The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions.
For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls "combat air patrols," daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.
Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand that 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. They operate only Reapers that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, said Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.
"There are limitations on it," he said. The contractors "are not combatants."
Nonetheless, the contracts have generated controversy within the military.
Critics, including some military lawyers, contend that civilians are now part of what the Air Force calls the "kill chain," a process that starts with surveillance and ends with a missile launch. That could violate laws barring civilians from taking part in armed conflict.
The use of contractors reflects in part the Pentagon's growing problem in recruiting, training and retaining military drone pilots for the intensifying air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. It is several hundred short of its goal of 1,281 pilots.
The contractors are Aviation Unmanned, a small, 3-year-old company based in Addison, Texas, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a far-larger firm based in Poway, outside San Diego, that is the only supplier of armed drones to the Pentagon.