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July 23, 2008—When the USAF Weapons School this month kicked off the second half of its 2008 weapons instructor courses, one class was conspicuously missing. The course for Predator and Reaper operators is, for now at least, a casualty of the ever-rising demand for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Nellis AFB, Nev.-based UAV weapons instructor course is on hold for six months, or perhaps a year, as USAF flexes to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ demand for more ISR in Southwest Asia operations.

“I just found that the only way to get a lot of [ISR] into the theater now is for me to take ownership of the problem and galvanize the department,” Gates charged in June. Consider the Air Force galvanized.

“All my instructors were deployed back to the ops units to assist with the surge,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Turner, commander of the weapons school's provisional unmanned aircraft squadron.

The would-be weapons school students and instructors are assigned to Nellis and nearby Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., where a “PCS freeze” is keeping the UAV operators in place. The basic schoolhouse at Creech remains open, however, and is receiving an influx of pilots reassigned through USAF’s “TAMI-21” aircrew management program to serve as UAV operators.

Still, with the Air Force sending every available Predator and Reaper to the sandbox—Southwest Asia—Turner said that instructors are “part of the deal,” most crewing UAV operations from Creech.

The UAVs are working daily with larger intelligence and surveillance platforms, strike aircraft such as the F-16, and joint terminal attack controllers, soldiers, and special operations forces on the ground.

“Today’s ISR is a fast-moving ballgame” with multiple platforms constantly working together, said Maj. Joe Campo, operations director for the provisional squadron. The UAVs track targets, “buddy lase” (provide laser target identification) for other aircraft, secure helicopter landing zones, do battle damage assessment, and even fly forward air controller missions.

Campo is now among those flying Southwest Asia operational missions from Nevada.

It was just in February that Gen. Michael Moseley, then-Chief of Staff, ordered the creation of the weapons school’s UAV squadron. The plan was for it to run a “validation course” to test out the syllabus and certify the instructors during the second half of the year, followed in early Fiscal 2009 by the first regular student instructor class.

This plan was scrapped just weeks before the validation course was to begin.

The weapons school takes the top five percent of operational officers and trains them to be the acknowledged experts in their weapons systems’ tactics and capabilities. The Air Force believes this advanced training is particularly important for systems like the Predator and Reaper, which were both rushed into combat without the normal test and tactics development process.

Most previous UAV operators served “one off” tours, making it difficult to find expertise, Campo said. As soon as possible, the weapons school’s job will be to build the needed experts.