Sunday, December 27, 2015

Air Force Looks Beyond Officers to Boost Drone-Pilot Ranks: Enlisted personnel will be allowed to operate RQ-4 Global Hawk, possibly other platforms in future

A U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drone at a base in Qatar.


The Wall Street Journal
Dec. 27, 2015 6:02 p.m. ET


The U.S. military’s increasing demand for drones has forced changes in the Air Force’s “flyboy” culture over the years, plucking pilots out of the cockpit and sending some to high-tech desert trailers to operate remotely piloted aircraft, leaving their proverbial white scarves at home.

As the need keeps rising for drones and their valuable ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—due to the rise of Islamic State and other threats, the Air Force is embarking on yet another cultural shift. For the first time, it is allowing enlisted personnel, not just officers, to pilot some drones.

The Air Force historically has required drone pilots to be officers. But this month, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced a series of moves to alleviate some of the stress on the drone crews that operate craft such as the MQ-1 Predator and its advanced cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper.

A decision to open the career field by allowing enlisted personnel to operate drones has been much anticipated. Ms. James took a baby step, announcing that by next year, enlisted airmen could fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, a $130 million, 50-foot, unarmed and remotely piloted aircraft that plays a critical role in providing ISR around the world.

The move might pave the way for enlisted airmen to play a larger role in other drone platforms, officials said.

“As far as I’m concerned, the enlisted force can do anything, as long as they get the proper training to do it,” Ms. James said in a recent interview in her Pentagon E-Ring office.

The Air Force faced retention, morale and training issues as its limited force of drone operators—all officers—attempted to fulfill the demand for more operations.

Ms. James said the Air Force needed to be creative. “We need more people infused into the system,” she said.

The change comes as the U.S. military overall contends with budget and personnel cuts.

The Air Force move is a significant shift for a service that has appeared to resist it. Some in the ranks still worry that allowing enlisted airmen to fly drones could diminish the prestige of a job for which the Air Force was already struggling to create an allure. Many officers arrive with dreams of flying F-15s, F-16s and other, newer fighters, in the spirit of the World War I-era officer considered the father of the Air Force, Army Gen. Billy Mitchell.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and operations in North Africa and even as far away as Southeast Asia, have created a huge demand for the work of drone operators. With few, if any, troops on the ground in those places, the need for drones has only heightened. Now, virtually every military commander says that more drone capability is essential.

Over the years, the Air Force pushed pilots who already had become certified on conventional airframes like F-16 fighters into dark metal buildings in places like Creech Air Force Base, 50 miles from Las Vegas, to operate the remotely controlled aircraft over countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If there isn’t going to be a decrease in demand, and if there’s going to be continued pressure to cap the size of the force, then we have to look at options,” said Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Air Combat Command, in Langley, Va. “This step to allow enlisted pilots to fly Global Hawks does that for us.”

The Air Force has about 970 pilots operating MQ-1 and MQ-9 drones and about 200 RQ-4 pilots.

Drone operations are conducted according to what the military calls “combat air patrols,” measured by the number of flights in a 24-hour period. The Air Force had been flying about 65 CAPs a day. But to address the stress on the force, officials requested a reduction to 60 CAPs a day.

At the same time, the Pentagon adopted a plan, now under way, to expand the number of CAPs to 90 a day by 2018. But that plan relies not just on the Air Force, but also on civilian contractors, Army drone operators and Special Operations Command personnel.

The Air Force will determine pay scales and review other issues in the next six months, a critical aspect of the implementation of a policy that touches on careers and culture. “The Air Force will continue to assess the proper compensation to maintain sustainable career fields,” an Air Force spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who headed the ISR directorate before stepping down in 2010, welcomes the decision to open the drone career field to enlisted personnel as long as operators get sufficient training. It follows a similar path as that of battlefield ground spotters known as joint tactical air controllers, he said. Once, so-called JTACs were seasoned officers, before the Air Force allowed junior officers to perform those duties. Ultimately, enlisted personnel were allowed to serve.

While he was on active duty, Gen. Deptula oversaw a 650% increase in demand for high- and medium-altitude drone operations, he said.

“There’s not a bigger [drone] fan than me,” said the former F-15 pilot.

Officials moved carefully to make sure they could effectively train enlisted personnel to fly drones, taking a deliberative approach that reinforced notions that the Air Force was resistant, even though other military branches have allowed enlisted personnel to fly them. But there’s a difference, Gen. Deptula said. The Army, for example, has long allowed soldiers to fly drone platforms such as the Raven. But “a Raven is 4 pounds and doesn’t drop anything,” he said.

Gen. Deptula also panned the idea that allowing enlisted personnel to operate drones is just a way to let the Air Force officer corps return to flying manned aircraft and the appeal of the fighter-pilot image and all it entails.

“No self-respecting pilot would ever wear a white silk scarf,” he joked.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com

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