air National Guard spent $11 million to build a hangar for the 214th’s Predator drones at Fort Huachuca. In the coming years, as the Customs and Border Protection agency plans to build a new drone facility at the base, Arizona Air National Guard and Border Patrol operations could become more integrated.

As a recent RAND report pointed out, a number of ANG drone units are already positioned at bases near the borders. The North Dakota 178th Reconnaissance Squadron based in Fargo and New York’s 174th Air Attack Wing are well situated to cover large swaths of the border with Canada. In addition to the Arizona 214th, the 163rd in Southern California, and the Texas 147th Wing out of Ellington Field in Houston could be tasked with patrolling the border with Mexico. Unlike other ANG units that fly drones overseas, each of these units already have aircraft—mostly MQ-1B Predator drones—based at their respective locations for training purposes. These drones could help supplement the Department of Homeland Security’s drones over the border by providing fixed-target surveillance of, for example, the tunnels used by smugglers. As the authors of the RAND study point out, however, these types of missions could be constrained by sensitivities among the American public over the domestic use of military drones.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about using drones to support domestic missions. Some of these potential roadblocks were highlighted last Spring when Governor Andrew Cuomo decided against asking New York’s 174th Attack Wing—which flies the MQ-9 Reaper—for help in the search for two convicts who escaped from a prison in Northern New York. Because these were military aircraft in use for training missions, the State of New York might have had to reimburse the Federal Government for borrowing the drones. If it were to use the drones, New York would also need to file a request with the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the drones to fly outside of designated military airspace. According to Eric Derr, a state official who spoke with, drones might not actually have contributed all that much to the operation.

An MQ-9 Reaper operated by the Air National Guard 174th Fighter Wing, based at Hancock Field in Upstate New York Credit NY Air National Guard

Policy Limitations on Domestic Operations

The status of the National Guard drones is slightly complicated by the fact that National Guard units serve both the federal government and the government of the state in which they are based. Although National Guard units can be federalized for active duty missions under U.S. Code Title 10, in Title 32 of the U.S. Code, state governments are given the authority to train National Guard units and to use these units in emergency situations. In this way, the Army and Air National Guard units are distinct from both the regular Army and Air Force as well as the reserve components of each service. “Most of the time, I work for the governor: How can I help the governor? How can I help him in his state with the problems that he has,” Tennessee’s Colonel Abritten told NPR. The responsibility of the National Guard to provide assistance in emergency situations has fueled interest in bringing the drones home to aid these missions.

The nuanced relationship between the Federal Government and the National Guard has implications for the domestic use of drones. In a policy memorandum issued in February, the Department of Defense states that the secretary of defense has to approve any domestic use of drones by the National Guard. In 2013, the California 163rd Reconnaissance Wing made the unprecedented step of submitting just such a request to the secretary of defense to use its Predator drones to support efforts to fight the Rim Fire. This type of mission falls under the Defense Support for Civil Authorities (DCSA), the legal permission that allows military assets to be used to help deal with issues like natural disasters.

Finally, in addition to the controls established by the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration presents a further roadblock to domestic uses of drones. The FAA has strict limitations on where military aircraft—including drones—can and cannot fly. For example, the FAA requires that the military obtain a Certificate of Authorization before flying a drone through non-restricted airspace and sometimes requires that a military Predator or Reaper drone being used for a training mission be escorted by manned aircraft from the airport into the airspace designated for the mission. This can raise problems for units like New York’s 174th Attack Wing that train drone pilots and sensor operators but would have to fly near busy commercial airspace (near Syracuse International Airport in this case) in order to get to the restricted airspace to carry out the training mission. That’s why, beginning in 2011, New York’s ANG relocated the Reapers from Hancock Field outside of Syracuse to Fort Drum where there is already restricted airspace surrounding the base. In Fiscal Years 2010, 2011, and 2014, a total of $9.9 million was allocated to build new hangars for the drones at Fort Drum for the 174th.

In 2009, Congress began urging closer cooperation between the Pentagon and the FAA to find technical and policy solutions for flying drones safely in the National Airspace System. In Section 1036 of the Fiscal Year 2009 Duncan-Hunter National Defense Authorization Act, Congress recommended that the two departments work together to expedite the use of drones for training and, potentially, for emergency situations. The Fiscal Year 2009 NDAA led to the formation of the UAS Executive Committee, which consists of representatives from DoD and FAA, as well as from NASA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). By 2012, the Executive Committee had agreed to share data on the safety performance of drones and ironed out a few of the FAA’s restrictions on military drones.

A major concern for the FAA in terms of both military and civilian drones is that the aircraft don’t have a “see and avoid” capability. In other words, because there isn’t a human physically inside the aircraft, the operator does not have the ability to look around and potentially avoid oncoming traffic. The military has also been involved in the search for technical solutions to the ban on domestic drone operations. The military is in the process of developing the Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) system that utilizes different types of radars in order to meet the FAA’s “see and avoid” requirement for aircraft in the National Airspace System. The deployment of the GBSAA would help expedite the process by which training missions obtain permission from the FAA to fly in certain airspaces. In a document sent out by the National Guard Association of the United States, the lobbying group for the National Guard, the organization urged Congress to approve funding for the GBSAA. The Association wrote that funding is “critical for the State Title 32 Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) mission.” The U.S. Army deployed its first GBSAA system at Fort Hood, Texas, where it maintains two companies of MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the Army’s equivalent of the Predator drone.

For many within the Air National Guard and for first responders across the country, the Predator support to fighting the 2013 Rim Fire was something of a watershed moment that served as the basis for a broader to push to use drones for domestic missions. “The capabilities of the RPAs are endless when it comes to supporting our community as demonstrated by the wildfires in CA last summer,” Colonel Greg Semmel, the commander of New York’s Reaper drone-equipped 174th Air Attack Wing, said in an in an online Q&A at in 2014. In order to do so, the National Guard will have to employ the drones in such a way as to meet the various policy restrictions that limit domestic military activity. The military will also have to continue the development and testing of technologies that enable sense-and-avoid capabilities in order to meet FAA requirements. The greatest constraint, however, may be public objections to the use of military-grade drones at home. As more states take an interest in deploying drones during times of crisis, it remains to be seen whether the Air National Guard will overcome these hurdles.

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