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Air Force’s Lack of Drone Pilots Reaching ‘Crisis’ Levels

Air Force’s Lack of Drone Pilots Reaching ‘Crisis’ Levels

The fight against the Islamic State is forcing the U.S. Air Force to dedicate more money and personnel to its fleet of surveillance drones, which have been working around the clock to identify and track targets in Iraq and Syria.

The demands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), especially out of U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East, are so high that the Air Force is facing a “crisis” in its ability to fulfill the mission, said the Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. That matters because the information sent back by the drones is used to collect intelligence on enemy locations and guide bombing runs.

Unmanned aircraft are far from unmanned. Instead, the military needs roughly 30 people to operate every Predator or Reaper flying in the air over Syria and Iraq. Analyzing the reams of video the drones send back requires at least 80 more people — either civilians, contractors, or troops.

The Air Force has had trouble keeping up with the demands for surveillance data for years, but now it’s facing serious shortfalls when it comes to pilots trained to fly the drones, or as the Air Force prefers to call them “remotely piloted aircraft.”

“This is a force under significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Thursday, Jan. 15, at the Pentagon.

On average, these pilots work 14-hour days for six days in a row, she said. Where the pilot of a manned aircraft like the F-16 might fly 200 to 300 hours per year, a drone pilot is “flying” an average of 900 to 1,100 hours, according to James.

Now, several of these pilots are nearing the end of their active-duty service commitment and are faced with the decision to stay in the Air Force or to leave, she said. Given the grueling workdays and widespread belief that drone operators don’t get promoted as rapidly as pilots of manned aircraft, a large number may head for the door.

The Air Force, desperate to keep those drone pilots from leaving, is now taking steps to get them to stay, including offering financial incentives. Up until now, drone pilots didn’t qualify for the same types of retention bonuses as pilots of manned aircraft. Now, though, drone operators who are nearing the end of their active-duty commitments will see their additional monthly pay of $650 jump to $1,500.

The Air Force is also going to ask for volunteers to come relieve some of the pressure in these distressed units, James said. This means asking people who are qualified to fly drones but have left the field and now operate different aircraft to return to the drone world.

These steps are just short-term band-aids, though, and Air Force officials concede that they’ll have to make far more fundamental changes if they’re going to keep their drones flying.

Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, who briefed with James, said the service is even considering allowing noncommissioned officers to fly drones, something the Army has done for the last several years. This would represent a fairly dramatic cultural shift for the Air Force, which has long resisted the idea of letting enlisted troops fly aircraft and instead has given that mission solely to officers. An April 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office urged the Air Force to consider the idea.

Welsh said the Air Force is also looking at ways of persuading the crews of aircraft being retired in the other military services to join the Air Force’s drone fleet. Welcoming pilots from the Army or Navy into the Air Force is an unusual, if not unprecedented, move.

The Air Force leadership’s willingness to consider ideas that the service has avoided for years shows just how serious its personnel problem has become.

The direness of the situation was spelled out this month in an internal Air Force memo, obtained by the Daily Beast, in which a top Air Force official said he is worried that today’s drone fleet is being strained to the point of breaking.

According to the memo, which was sent to Welsh by the head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, a “perfect storm” is on the horizon, one in which demand for ISR is going to continue to go up at the same time as the number of personnel devoted to the mission is set to decline.

The Air Force has been struggling for years to keep up with the military’s demands for surveillance information. The assumption was that as troops withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, those demands would go down and the Air Force would finally get some relief.

That belief — which has now proved to be erroneous — was on clear display at a Pentagon budget briefing a year ago when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that instead of growing to a force of 65 around-the-clock combat air patrols of Predator and Reaper aircraft, as previously planned, the Air Force would only need 55.

But those numbers are now in flux thanks to the fight against the Islamic State, which is forcing the Defense Department to accept that it may need more drones and people to operate them than it had initially thought.

“The number of [combat air patrols] is on the upward trend now, not on the downward trend,” James said.

A senior defense official told Foreign Policy in October that with the demand for surveillance information outpacing the number of drones available for missions, Central Command has had to make choices about which missions are most important and that this has limited what it can do in Iraq and Syria. This was partly due to the large demand for surveillance still coming from Afghanistan.

Iraqi officials, worried that the Islamic State continues to control broad swaths of their country, are now asking the U.S.-led coalition to step up its effort to combat the militants. In a meeting this week with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who’s helping to coordinate the alliance, Baghdad asked Washington to expand its training program for Iraqi security forces and to ramp up its air campaign against Islamic State targets, Reuters reported Wednesday. More airstrikes, in turn, would require more surveillance data from Air Force drones.

Perhaps surprisingly, ISR needs are not necessarily linked to the number of troops on the ground, said Paul Scharre, who worked on drone issues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013 and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“When you’re using [drones] to track the enemy, then you need to do that whether you have 100,000 troops on the ground or zero, and in fact your needs might be higher when there’s no one on the ground and you’re deprived of other sources of intel,” he said.

The Air Force’s personnel woes, Scharre said, are partly its own fault. It’s part of the Air Force’s institutional mindset to prioritize higher-end capabilities — like stealth bombers and fighter jets — rather than the less glamorous mission of round-the-clock surveillance aircraft, he said.

“I would expect that the new DOD budget will reflect the fact that the security environment has changed since a year ago with the spread of ISIS in the Middle East. We shouldn’t put hypothetical future wars ahead of real-world threats to the United States today,” he said.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images