November 7, 2009: Last month, the U.S. Air Force created four new UAV squadrons (29th Attack Squadron, 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, 16th Training Squadron and 849th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron). All these new units are actually training squadrons.
The air force is training 220 operator crews (each with a pilot and one or two sensor operators) a year. In two years, this will increase to 400 a year, which will enable the air force to run 50 CAPs (Combat Air Patrol; UAVs in the air over a combat zone) simultaneously. The large number of new crews are needed because the pilots only operate UAVs for three years, before going back to manned aircraft.
It was only two years ago that the U.S. Air Force formed the first UAV Wing (the 432nd). The Wing began with six Predator and one maintenance squadrons. Each Predator squadron has at least twelve UAVs, and sometimes as many as 24. Squadrons sometimes have over 400 personnel and 24 aircraft. But the air force prefers to keep them smaller (12 aircraft and about 200 airmen).
Only about two thirds of those troops go overseas with the UAVs. The rest stay behind in the United States, and fly the Predators via a satellite link. When in a combat zone, each Predator averages up to 200 hours in the air each month. Each aircraft flies 6-10 sorties (also known as CAPs) a month, each one lasting 15-25 hours.
Air Force Wings, which are roughly the size of army brigades, are the largest units in the air force, aside from the numbered air forces (1st Air Force, 7th Air Force, and so on). There used be Air Divisions (composed of two or more Wings), but these were phased out in the 1990s. By next year, the air force expects to have fifteen Predator squadrons, and two or more Predator Wings. At that point, about ten percent of U.S. Air Force combat squadrons will be equipped with UAVs.