Air Force Drone Pilot Crisis Years in the Making

By Sandra I. Erwin

Military drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, celebrated a big milestone in May when they launched their 65th "combat air patrol" over a foreign war zone. That marker was a significant "mission accomplished" moment for an Air Force that had been under intense political pressure for four years to build up its drone forces.

The goal set by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 was to deploy enough drones to provide 65 combat air patrols by 2013. The number indicates how many aircraft are available for duty over a 24-hour period. Back in 2008, the Air Force could only provide 33 combat air patrols.

The high spirits at Creech were short lived, though. When Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James visited in June, she saw a pilot corps that was struggling to keep up. "Talks with the RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots and the sensor operators, and their leaders certainly told me that this is a force that is under significant stress, significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations," James said this week at a Pentagon news conference.

Despite doubling its capacity over the past five years, the supply of Air Force drones has not grown as fast as the demand. And nobody at the Defense Department apparently had predicted this.

Officials had speculated that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan would ease the need to provide 24/7 aerial surveillance and to launch missile strikes from Predator and Reaper drones. But the opposite has happened. There are far fewer U.S. boots on the ground now in both war zones and that is precisely why drones are relied upon more than ever.

In the air war that the United States is waging over Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, there are no "joint tactical air controllers" on the ground to direct fighter jet crews and drone pilots where to drop bombs and fire missiles. Most of the intelligence on enemy targets comes from video downlinks from Predators and Reapers.

Under high-level orders to avoid civilian casualties, commanders are ramping up drone surveillance to be able to better identify enemy targets hidden among civilians.

"You have to clearly try and de-conflict friend from foe. You have to minimize civilian collateral damage," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. That de-confliction is easier if there are U.S. military operators on the ground with friendly forces. Remotely piloted aircraft are now the primary source of intelligence in Iraq and Syria, Welsh said at the same news conference.

The breakneck pace of drone operations, even with 65 combat air patrols available, has alarmed Air Force leaders who fret about the potential consequences of burnout among pilots.

"These pilots fly six days in a row. They are working 13, 14-hour days on average," said James. By comparison, an average manned aircraft pilot in the Air Force flies between 200 and 300 hours per year, while RPA pilots fly from 900 to 1,100 flight hours per year. "These are very stressful operations because mistakes can cost lives," she said.

James this week unveiled a litany of new incentives designed to expand the drone pilot corps and retain the current force. "Experienced operators are nearing the end of their active-duty service commitment, which means they will have a choice in the not too distant future to either stay with us or leave the Air Force," she said.

To help ease the strain, the Air Force plans to activate more National Guard and reserve pilots. It will also seek recently qualified active-duty RPA pilot volunteers who have gone back to fly their original manned aircraft and are willing to deploy for six months of additional drone-flying duty. The Air Force also would delay the return of some of the RPA pilots who were on loan from other airframes.

Compensation, too, is being revisited. Current policy does not allow the Air Force to offer retention bonuses to RPA pilots who are only qualified to fly unmanned aircraft. "We think we need to get this changed and we're working to do so," said James. Under her existing authority, she approved an increase of monthly incentive pay from $650 to $1,500 for RPA pilots.

Drone pilots now receive the same flight pay that a pilot on any other airplane gets. The difference is that pilots of manned aircraft, when they reach the end of their initial commitment, are offered aviator "continuation pay" of up to $25,000 a year to try to keep them in the service longer. That incentive is not available to RPA pilots. "The next step is to pursue aviation continuation pay similar to what our manned aircraft pilots get for the RPA force," Welsh said.

In a major policy reversal, the Air Force might even consider assigning drone-flying duties to enlisted airmen. "We should look at the enlisted force as a potential approach to more RPA pilots," Welsh said. "There are some pluses and minuses."

Welsh acknowledged the drone pilot shortage is a crisis that has been building up over the past seven years. "The biggest problem is training. We can only train about 180 people a year and we need 300 a year trained. We are losing about 240 from the community each year," he said. Training 180 and losing 240 is "not a winning proposition."

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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