A lonely Predator drone sits in an airplane hanger at the Creech, Air Force base in Nevada, June, 2015.

A lonely Predator drone sits in an airplane hanger at the Creech, Air Force base in Nevada, June, 2015. PATRICK TUCKER / DEFENSE ONE

Predator Drone Maker General Atomics Flying Spy Missions For the Pentagon

The US military has hired General Atomics to fly some missions — just ISR so far, but what about the future?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that General Atomics began flying new drone missions for the Defense Department in April. The contracted mission began in April. The flights began in August.

The U.S. military wants to boost its drone presence by 50 percent in four years, and it's hiring help. General Atomics, maker of the ubiquitous Predator and Reaper drones, began flying intelligence missions for the Defense Department this month.

It’s not unprecedented for the military to hire drone builders to fly them. Boeing pilots its small, unarmed ScanEagle drone, which has a ceiling of 3,500 feet and a top speed under 250 mph, for the Pentagon. But the Predator is far more capable, typically flies at 10,000-feet and, of course, has an armed variant.

Officials with General Atomics told Defense One that the company began flying surveillance missions for the Pentagon, although they could not disclose the location or mission details.

Currently, Air Force crews fly 60 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols, where one CAP means keeping one aircraft in the air around the clock. The Pentagon wants to push that towards 90 by 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. With Air Force drone crews worn out by wartime operations, military leaders are turning to the Army, U.S. Special Operations Command — and the defense industry.

“Government contractors would be hired to fly older Predator drones on as many as 10 flights a day, none of them strike missions,” wrote WSJ reporter Gordon Lubold.

Some see this as a first step toward allowing civilian contractors firing weapons on behalf of the military, although the Pentagon is not there yet and neither is General Atomics.

Contractors would not have permission to launch Hellfire missiles or other weapons and they wouldn’t be flying armed drones. “I would have reservations personally,” said Chris Pehrson, director of strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. “Policy-wise, I don’t see that happening. There’s always a government authority in a targeting chain like that. Contractors just don’t do that.”

Still, Monday’s announcement marks an escalation in the use of government contractors for sensitive missions involving the collection of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, which can be used for targeting.

ISR is what drone pilots spend the vast majority of their flight hours doing — 99 percent, according to Air Force Col. Jim Cluff. “We will do thousands of hours of ISR to get to one strike,” Cluff said during a recent visit to Creech Air Force Base, in Nevada, a hub for U.S. drone operations. “It’s what we do very well.”

But their success has created an unquenchable demand for their services. The high tempo of operations, particularly in Iraq and Syria, have drone pilots reporting stress, fatigue, and associated issues . In June, Military.com reported that the Air Force is losing its operators faster than it can mint them: “The service trains about 180 such pilots a year, but needs about 300 of them and loses about 240 due to attrition.” Earlier this year, officials said the Air Force wants to add 200 Predator and Reaper pilots to the 1,000 it currently has.

Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said it will be years before the service could be expected to train pilots fast enough to keep up with demand. “While the Air Force is working to increase its recruiting and retention of drone pilots, those efforts will bear fruit over a number of years, rather than in the short-term.”

So the Pentagon is turning to contractors. To fill that need, General Atomics will extend its current training programs into a school for pilots by next March. The company, which already markets a simulator kit called the Predator Mission Aircrew Training Systems, or PMATS , will produce “fully certified and accredited pilots” who receive flight time and training comparable to Air Force pilots. Pehrson envisions the school training 16 to 30 students at any given time.

Can the maker of the Predator handle actual military spy missions? “We’re not going to rest on our laurels. This is something that we’ve developed as an opportunity. We have to still actively pursue it to maintain that marketspace,” said Pehrson.

ISR is a natural fit for a contractor-flown mission, he said. “A good example would be Gorgon Stare,” a system built around the 1.8 billion-pixel Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System or ARGUS. It’s the equivalent of having 100 Predators constantly surveilling a medium-sized city. “That would be something very conducive for a contractor to operate,” he said.

(The size of the Gorgon Stare is more suitable for the Reaper than the Predator, some might argue). But the move is not without controversy. Consider how drones for intelligence collection turned into armed drones in the first place. In 2001, the military was flying Predators on intelligence missions over Afghanistan while experimenting with prototype armed UAVs. The 9/11 attacks changed all that, almost immediately; the U.S. wanted not just to find targets but take them out by remote control. Richard Whittle’s book Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution , describes how Col. William Grimes, then director of the secret Air Force weapons program office called Big Safari, phoned a military scientist as the Towers were still burning. “You’re done with your testing,” Grimes said. “As of right now, your system’s been declared operational.”

In that moment, the Predator transformed from a tool of surveillance to a strike weapon. The U.S. has used it and its descendants to kill at least 3,000 people, according to various estimates .

Stanford ethicist Patrick Lin argues that hiring contractors for Predator ISR operations also “opens the door for outsourcing drone strikes for the first time.” Doing so would “delegate a Constitutional responsibility that only the state has,” he said in an email to Defense One. Private military contractors “often lack the oversight and accountability we demand of military professionals. And ours is a professional military, not a band of mercenaries: they are guided by a professional code of ethics that does not exist with [contractors], even those who were once military,” he said.

The Pentagon may not have plans to allow contractors to fire missiles off drones. But allowing them to feed targeting data to the uniformed trigger-puller takes the world one step closer in that direction.

Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.