A day in the life of a UK Reaper LNO
In order to provide the UK MQ-9 Reaper support to operations around the world, the RAF not only relies on the 2 frontline Squadrons based at both Creech AFB, Nevada and RAF Waddington to fly the missions, but also on the Launch and Recovery Element (LRE) team and the UK Reaper LNO in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC). Both of these being the primary deployment options for serving members of the UK Reaper Force (UKRF). Having spent just over 4 months in the role of the LNO, it falls to me to describe a little bit of what I experienced throughout my time in the CAOC.
Upon arrival on day one, the first thing to hit me was the scale of operations in what appears to be a relatively unassuming hardened shelter. Following a complex arrivals process which requires the collection of multiple passes that allow you to venture further into the Operations Centre, you eventually reach the main floor. The vast number of screens, computer stations and nations represented in such a small space is truly impressive and this feeling of awe stuck with me throughout the entire deployment. However, there was very little time to take it all in initially as I had to get stuck straight into the handover process, which gave me the first accurate understanding of exactly what would be expected of me in the coming months.
Whilst the job itself is relatively steady on a quiet day, what I found to make my time in the CAOC so enjoyable was the feeling that there was always a problem to solve or a new task to achieve just around the corner. The result of which you would often see played out on the large projector screens on the main floorplate, with all eyes looking in. The core task of the LNO role revolves around communication and with 2 Squadrons and the LRE working in 3 different time zones, this was often the biggest challenge. I would spend much of the time answering phones, sending emails and trying to remember who sits where within the CAOC, no simple task. In order to meet tasking requirements and to balance the support to operations with the training requirements of the UKRF I would spend a large portion of my days making amendment requests to the Air Tasking Order (ATO) and ensuring that the aircraft were launched with the required loadout.
Also falling under the role of communication was building relationships with our coalition partners, particularly the Americans. Ensuring that all of our mission reports are formatted and passed on correctly was another task that required lots of walking around, trying to remember who it was I needed to speak to, and where they worked within the CAOC. Building these relationships was key to making the job manageable as there were numerous times that I was unable to answer a question/fully understand a situation, but just knowing who to speak to was often the solution.
The final role that the LNO has to fulfil is providing an understanding of the MQ-9 and advice on how we operate to the UK National Approvals Authority (NAA). This was particularly crucial when it came to employment of weapons and last minute changes of tasking. Being able to work alongside people from a variety of backgrounds in this role led to not only building a wider understanding of the MQ-9, but also learning about how other assets operate and trying to discover how we might best work together in order to accomplish whatever task it was that we were facing. Often these busier days led to an organised social in the evening which allowed plenty of time to unwind, often revolving around a BBQ or ordering pizzas! The facilities on the base rival those of a normal base in the UK. With both indoor and outdoor pools, multiple gyms, bars, coffee shops and even a shopping mall, I found I was never short of anything to do during any down time.
Overall, my time as the UK Reaper LNO was an incredible experience that at times pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but helped me to develop a much greater understanding of the daily processes that we rely upon and gave me the opportunity to directly influence operations and watch it play out. Having had a bit of time to process what I have seen and been part of for the past 5 months, I cannot recommend highly enough the experience that working in the CAOC provides.