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‘Unrelenting’ need for drones will prompt changes in Air Force

An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle takes off from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., May 11, for a training sortie over the Nevada desert. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

The Air Force units that run the service’s fleet of drone aircraft are “under significant stress,” with long hours and a potential brain drain coming that will prompt a variety of changes, Air Force Secretary Deborah James said Thursday.

James, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said that the “unrelenting pace” of remotely piloted aircraft requirements means that those who operate them work six days in a row on average, typically for 13 or 14 hours each. An average pilot flying a manned aircraft flies about 200 or 300 hours per year, but drone pilots fly 900 to 1,100, she said.

“Our plan is designed to immediately relieve some of this strain while still meeting the combatant commander requirements, and then we of course recognize we’ll have more work to do for the somewhat longer term to address the people side of this very important, but nonetheless high-demand weapons system,” James said.

The Air Force also has another related problem on the horizon, she said, appearing alongside Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Many of the service’s experienced drone pilots are nearing the end of their active-duty contracts at the same time. If the service can’t retain enough of them, that would effectively amount to a brain drain in a force filling a vital mission over Iraq, Syria and other conflict zones.

Several options are on the table to address the issues, James and Welsh said. First, the Air Force plans to use the National Guard and reserve, bringing some of those willing and able to work with unmanned aircraft on active-duty. The service also will seek volunteers who have flown drones in the past, but gone back to flying manned aircraft. The Air Force also will delay the departure of some drone pilots who had moved into the field temporarily, a move that likely to be unpopular with those waiting to return to flying conventional aircraft.

“Those three items, we are acting on now,” James said. “And we believe that this will provide some near-term relief to the ops tempo and to boost the quality of life concerns of this force.”

The service also may boost pay for drone operators, the secretary added. Previously, service policy did not allow Air Force officials to offer retention bonuses to drone pilots who are only qualified to fly unmanned aircraft, but the service is working to change that, she said.

“As our experienced operators reach the end of their initial active-duty service commitment, we will increase the monthly incentive pay from $650 a month to $1,500 for those [drone] pilots while we also explore more permanent incentive plans, which will be a little bit more down the road,” she said.

The problems received widespread attention after an internal Air Force memo was published by the Daily Beast this month. In it, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the chief of Air Combat Command, said the service was facing a “perfect storm” of increased demand and other problems that would damage combat readiness and capability of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone fleets for years.

Welsh said the Air Force also is considering having enlisted troops flying the service’s drones in the future. The Army does that, but so far only officers pilot the Air Force’s. Enlisted troops work with them, manning the high-powered sensors used for surveillance from the drones. The service also is considering recruiting pilots from other services, he said.

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