Where Are All the Good Drone Pilots?
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have resulted in unmanned aircraft systems, or remotely piloted aircraft, providing more strategic-level effects than any other weapon system in the Air Force inventory. Besides regular use on the battlefield, these intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike aircraft are used as the weapon of choice for the White House to prosecute targets that are a risk to our national security (primarily the al Qaeda network).
As a result, the Air Force has aggressively enhanced its remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities over the last few years and is currently supporting 61 combat air patrols that operate 24-hours per day, predominantly in Afghanistan, Yemen and the North Africa coast. This capability will continue to grow over the next few years due to a secretary of defense-directed requirement of 65 daily patrols by mid-2014.
On the operator front, the RPA pilot career field hovered around the 50-person level in the late 1990s but now exceeds 1,300 and is growing to approximately 1,650 by fiscal year 2017. However, as the combat air patrol requirement grows at a faster pace than the Air Force can train personnel to operate these systems, it is apparent that the RPA career field is not properly identifying and professionally developing these pilots.
Mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder factors aside, there are significant issues that confront the RPA community, and these problems are not receiving the level of attention they deserve. First, the RPA career field is failing to accurately prescreen and assess the most appropriate pilots to fly RPA, which is resulting in an attrition rate during RPA Flight Screening three times higher than traditional pilots. Second, RPA pilots are unable to meet promotion education and training opportunities commensurate with other officers, resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of major over the last five years.
The Air Force must take a new approach and reevaluate the personnel programs that most effectively contribute to this vital mission. First, the Air Force must standardize the Pilot Candidate Scoring Method, which measures a pilot’s ability to be trained, across all commissioning sources and incorporate psychological prescreening tools for the selection process for pilots. Second, the assignment process must ensure that there are enough rated, qualified candidates to meet Air Force-wide requirements for manned and unmanned aircraft. A volunteer for one pilot specialty is a volunteer for all pilot specialties. In addition, the U.S. Air Force Academy should mandate participation and successful completion of the Soaring and UAS Airmanship programs prior to the commencement of the Initial Flight Screening course, and the Board Order of Merit should not be finalized until after Initial Flight Screening. Third, the Air Force needs to expand their collaboration with industry and academia in order to glean lessons learned and best practices for unmanned systems, and then incorporate them into curricula at the academy and ROTC units. Fourth, the Air Force should establish a rated force developmental plan that cross-flows rated officers from other Air Force aircraft into RPA and tracks these high-potential officers for future education, training and command opportunities. Fifth, an aggressive enterprise-wide recruiting strategy and strategic communication plan is needed. This should focus on placing RPA mentors at all commissioning sources and include a grass-roots message in the training and operational communities that highlights the growing commercialization and strategic importance of unmanned systems, as well as the high-tech and savvy personnel that are required to fly these systems.
The recommendations above are pragmatic changes that should be implemented to more effectively identify and develop future RPA pilots (a career field that now produces more pilots than traditional fighter and bomber pilots combined). They are based on a continuum of education and learning from day one at one of the various commissioning sources all the way until promotion into the senior leadership ranks within the Air Force.
The sooner the Air Force fully integrates these aviators into its professional developmental plans, the more effective the RPA community will be in recruiting, training and retaining high potential officers. With more RPA-experienced senior officers, the Air Force will also remain on the cutting edge of this new technology and its employment.
In summary, the Air Force mission is to “fly, fight and win,” and the personnel that support this mission must be assigned at the right place and the right time to more effectively fight our nation’s wars. The new generation of unmanned aircraft systems pilots is here, and the Air Force must redefine its “airmindedness” culture in order to lead the country into the next decade of aviation innovation and greatness.
To read Col. Hoagland’s full report click here.