Leadership: The Sergeants Shall Not Pass


October 15, 2010: General Norton Schwartz, the head of the U.S. Air Force, has publicly rejected growing calls from air force commanders that NCOs be used as UAV operators. This is an old dispute, going back to World War II. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force struggles to train 400 UAV operators a year, while the U.S. Army recently moved from training 1,400, to 2,300 a year. Most of the army operators use the small (five pound) Raven UAV, which provides platoons, companies and vehicle convoys with aerial reconnaissance. Interestingly, UAV operators each spend about 1,200 hours a year controlling UAVs in the air, versus 450 hours for army helicopter pilots and even less for air force pilots in the combat zone. Most army UAV operators are enlisted troops, while all air force ones are officers. The Raven training only lasts 80 hours, but this tiny UAV was designed for ease of use. It takes about five times longer to train operators for larger UAVs like Shadow and Predator. General Schwartz made this point, in explaining that the largest UAVs, like the Global Hawk, can cross oceans, and requires a high degree of training and skill. But it's much more dangerous to fly a Raven within rifle range of enemy troops, and keep the little bird alive long enough to get the video feed needed to win the battle. Many of these army Raven operators are very, very good, mainly because they have hundreds of hours experience operating their UAVs while under fire. Few air force UAV drivers can claim this kind of experience.

General Schwartz was also getting pressed from above about how the air force operates its UAV fleet. The U.S. Department of Defense has been putting pressure on the air force to automate their UAV operations. The air force initially responded with complaints that they were overloaded. But then it became widely known that, while army UAVs have software that enables automatic take off and landing, similar air force UAVs do not, and this has led to higher UAV losses for the air force. At the same time, the navy, and the British, are developing flight control software that allows pilots to control two or more UAVs while flying their own aircraft. In effect, these pilots would fly into combat with two or more UAVs under their control. The U.S. Air Force is under a lot of pressure to make this happen, so one team of UAV operators can control two or more aircraft.

It's not that the air force can't make this happen, it's just that there's a lot of resistance in the air force to replacing pilots with a lot of UAVs. For example, five years ago, the air force successfully tested software that allowed one pilot to control up to four MQ-1 Predator UAVs. This made Predator operations more efficient, and cheaper. It also helped deal with a problem the air force created for itself; a UAV pilot shortage. The air force long insisted that all ground controllers for UAVs be officers, as well as conventional pilots (of manned aircraft). All the other services use non-pilot NCOs to fly the UAVs. Most air force pilots would rather fly a manned aircraft, instead of sitting on the ground sending commands to a UAV.

Actually, there's not much at stake in this dispute, other than possibly settling the decades old controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground.

As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants" by making most pilots "Warrant Officers" (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties.) Many air force pilots envy the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are piloted from the ground. Increasingly, as the flight control software improves, the pilots do less piloting and more "controlling" (sending a few orders to the airborne UAV, and letting the software take care of the details.) Initially, the fighter and transport pilots ordered to perform UAV duty were not happy about it. In addition to losing flight pay, they were not flying. While guiding a Predator or Global Hawk from the ground could have its exiting moments, there was no hiding the fact that you were sitting on the ground staring at a computer screen most of time. Worse yet, you couldn't "feel" the aircraft in flight. Pilots know well that this aspect of flying is one of the most enjoyable, exciting, and useful aspects of their job. Being a UAV jockey had none of the fun, challenge, or extra pay of real flying. The air force finally decided to give the UAV pilots flight pay, and promise them they could go back to "real aircraft" after two or three years of UAV work.

A fifteen week training course is used to train air force pilots to operate UAVs. Since qualified pilots are taking this course, the washout rate is only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force, until quite recently,  considered UAV controller work  a "temporary assignment." Only recently did UAVs  become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description.

The other services save a lot of money by using NCOs as UAV controllers. Sergeants and Petty Officers are paid less, and they don't get flight pay. No one has been able to demonstrate any better performance on the part of the air force pilots who operate UAVs. In the long run, the enlisted UAV "pilots" will probably be superior, because they are making a career of this sort of thing.

Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically, a Predator is attended to by a pilot and two sensor operators (NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up. Because a Predator is often in the air for 24 hours at a time, and is often flying over an active battlefield, and is looking real hard for specific stuff, the "crew" has to be changed every 4-6 hours to avoid fatigue. Moreover, each Predator unit might have several UAVs in the air at once. The new software means that each shift needs only one pilot, for up to four airborne Predators, and up to eight sensor operators. The pilots also operate the weapons, if any of the Predators are carrying missiles. But most of the time, Predators fly missions without using missiles.

While refusing to let NCOs operate UAVs, the air force has compromised and allowed officers to make a career of it. UAV operators have also been given flight pay, which has been justified by the fact that UAV operators suffer more stress and fatigue from the hours of staring at videos from their aircraft, constantly on the lookout for anything important. Meanwhile, new software (that detects images that might be of interest) will eventually reduce the stress somewhat. The air force has also found that non-pilot officers can also serve as effective UAV operators, and is training more of them for the job. But, at least for now, no NCOs.



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