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The Air Force Brass Shall Not Be Swayed
by James Dunnigan
May 10, 2014

The U.S. Air Force inability to obtain enough UAV operators, and the low morale of the UAV crews it does have has now attracted the unwanted attention of Congress, which ordered its own investigation of the matter. This GAO (Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress) effort interviewed and surveyed a representative sample of UAV operators and found that problems already reported in news stories were largely true. That is, UAV operators were overworked and that the air force was unable to get as many as it needed. This meant that existing crews had to work longer hours. This caused a lot of stress. 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. The problem is that UAV operators (most of them pilots of manned aircraft) get none of the enjoyable aspects of flying (operating a jet, especially a fighter) and a lot more of the drudgery (constantly monitoring what is on the ground). Operators did report that the air force had addressed a lot of the earlier problems (poor training, loss of career opportunities, especially promotions). The main problem was that few UAV operators wanted to be UAV operators. And those few who did choose it as a career were just as worn down by the grind as everyone else.

As of 2013 UAV operators were nearly nine percent of all air force pilots, triple the percentage in 2008. The air force is unable to get enough manned aircraft pilots to “volunteer” to do a three year tour as a UAV operator and cannot train non-pilot officers fast enough to be career UAV operators. A lot of pilots are getting out of the air force in part because of the prospect of another three year tour with UAVs. At this point UAV operators leave the air force at three times the rate of pilots of manned aircraft. Worst of all, UAV operators are not shown the same respect as pilots who go into the air aboard their aircraft. All this would go away if the air force allowed NCOs (sergeants) to be operators of the larger UAVs but the air force leadership is very hostile to that idea. Despite the new GAO study, the head of the air force continues to insist that all UAV operators be pilots, an air force tradition dating back to World War II.

Currently, only the army allows enlisted troops to handle larger UAVs. The U.S. Air Force has consistently and publicly rejected growing calls to even try this out. NCOs are eager for this kind of work and often are better at it than officers who are experienced pilots of manned aircraft. This is believed to be caused by the fact that operating a UAV is more like using a consumer-grade flight simulator game than flying an actual aircraft. The NCOs often have lots of experience with video games and get better the more they actually operate UAVs. This is especially true with the widely used Raven.

Most of the army operators use the small (2 kg/5 pound) Raven UAV, which provides platoons, companies, and vehicle convoys with aerial reconnaissance. 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. The air force points out that the largest UAVs, like the Global Hawk, can cross oceans and require 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. You 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.

Another argument in favor of NCO pilots is the fact that most special operations troops (Special Forces, SEALs and pararescue) personnel are NCOs. These troops undergo much more strenuous selection and training than pilots and are quite satisfied with being an “operator” all the time without any mandatory detours in the name of being “well rounded.” The air force leadership is not swayed by this, for them there is something undefinably wrong about putting NCOs in the pilots seat. The air force brass shall not be swayed, even these NCO pilots never leave the ground.

In 2012 the U.S. Navy decided that officers, or only NCOs with flying experience, would operate UAVs weighing more than 25 kg (55 pounds). That means only one of the current navy UAVs can be operated by enlisted sailors. This is the ScanEagle, which weighs 18 kg (40 pounds) and can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight and fly as high as 5,200 meters (16,000 feet). The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16.1 meter (50 foot) pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship. The larger navy UAVs, like Fire Scout and Global Hawk, plus the X-47B (still in development), will require officers at the controls. This “officers only” approach is not as troublesome for the navy because they have fewer large UAVs and don’t operate them as intensively as the air force.

Commanders closer to the action believe NCOs could do the job and that would eliminate the shortages and morale problems with officers doing it. In large part this is because of expectations. NCOs know what they are getting into and consider operating UAVs as a step up and a rational career choice. This is nothing new and the controversy over NCOs or officers being pilots began at the start of World War II, when the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants" or "flying chiefs" in the navy) 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. This worked quite well and many countries continued using NCO pilots throughout the war.

The “officer only” began in the United States during World War II as the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty AAF (Army Air Force, 2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak). Back then the capable and persuasive AAF 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 AAF 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. That meant the air force had to constantly find and train new pilots to volunteer for UAV duty.

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, for a long time, considered UAV controller work a "temporary assignment." Only recently did UAVs become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description. That helped a bit, but most of the pilots of manned aircraft still avoid UAV duty.

Unlike the traditional "pilot and crew" arrangement for aircraft, larger UAVs, like the Predator, are operated by a team. Typically a Predator or Reaper 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 eventually each shift will need 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. That is less the case with the larger Reapers, which are considered combat aircraft because of the large range of weapons they can carry (including smart bombs).

The core of all this is the fact that software is replacing a lot of pilot functions and, eventually, taking the place of human pilots. Many larger UAVs already have the ability to take off, follow a predetermined course, carry out a mission, and then land, all by itself (or "autonomously"). One can make a case for officers being in charge here but as commanders of the autonomous UAVs, not their operators. This is the ultimate solution and probably one reason why the air force keeps insisting that UAV pilots be officers. Flight control and pattern analysis software takes a lot of the work out of operating a UAV. The pattern analysis software can spot what is being looked for on the ground and is rapidly approaching the point where it does the job better than human observers. Thus the future is seen to be officers commanding several UAVs, each largely “operated” by software. Each officer would then be assisted by one or two NCOs to help deal with any situations requiring human intervention. The trouble is that sort of software is not here yet and not be for another five or ten years. In the meantime the air force brass are just going to have to take the heat.

 


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