Deep in the desert of south-central New Mexico is a school unlike any other, where Air Force pilots learn to fly the MQ-9 Reaper. A multi-mission remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), the Reaper has a range of duties, from scouting the battlefield to killing high-value targets like the late Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
But as the school churns out hundreds of new MQ-9 pilots a year, the facility itself is falling apart. Airmen contend with a sinkhole under the building that threatens its stability, toilets and pipes that overflow and leak, and classrooms that do not have enough network ports or electrical outlets to support lessons on flying a 21st century aircraft.
The Air Force had $85 million lined up in the 2019 defense budget to fix the facility, but that money was diverted to help build a wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The move angered New Mexico lawmakers and left RPA pilots at Holloman Air Force Base in the same ramshackle conditions.
Though the building is still safe for students, it costs four times as much money and man-hours to maintain than other facilities at Holloman, where the school is located, according to the base’s chief spokeswoman.
“Conditions are sufficient enough to conduct Formal Training Unit (FTU) operations that produce operationally ready MQ-9 aircrew; however, significant facility challenges remain,” Denise Ottaviano, Holloman’s chief of media relations, told Task & Purpose. “While the building is safe, it is not ideal, nor commensurate with other (even older) military training facilities.”
“Overall, it is not the world-class training facility we need for our next generation of aviators,” she added.
One Air Force officer with over 10 years of experience flying RPAs such as the Reaper put it more bluntly:
"When I hear crews talk about it, they're like 'oh my god, that place is a dumpster fire,'" he said.
‘There is a performance difference'
The officer, who spoke with Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity in order to provide a first-hand perspective of conditions at the base, said the decrepit facility has a direct effect on morale for the instructors there.
“There is a performance difference,” the officer said. “We try not to pick on anyone for it, but clearly it has an effect.”
The instructors at Holloman already have a heavy workload. In fiscal year 2019 alone, the base churned out 511 MQ-9 pilot and sensor operator graduates, Ottaviano said, with the program expected to train 310 MQ-9 pilots and 310 sensor operators during this fiscal year.
Under such a heavy workload, relatively small problems — such as not having enough network support for a classroom lecture — can start to add up.
“When the lesson calls for a computer program and there’s no working ethernet jack, you’re like ‘this lesson is going to go poorly,’” the officer said. “It's like 'I know I'm not supposed to be demoralized, but it's 4 a.m. and I'm putting together another briefing and I'm exhausted' ... They have a massive workload in a condemned building and instruction quality suffers because they are exhausted.”
Building 302, as the facility is called, wasn’t originally designed as an RPA pilot training school. It first opened in 1942 as an aircraft general purpose shop, Ottaviano explained. Since then, it has served as an aircraft maintenance facility, weapons shop, civil engineer warehouse, academic facility, and housed an F-117 Stealth Fighter squadron before standing up MQ-1 and MQ-9 training operations in the mid-2000s.
Over the years, all the added mission requirements and insufficient upkeep funding has led to plumbing, electrical and HVAC problems, Ottaviano said, as well as issues with mold and bats in the ceiling.
“I do know they had to temporarily close one of the entrance doors a few years back,” the anonymous officer said. “Too much bat guano when the base civil engineers couldn't find a way to permanently clear the infestation from the rafters.”
Now the building has an ultrasonic chirping emitter to drive the bats and birds away, the officer said, but other problems still linger. The sinkhole, for example, poses a threat to the building stability, Ottaviano said, the building doesn’t have the space to hold all squadron members for a mass briefing, and students often can't plug in their computers all at once.
"A typical class of 20 students cannot all plug in their computers at the same time, due to a lack of network port and electrical outlet availability," Ottaviano said, adding that technicians found there is no additional capacity for network connectivity within the building.
Not all Reaper instructors work in Building 302, the officer said: The 9th and 29th Attack Squadrons of the 49th Wing are housed in buildings that are in good condition. However, the 6th Attack Squadron is stuck with the one falling apart, the officer said.
While some instructors can rise above the infrastructural problems, it has a demoralizing effect on most, the officer explained.
“They get cues from the infrastructure,” he said. “They don’t take it as deadly seriously as they should be. They’re working very hard, it’s just you’re not getting the quality level you’d expect when learning the art of war.”
A fix that went south
To fix the myriad problems facing the facility, the Air Force dedicated $85 million in the fiscal year 2019 defense budget to building a brand new MQ-9 training center at Holloman. According to Ottaviano, it would have been quite snazzy, complete with MQ-9 simulators and ground control stations with secure brief/debrief capabilities and enhanced classrooms and training rooms that “could have enabled the MQ-9 FTU to produce higher quality MQ-9 aircrews,” she said.
