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    One Limit on the Drone Force: Finding Enough Pilots

    Written by

    Zach Sokol

    Image via AF-North

    Air Force pilots want to be in the shit, apparently. Military action via drone, be it for intelligence, surveillance or fighting purposes has increased exponentially in the past 20 years, but according to a report published by Air Force Col. Bradley Hoagland for the Brookings Institute, the demand for operators may be outpacing the supply of proper volunteers.

    Hoagland published two reports on Aug 6, "Manning The Next Unmanned Air Force: Developing RPA Pilots Of The Future" and "Where Are All The Good Drone Pilots?" which both highlight the military's growing drone army, which lacks the manpower to manage it. 

    According to Hoagland, the remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) sector had around 50 people in the late '90s, and it has grown to greater than 1,300 people. That rate is expected to keep growing, but as the combat air patrol field swells, the Air Force cannot train enough people to fill it out. The Air Force "is not properly identifying and professionally developing these pilots," the report states. 

    It's a bit peculiar that the report skirts past the stress and psychological strains of the position, seeing as there have been numerous articles and research that suggests drone operators experience as much trauma and stress as officers in other military sectors. One piece even cited a survey that stated 48 percent of RPA operators had "high operational stress." While the report acknowledges mental health and PTSD issues that may dissuade new recruits, it mostly focuses on "the RPA community."

    Some of the problems stem from the RPA team "failing" to prescreen and assess fitting pilots, as well as RPA pilots' faltering in promotion, education, and training opportunities. The promotion rate of drone pilots is 13 percent lower than in other military fields. This month's study also claims that there is an attrition rate of drone pilots that is three times higher than traditional Air Force flyers. 

    The report details that there is a whole fleet of unmanned drones, including 152 Predators, 96 Reapers, and 23 Global Hawks. Last year, the Air Force's drone sector was 8.5 percent of the whole branch's aviators, though that percentage may plateau or even drop without people to fly them.

    The colonel suggests five strategies that could benefit the RPA program:

    Standardization: The Air Force must standardize the Pilot Candidate Scoring Method for training purposes.

    Securing Candidates: The assignment process must secure enough candidates for both manned and unmanned aircrafts, plus the US Air Force Academy should mandate participation and successful completion of the Soaring and UAS Airmanship programs before the Initial Flight Screening course that RPA pilots take. Hoarding then suggests that the Board Order of Merit should not be completed until after the Initial Flight Screening. 

    Education Expansion: The Air Force needs to bolster "collaboration with industry and academia" to improve soldiers' knowledge of unmanned systems. 

    Poly-Trained Aviators: The Air Force should create a development strategy to bring officers who fly other aircrafts into the RPA department and monitor their potential for drone operation.

    Recruit, Recruit, Recruit: They need to improve their recruiting plan and zone in on developing a "grass-roots message" for the training and operational communities that underscores the "growing commercialization and strategic importance of unmanned systems." 

    Notice that the strategy plan does not directly focus on psychology benefits for soldiers or issues related to PTSD. Hoagland says "the new generation" of drone pilots is here, and the force must "redefine its 'air-mindedness'" as a result. His strategy plans are undeniably clear, but will this convince soldiers that controlling a plane from base camp is better than getting in one themselves? 

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