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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Listening and leadership: An airman’s perspective on the enlisted pilot proposal

There’s been plenty of discussion about the growing disaster in the MQ-1/9 remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) world.




By Captain Michael W. Byrnes, USAF
Best Defense guest columnist

There’s been plenty of discussion about the growing disaster in the MQ-1/9 remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) world. When a former Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force is openly admitting to Congress, “We’re at our wits end,” you know he’s seriously asking for help.

So when the Senate Armed Services Committee says “Look at every option,” the Air Force’s senior leaders looked… and became entranced with the idea of an enlisted pilot. With this topic, we could talk about any number of aspects academics and attorneys would be fascinated to debate — but there’s been way too much talking about the stakes by everyone except the stakeholders. No, not the pilots, whose exit rates are so alarming they seem to have gotten all of the government’s attention.

Instead, I’m referring to the enlisted airmen serving in the RPA community — the sensor operators, only about 14 percent of whom stay past their first enlistment, and intelligence analysts. I’ve been patiently quiet on this matter for some time now, partly because I already engaged on other RPA issues in a recent Air and Space Power Journal article, but mostly because I’ve been practicing the one thing we all might do well to enact: shutting up and listening to what airmen think, feel, and believe.

For all of the arguing and debating, the senior leader addresses, and the press coverage, no one even bothered to really ask these airmen in RPAs what they think of the idea. One airman named Jake told me he and a few colleagues were asked a one question survey: “Do you want to fly the plane?” That’s not listening, that’s social science malpractice.

I have a somewhat rare vantage point from which to assess this matter. I started my Air Force adventure exactly like the airmen the USAF is targeting for a pilot program, but then was afforded the opportunity to earn a commission at the Air Force Academy. To be honest, the only reason I got to connect those two dots was because a Senior Master Sergeant advocated for me to a commander who really wasn’t fond of this particular Senior Airman in his maintenance squadron. But because solid senior NCOs went to bat for me, anything and everything I do as an officer is a part of our USAF enlisted heritage — my enlisted heritage — an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, and something I tend to remember when I have to make choices… like when to be quiet and listen, and when to speak up.

I’d like to confess something as an Air Force pilot: I don’t actually care about airplanes. I debated even putting in for rated duties when I was a cadet, because what I wanted was to be in a role that let me take care of airmen like others had done for me. In my mind it didn’t matter what job I picked as long as there would be airmen there that I could serve. Being a pilot can mean fewer direct leadership opportunities early on, but it’s also one of the few ways to learn how to apply airpower with your own two hands—and I do love airpower. Some mentorship advice from commanders, who also valued airmen and airpower more than airplanes, helped. A flight instructor’s advice that, “The Air Force needs pilots, and if you have the skill to do that, we could really use it… give the nation your best, even if it’s a tougher road” finally convinced me.

So, I was sent to the premiere pilot training institution in the world–and it was the only period of service where I actually hated being in the service. My classmates loved flying, but I saw it as a means to an end of airpower, and the act of flying was, to me, high stress boredom. I was miserable in the T-38, largely because by design the experience emphasizes different things than what I loved about the Air Force, and my poor instructors had to suffer along with me. The only way out was through, and for me, the only logical destination was the RPA: it uses targeting pods like the ones I used to work on in maintenance, it’s as computer-nerd-intensive as I am, it’s as focused on airpower (and not airplanes) as a pilot could be, and I get as much time in that remote cockpit flying with airmen (both officers and enlisted) as I can handle. How many more signs was I supposed to look for to make that call?

This is the best job I’ve ever had. I love when RPAs bring clarity to the Joint Force Commander’s picture of the battlespace. I love that we took the MQ-1s to Libya and integrated with NATO fighters to liberate a people. I loved being deployed at a Launch and Recovery site on an Army base and when a young soldier asks, “What do you do, sir?” and I say, “Predator,” he replies, “Oh HELL YES!” I love that our special operations forces actually understand us… and use us to help do the craziest things you’ll never hear about. I love that the DoD, the combatant commanders, the Intelligence Community, and the White House all love the product and want more of the goods. I love getting to serve as Aircraft Commander on Predator and Reaper. Yet still, more than any of that, I love our airmen. So would I share my favorite gig (and favorite seat) with the people with whom I share an enlisted heritage? Absolutely!

But only if that’s what they really want, only if it enables their success in life, and only if it would be the best way to take care of them. Those questions require critical thought and patient attention. I thought I was pretty good at listening to our airmen, right up to the day one of them put a 9mm handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, and I realized I was the last person to ever fly with him. Do you know what we talked about that last day? Tactics shop work. How stupid is that? If I, or anyone, had really listened, and asked enough questions to cut through (what turned out to be) his façade as a high performer, maybe my flight and squadron commander wouldn’t have spent a Friday evening picking skull fragments out of a wall so his parents could see his room (it turned out crime scene cleanup was a contract service that didn’t do evenings and weekends). At that point, I said, “Enough.”

Enough to self, that is. No more time wasted time chatting about what I’m interested in to fill the conversation space. Real listening. Active listening. Insightful questions that don’t let problems lurk beneath the surface. Actual trust, which costs time, energy, consistency, and perpetual self-denial; enough to know you can tell me anything short of the commission of a crime (at which point I’d have to forward you to a chaplain before you finish that sentence…). Vulnerability to say the things that really matter, like, “I’m proud of you when you do awesome work… but even if you didn’t do a darned thing right, I’d love you just the same. You can’t earn it or lose it—you just get it for being you.” Do you know what I found out when I got that serious about leading, shepherding, and protecting airmen? If they don’t know you and trust you explicitly, they’re not telling you squat. It’s very easy to talk over them in Washington when they’re whispering in Nevada and New Mexico.

