Coalition force Reaper unit deploys to Joint Base Balad

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A coalition force comprising experts from the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force deployed to Joint Base Balad (Iraq) recently to sustain operations for the world’s most lethal unmanned aircraft system.

An MQ-9 Reaper aircraft maintenance unit, attached to the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron, melds airframe maintenance expertise with satellite communications system technical capability and brings American and British Airmen together to accomplish the Reaper’s persistent strike mission, said Capt. Antonio Camacho, the Reaper AMU officer in charge.

“It’s a very unique program,” said Captain Camacho, whose unit is deployed from the 432nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. “Some people see our system as remote control, but it’s not.”

The Reaper AMU took over maintaining the UAS from General Atomics, which produces the Reaper for the U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force. Battlespace Flight Services maintains MQ-1 Predators stationed at Joint Base Balad.

Reaper and Predator systems consist of four main components: the aircraft, the satellite uplink, the local ground control station and the remote ground control station at Creech AFB, said Royal Air Force Chief Technician Gary Smith, NCO in charge of the Reaper AMU.

“All that is one system, and all of the system has to work to enable the aircraft to take off,” said RAF Chief Technician Smith, a native of Lincoln, England, who is deployed from Creech. “Unlike an F-16 (Fighting Falcon) AMU, which will look after just the aircraft, we look after the whole system. We become system managers rather than aircraft managers: it’s a worldwide system, and all of those pieces have to work.”

The major differences between the Reaper and Predator systems lie in the airframe, said Captain Camacho, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Reaper flies faster and higher than the Predator and carries more than twice as much ordnance. However, the background systems that support the aircraft are the same. Staff Sgt. Kevin Wulf, a communications maintenance technician with the Reaper AMU, is responsible for those background systems.

“I work on everything outside of the aircraft: pilot and sensor operation, everything that controls the aircraft and all the equipment that commands it — both the line-of-sight antenna link and the satellite communications link,” said Sergeant Wulf, a native of Spokane, Wash.

UAS pilots and sensor operators use both commercial satellite systems and military satellites such as the Air Force’s Wideband Global SATCOM system to control Reapers and Predators, Sergeant Wulf said. Maintaining that link means overcoming environmental challenges.

“Being out in the desert, we get a lot of dust in the equipment, which can cause critical systems to fail,” he said.

Overall, however, the experience has proven helpful both for American Airmen and their British counterparts.

“Our engineers are embedded in the AMU,” said RAF Chief Technician Smith, who accepted a one-year extension of his tour at Creech so he could help the AMU deploy here. “There’s no difference — it’s not, ‘I’m Royal Air Force, he’s U.S. Air Force.’ We’re totally embedded in the unit. Because of that, we pass ideas to one another, and I think the unit’s far better for it.”

The sharing of ideas has improved maintenance operations in general, Captain Camacho said.

“It provides a different perspective,” he said. “It’s like going into a brand-new unit: you see everything differently.”

The blend of American and British Airmen has provided some unintended benefits as well, RAF Chief Technician Smith said.

“They watch our soccer, and we watch their American football,” he said. “And I’ve got them drinking tea. How many tea bags have we gone through since we’ve been here? Hundreds — we have to have a constant resupply of them. The cultural differences have melded together, and we’ve got a kind of unique culture within our unit because of the mixture.”

Don Branum 

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