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By the end of this year a new high-tech mission involving drones will be playing out just beyond Philadelphia’s borders.
The National Guard Bureau has authorized the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 111th Fighter Wing to establish a ground control-station for the MQ-9 Reaper at Horsham Air Guard Base effective Oct. 1, 2013.
The new mission will fill a void left behind by the phasing out of A-10 Thunderbolt planes in 2005.
“This is great news for Pennsylvania, especially when you consider the government cutbacks nationwide,” Major Gen. Wesley Craig, National Guard adjutant general for Pennsylvania, said in a press release.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a remotely piloted aircraft used primarily to destroy military targets, and secondarily as an information collector. The aircraft is 36 feet in length, has a wingspan of 66 feet and weighs 4,900 pounds when empty. The aircraft will be located overseas and will be operated and monitored from the Horsham base, according to Theresa Katalinas in Hatsboro-Horsham Patch. Remote piloting uses a video hookup that allows the on-the-ground pilot to direct the craft’s movements, launch missiles, and track individuals and vehicles for long periods of time. This practice is presently in use at other military facilities around the U.S.
Controlling these pilotless aircraft won’t come as too much of a challenge to the 111th Fighter Wing.
“Airmen on the ground here will soon be behind the controls of a remotely piloted aircraft being flown in locations far from home,” Col. Howard “Chip” Eissler, commander of the 111th Fighter Wing said. “While the MQ-9 will be a significant platform change from the A-10 Thunderbolt II that we flew for years, the mission will be nothing new for the pilots of the 111th. We have been overseas multiple times in our A-10s, now we’ll be flying overseas missions from Horsham.”
The mission will be supported by 250 new jobs, around 75 of which will be full-time positions. According to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, a “robust recruiting effort” will be conducted to fill these cutting-edge positions. Officials said they are specifically looking for current or former military aviators, but anticipate recruiting and training a range of individuals.
The overseas use of drones by the U.S. military is controversial both inside and outside of official Washington, D.C. The Obama administration has increasingly used drones to find and kill military targets overseas. Critics point to the high risk of civilian casualties when using drone aircraft, and the unease expressed by many throughout the country is also being felt locally.
Dianna Reiser Pax, of Glenside, writes “Well, at least I’m a short drive away from where I could join a protest. (I foresee joining the local Quakers in protest once they find out…)”
Steven Long comments, “TRUST? The Obama administration? I just threw up!”
Others seem to see the mission more positively. Jeannie Kelleher writes, “The drones AREN’T LANDING THERE, JUST REMOTELY doing their job of protecting our country.”
While some view the drone tracking station as good news for the region, others are asking about safety and security. “We are very concerned about the drones in general and about the location close to Philadelphia,” said Gloria Hoffman with the Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia. Hoffman added that the organization is planning to be involved in action around the ground-control station in the future.
Privacy concerns prompted officials to hold a press conference about the new mission. Those concerns surrounded government spying and security issues. Addressing those, Eissler said, “You should trust your Department of Defense.”
This story was produced in cooperation with GIMBY.org, Washington, D.C.-based news blog about the local impact of the federal government.