General Atomics

Unmanned Systems

Should drone training be a joint operation?

The Air Force’s struggles with its drone-pilot shortage, along with plans to have other military branches take a share of the Defense Department’s planned expansion of drone missions, have raised the question of whether pilots of unmanned aerial systems could train together. But military leaders have their doubts.

“We reported that coordinated training between services could help shorten the amount of time the services spend acclimating to each other once deployed and would allow an easier transition to working together during missions,” Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office, said in prepared testimony to Congress on March 16.

“Also, a senior [Office of the Secretary of Defense] official stated that the services may have valuable lessons to share with one another because the services fly similar UAS. He cited similarities between the Air Force’s Predator and the Army’s Gray Eagle,” Farrell said. “However, we found that no DOD-wide training strategy existed and we recommended that DOD issue a department-wide UAS training strategy that addresses if and how the services should coordinate with one another to share information on training UAS pilots. Without such as strategy the services will not be positioned to capitalize on training opportunities and may waste scarce resources.”

But while seemingly prudent, a joint training program could be unrealistic, according to several military leaders. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle and the MQ-9 Predator, while similar in some ways “are totally different systems,” Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, told lawmakers. “The training, the tactics, techniques and procedures doctrine would be similar but the actual training on the system between the MQ-9 and the MQ-1C are significantly different.” The MQ-1C is much closer to a MQ-1 Predator, which the Air Force is phasing out, Carlisle said.    

“There’s a significant difference in the technology and how they’re operated,” said Gen. David Perkins, commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. “Ours are, it is point and click from the ground station, it’s not a stick and rudder…and then they’re automatic take-off and landing. So those are very difficult skill sets to train somebody with.”

Perkins noted that the Army’s drones are flown by enlisted men and supervised by warrant officers while commanded by commissioned officers, as opposed to the Air Force, in which the fleet is flown strictly by officers (though, the service recently announced that it will soon allow enlisted men to fly the high-altitude ISR-only RQ-4 Global Hawk).

He contrasted the Army’s UAS operations with those of its helicopters. “Obliviously with our Apaches, Blackhawks and Chinooks, the pilots, the warrant officers, commissioned officers are actually flying them, dealing with the dynamics, the stick and rudder and all that, so there’s great skill involved with that,” he said. “With our unmanned aerial systems they are completely automated. So it’s automatic take-off, automatic landing and then it is point-and-click in the ground station, so that’s why we referred to our unmanned aerial systems really being operated by our sergeants, soldiers and warrant officers, doing a great job, but the actual physical activity is significantly different.”

The Air Force, in addressing the pilot shortage, has issued what it calls a get-well plan, offering bonuses and other quality-of-life improvements to pilots under its Culture and Process Improvement Program.

The Air Force currently has only 83 percent of its targeted UAS manpower, which keeps those pilots involved in combat missions, without any dwell time, Carlisle said. “So every mission they fly from the day they come out of training and they show up at their unit is combat. That’s unsustainable. So we have to build more capacity into the [remotely piloted aircraft] enterprise so that a portion of the force can do continuation training, can do other things, can improve the system, can take some non-combat time during a tour.”

This sentiment is felt across the force. “Essentially, right now we don’t have the opportunity to train because we are pretty much all in on the current engagement level,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, said at a Feb. 16 breakfast hosted by AFCEA’s Washington, D.C., chapter. “One of the challenges we face right now is they’re so employed that when we go out and do something like Red Flag [a training exercise] they’re not there all the time,” Brig. Gen. John Rauch, director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Capabilities told reporters after the event.      

For the Army, Shadow operators are at 100 percent and the Gray Eagle manning is at 98 percent, Perkins said. DOD announced last year that it will increase the number of global Combat Air Patrols, or CAPs, from 60 today to 90 by 2019, with the Air Force maintaining its current 60, the flying up to 16, Special Operations Command as many as four and contractors flying 10 solely ISR CAPs.    

The Air Force has taken measures to address these shortfalls, however. “We have been making progress,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters recently. The number of pilots in each class has risen to 24 from 12, and the Air Force expects to train about 334 pilots in fiscal 2016, up from the previous average of about 180. For fiscal 2017, the service is hoping to train 384.

In addition varying methods of operation, the nature of mission sets between the two services is starkly different as well. The Air Force’s RPA fleet is a theater asset, meaning it provides an amalgam of services to joint force combatant commanders within their area of responsibility, coordinating with both land and maritime components. The Army’s fleet, on the other hand, is “organic to our maneuver brigade combat teams,” Perkins said. “So they are working, generally speaking, for a battalion commander or brigade commander [and are] are organic to that organization.”

This tactical capability means that battalion or brigade commanders can call in close air support with immediate effects. “Having commanded an infantry division in Iraq where I had these assets, it was—as long as I was operating underneath my rules of engagement—it was somewhat instantaneous,” Perkins said of strike capability.

About the Author

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

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