The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions.
For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls "combat air patrols," daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.
It's okay, though, because the contractors aren't allowed to shoot anything. Heh. They operate combat air patrols, but they aren't combatants. All righty then.
The only two contractors involved are General Atomics, which is the only supplier of armed drones (Predator and Reaper) and Aviation Unmanned, which is run by a former Reaper pilot and instructor. Neither company will talk about their activities. Undeniably, however, they are deeply involved in what is referred to as the kill chain, in which drones locate a target, map the location, track any movements, light it up with a laser, shoot it, and quantify the result. Air Force commanders claim that the contractors can do everything except laser a target and shoot it (these tasks fall strictly to military personnel) and therefore, the contractors are not technically "combatants".
That's a pretty thin line. I find it of particular interest because I have relatives who do programming for GA, near San Diego, for - yep - drones.