> our title:

Predator UAVs Piloted from New Ohio Base

> original title:

Recon Patrols, Piloted from Springfield, Go on Around the Clock; Secrecy Surrounds Base’s New Missions

(Source: Springfield News-Sun: published June 16, 2012)


SPRINGFIELD, OH. --- For the first time since the dawn of the jet age, the Springfield Air National Guard Base is quiet. Gone are the fighter jets that were a frequent sight and sound in Clark County skies from 1955 to 2010, replaced by two new missions that can neither be seen nor heard.

The missions — remotely flying Predator drones and analyzing intelligence — managed to retain 804 local jobs when it appeared the base, at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, might become a victim of the military’s post-Cold War downsizing.

The quiet, it turns out, couldn’t be more misleading. Personnel at the Guard base spent decades prepping for war — but now they’re at war, 24 hours a day, and they never even have to leave home.

“Us not telling you anything just makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing,” said Col. Gregory Schnulo. He took over last summer as commander of the 178th Fighter Wing, which is in the process of being renamed the 178th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing. Schnulo, a 50-year-old former KC-135 navigator, agreed to discuss as much as he could about the base’s secretive new direction.

“We want to share with the community what we’re doing,” he said. “We just can’t right now.”

Since February, 200 local guardsmen have remotely flown MQ-1 Predators around the clock on combat air patrols. Schnulo would only say that they’re operating drones overseas.

Controlled entirely from Springfield via a satellite data link, the unmanned Predator is used mostly for reconnaissance. However, it also has a kill capability in the form of two laser-guided Hellfire missiles.

That’s in contrast to the larger, faster and deadlier MQ-9 Reaper, which primarily is used in a “hunter/killer” role, according to the Air Force.

Most combat air patrols flown by guardsmen in Springfield are in support of ground commanders, Schnulo said. “When troops are going down for the night,” he explained, “if they can have an RPA (remote piloted aircraft) over top of them, it gives them a huge level of comfort.”

Many of the base’s F-16 pilots began retraining to fly the Predator in August 2010 — the year specified by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, for the unit to lose its jets and F-16 flight school. New pilots have come aboard as well.

Combat air patrols also are flown with a mission intel coordinator — a mix of officers and enlisted crewmen — and an enlisted sensor operator who works the plane’s cameras.

The first time the 178th flew combat air patrols, in the mid-1990s, pilots had to physically deploy to the Middle East to fly their F-16s over Iraq’s no-fly zones.

Because of the new missions, the local base now has full-time mental health specialists — a chaplain and a director of psychological health — on staff for the first time. “I was brought on full-time to help deal with stress,” said Chaplain Lt. Col. Elaine Henderson. Henderson, an ordained Church of God minister, is believed to be the first full-time chaplain in the Air National Guard.

Describing herself as “very well utilized,” she said operational stress hasn’t been a problem. “Even with the new mission, life still happens,” she said. “It’s a little bit quieter here, but their life issues have not changed.”

Of the new missions, Schnulo said, the Predator mission is the most sensitive because it’s happening in real time. Only those with the right security clearance can even get close to it.

Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Stahl, the unit’s public affairs superintendent, said, “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never even been in the building.” Another 300 guardsmen on the base are working to analyze data and imagery for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

NASIC, centered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, provides predictive intelligence for warfighters and policymakers, from giving ground personnel threat assessments to assessing emerging technologies that could be used against the U.S. in air, space or cyberspace.

Jobs at the Springfield base now bear such titles as geospatial analyst and intelligence operations specialist.

One of the base’s four new intelligence squadrons performs computer network exploitation for the 659th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group at Fort Meade, Md.

Schnulo said the 178th is the first of Ohio’s four Air Guard wings to fly remote piloted aircraft, and the only one in the nation to have a combined reconnaissance/intelligence mission. “This wing is going to be able to do things other wings won’t be able to,” Schnulo said. “This is the future.”

Personnel who left the wing when the BRAC process stripped the unit of its jets now are submitting requests to return, Schnulo said. “Now word’s getting out, ‘Hey, this is a good deal,’ ” he said. “This is the place to be.”

Even so, 47 jobs in Springfield’s NASIC mission — in addition to 1,000 other Air Guard jobs statewide — are at stake in President Obama’s defense budget.

-ends-