Support: The Reachback Revolution


July 12, 2014: European nations are rapidly adopting a concept that the U.S. began developing in the 1990s and used frequently after September 11, 2001; reachback. This is where some parts of a unit ordered overseas stay in the United States, and use Internet like communications capabilities to do their work from their home base. Sending fewer people overseas is a major advantage, as it means less transportation, and supply effort, is needed. Since the 1990s it has been noted that modern communications make it practical for some support units to stay behind, with no loss in effectiveness in the entire unit. Reservists make for better reachback troops, because they have to go through more additional training before being sent overseas. Moreover, the reservists can be taken on and off active duty, as the workload changes.

France recently tested using reachback for the Harfang UAVs it has sent to Niger to deal with Islamic terrorists. Reachback has long (since before September 11, 2001) been used by larger American (like Predator) UAVs. It involves operating UAVs with crews connected via satellite communications. The French test showed how their Harfang (similar to the Predator) UAV in Niger could switch control between an operator in Niger and one back in France while the UAV was in the air. The U.S. Air Force also does this so that the local personnel can land the UAV. This is becoming less common as the use of automated takeoff and landing software is used.

Recently the United States established an intelligence base in Niger, which is the eastern neighbor of Mali and just south of Algeria and Libya. Only a hundred Americans are stationed there, most of them to maintain several American UAVs that fly surveillance missions over Mali. Thanks to satellite communications, this base has hundreds of other people involved in what it is doing, almost as if they were there, by using reachback. For example, most of the people actually operating the UAVs are back in the United States. UAVs are very labor intensive, as you need a pilot and one or more sensor operators for something like the Predator or Reaper. In addition, you need shifts of operators because these air force UAVs typically stay in the air for 12-36 hours at a time. So having the operators back in the United States greatly reduces the number of people you have overseas. The UAV maintenance crews get the aircraft ready for take off and on the airstrip. But after that the crew back in the U.S. can take over.

Reachback also works for intelligence work. The intel personnel in Niger are mainly there to work with local counterparts and provide them with intel collected by the UAVs and other sources. The Niger intel group are in constant contact with intel personnel in AFRICOM headquarters (in Germany, which is the same time zone) and those in the United States (like the Pentagon and SOCOM, both six hours away on the east coast of North America). The growing use of reachback over the last decade has occurred because the concept works. It enables a lot of troops to operate from a foreign base without being there. Many other nations are noticing.






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