The Air Force has selected eight bases as candidates to host remotely piloted aircraft operations.
The service has been looking to expand operations of the MQ-9 Reaper outside of the current base, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
The first four finalists are: Eglin AFB, Florida; Tyndall AFB, Florida; Vandenberg AFB, California; and Shaw AFB, South Carolina.
If selected, one of those bases would hold a full Reaper wing, with launch, recovery, mission control, maintenance, and operations support elements, with an expected fleet of 24 MQ-9s.
The Air Force is also looking at five bases to host mission control operations, though no RPAs would physically be located on the base.
Those finalists are: Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona; Moody AFB, Georgia; Mountain Home AFB, Idaho; Offutt AFB, Nebraska; and Shaw AFB, South Carolina.
According to a press release from the Air Force, those bases "currently have an active-duty flying wing or group that performs at least one core remotely piloted aircraft mission and/or is co-located with an active-duty distributed ground system."
The bases are only expected to host the MQ-9 Reaper, as the Air Force's other main strike RPA, the MQ-1 Predator, is on schedule to be retired by 2019.
The next step, the Air Force said, is for Air Combat Command to conduct on-site surveys at all eight bases to assess cost, mission impact, infrastructure, and personnel.
The service has been evaluating new locations for RPA wings "to help diversify assignment opportunities for personnel within the MQ-9 enterprise," the Air Force said.
RPA operations are in high demand. Currently the Air Force flies about 60 drone missions a day, with plans to grow that to 70 in the near future. The service has been ramping up the training pipeline as well, doubling the normal class size from 12 to 24 airmen.
And to help with intelligence flights, service leadership announced that enlisted pilots would be eligible to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Yet top brass has said they are encountering difficulties retaining RPA pilots and operators. Culture surveys released by the Air Force have often listed one of the primary reasons as being only a single location in the U.S. airmen and their families could go to: Creech.
"We are using the strategic basing process to determine the best locations for hosting additional locations for the MQ-9 mission," said a statement from Jennifer Miller, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary for installations. "As we go through the basing process, we will use the information we collect to help us determine the affordability and potential locations for expanding the MQ-9 enterprise."
Lawmakers who represent the selected bases welcomed the news Thursday evening.
"Today, [Davis-Monthan] made the cut from 19 bases to the final five because [of] our robust command and control and communications infrastructure and overall high quality of life for airmen and their families," said Rep. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican and former A-10 pilot. "The RPA missions will be vital to the future of the force with the potential to continue growing, which makes this a great opportunity for Tucson and DM."
Likewise, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said she was glad to see Offutt selected.
"From the start, I believed Offutt was a strong candidate and I’m pleased to see the Air Force’s recognition of the great things Offutt has to offer," she said. "The base has capacity for growth and an immensely supportive community. Above all, it offers its airman exceptional quality of life. I believe it would be a perfect fit for the unit and look forward to the Air Force’s site evaluation later this year."