Leadership: The Passing Power of Pilots

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October 18, 2007: There's a generation gap in the U.S. Air Force, especially when it comes to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator) USAF. The combat pilots, who comprise only two percent of air force strength, dominate the leadership. While some older pilots are all for UAVs, it's the younger pilots that see UAVs as an opportunity. To most older pilots (colonels and generals), UAVs are a threat. But in about ten years, the problem will solve itself, as the pro-UAV pilots move into higher command jobs.

The sad part of this is that the air force had, literally, decades to take a leading role in UAV development, but they always turned their noses up to these pilotless aircraft. There were many stories about air force pilots insisting they would never sully their reputation by flying these toy planes. It got so bad that they had to recruit navigators to pilot the UAVs. That's a cultural problem that comes right from the top.

The other services took the lead in UAV use, and now insist on developing and operating their own UAVs, despite continued efforts by the air force to gain control over all UAV development, and much of the operations. But the air force problems are of their own making, for having neglected what is supposed to be their core area of responsibility.

Meanwhile, the air force isn't losing control of the air. The real low altitudes always belonged to choppers, artillery shells and the occasional hog (A-10). Now there are also hundreds of army and marine Raven UAVs which, at 4.2 pounds, aren't any more of a threat than geese. For the upper altitudes, the army and navy insist on keeping possession and control of their own unmanned recon aircraft.

The U.S. Navy will not let the air force control all combat UAV development. The navy is developing such aircraft to operate from carriers. The air force generals don't like this, because the navy might create combat UAVs superior to anything the air force comes up with, thus creating a situation where Congress could order the air force to use the navy UAV designs. Younger air force pilots aren't too upset with that. Navy fighters tend to be sturdier than their air force counterparts, because the navy planes have to be able to handle the extra stresses of landing on carriers, and all that constant exposure to sea water.

The younger pilots can see how all this is likely to play out. It will take several decades before manned combat aircraft are completely gone, and today's junior pilots will be retired by then. But the pilots, and non-pilots, joining in the next decade or so will be more enthusiastic about commanding robotic aircraft. Time will cure the leadership problem, hopefully before a more enterprising enemy air force does it.

 


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