UAS & Robotics

Air Force takes steps to fix drone pilot shortage

MQ-1 Predator simulator

An airman trains on an MQ-1 Predator mission simulator.

The Air Force is taking steps to ameliorate its serious shortage of pilots for unmanned aerial vehicles, including boosting pay and retention bonuses, training more pilots and reducing the number of unmanned missions.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III this week announced the new initiatives, such as pay increases and bonuses to attract more individuals to the workforce, which follow other efforts initiated earlier this year. Additional steps inlcude providing more funds to missions, augmenting current crew manning, increasing the number of pilot graduates for remotely piloted aircraft—or RPA, the Air Force’s preferred term—and increasing the use of Guard and Reservists along with contractors to fly missions.

The moves address what has been a mounting problem for years. In a startling report released at the beginning of this year, an Air Force memo stated that the Air Force’s Combat Command did not have enough pilots to fly all the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper missions the Defense Department wanted.

One reason for the pilot shortage, which also was flagged by the Government Accountability Office in April 2014, can be attributed to the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.  According to Paul Scharre, fellow and director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review released in 2014 announced it was reducing its drone fleet from 65 orbits, or combat air patrols (CAPs)—each of which typically consists of four aircraft and associated personnel and equipment to allow for 24/7 surveillance of a particular target—to 55. This cut, Scharre noted, was before the highly publicized battlefield successes of ISIS. As a result, DOD increased patrols back to 65, albeit with the funding and resources for 55.     

“Balancing ISR capability across the range of military operations with finite resources remains a challenge,” James said this week in announcing plans to reduce pressure on RPA crews. “In order to best meet mission demands and sustain the force, the [Defense secretary] has approved a CAP reset to improve RPA pilot operations tempo.” Specifically, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has approved reducing thte number of CAPs from 65 to 60.

ISR resources are stretched very thin today with combined manned and unmanned sorties flying daily bombing missions over Iraq and Syria. The increased attention towards the Middle East region has forced DOD to pull resources away from other regions. 

The Obama administration has been pushing for a pivot or rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, which will require a great deal of maritime ISR. Adm. Samuel Locklear, Commander of Pacific Command, told lawmakers recently regarding resources needed in the South China Sea that, “We need to have the types of…ISR assets that allow us to maintain our knowledge of what’s going on. These are globally stressed because of the things we’re doing in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Yemen and many of those assets are similar in type we would use” in the Asia-Pacific maritime region.    

The Air Force also is putting a greater focus on training.  “Current demand put requirements for active-duty RPA pilots at about 300 per year,” Welsh said. “However, our current active-duty training production output is only 180 pilots per year. The new plan aims to add more than 100 additional pilot graduates per year.” 

GAO focused on the quality of training in a new report released this month. “Air Force UAS [unmanned aerial systems, yet another acronym for drones] pilots do not complete the majority of their required continuation training, even though an Air Force memorandum allows pilots to credit operational flights towards meeting training requirements,” the report said. “According to Air Force officials, some Air Force UAS pilots have not completed their continuation training because they spend most of their time conducting operational missions due to shortages of UAS pilots and high workloads.”

The policy to substitute operational experience as training, which eschews formal training in several aspects, was characterized in by a Washington Post writer as “if a baseball player practiced his swing all day long but never threw or caught a ball.”

The pay increases the Air Force are offering jump from $650 to $1,500 a month, and increased retention bonuses are planned for Fiscal 2016. “We’ve improved the Aviator Retention Pay bonus for traditional pilots flying RPAs, making their bonus consistent with other stressed rated officer communities,” James stated. “We are also committed to improving Aviator Retention Pay bonuses for traditional pilots electing to fly RPAs.”

GAO noted that other measures the Air Force has taken to address issues include completing the first phase of a three-part personnel requirement study as to update RPA unit crew ratios in February of 2015 and using a new process as recent as fiscal year 2014 that provides greater flexibility to assign graduating cadets to RPA piloting units.   

The Air Force isn’t alone in having trouble training RPA pilots. GAO also pointed to the Army’s training deficiencies in completing fundamental training for certain units and RPAs such as the small Shadow aircraft. However, the Shadow is used by the Army at the brigade level for ISR purposes, which are typically conducted during ground operations but also used by Special Operations Forces. The military currently doesn’t rely heavily on the Shadow for ISR, GAO said, but maintain a keen focus on training in the future.    


About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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