Attrition: Droids Fit Right In


October 12,2008:  The U.S. Air Force has activated a new training squadron, the 26th Weapons Squadron, to prepare crews for Predator and Reaper UAVs. The air force already has sixteen Weapons Squadrons for its other combat aircraft. The 26th is the first new Weapons Squadron created since 2002 (when units were created to train crews for F-117s and B-2). The 26th was first created in 1940, for training P-51 pilots. The air force has already been taking instructors out of training units and transferring them to UAV units, so this is an effort to replace those losses. The air force is still working out the best way to train UAV crews (typically an officer to operate the aircraft and fire any weapons, and an NCO to operate the sensors.) One of the growing training issues is how to deal with the growing abilities of UAVs to operate completely by themselves. This means facing the fact that each Predator has a crew of three; two humans and one software system.

For several years, the air force has been scrambling to supply enough operators for its growing fleet of UAVs. They now have over a hundred Predator and Reaper UAVs in service, as well as over a dozen Global Hawks. To that end, ten percent of recent graduates from pilot schools will spend three years operating UAVs, before going on to flying manned aircraft. Meanwhile, the air force is recruiting non-flying officers to be UAV operators. Many of these officers could have been pilots, but were prevented from doing so because of physical limitations (poor eyesight or inability to handle the gyrations of aircraft). The air force has long insisted that UAV operators already be manned aircraft pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs before returning to manned aircraft. This has limited the number of UAV operators available.

The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage. The air force has recently made UAV operator a career field, not a temporary assignment (as it had been for years). The air force is also beginning to train non-pilot officers to be UAV operators, and is under pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators.

A typical Predator crew consists of several pilots and  sensor operators. That's because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is often 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 cylon. Well, OK, not completely robotic, and certainly not self-aware. But 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.

Meanwhile, crew and satellite bandwidth shortages mean that only about 30 Predators and Reapers can be in the air at the same time. But that number is increasing, and the pilot shortage will remain until the air force has enough career UAV operators available.

For the first eight months of this year, Predators and Reapers flew over 4,400 sorties, each lasting, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie resulted in finding about two targets. About 12 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground troops under fire, and about 22 percent were in support of ground troops engaged in raids.



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