I’ve spent a long time listening, and I haven’t heard our RPA airmen even asked to weigh in, which is peculiar since they’re the enlisted airmen most familiar with the mission. Here’s the echo of what they’ve been whispering while everyone else carried on in Washington.

“So you want me to do your job for you on my paycheck? Uh, no thanks, sir, not worth it.” 

“The qualification is cool, but GA [General Atomics] will pay for me to get a real FAA license and make me a pilot for way more, so I think that’s best for my family.”

“You want me to do officer work when you need it, but I can’t earn a commission when you decide I’m over an arbitrary age limit? What happens when you’re done needing me that bad?”

These quotes from our enlisted airmen, and others, state very clearly they want equal pay — and equal respect — for equal work. They want upward mobility commensurate with their potential as human beings and as Americans free to contract with their government as they please. Why are leaders who love airmen every bit as much as I do (and more, in that they’ve done so for decades longer) touting a proposal that disrespects them by trying to get them to be cannon fodder with no plan to provide for their future after that? Why can’t these airman that have the skill to fly also have the same opportunities to rise through the ranks as people like Bill Creech and Chuck Yeager did?

Let me speak directly to those hardworking airmen intrigued by the idea of enlisted pilots and possibly thinking, “I’d like the chance to be a pilot, and I hear it pays great on the outside.” You’ve been denied the decency and mutual respect of the following straight answer: You have no idea what you’re asking for. If you don’t believe me, ask your peers who are in this career field—the ones our USAF leadership ignored while espousing the “goodness” of this idea.

When you sign for a USAF RPA as the Aircraft Commander, life ceases to be about you. We serve as Aircraft Commanders to take care of the rest of the crew — no matter what they’re going through — and lead them. We protect friendlies on the ground. We make independent decisions in the heat of combat with a heavily-armed warplane, sometimes ignoring the inputs of what I used to regard as “officers appointed over me” for tactically-valid reasons I explain to them only after the shooting is over. We kill people in order to keep this nation safe.

The responsibility is extreme, and it is among the most important work our generation is asked to do for the United States. If the Air Force wants you to take on that level of gut-wrenching accountability, it owes you the same resources and authority it gave all the officers to enable them to succeed. That’s what enlisted commissioning programs are all about: preparing one for a new role in the Air Force. If you want an incredible opportunity to directly affect national security, join us in any crew position.

But if you’re thinking about sitting in the pilot’s seat to become the Aircraft Commander, don’t let the Air Force set you up for failure, lock you into a multi-year contract, treat you like a third-class citizen, fail to give you the authority required to execute your immense responsibilities, and then pay you less than half of what the officers make and less than a fourth of what the contractors earn doing the same job. The USAF owes you a commission if it wants you to command its aircraft. Nothing’s beyond your reach if you’re determined to work for it and if our Air Force’s leaders create appropriate opportunities for you.

A career field this stressed is a dangerous place to toy with leadership experiments, because all of life’s challenges are happening in what is arguably one of the most prolifically violent career fields in the history of the Air Force. There is no “mission vs. people” debate here: Aircraft Commanders handle both at the same time. While literally tracking some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, one young man with whom I flew opened up about being raised in a home filled with violence and abuse. One young lady survived being raped — and don’t hide behind palatable terms like “sexual assault,” say it… raped — by a filthy creature who had the nerve to wear the same uniform as us… and she still serves with us anyway because she won’t lose to him. She’s stronger than I’ll ever be. Keep flying, keep running the mission, but don’t miss a word they’re saying to you, because they’ve never trusted anyone with that story before, and if you mess it up they won’t make that mistake twice.

To be fair, most airman I’ve flown with are not directly dealing with issues this serious, but it’s out there — in the middle of combat — and there’s a need for a leadership team to handle it professionally so airmen endure and emerge victorious through tours in combat squadrons. Leadership knows no rank, but assigned roles do shape how we approach it. As NCOs, we focus on mastering regulations and procedural correctness, upholding standards, and setting the example for junior airmen. Senior NCOs do all that, mentor the NCOs… and keep the officers out of trouble. Officership is an art of finding the right answer when the rules cannot be made clear, and that’s why the oath changes when we transition from an enlistment to a commission. We need more amazing people with all three perspectives in the RPA, not to hijack one leg of the triad to attempt to prop up a shortage in the other.

The USAF needs to stop peddling this proposal as “a win for the enlisted corps” and start listening to our enlisted RPA airmen. If enough people who are close to the Secretary and Chief of Staff had listened to the whisper-quiet voices in the trenches, read the lessons of history, or just applied some common sense, our two highest placed leaders would have been given an accurate picture and concluded, “That’ll be a disaster. Go out and find us other options.” Our desire as human beings to achieve success, particularly in a culture that prizes instant gratification, makes us vulnerable to pushing ill-conceived plans that seem like they’ll quickly fix enormously complicated problems… but it doesn’t work.

If there were a quick fix for the RPA crisis, someone would have found it already. Instead, the fixes will take patience, precious resources, persistence, and a propensity to listen closely to what our airmen are really saying, not what we imagine they should say. We need more leadership resources in the cockpit, not fewer. Asking enlisted airmen to be pilots while denying them a commission and dedicated officer training opportunities disregards the human dimension of war and does long-term harm to the very people the Secretary and Chief intended to help.

Michael Byrnes is an experienced MQ-9 Instructor Pilot and began his career as an enlisted airman in aircraft maintenance. This article represents his personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of the MQ-9, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or Jason Isbell.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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