UAS & Robotics

Report: Air Force facing critical shortage of drone pilots

Predator B Reaper

The supply of Air Force drone pilots is in danger of falling short of the demand for unmanned missions, according to a published report.

Dave Majumdar of the Daily Beast, citing an internal Air Force memo and unnamed service officials, writes that the Air Combat Command doesn’t have enough pilots to handle all the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper missions being dialed up by the Pentagon.

The increase in demand for unmanned missions combined with the shortage of manpower could soon create a situation “that will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 enterprise for years to come,” according to the memo from ACC Commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, Majumdar reported. A senior Air Force official also told Majumdar that the strain on the fleet of Remotely Piloted Aircraft—the Air Force’s preferred term for unmanned aerial systems—was “at the breaking point, and has been for a long time.”

Use of RPA, of course, mushroomed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and unmanned systems are a primary tool in the battle against ISIS. But although expanded, integrated use of unmanned systems—on land and at sea, as well as in the air—is a key part of the Pentagon’s future plans, operators for the large aerial systems are proving difficult to some by.

Part of the problem could be coming from force reductions in wake of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but within the Air Force, being an RPA pilot doesn’t seem to have a lot of appeal, at least as opposed to piloting manned aircraft. In fiscal 2013, the Air Force recruited only 110 or a targeted 179 RPA pilots, according to a Government Accountability Office report. By the end of that year, the service had filled 85 percent of its UAS pilot positions, but nearly half of them were manned aircraft pilots or training graduates who expected to move on after one unmanned assignment.

GAO blamed the problem party on a lack of foresight by the Air Force, which failed to anticipate and plan for the number of pilots it would need. But another factor is the difficulty of the job, which can involve long hours, rotating shifts—and none of the thrill of actually flying a plane.

In an August 2013 paper for the Brookings Institution, Air Force Col. Bradley Hoagland wrote that the service’s trouble in finding volunteers to operate UAS was large part because of the way pilots are screened and managed.

The number of RPA pilots in the Air Force is expected to reach 1,650 by fiscal 2017, Hoagland wrote, but the growing requirement for Predator and Reaper combat air patrols—the Pentagon wants to have 65 round-the-clock patrols each involving four aircraft by April 2015—“grows at a faster pace than the AF can train personnel to operate these systems.”

He said the Air Force is not properly identifying and developing UAS pilots and not properly addressing the stresses associated with the job. RPA pilots burn out and quit at three times the rate of traditional pilots and the demands of the job leave them little time for the training and education that leads to promotion. RPA pilots had been promoted to the rank of major at a 13 percent lower rate than other officers over the previous five years, he wrote.

Hoagland, who was expressing his own opinions, not necessarily those of the Air Force, recommended better prescreening, including psychological testing, and a more concerted effort to recruit, train and retain RPA pilots. Part of retaining them could include recognitions for their work, such as the proposed medal for RPA pilots and cyber warriors that was scuttled last year.

“The Air Force cannot wait another decade to ensure the RPA community gets professionally developed, recognized, and promoted on par with other officers in the Air Force,” he wrote.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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