Dragons bid farewell to the Predator

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Manuel Martinez)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- We are one community, born in crisis and united in the fight; we are the hunters of those who would prey upon the innocent; we are a family of warriors, and we are indebted to those who gave long hours and years so that we could be at this place today.

Air Commandos assigned to the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, along with fellow members of the 27th Special Operations Wing, gathered to witness the end of an era as the MQ-1 Predator was officially retired during a ceremony in Hangar 196, Feb. 26.

“Today’s ceremony is not just about an airborne weapons system; the history of the 3rd SOS and the development of the AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] enterprise is nothing short of compelling,” said Col. Ben Maitre, 27th SOW commander. “The true legacy of this airframe is not about super-sonic flight performance or massive nuclear payloads – it is about the people who flew and supported this aircraft,” he continued. “It is about this highly dedicated group of problem solvers and tactical aviators.”

During the closing days of World War II, Gen. Hap Arnold famously stated that the next generation of war might one day be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.

Flash forward nearly a half century later when the Defense Department awarded a contract to General Atomics for fabrication of the RQ-1 Predator; the first platforms were flown in 1995 in support of NATO, UN and U.S. operations in Bosnia. It was not until 2002 that the RQ-1 was re-designated as the MQ-1 with the addition of Air-to-Ground Missile-114 Hellfire missiles; adding close air support and target interdiction to its mission of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

For years, the MQ-1 has provided intelligence support to conventional and Special Operations Forces engaged in conflicts around the globe. The platform’s unique capabilities helped provide SOF with an unyielding eye over many battlefields.

On May 13, 2005, Detachment 1 of the 16th Operations Group was stood up with the intent of establishing a unique SOF RPA unit. This small unit of MQ-1 operators worked from small trailers tucked away in a corner of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Later that same year, on Oct. 28, the detachment was officially re-designated as the 3rd SOS.

By March 15, 2006, the 3rd SOS had flown more than 10,000 sorties, logging over 30,000 MQ-1 hours in combat. On June 1, 2008, the squadron relocated from Nellis to Cannon; nine months after Cannon had converted from Air Combat Command to AFSOC.

The 3rd SOS has directly supported theater commanders by providing precise weapons employment, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance with the aid of this unique aircraft platform. The squadron itself was the first RPA unit within Air Force Special Operations Command; a legacy the MQ-1B will be forever part of. Notably, during August 2011, the Predator surpassed one million hours of total development, test, training and combat; a significant accomplishment for the entire Air Force. The 3rd SOS has been considered the go-to RPA unit for all SOF operations and has been hailed the “model” RPA squadron across the Department of Defense.

“In November 2013, the 12th Special Operations Squadron RPA Launch and Recovery unit was born as the 27th Special Operations Group Detachment 1; the MQ-1 may have been approaching its sunset years, but the final chapter of the aircraft’s history was yet to be written,” said Lt. Col. Joshua Hartig, 12th SOS commander. “Standing up this new, first of its kind squadron has proved difficult, but our launch and recovery Air Commandos have accepted the challenges without falter. As the 12th SOS looks toward the future and improved combat capabilities delivered by the MQ-9 Reaper, we pause to honor our old friend the MQ-1.”

Within three months of standing up the 12th SOS, leadership moved over 30 MQ-1 pilots and sensor operators from the 3rd SOS, consolidated all MQ-1 and MQ-9 launch and recovery operations under the new organization, created a 1,250 hour schedule, increased launch and recovery stick time 300 percent, and stood up 10 squadron functional areas.

Leaders also noted that the investment and commitment of personnel and resources to the MQ-1 was a direct reflection of just how much more this small weapon system has allowed AFSOC to do; what it has opened up and allowed the joint force to access in terms of information, kinetic options and situational awareness.

“While this ceremony is about retiring the MQ-1, the story of the MQ-1 in AFSOC is about the people who operated it,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Graham, 3rd SOS commander. “For 11 years those people proved the reality behind the first SOF (Special Operations Forces) truth, that humans are more important than hardware. In my opinion, they have also to an extent called into question the fourth SOF truth, that competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur. The 3rd SOS was born from the emergent necessity for Air Commandos to make the MQ-1 the force multiplier required to meet battlefield needs. And while the road has not always been smooth, there can be no doubt that the unit long ago surpassed mere competence.”

“With the MQ-1 as their tool, the men and women of the 3rd SOS Predator force were adaptive, flexible and creative,” he continued. “They leave behind them a legacy of credibility built on reliable, persistent performance at the leading edge of the fight; a legacy that the 3rd SOS can proudly carry with us as we continue to lead the way in the MQ-9.”

With pride in their eyes and heads held high, leaders and squadron members departed the ceremony, but one thing resonated with certainty; while the MQ-1 is ultimately wires, composite and metal, the professionalism, experience and dedication of its operators and maintainers will forever keep its legacy of success alive.

“Today we say goodbye to the Predator, but not to the spirit of innovation and tactical expertise by which is was flown,” said Maitre. “That spirit will be carried on by the men and women of the 3rd, 33rd, 12th and 56th Special Operations Squadrons; as well as the many other 27th SOW units that execute Cannon’s mission.”