“I visited the current training facility at Holloman earlier this year,” Heinrich said in a news release at the time. “The building is falling apart, with some equipment being held together with duct tape. To say this facility, which supports training for 100% of the Air Force’s MQ-9 crews, urgently needs to be replaced would be an understatement.”
Heinrich leveled his anger at Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March.
"That money was taken by our president to pay for third century technology being deployed along our southern border,” Heinrich said. “I want to know what the plan is, because these folks are training in very substandard conditions, over a sinkhole in a building that couldn't pass code enforcement in a third world country.”
In response, Goldfein said his service was “working through mitigation” efforts for the building, but didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. Goldfein deferred to Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s statement that redirecting funding towards the border wall would not have a significant impact to overall defense of the country.
“That’s where the Joint Chiefs are right now,” Goldfein said.
Sen. Heinrich questions Goldfein on MQ-9 in this clip at 4:38:
The encounter was an interesting one, the anonymous Air Force officer who spoke with Task & Purpose said, because Goldfein has shown strong support for the RPA community in the past.
“This weapon system has been a game changer,” said Goldfein about the Reaper at the Joint Base Andrews Air and Space Expo last May. “It not only does the persistent (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance), but the attack business better than anything else we have.”
RPAs like the Reaper are one part of Goldfein’s vision of integrated airpower. In that vision, RPAs, manned aircraft, and every other asset in the Air Force arsenal is connected via an Advanced Battle Management System that would allow the military to locate, identify and destroy a target faster than ever before. The anonymous officer also pointed out that Goldfein flew MQ-9s while serving as Combined Force Air Component Commander.
“They’re finding new ways of doing business, so we stay ahead of the adversary and they have no place to hide,” Goldfein said of Reaper pilots during a visit to Creech Air Force Base in January 2019.
"So if there's essential agreement from the service chief, support from the legislature, and increasing demand for the Reaper in places where the operations have absolutely nothing to do with counterterrorism, why would an essential need continue to be ignored?" he asked.
Goldfein and other senior Air Force leaders "would like to fund this facility, but in a large bureaucracy there are many needs in many places, and the staff at a headquarters has surprising power to sneak some needs up the priority list and bury others," the officer said.
Some within the Air Force have either misunderstood the MQ-9 or disagreed with RPAs being an integral part of both conventional and special operations for the long haul, he added.
"I think they see it as a 'cost center' and a parasitic drain on the budget," he said.
Even without the $85 million originally allocated in the fiscal 2019 budget, the Air Force could have prioritized the facility, but did not, the officer said. So the question is, why not? The answer, according to the officer, is rooted in a deep competition within the service over what the future of the branch will look like.
To drone or not to drone in the U.S. Air Force
The broader issue behind the dilapidated facility at Holloman is the role of RPAs in Air Force operations, the officer argued. The Air Force has a predominant fighter pilot culture, and with that culture comes the sense that Air Force operations should remain centered on manned aircraft.
Some airmen “want to get the Air Force back to what it was before 9/11,” the officer said. “It would be like Top Gun, but that might as well be a Civil War film at this point.”
As an example, Gen. Mike Hostage, then chief of Air Combat Command, said in 2013 that Predator and Reaper RPAs "are useless in a contested environment," according to Foreign Policy. "I couldn’t put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it."
At the time, and in more recent months, American RPAs were shot down by Iran or Iranian proxies, sometimes requiring protection from manned aircraft. However, the Reaper proved it may have some chops for air-to-air combat in 2017, when one used an air-to-air missile to down a drone in an exercise.
Brig. Gen. Julian Cheater, who was then commander of the 432nd Wing, an MQ-9 unit based at Creech, told Military.com in 2018 that he and his colleagues hoped to develop "tactics, techniques and procedures to make us survivable in those types of [air-to-air combat] environments and, if we do this correctly, we can survive against some serious threats against normal air players out there," said Cheater, who was a colonel at the time.
"We will go participate in 'Red Flag' exercises, and we will drop weapons in testing environments to make sure that we can fight against those type of adversaries," he added.
Sidewinder missiles, additional radar warning receivers, sense-and-avoid technology, and data link networking could help Reaper crews improve their awareness and survivability in a contested battle space, The Drive reported in 2018. They wouldn't become F-22 air superiority fighters by any means, but the ability to shoot back could deter opponents and provide more options for commanders in the field, The Drive suggested.
While the Air Force said it was planning to offer a contract to develop an air-to-air missile engagement simulator for the Reaper in 2018, the branch backed out of the plan in 2019, according to Air Force Magazine.
“Right now, I can tell you it’s not something we’re actively … pursuing,” Col. Dale White, then-program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and special operations forces, told Air Force Magazine. White said Air Combat Command wanted to focus on more advanced technologies, though he didn't seem to elaborate on which ones.
