Command center for drones coming to Horsham air base

Posted: March 20, 2013

A command center for military drones will open this fall at the Horsham Air Guard Base, bringing a controversial instrument of U.S. foreign policy into the Philadelphia area.

The ground-control station for the remotely controlled aircraft will open Oct. 1 and be established by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 111th Fighter Wing, the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs announced Monday. It is expected to create about 250 jobs, including 75 full-time positions.

Master Sgt. Chris Botzum, spokesman for the 111th Wing, said the jobs would likely range from pilots to security personnel and a variety of administrative positions.

The base is adjacent to the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station, which closed in 2011 and where local officials hope to build a mix of residential, recreational, and retail facilities.

The drones, which are used in warfare, on killing missions, and in surveillance activities, will not be located at the base; pilots and sensory operators at the command center will operate drones flying overseas, Botzum said.

The type of drone expected to be controlled from the base is the MQ-9 Reaper, an aircraft with a 66-foot wingspan mainly used in "hunter/killer" missions, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Reaction from local officials Tuesday was almost universally positive, with statements of support for the project being offered by Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey; Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, who represents the district where the base is located; Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, whose district borders the base; a spokeswoman for Gov. Corbett; and Horsham Township Manager William T. Walker.

"This is good news," Toomey said in a statement, adding that the new employees will provide a "valuable service that enables our military to achieve its objectives without putting Americans in harm's way."

Drones have become a controversial topic in national discourse. The Obama administration has been criticized by civil-rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, for its increasing use of drone strikes, which have been used to kill individuals in countries, such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where the United States is not at war.

Reliable information about overseas drone strikes is difficult to discern, since government officials have often declined to acknowledge the scope of the drone program. But reports from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation estimate that at least 400 drone strikes have been carried out in Pakistan and Yemen since 2002, resulting in at least 2,400 deaths, with the majority of the victims being considered militants. Both organizations show an increased use of drone strikes under President Obama.

Two weeks ago, criticism of drones reached the Senate floor when Rand Paul (R., Ky.) staged a nearly 13-hour filibuster to delay the nomination of John Brennan as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, which has reportedly carried out drone strikes. Paul said he was filibustering because of a letter he received from Attorney General Eric Holder that did not rule out drone strikes within the United States.

Fitzpatrick praised the program for bringing high-tech jobs to the region, but said: "I share the concerns of many Americans regarding their domestic use. I look forward to visiting the facility to ensure that our freedoms are protected both at home and abroad."

Walker, the Horsham township manager, acknowledged the heated national rhetoric surrounding drones, but said he did not think it would be an issue locally.

"There won't be any actual drones here," he said. "It is a controversial topic on the national level, but since there won't be drones flying in and out of here, I don't think it will affect us."


Contact Chris Palmer at 609-217-8305, cpalmer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @cs_palmer.

Inquirer staff writer Jessica Parks contributed to this article.

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