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US Air Force hiring civilian pilots for military drones

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft taxis during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, November 17, 2015. (AFP photo)

The US Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly combat drones--a move some critics say is illegal.

The Air Force hired the pilots to operate Q-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets all over the world, the Lost Angeles Times reported Friday.

The contractors are part of a small, 3-year-old company called Aviation Unmanned and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a much larger firm based in San Diego, which is also the only supplier of armed drones to the Pentagon.

A redacted Air Force document which approves the secret contract with Aviation Unmanned notes that the "lack of appropriately cleared and currently qualified MQ-9 pilots is a major concern."

The five-page document, dated August 24, says the company will provide pilots and sensor operators for government-owned Reapers to help respond to "recent increased terrorist activities."

The move to hire civilians for military purposes is part of a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of Air Force operations.

This will be the first time civilian pilots and crews operate what the Air Force calls "combat air patrols," which are daily round-the-clock flights collecting video and other sensitive intelligence from areas of military operations.

The Times added that the private contractors carry out two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand the figure to 10 flights a day by 2019, with each patrol involving up to four drones.

The report noted that these civilians are not allowed to strike targets with lasers or fire missiles.

They only operate drones that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, according to Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.

"There are limitations on it," he said. The contractors "are not combatants."

However, the decision has stirred controversy within the military, where 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 to take out a target.

This might violate laws designed to keep civilians from taking part in armed conflict, they argue.

An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft is parked in an aircraft shelter at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, November 17, 2015. (AFP photo)

The Reaper is a larger, heavier and more powerful version of its strategic sibling Predator. Both aircraft are manufactured by General Atomics.

The Pentagon has tasked the Air Force to fly 60 daily combat air patrols with Predators and Reapers. Military planners look to achieve 90 patrols a day by 2019.

The US drone program began as part of the so-called war on terror under former President George W. Bush and expanded dramatically under President Barack Obama.

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