- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2015

The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drone missions in global terrorism hot spots as part of the expansion of the military’s drone program. 

For the first time, civilian pilots and crews are operating what the Air Force calls “combat air patrols,” daily, round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect intelligence, the Los Angeles Times reported

Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day but the Air Force has plans to expand those flights to 10 a day by 2019. Each patrol involves up to four drones. 

Civilians are not allowed to pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles while operating the drones and serve in an intelligence gathering role, said Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command. 

“There are limitations on it,” he said, the Times reported. The contractors “are not combatants.” 

But some critics, including military lawyers, say there might be legality issues with the civilian contracts. They contend that civilians are now part of what’s known as the “kill chain,” a process that starts with surveillance and ends with a missile launch.

That could violate laws prohibiting civilians from taking part in combat. 

The use of civilian contractors demonstrated the Pentagon’s growing problem with recruiting and training enough military drone pilots to meet the demand generated by the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The Pentagon requires the Air Force to fly 60 combat air patrols with Predators and Reaper drones each day. They plan to increase to 90 patrols a day by 2019, according to the Times.



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