UAS & Robotics

Air Force to offer $15K-a-year bonuses for drone pilots

Global Hawk UAV

For the military, unmanned aircraft have become an essential resource for both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities. But this highly successful and sought-after intelligence platform is only as good as the men and women operating it. And the Air Force, which operates Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk UAV’s, has failed to train and retain enough pilots, leaving it with an overworked force and resulting in a reduced number of combat air patrols, or CAPs. But incremental fixes are on the way.

Following proposals initiated this spring, the Air Force outlined in more concrete steps this week its implementation plan. First, the Air Force will provide bonuses of $15,000 per year beginning in fiscal 2016 for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots, the preferred moniker the Air Force uses for drones.

“Under this proposal RPA pilots would be able to choose between a Critical Skills Retention Bonus of five years at $15,000 per year or nine years at $15,000 per year,” the Air Force release stated. “This bonus is similar in value and commitment to what has been offered to aviators in the past who have similar training and experience. Members who choose either the five- or nine-year option would also be eligible to receive 50 percent payment upfront.”

Second, to “alleviate growing pressure on overtaxed RPA crews,” the Air Force will also draw exclusively from the undergraduate pilot training (UPT) pipeline for one year, while the RPA-unique training pipeline increases from approximately 190 to 300 RPA pilot graduates per year, according to the announcement. About 80 UPT graduates will fill the ranks during this period.

“The most critical challenge we face in this mission area is a shortage of RPA pilots and the UPT grads are the fastest way to address that shortfall without sacrificing mission capability in other platforms,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said. “Actions we take today will allow the Air Force to continue to provide world-class, strike-ready [ISR] over the battlefield and enhance overall combat capability.”

Third, the Air Force has committed over $100 million for additional ground stations, simulators and contract instructors, though this figure is still pending congressional approval. Part of the funds will go toward filling school houses to crank out more pilots with the necessary and proper training. “The Air Force is also turning its attention to ensure appropriate manning deficits are addressed in MQ-1/9 training and at the RPA schoolhouse,” the announcement states. “The Air Force will increase instructor pilot manning at the MQ-1B and MQ-9 Formal Training Unit from 61 to 100 percent due to the combat air patrol reduction and the Air National Guard assistance.”

"We must fully man the MQ-1/9 schoolhouse in order to increase student throughput and replenish the force," Welsh said. "The current demand puts requirements for active-duty RPA pilots at about 300 per year, but our current active-duty training production output is only 180 pilots per year. We are projected to hit 3 million flight hours this fall. We have to get this right." 

The training is critical, as RPA pilots fly over three times the hours per year as manned pilots. “On average, an MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilot flies up to 900 hours per year,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stated. “In comparison, fighter pilots fly an average of 250 hours. Due to the demand for services, the MQ-1/9 enterprise is the second largest in the regular Air Force behind only C-17 [Globemaster III] pilots.”

A damning Government Accountability Report released in April unearthed discrepancies in RPA pilot training before entering into combat situations. “Air Force UAS 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.”

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter approved an overall reduction in the number of CAPs from 65 to 60 this spring. This followed an unforeseen fluctuation in CAPs in which, prior to the meteoric rise of ISIS, the Air Force cut its CAPs from 65 to 55, in accordance with the drawdown of U.S. involvement in global kinetic conflicts. As a result of the emerging ISIS threat, the Air Force increased CAPs back to 65, despite having only the funding and personnel for 55. 

"In a complex global environment, RPA pilots will always be in demand," James said. "Remarkable airmen have ensured the success of the [MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper] programs. We now face a situation where if we don't direct additional resources appropriately, it creates unacceptable risk. We are working hard to put solutions in place to bring needed relief to our Airmen and ensure our actions show their value to our mission."

About the Author

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

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