The United States Air Force has hired civilians to fly drones to help track suspected militants and other targets across the globe.
The move, which was previously undisclosed, is part of the expansion of the privatization of jobs that used to belong to members of the military.
According to the L.A. Times, civilian pilots and crews now operate combat air patrols, which are daily flights in areas where military operations are taking place.
The civilians provide video and collect sensitive information for the Air Force.
The contractors currently control two MQ-9 Reaper drone patrols a day, but the Air Force intends to expand the patrols to 10 a day by 2019.
According to Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, civilians are not allowed to pinpoint the targets with lasers or fire missiles at them.
General Carlisle said the civilians only operate the Reapers to provide reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence.
“There are limitations on it,” he said. The contractors “are not combatants.”
Despite the fact that the civilians only fly the drones to gather intelligence, there has been some controversy about them being allowed to fly military drones.
Critics of the move contend that the civilians are now part of what the Air Force calls the “kill chain,” which starts with surveillance and ends with missile launching.
The critics also believe that allowing civilians to fly military drones could violate laws that prohibit civilians from participating in armed conflicts.
The Air Force’s use of contractors to fly their drones also highlights the problems that they have recruiting military drone pilots for the air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Aviation Unmanned, a 3-year-old company based in Texas, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., are the companies the Air Force gave the contracts.
Retired Air Force Gen. David A. Deptula, the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, doesn’t believe that the contractors are in danger of becoming combatants.
“Weapons deployment only involves less than 2%” of drone missions,” he said. Most flights provide aerial surveillance or intercept and analyze electronic emissions from the ground.
William D. Hartung, the director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, said, “The best way to avoid this slippery slope is to prohibit any use of contractors to fly any mission involving drones,” he said. “Military aircraft should be flown by military personnel, period.”
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