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It’s called a Reaper, and commanders in the Air National Guard think it’s a savior: saving the 107th Air Wing in Niagara Falls from the threat of extinction as well as the lives of American troops in harm’s way.

Then again, to those who oppose drone warfare, it’s a grim reaper, killing indiscriminately and making life during wartime forever cheaper.

Like it or not, though, the MQ-9 Reaper is coming to Niagara Falls – virtually, at least. The Air Force’s most advanced remotely piloted aircraft, or drone, won’t actually be based in the Falls. But pilots who fly them will be.

Two years after fighting off the threat of closure for the second time in seven years, the 107th will officially convert to its new drone mission on April 1. To hear the unit’s commander, Col. John J. Higgins, tell it, that’s just the beginning of a long process that won’t be complete until 2016 at the earliest.

But pilots at the 107th, which is based at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, already are learning to fly the Reaper. And for those accustomed to flying the lumbering C-130 cargo planes that the unit has flown in recent years, this is an entirely new world.

“It’s not like you’re out there flying every day,” Higgins said. “But what’s really different is that you’re going into combat. You can drop off the kids in the morning, fly a mission wherever they need you, maybe even pull a trigger. And 10 hours later, you’re done and you go pick up the kids.”

Higgins stressed the vast majority of drone missions – more than 99 percent – don’t involve pulling the trigger.

But that possibility is almost always there, which is why armed drones are so controversial.

More often, Reapers and Predators, their older cousins, are used to spy on American enemies or help U.S. troops on the ground fulfill their mission, Higgins and other Air Force officials said.

Thanks to their versatility, drones constitute the fastest-growing mission in the U.S. Air Force. And with President Obama proposing another round of base closures in 2017, supporters of the Niagara Falls air base say the 107th’s drone mission will be something of an insurance policy for the facility.

The base narrowly escaped closure during the last round of base shutdowns in 2005. But John Cooper, who heads the Niagara Military Affairs Council, says the base now has two great assets that the base lacked nine years ago: a simulator that’s in development at the Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing, which will be used to train airmen from other bases, as well as a cutting-edge mission at the 107th.

“In my opinion, it’s huge to see that unit get a mission that has a future to it,” Cooper said.

The shift to that new mission won’t come without pain, though. Flying drones is just less labor-intensive than flying planes, which is why staffing at the 107th is expected to shrink from 830 to 609, mostly through attrition.

Higgins said the transition from flying cargo planes to unmanned vehicles will take upwards of three years, although he’s pushing to have his unit’s new facilities ready sometime in 2016, if possible.

The key to that effort will be taking an existing building at the base “down to the studs” and rebuilding it as an ultra-secure facility where, for security reasons, airmen and visitors won’t even be able to bring in their cellphones or car fobs, Higgins said.

Once that $7 million facility is completed, the actual flying in Niagara Falls can begin – although a handful of pilots from the 107th have already undergone training.

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A silent cockpit

It’s a complete change from flying cargo planes, said George, an Air National Guard lieutenant colonel from Buffalo who’s the first pilot from the 107th to complete training and start flying missions at Hancock Field Air National Guard base near Syracuse. Like all Air Force drone pilots who are not top-level commanders, he is barred by the Air Force from disclosing his last name out of fear of retaliation.

Gone are the loud rumbling sounds of an aircraft and gone is the ability for the pilot to look out the windows of the cockpit to get a sense of what’s all around. In its place, there’s a silent cockpit and a series of screens showing views from the Reaper’s cameras.

“It’s like losing one of your senses,” George said. “It requires a different attention to detail. You’ve lost numerous cues you relied on for decades, and you have to compensate for that.”

George also said he could not disclose the nature of the missions he’s flown, but both Higgins and Col. Greg Semmel, the commander of the Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse, stressed that the vast majority of missions do not involve direct attacks on terrorism targets.

“If need be, we deploy ordnance on the adversary, but it’s actually very seldom that that happens – less than 1 percent of the time,” said Semmel, whose unit transitioned from flying fighter jets to Reapers in 2009.