Of course, not all fighter pilots share the view that RPAs are useless in a high-end fight, and even the ones that do are just as invested in preserving national security as anyone else in the branch, the anonymous officer said. The difference is that their vision for the future does not include RPAs in any roles beyond their traditional counter-terrorist or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Social factors also play a role in this vision, the officer explained: “Folks who grew up in a ‘fraternity of pilots’ have a lot of social attachments that demand they preserve the underlying basis of those connections.”
The cultural dominance of the Air Force’s fighter pilot culture is well documented, most recently as the subject of a chapter of a RAND Corporation study on military service culture in 2019:
“The predominance of fighter pilots in high-level leadership roles creates a hierarchy within the service that places fighter pilots first, bombers second, and other specializations after,” according to RAND.
But fighter pilots aren't the only airmen affected by this kind of intra-service tribalism. A lack of coordination between the Air Force’s many different roles, including fighters, bombers, nuclear, cyber, and RPAs threaten to turn the branch into a “conglomerate of activities,” rather than a unified service, wrote RAND.
Still, fighter pilots seem to dominate the branch command structure, according to a 2019 Air Force Times article, and RAND said it "observed little desire to refocus from the dominance of fighter culture among those who serve in the Air Force’s prized specialization."
The Air Force Reddit page has also weighed in on this question.
"Will the RPA mafia ever dethrone the Fighter Pilot mafia?" asked one user on the page in April.
"Not a chance, even if we were down to one manned fighter airframe," answered another, and most other users seemed to share his or her view.
"Nope," said a third.
“Nope, because no little kid wants to be one when they grow up," answered a fourth. "Any movie about them no matter how well made will get buried by a schlocky fighter jet movie, no one wants to watch drones at an air show, very few will go out of their way to build a model drone kit."
One example of the tension between Air Force priorities was Air Force Headquarters’ decision to stop purchasing MQ-9s three to five years early in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.
"The Reaper’s been a great platform for us and has certainly saved many lives," said Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, when he explained the decision to the House Armed Services Committee on March 10. "But as we look to a high end fight we just can’t take them into the battlefield. They’re easily shot down."
Roper said the service would instead start investing next year in developing more advanced drones that could survive a contested airspace; as well as dime-a-dozen, "easily attritable" drones that the military could afford to lose and replace.
"There are things that are more high-end, military-unique things that are meant to be able to survive even in a contested environment," he said. "Obviously a lot of technology will have to go in and they’ll be likely expensive systems."
But the commanders of CENTCOM and AFRICOM pushed back on the decision later that day, saying that the Reaper was "a genuine requirement" against both violent extremist organizations and regional rival Iran.
"Even though the MQ-9 is a vulnerable platform against some Iranian capabilities, nonetheless, particularly in places like the Strait of Hormuz and other areas, it gives us visibility and intelligence gathering capabilities that we might not otherwise have," Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, told HASC on March 10.
AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend shared McKenzie's feelings towards the Reaper.
"We’re in the same boat," he said. "We understand the Air Force would like to transition to higher-end, more capable platforms and they’ll have to divest some of the lower-end stuff, but the lower-end stuff works really well for us in AFRICOM and CENTCOM."
Gen. McKenzie praises the MQ-9 in this clip at: 2:03:30
The anonymous Air Force officer saw Roper's promise to look into lower- or higher-end RPAs as vague, at least compared to the service's very precise requests for fighters such as the F-35 and F-15EX. Instead of investing in new, untested RPAs, the anonymous officer argued in support of modifying the Reaper to make it more survivable.
The Reaper is vulnerable in "its current configuration without having been equipped with any of the standard defensive systems that other aircraft in the combat air forces all have," the officer said. "Why not re-evaluate that configuration if it would solve the immediate problem of survivability?"
However, reporting by The Drive indicates that any aircraft can be shot down under the right circumstances. The Drive reported in 2018 that Saudi Arabian F-15s may have been shot down by Houthi rebels using a new combination of radar and infrared targeting systems. The F-15 crew may have been completely unprepared to deal with such a threat, The Drive suggested.
In general, the officer saw the decision to stop purchasing Reapers as part of a strategy that emphasizes manned aircraft over RPAs.
“Headquarters AF pushed the decision not to keep purchasing [Reapers] because, in some of their minds, if they don't eliminate any competing programs that take up budget and divert all available funds to priorities like F-35, then they're legitimately afraid they'll put the country at risk at some untold point in the future,” the officer said.
“The RPA community is arguing, ‘Actually, by not diversifying your portfolio, and assuming this aircraft has only one role, you're increasing your risk, doing the very thing you're trying to avoid!’” he said.
