Horsham Air Guard Station 'excited' about operating drones

Col. Howard Eissler, commander of the 111th Fighter Wing, announces the creation of the ground-control station for military drones.
Col. Howard Eissler, commander of the 111th Fighter Wing, announces the creation of the ground-control station for military drones. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 23, 2013

In 2005, the Air Force announced that it would begin phasing out the A-10 Thunderbolt planes that operated out of the Horsham Air Guard Station. Not long afterward, officials at the base began a years-long search for a mission to fill the void.

The fruit of that search - a ground command center for military drones, announced this week - received a full airing Friday in a news conference at the base by a cadre of military personnel and elected officials.

"We're very excited about this mission," said Col. Howard Eissler, commander for the 111th Fighter Wing, which will establish the project, adding that it would be an "enduring mission" that will generate about 250 jobs, 75 of them expected to be full-time.

The drones are not expected to be piloted out of the Horsham Air Guard Station as the A-10 planes were. Instead, Eissler said, pilots and sensory operators will command the remotely controlled aircraft from Horsham as the drones fly overseas.

Establishing the command center is expected to cost between $7 million and $10 million, Eissler said, and while it will be considered an active mission on Oct. 1, he said it would take about two years for the command center to be fully operational; pilots need to be trained and facilities need to be modified, he said.

The staffing additions will be a significant boost to the base, which currently has about 750 Air Guard employees, 175 of whom are considered full-time.

And elected officials at Friday's news conference were quick to note their support of the project because of the jobs it would add.

"This is a very, very big day for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," said U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks), whose district borders the base.

Part of the staffing additions will be an increased emphasis on security, Eissler said, though when asked whether he thought the base could become a target, he said no.

"I don't think the threat is any more increased," he said.

Drones have been a controversial instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The Obama administration has come under fire from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union for using the aircraft to kill militants in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia where the United States is not at war.

But the mood at the news conference was generally ebullient, with military personnel expressing excitement about the new mission and elected officials sharing their delight at the prospect of adding jobs to the region.

The military "will continue to be an important part of the fabric of our community," said State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), who represents the district where the base is located.

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

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