The U.S. Air Force’s fleet of drones is being strained to the “breaking point,” according to senior military officials and an internal service memo acquired by The Daily Beast. And it’s happening right when the unmanned aircraft are most needed to fight ISIS.
The Air Force has enough MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. It just doesn’t have the manpower to operate those machines. The Air Force’s situation is so dire that Air Combat Command (ACC), which trains and equips the service’s combat forces, is balking at filling the Pentagon’s ever increasing demands for more drone flights.
On the one hand, this is quite clearly an opening salvo in the budget wars. On the other, properly manning the MQ-1/MQ-9 fleet has been a persistent problem.
One issue is, the Air Force insists that they be flown by rated pilots. They have some good reasons for that. But no qualified pilot wants to fly a drone. They want to fly something besides a screen and a joystick. On the other hand, the Army uses NCOs to operate drones.
For the most part, we’re talking about smaller assets, but not always.
Does a drone operator really need to be a rated pilot, one the Air Force has spent two years or so putting through a training pipeline in the T-6 and T-38 and then whatever platform/pipeline training they originally competed for, only to then learn to fly a drone? Could it devise a dedicated unmanned flight training pipeline that could more rapidly put bodies in the seats? Maybe it might be time for the Air Force to consider reinstating Warrant Officers. Select quality NCOs, train them to fly the Predator and Reaper, and grant them a warrant. A limited number of commissioned officers to round out the squadrons, in a manner similar to Army Aviation, might be a workable solution.
Of course, for a commissioned officer in the Army, Aviation is a defined career path. It would be unlikely to be so in the Air Force, though they ought to consider such a path.
The other obvious challenge is reducing the demand signal from the Combatant Commanders, a challenge that will also apply to our next post.