An age of robotic air warfare
The nature of airpower is changing, the officer said. RPAs, space, cyber and other units will likely play as important a role as manned aircraft going forward. With RPAs in particular, the options could include guarding farflung bases such as Guam against enemy cruise missiles; providing air-to-air missile batteries to defend tankers, transports and command-and-control aircraft; or clearing the path for AC-130 gunships, which might also carry the pilots who are operating the RPAs.
These missions could be performed by manned aircraft, the officer said, but the advantage of using RPAs is that they can loiter in the air for more than a day and require far less fuel and maintenance. More importantly, they don’t put human pilots at risk.
Furthermore, the computing power aboard an RPA might revolutionize the military’s process for identifying and destroying targets, the officer explained.
Today, tracking a target "sometimes literally involves taking a screenshot of the video feed [from an RPA], pasting it into a PowerPoint presentation, and writing up details about the object, then sending that presentation on to another shop,” he said. “It's slow. Like office work in the middle of a knife fight.”
Stick some artificial intelligence in the computers powering an RPA, and you could have the AI operate all its color TV, infrared and other cameras and sensors simultaneously, then send target information back to a crew or attack aircraft and have the right response inbound in moments.
“The threshold we're about to cross, from simple remote control of fighter and attack type aircraft to partnering with increasingly competent machines, is the gateway, potentially, to an age of robotic air warfare,” the officer said. “What makes the difference isn't the wings, the engine, the fuselage, and so forth ... it's computers on board the aircraft and also in the remote cockpits.”
Of course, RPAs can’t do everything by themselves, and the officer emphasized that the goal of expanding the use of RPAs isn’t to push fighter pilots to the periphery, but to achieve “tactical integration,” where fighter pilots and RPAs work together in a cohesive airpower machine.
“I think the message from the Reaper community to the fighter enterprise is not ‘We have no need of you,’ but rather, ‘If we're serious about our trades, we both have great need for each other in the next fight ... we're just not so sure you really share that sentiment,’” he said.
“The MQ-9’s not going to do everything,” he added. “I need the [F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] to do things too.”
Clever back-up plans
As Air Force leaders figure out the future of the branch, there is a back-up plan to move the 6th attack squadron out of the dilapidated building and into an abandoned German Air Force headquarters building at Holloman.
Ottaviano confirmed the plan is being called a “Bridge Solution” and that it is intended to “improve the overall mission reliability” until a new MQ-9 training facility is built.
Depending on which pieces of the solution are funded, the investment would cost anywhere between $1.8 and $12.6 million, she said.
In the meantime, instructors at Holloman will keep training Reaper pilots, the anonymous officer said. However, new RPA student pilots at Holloman now have fewer lessons in flying fundamentals than manned aircraft student pilots, and there is a chance they never will again.
Usually, Air Force aviation students of all stripes attend Initial Flight Training (IFT) in Pueblo, Colorado before moving on to specialized flying courses such as undergraduate pilot, RPA or navigator training, the officer said. However, since novel coronavirus (COVID-19) hit, IFT was temporarily cut from the RPA training pipeline, explained the leadership of the 19th Air Force, which is part of Air Education and Training Command.
"AETC ... reduced student throughput at multiple training locations" to adhere to social distancing guidelines and reduce the spread of the disease, 19th AF leadership wrote in a statement to Task & Purpose.
"As part of the streamlining efforts, we’ve prioritized initial flight training for those students going to undergraduate pilot training; resulting in the suspension of remotely piloted aircraft and combat systems officer student attendance," leadership said.
19th AF insisted that the change was "not permanent at this time," and that RPA student attendance at IFT would be assessed "as real world conditions evolved."
However, the anonymous Air Force officer maintained that the changes were indeed made permanent this week, and that targeting RPA pilots in particular was "a fairly prejudicial move, and one that says, 'we don't think you need the venues we afford other aviators to develop airmanship, because we don't think of you as Airmen,'" he said.
19th AF leadership pushed back on accusations of prejudice.
"There is no prejudice towards RPA operators," they wrote. "RPA training, much like pilot and combat systems officer training, continues to evolve. Each assessment is about providing the right training at the right time for our Airmen."
Whether IFT is coming back for RPA pilots or not, back at Holloman it’s frustrating to keep coming up with back-up plans to make things work at the facility, the officer said.
“The sky’s not falling,” he said, “but we keep having to fight ourselves, and then you see Senator Heinrich yelling at General Goldfein because they both want to be on the record saying that they see the bad conditions and they want to turn the ship.”
Everyone in the Air Force wants to keep America safe, the officer said, it's just that there are competing parties with different visions for how to do that, and some visions appear to have priority over others.
“It can’t be ‘my tribe and only my tribe,’” he said. “We have to get past that silliness. If that’s going on you can’t be making national security decisions.”