An article in The New York Times confirms what many in Air Force and military aviation circles have know for years: the relentless tempo of UAV operations around the world is forcing many pilots and sensor operators out of the service.
In fact, manning problems have been come so severe the service has been forced to reduce the number of daily “orbits” from 65 to 60–despite increased demands for surveillance and targeting that have come with the rise of ISIS.
Meanwhile, the two-person crew, operating the UAV remotely, can spend up to 12 hours on-duty–and that doesn’t include the intelligence team located at one of Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) sites that support every drone mission. Predator orbits require a minimum of seven intel specialists; missions with Reapers or MQ-4 Global Hawk require even more–up to 37 in the case of the latter system. The intel crew typically covers a 12-hour shift as well, so a 24-hour Predator mission would require a minimum of two pilots, two sensor operators and at least 14 intel specialists. A Global Hawk mission (often lasting 40 hours or longer), would require eight times as many support personnel. Many of those crews have reached the breaking point as well.
Internal DoD and Air Force studies have found drone pilots and the intel personnel that support their mission are not immune to the stresses of combat, even if they are participating across vast distances by remote control. One assessment found that UAV pilots experience PTSD at roughly the same rate as their colleagues who fly over the battlefield. Fears of causing collateral damage raise stress levels even higher, and some drone crews (and support teams) find it difficult to “switch off” the job when they step away from their computer console.
I was fortunate enough to gain a tour of a DCGS facility a few years ago, at the height of the surge in Iraq. A senior NCO confided to me that he was concerned about some of the intel specialists who were on duty that afternoon. Just a few days earlier, they had provided flight following for an Army convoy that was hit with an IED attack. The NCO told me that the “Army unit took casualties,” but wouldn’t elaborate. The look on the faces of his item team suggested they were still dealing with the stresses of that earlier mission. Making matter more difficult, the intel specialists were typically in contact (by satellite radio) with the units they supported, and had to listen to the chaos that unfolded after the attack.
To help UAV operators and support personnel deal with such issues, the Air Force has organized mental health teams, consisting of chaplains and psychologists, who are available to meet with pilots, sensor operators and intel specialists “where they work,” instead of waiting for them to show up at the base hospital’s mental health clinic. That’s an appropriate (and valuable) step, but it doesn’t address the underlying manning issues that are creating much of the stress and job dissatisfaction in the USAF’s drone community.
And those problems won’t be fixed by the current approach. The training pipeline can produce so many pilots and sensor operators each year and with officers who fly UAVs leaving the service at three times the rate of other pilots, well you get the picture. Reducing operations will also help a bit, but combatant commanders won’t allow the number of orbits to dip much below the 60-a-day figure. Conversely, with the ISIS threat growing, there will be renewed pressure to increase the number of missions and provide the surveillance commanders say they need.
The Air Force might be able to fix the manning issue by re-thinking its policies on who gets to fly its UAVs. Currently, those operators are a combination of officers specifically trained to fly drones and pilots pulled from the cockpits of other aircraft. The sensor operators (along with most members of the intel team) are enlisted personnel.
So far, the service has resisted the idea of training non-commissioned officers to fly drones, but operational demands may force a review of that policy. Given the limits of the current training pipeline, the USAF will never produce enough officer drone pilots to fill all available slots, meaning those who do qualify will be worked to the point of exhaustion and burn-out. The cycle will repeat itself as groups of officers reach the end of the active duty service commitment and leave the service. Many experts believe the problem will be exacerbated as more employment opportunities arise in the civilian UAV sector, which is experiencing tremendous growth.
If the Air Force is serious about solving manning problems within its drone community, they might follow the Army’s lead and utilize NCOs as UAV pilots. The Air Force had “flying sergeants” in its early days, but the last NCO pilot retired from active duty in 1958. A few years later, the service also eliminated its warrant officer program, eliminating another source of potential pilots.
Meanwhile, the Army made warrants the backbone of its helicopter squadrons; most of the aviators flying Blackhawks, Apaches are warrant officers, who spend most of their career in the cockpit. It’s the type of arrangement that many Air Force pilots would prefer, since their Army warrant officer counterparts can focus on flying, and don’t have to worry about becoming well-rounded and filling staff billets.
But the USAF believes that pilots should be officers who are college graduates, with a well-rounded background and the ability to (eventually) compete for command and senior officer assignments. It’s the mindset that’s been around since the days of Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Air Forces in World War II, who tried to mandate that all pilots have a college degree. He relented after learning that the U.S. didn’t produce enough qualified college grads (in those days) to meet the AAF’s requirements during a world war. After the conflict ended, the independent USAF began implementing the education and commissioning requirements, which remain in effect until this day.
It’s time for a paradigm shift. The Air Force can keep fighting the current, losing manpower battle, or open up drone pilot positions to new talent pools. Getting rid of Warrant Officers was one of the dumbest ideas in USAF history. Maybe it’s time for them to make a comeback, as the rank for NCOs who complete training as UAV pilots. Model their careers on the path followed by Army warrants flying helicopters and the Air Force might be able to increase the number of daily orbits.
Reviving the warrant ranks would also prove beneficial for retention of intel specialists in the DCGS and other technically-oriented career fields. Reward years of service (and professional expertise) by creating a cadre of warrants who can serve in billets that require that level of competence. It’s worked extremely well for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. No reason the USAF shouldn’t join its sister services in the 21st Century.