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.

Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand that to 10 a day by 2019. Each patrol involves up to four drones.

Civilians are not allowed to pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles. They operate only Reapers that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, said Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.

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