This weekend, the Michigan Air National Guard base in Battle Creek holds a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new, cutting-edge mission. The fanfare follows many years of uncertainty, as the base gained missions, lost missions and barely survived a massive downsizing program. Now, its future looks more secure. Soon, the Battle Creek Guard will join what’s become one the military’s most essential, and controversial, missions – drone warfare. WMUK Correspondent Erin Sullivan reports:
If you lived in Battle Creek 15 years ago, you probably got used to the sights and sounds of fighter jets in the skies. Back then, the Guard flew 16 flights a day from its base near Kellogg Airport.
But now, all the military planes are gone.
“This is the hangar that was used for many, many years. But as you can see now there’s not much here. It’s set up for CrossFit.”
Guardsmen at the base asked to keep their names private over fears they, or their families, could be targeted. One of the guys giving the tour, a pilot, points to the tarmac, where grass pops through a patchwork of cracks.
“We actually just mowed this. We mowed the tarmac. So it’s not in use. It’s not even certified anymore. We can’t bring any planes on it,” he says.
Things changed at Battle Creek base as the military’s needs and priorities evolved. Over seven decades, the 110th Wing flew bombers, fighter jets and cargo planes. But by 2013, the last of those planes left the base. Col. Keir Knapp is the Wing’s vice commander.
“The Air Force was looking for a new mission for the base. And one of the biggest growth missions in the Air Force is the Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Mission and a place to put MQ-9 Reapers. So back in late 2012, early 2013, it was decided to bring that mission here.”
MQ-9s are drones, but the military prefers the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPA. They are unmanned, armed airplanes that can fly for nearly 20 hours without refueling, and provide intelligence, surveillance and close air support for troops on the ground. They’re essentially “eyes in the sky.”
The MQ-9s themselves are not coming to Battle Creek, but crews based here will fly them, remotely, around the world – in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The planes have become so ubiquitous in combat and counter-terrorism operations that the Air Force now has more drone pilots than traditional ones.
“This is the most demanded asset in theater. Everybody wants these things overhead because they are so good at what they do,” says one of the new drone pilots in Battle Creek.
Before switching to the virtual front lines, he served 12 years active duty in the Marines, flying heavy lift assault helicopters. He deployed three times to war zones, and in between, spent weeks or months away from his wife and four kids for training or humanitarian missions.
“Marine Corps life was tearing apart my family pretty good and the Marines can attest to that,” he says. “So we had to come home to Michigan and get things sorted out and by all means my family comes first, so goodbye to the Marine Corps. I’m out.”
But it wasn’t goodbye military, as it turns out. When Battle Creek got the drone mission, the pilot says joining back up was a no-brainer. He could use his training and combat experience in a new way and stay close to home.
But it’s a big departure from flight suits and cockpits. Drone pilots can do the job in shorts and flip flops if they want, while sipping coffee. They fly the planes while sitting in leather chairs in front of keyboards and computer screens – sort of like how you’d play a video game.
“When you do put on the headset and you do sit down behind your computer – yes, it is a computer and you are a ways away – but you’re immersed in it, you’re seeing it on your cameras, your plane is there, you’re hearing it in your headset and you’re communicating with guys on the ground,” he says.
Pilots work with two other crew members who analyze intelligence and run cameras on the aircraft. And those three coordinate with many others in the U.S. and “in country” to pull off a mission. The pilot calls it a “big orchestra” of people working to protect troops.
“If a target appears that is threatening our guys, or if they get into what we call a TIC, which is a Troops in Contact, which they’re firing and being fired upon, then we’ll be called to employ the weapons system in defense or offense of the scheme maneuver,” he says.
“There’s a lot of appeal to having a direct impact on the immediate fight on the ground,” says a drone sensor operator, the pilot’s right-hand man during missions. The father of four has served 26 years in the Guard loading cargo planes. He deployed eight times, five to Iraq and Afghanistan. He says working on RPA missions is great at this point in his career. It keeps him close to home and close to the action – even if he’s half a world away.
“You know that if you do your job well, there’s a significant increase in chance that those folks, young men and women on the ground over there are going to be able to see another day,” he says.
Some traditional pilots and crews – those who’ve flown inside real aircraft – have resisted switching to drones, but leaders say there are advantages. For one, fewer American troops are put in harm’s way.
“When I flew my A10 over Baghdad during Iraqi Freedom, we were getting shot at. One of the pilots from this squadron was shot down over Baghdad. In this airplane, there’s nobody in it,” says Col. Keir Knapp. Drone pilots also don’t suffer the physical strains of pulling six Gs in fighter jets, though many say the emotional toll of combat can be the same in the virtual cockpit as in the real one.
Knapp also says with RPAs, the Guard doesn’t have to deploy hundreds of people for missions like it did before. And drones can stay in the air much longer than manned aircraft, making intelligence-gathering more efficient.
But despite the benefits, there’s controversy. The biggest concern for many is collateral damage.
“Drone warfare is problematic for a number of reasons,” says Mike DeWaele, one of the founders of Peace House in Kalamazoo.
“One, there are civilian casualties involved, even though government sources will say that civilian causalities are minimized.”
The White House has said drone strikes between 2009 and 2015 killed at most 116 non-combatants. But those numbers included deaths only in areas outside of active hostilities – not in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, where many airstrikes occur.
Peace House and others have staged protests outside the Battle Creek base ever since the new RPA program was announced. DeWaele says drones make war-making easy, allowing the U.S. to use force in more places, often in secret, and terrorize civilians. He wants the program shut down.
“We have people living in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, places in the Middle East where they hear the buzzing of drones over their head maybe 24 hours a day, not knowing if one of those drones is going to launch a missile at them,”
DeWaele says. The pilot in Battle Creek says collateral damage is a reality of war, when using manned or unmanned aircraft. Though, he offers an assurance.
“The lengths that we go to to do our absolute best that that does not happen can even be frustrating for us, because the lengths are so great and so in depth,” he says. “I mean that is an absolute priority to make sure that that, to the best extent possible, does not happen.”
Leaders at the air base won’t let reporters see inside the former warehouse that’s being converted into the new drone operations building, or say publicly exactly where it is. They’re being secretive for the same reason they wouldn’t allow names in this story – they don’t want that information getting into the wrong hands.
Officials will say the new $6.5-million building should be operational by February, when guardsmen here will join crews at 11 other U.S. bases who now fly drones in combat and humanitarian missions around the world.