Attrition: Pilots Despise Flying UAVs


August 12, 2012: The U.S. Air Force effort to increase the number of large UAVs in service has stumbled because of problems in obtaining sufficient operators. There has been enormous demand for UAV CAPs (Combat Air Patrols) in combat zones. Four years ago there were a dozen CAPs. Now the air force can send up more than four times as many. The major bottleneck is not UAVs but people trained to operate them. Because of cultural factors unique to the air force, it's not been possible to recruit, train, and retain enough UAV operators.

Each CAP requires 3-4 Predators or Reapers (one doing the CAP, one or two in transit to the CAP area, and one on the ground undergoing maintenance and repairs). Each UAV has a ground crew to take care of maintenance and repairs, as well as landings and take offs, while a smaller number are back in the United States actually operating the UAVs. To do this round the clock each CAP requires at least three ground control station (GCS). One GCS is overseas, to handle takeoffs and landings. The other ground stations are back in the United States, where 30 members of the squadron operate the UAVs, in shifts, as it patrols. Currently, the air force has CAPs operating in Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, northeast Africa, and Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that serving as a UAV operator has become more popular within the air force, the training program cannot keep up. The source of UAV operator shortages is the air force decision, in the 1990s, to use TDY (temporary duty) pilots to operate UAVs for three years and then return to fighters, transports, or bombers. This decision was made with the best of intentions because, at the time, UAVs were tricky to operate, there were lots of accidents, and the air force believed that using experienced pilots as operators would help. It did help but created a constant shortage of experienced UAV operators because few TDY pilots offered to stay with UAVs.

Finally, after much pressure from the army and Department of Defense leaders to get more UAVs into the air, the air force made some changes. Two years ago they established a separate career category ("18X") for UAV operators and allowed non-pilots to train as career UAV operators. That brought in more career operators but not enough. Meanwhile the UAV operator force is still dominated by TDY pilots. At this point only nine percent of UAV operators are non-pilots while another 36 percent are pilots who switched over to become career UAV operators. While TDY pilots will slowly disappear from the UAV operator force, it will take over a decade and you will still have to order pilots to go TDY as UAV operators in an emergency.

There is another source of operators but the air force won't use it. While the United States used NCOs as fighter pilots early in World War II, that quickly changed and only officers were allowed. Meanwhile, the enlisted sensor operators have tended to remain with UAVs and the average sensor operator has more experience with UAVs than the average UAV operator. This is one (unofficial) reason why the new UAV operator workstations simply consists of two identical workstations, side-by-side. The sensor operators has access to flight controls (for emergencies only, of course, as well as for redundancy). The fact of the matter is that most of the sensor operators know how to operate UAVs, having learned via flight simulator games. A few have civilian pilot licenses (as do many air force personnel who are not air force pilots) and many have had some time on the UAV simulators, if only to convince some TDY pilots that they can, indeed, operate the UAV. While the sensor operator will rarely (officially or unofficially) operate a UAV, when there is a problem the sensor operator will give advice (based on experience) that will often save the UAV and the reputation of a new TDY UAV operator.

UAVs have become where the action is. There are more UAVs in action over Afghanistan and other war zones than all other air force combat aircraft. So, if you want to see some action you need to be a UAV driver. This has not been enough to lure many fighter pilots away from their "fast movers." The UAV operators, especially those who are not pilots, are not considered the equal of the pilots. This despite the fact that flying manned combat aircraft is now far safer than it has ever been. For a combat pilot who owns a motorcycle or sports car, they are probably safer overseas flying combat missions over Afghanistan than at home because there is much lower risk of death or injury from motor vehicle mishaps. Most of the medals awarded to air force personnel for combat in the last decade have gone to enlisted airmen who volunteer to spend a year with the army in the combat zone, to help with support jobs.

The air force was under a lot of pressure to keep paying TDY pilots flight pay and to award medals usually reserved for success in flight operations. While UAV operators undergo a lot more stress than pilots (because the operators "fly" a lot more each month) the operators are still working from the ground, not an airborne cockpit and so are not given awards and bonuses due real pilots.

But the fighter pilots forced to do a three year tour with UAVs don't regret it. While the duty is often tedious, UAV operators do eight hour shifts, and you are focused on the ground, where the enemy, and the action, is. Instead of a cockpit UAV operators sit in front of multiple flat panel displays (showing system status, maps, chat room discussions with troops and other operators, and video from the cameras), and interact via a joystick, rudder control, and a keyboard. While UAV operators sometimes (in about three percent of missions) fire Hellfire missiles, most of their work is more like a detectives' stakeout, watching for suspicious activity and passing on video, and observations, to the ground troops. Some air force pilots are attracted to UAV duty because they see this as the future, but most existing pilots see it as not what they signed up for and the majority leave as soon as they can. The air force then has to train another TDY pilot, who will also leave after three years and take their experience with them. That will only end when enough pilots decide to become 18Xs and are joined by a sufficient number of non-pilot operators.

Meanwhile, the army already uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation, while the air force insists all operators be officers. The army has no operator shortage. The air force is under pressure (both from within and outside the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators. But it will probably stay with officers or, as the army does with helicopter pilots, using warrant officers (officers who concentrate on their technical specialty and not command duties).

A typical Predator crew consists of a pilot and one or two sensor operators. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is used for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before their fuel is used up. There is also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of "automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors) that are now capable of doing practically all the flying for commercial aircraft. So it was no big jump to install these systems in UAVs and let them go on automatic. Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the oceans on automatic (including take-offs and landings). Using more of these systems for Predator and Reaper eliminates a lot of the human error problems. This solution has been a trend in aircraft and automobile design for over two decades. The boredom of watching video for hours is being alleviated by the use of pattern matching software that can detect movement that is in need of human attention.

Predators and Reapers fly sorties that last, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie results in finding about two targets. About 15 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground troops under fire, and about 20 percent were in support of ground troops engaged in raids. For the ground troops, the UAVs are the most important aircraft up there. The army has its own GPS guided rockets and artillery shells but it does not have enough UAVs constantly monitoring the battlefield.

Predators are mainly reconnaissance aircraft but ones that are capable of carrying out a relatively new airborne mission: surveillance (keeping an eye on one patch of ground for an extended period). Surveillance missions tie up a lot of airborne hours but yield big results on the ground, where lots of enemy activity can be observed (especially at night). The army and marines have developed new tactics to take advantage of these new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. As more Predators become available, the ground troops put them right to work. So far, too many Predators are not enough.

While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GPS or laser guided bombs, as well as the 114 kg (250 pound) SDB, or Hellfire missiles. The Predators cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $11.2 million (although that can go a lot higher depending on what kind of sensors you install).

The Reaper weighs about four times as much as a Predator, carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air force has stopped buying the MQ-1 and now only buys Reapers.


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