Cutting the Pentagon budget: Get rid of officer pilots, let enlisted fly drones

Cutting the Pentagon budget: Get rid of officer pilots, let enlisted fly drones

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to need some radical solutions in order to realize the kind of budget cuts he wants. Here is one that will make the Air Force kick and moan, but I think the argument has merit.

By John Taplett
Best Defense guest columnist

Secretary of Defense Gates is currently searching for ways to trim the Department of Defense’s proposed $550 billion budget for next year.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a perfect case study. They are significantly cheaper to purchase and operate than manned aircraft, and they do not require officer pilots. Officer pilots are necessary in manned aircraft because they make decisions independent of a commander’s control, due to distance and communications limitations. UAVs remove these impediments. Today a team of enlisted personnel can remotely operate numerous aircraft under the supervision of a single officer. Currently, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all use enlisted personnel to fly some UAVs. Yet the Air Force insists on maintaining antiquated requirements that all pilots — including of UAVs — be officers.

A recent internal audit of the Air Force’s UAV training pipelines found that if properly structured, the training cost could be decreased to $135,000 per pilot, an impressive number when compared with the more than $2.6 million the service spends to train a fighter pilot. Of the approximately 1,200 individuals entering the Air Force’s pilot training pipeline last year, roughly half will pilot UAVs. It costs the United States Air Force Academy $403,000 per officer graduate, while it costs less than $45,000 to recruit and train an enlisted service member. If a switch from officer to enlisted UAV pilots were made in the Air Force alone the total recruiting and training savings could amount to over $1.5 billion each year. If all of the services were to begin replacing officers in flight training pipelines with experienced enlisted personnel, such programs could yield several billion dollars in savings each year.

These would not be one-time savings, as maintaining an officer on active duty costs far more than maintaining enlisted personnel. Last year, for the first time, a Navy Petty Officer First Class completed the basic flight standards course, the first step in the Navy’s pilot training pipeline. Before flight pay, bonuses, and allowances this individual is paid $2801.40 a month, compared with the $5117.10 a lieutenant is paid for the same month’s work. These soldiers, sailors, and marines complete highly technical operations with extremely high levels of efficiency and do so at a fraction of the cost of an officer.

It seems clear that some of the billions of dollars in budget savings for which Secretary Gates is searching might be found by more fully utilizing the talents of enlisted service members. UAVs present only one example of how thoughtful planning might be used to provide savings for taxpayers. Re-restructuring the four services by decreasing the number of officers and replacing them with highly trained enlisted personnel will decrease the burden on tax payers and improve the efficiency of our ever ready armed services. America’s enlisted service men and woman are a highly intelligent and talented group who should be trained to rise to meet the opportunities that technology is providing.

John Taplett was a Navy officer on active duty from 2005 to 2010. He currently is studying at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department, nor its components, or of Joe Torre.