August 17, 2009:
The U.S. Navy, like the U.S. Army, is training NCOs, rather than officers, to operate its larger UAVs. The U.S. Air Force, however, insists that all ground controllers for UAVs be officers, as well as conventional pilots (of manned aircraft). Since most air force pilots would rather fly a manned aircraft, instead of sitting on the ground sending commands to a UAV, they only operate UAVs for three years. This means that the air force has to train a lot of pilots, to provide enough UAV operators. This also means that the air force always has a UAV operator shortage.
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" and "flying chiefs") 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. 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 computer screens 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 excitement of real flying. The air force finally relented and 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.
While the navy has tested the 43 pound ScanEagle on destroyers, the new helicopter UAV, the larger RQ-8A Fire Scout, is being assigned to many surface ships (not just the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, as was originally planned). The navy originally planned to do as the air force has, and use existing helicopter pilots to operate Fire Scouts. But a general shortage of pilots has caused them to reconsider. The Fire Scout is ready to go, and get some real world experience, especially since it is able to fire Hellfire missiles.
The RQ-8A can stay in the air for up to eight hours at a time (five hour missions are more common), has a top speed of 230 kilometers an hour, and can operate over 200 kilometers from its controller (on land, or a ship.) A dozen production models are now being delivered. The RQ-8 is based on a two seat civilian helicopter (the Schweizer Model 333), and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1.5 tons. With its rotors folded (for storage on ships), the RQ-8 is 23 feet long and 9.4 feet high. Max payload is 600 pounds, meaning it can carry hundred pound Hellfire, or 44 pound Viper Strike missiles. Each RQ-8 UAV costs about $8 million (including a share of the ground control equipment and some spares.) The flight control software enables the RQ-8 to land and take off automatically. This aspect of the system helped convince the navy that they did not have to use officer helicopter pilots to operate the RQ-8.
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 large UAV (like Predator or Fire Scout) is attended to by a pilot and one or two sensor operators (almost always NCOs), who monitor what the cameras and other sensors are picking up.