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Air Force's only UAV wing marks one year in the fight

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a mission in Afghanistan Oct. 1. The MQ-9 has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high and carries more munitions than the MQ-1 Predator. (Courtesy photo)

An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on a mission in Afghanistan Oct. 1. The MQ-9 has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high and carries more munitions than the MQ-1 Predator. (Courtesy photo)

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle taxis down the runway at an air base in Afghanistan on its way to another wartime mission.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle taxis down the runway at an air base in Afghanistan on its way to another wartime mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper waits for its first mission in a deployed environment on a flightline in Southwest Asia during a deployability test in Sept.  The test was performed by the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 5 and the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron.  (U.S. Air Force photo)

An Air Force MQ-9 Reaper waits for its first mission in a deployed environment on a flightline in Southwest Asia during a deployability test in Sept. The test was performed by the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 5 and the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFPN) -- Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, the 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) commander, congratulated Airmen at Creech Air Force Base May 6 as the 432nd Wing marked its first year as the Air Force's only MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle wing.

"The 432nd Wing has grown exponentially over the last year, in manpower, demand, flying hours, sorties, technology, reach, support for the warfighter and in battlefield capability," said General Seip. "From day one, the 432nd Wing Airmen have been 'all in' in the support of ongoing operations; particularly in operations Iraqi (Freedom) and Enduring Freedom."

The 432nd Wing comprises four operational squadrons, two formal training units and one maintenance squadron. The wing operates nine Reapers and 80 Predators, the most requested Air Force battlefield system in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, said Col. Christopher Chambliss, the 432nd Wing commander.

"Our crews operate the most persistent strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform in the world," the colonel said. "Supporting our brothers on the ground 24 hours a day, 365 days a year is our primary mission. These Airmen are operating on a wartime tempo despite being located within the United States."

The MQ-1 and MQ-9 UAVs are used for strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, flown by pilots and sensor operators in the United States. Since 2001, the weapon systems have operated at "above max surge" levels, with 24 Predator combat air patrols and two Reaper CAPs -- one U.S. and one United Kingdom -- operating within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility at all times.

The MQ-1 Predator, piloted by Creech-based crews, surpassed 250,000 flying hours on June 22, 2007, a feat 12 years in the making. Yet only six months later, the weapon system surpassed 300,000 flying hours. At the current rate, the Predator is likely to surpass 500,000 flying hours before the end of 2009.

"It's a testament to our deployed maintainers, dedicated aircrews and support staff...enabling the Air Force to provide for the growing needs of the warfighter and generate combat sorties," said Colonel Chambliss. "As more commanders learn about the capabilities our systems provide, the more demand for our services continues to rise."

In addition to sorties, manpower at the little-known unit has seen a steady rise since its inception. More than 1,100 Airmen are currently assigned to the wing and its weapon systems in some capacity, with flight crews consisting of one pilot and one sensor operator. Twelve months ago, the unit counted 618 personnel assigned at the stand-up ceremony, a 78% increase.

Despite the operations tempo, training for the future is a critical job at the 432nd Wing. Projections are for Predator missions to double by 2010, with Air Force aircrews and maintainers in short supply. To meet demand, the formal training units expanded from 40 aircrews trained per year to 160 per year. Next year, the FTUs are slated to train 240 aircrews.

"The (Airmen in the 432nd Wg) continue to grow and innovate to meet the needs of the warfighter today and in the future," said Colonel Chambliss. "With so many missions operated by our team each day, the past year's records are bound to be broken in the next. But the real measure of effectiveness is that we have more than doubled the number of 24/7 CAPs we fly, providing persistent ISR and armed overwatch in Iraq and Afghanistan."