Far more often, the Air National Guard’s drone units track suspected terrorists.

“You might be watching a building for weeks on end,” Higgins said.

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A beam of laser light

Reapers and the crews that staff them also help U.S. military units in other ways, the commanders said.

For example, in 2009 one of the air crews in Syracuse got a distress call from a lost Army convoy in Afghanistan, Semmel said. It was nighttime, and the convoy found itself in enemy territory. A Reaper directed by an airman in Syracuse led them to safety.

The Reaper shot down a beam of laser light that could only be seen by troops using night-vision goggles, and that light guided the convoy to safety.

“We were able to give them direction and lead the convoy out of bad-guy territory,” Semmel said.

That’s just one of the countless possible uses for the Reaper, which can fly in places where manned planes cannot and stay aloft for as long as 15 hours, shooting a spy’s eye view of things back to the United States the entire time.

Higgins said he envisions the day when drones could be used in search-and-rescue missions in the United States, or to provide guidance to disaster relief crews. Last year, he noted, the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing deployed a Predator to track the wildfires that were threatening Yosemite National Park.

The images gleaned from the drone were indispensable in fighting the blaze, fire Capt. Jeremy Salizzoni told the Desert Sun, the Palm Springs newspaper, at the time.

“We’ve been limited to just five reported injuries, which is extraordinary on a fire like this, and I attribute that to being able to give real-time information to crews at the scene,” Salizzoni said.

Of course, that’s not the sort of drone mission that raises the concern among some civilians across the nation.

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Civilian casualties

Civil libertarians and peace activists are worried about the drone strikes that are aimed at terror targets – and the civilian casualties that occur when something goes awry.

Some 2,400 people have died in U.S. drone strikes in the past five years, the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in January, and at least 273 of those killed were civilians.

To people involved in a group called No Drones Niagara, which has already staged several protests at the local base, that’s appalling.

“We are very upset about it,” said Victoria Ross, a peaceful conflict resolution consultant with the Western New York Peace Center and an anti-drone activist. “We’re glad to keep jobs locally, but we don’t think that jobs that are connected to war crimes are a gain for the community.”

In addition to complaining about civilian casualties, critics note that drone strikes indiscriminately kill terror suspects without giving them the opportunity to fight any charges against them. They also note that by removing U.S. troops from the battlefield, drones encourage killing without consequences.

“These drones make it far too easy to kill people,” said Russell Brown of Buffalo, another activist with No Drones Niagara.

It’s not easy, though, for the airmen pulling the trigger.

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Psychological scars

A 2011 Pentagon study found that 29 percent of drone pilots surveyed complained of “burnout,” while 17 percent were identified as “clinically distressed” – psychologically scarred by watching a missile fired from a drone strike its targets and kill them.

Knowing the difficulties that airmen might face when they pull the trigger, the 107th will have “a wing director of psychological health” to tend to anyone who needs help after completing a drone mission, Higgins said.

Supporters of the new drone mission at the Niagara base acknowledge legitimate concerns about drone strikes, most notably regarding the civilian casualties that have resulted.

“I hope we learn from our mistakes,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who’s been involved in efforts to bolster the Niagara base since joining Congress in 2005. “My hope is that as the technology evolves, these issues will be addressed.”

Still, “drones are the wave of the future in terms of air defense,” so the Pentagon’s 2012 decision to bring a drone mission to Niagara Falls can only help ensure the local base’s future, the Democratic congressman said.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican whose district includes the Niagara base, agreed.

“I think this effectively takes off the table the idea of closure of this base,” Collins said.

And while Collins said he, too, was concerned about civilian casualties, he added that it’s important to put America’s use of drones in a larger context.

“The military is doing everything they can in this very difficult war on terror to keep our country safe, and drone missions are part of it,” Collins said. “Absent the drone missions, there would still be quite a few top level terrorists who would still be planning attacks that would result in the death of Americans.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com