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Drones support Fort Drum activity at as unit prepares for expansion

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FORT DRUM — New York Air National Guard officials like the prospects for their use of unmanned aircraft over the post’s airspace, as they showed off their support Tuesday for the training of the 10th Mountain Division.

“There’s going to be more and more applications of this technology,” said Lt. Col. John R. O’Connor, deputy maintenance group commander of the 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse. “To be on the leading edge of this is pretty exciting.”

Soldiers across the division, primarily the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, are taking part in the post’s Mountain Peak exercise, with the brigade potentially deploying later this year.

On the tarmac behind the airfield’s rapid deployment center Tuesday, one of the wing’s three MQ-9 Reapers received a final preflight check from ground crew members, as a group of Army helicopters flew overhead. Taxiing to the runway, the aircraft quickly built up speed before quietly flying into the distance, as a nearby ground data terminal swiveled to follow its movements.

Col. O’Connor said the aircraft would be used Tuesday to provide support for soldiers on the post’s ranges, taking advantage of the aircraft’s camera.

“More than likely ... they’ll want that visual,” he said.

The mission recreates the common scenario of calling in aerial support.

“They all work together to bring the capability of the aircraft into the fight,” Col. O’Connor said. He said that in the past, the support work has received praise from soldiers returning from deployments.

“These guys come back and say, ‘We know you were out there,’ and that’s a pretty good feeling,” Col. O’Connor said.

The wing, staffed by 25 to 30 airmen, serves in a launch and recovery role, controlling takeoff of the 10,500-pound aircraft before transferring control by satellite to a remote cockpit in Syracuse, where much of the pilot training takes place. The local crews also perform maintenance work.

The wing has operated drones on the airfield since October 2011, and in December received clearance to use live 500-pound laser-guided bombs. The aircraft also can be equipped with Hellfire missiles. However, the wing uses only a model of the missile that simulates its weight and electronic systems but does not fire.

The wing’s three Reapers are housed in a temporary structure next to the airfield’s rapid deployment center.

“It’s a tight squeeze,” Col. O’Connor said. “It’s pretty much nose to tail.”

However, work is underway to expand the space.

A new hangar for the aircraft is under construction with $5.2 million allocated in the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, and is expected to be complete about August. The recently announced fiscal year 2014 budget also includes $4.7 million to expand the hangar to double its size, allowing it to fit four aircraft.

The hangar expansion is the post’s only military construction listed in the new budget.

As Air National Guard drones continue their use on post, the Army is weighing the placement of its own, smaller MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones at installations across the service.

The 3,600-pound aircraft, equipped with up to four Hellfire missiles, is used for surveillance, convoy protection and air support work.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said in a statement that the post could have the drones placed during the 2014 fiscal year, running from this October to September 2014, based on conversations he had with Army officials.

“I am pleased to see this decision moving forward and equally pleased that Fort Drum is relatively early in the fielding order for this new capability,” he said.

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