An Air Force drone pilot (top) and sensor operator at work.  The USAF has announced plan for larger retention bonuses, hoping to keep more pilots in the UAV force, with more than 1,200 at the end of their service commitment–and most planning to leave military (Air Force Times photo)   

Not quite a month ago (June 18th, to be exact), we looked at the operational impact of the Air Force’s chronic shortage of UAV pilots.  The service had just announced it was reducing its number of daily “orbits” from 65 to 60, because it didn’t have enough pilots to operate its fleet of remotely-controlled aircraft.

Obviously, that won’t set very well with operational commanders around the globe.  Their demand for drone support has grown exponentially over the past decade, and they’ve grown accustomed to having continuous surveillance overhead, as they send personnel and assets into harm’s way.  UAV’s have also become a preferred way to take out terrorist leaders, and those missions are often “built” on days and weeks of intelligence collection by similar platforms.

And, with ISIS on the march in the Middle East, the notion of a further reduction in drone orbits is simply a non-starter.  So, the ball is back in the Air Force court and specifically, with the career field managers and retention specialists who must find a way to keep more UAV pilots at the operator console, despite job demands that often keep them in the chair for up to 12 hours at a stretch (and that doesn’t include mission planning, briefing, or debriefing), six days a week.

In the era of an all-volunteer military, the “solution” to any personnel shortage usually begins with re-enlistment bonuses.  According to Air Force Times, the service is now sweetening the pot, offering UAV pilots up to $135,000 to sign on for another nine years.  The bonus is paid out in annual installments of $15K, but there is an option that allows pilots to collect half their money up-front.   Predator and Reaper pilots who agree to serve for another five years will collect $75,000; those extending for nine receive the maximum amount.

Along with the bonuses, the Air Force will also send more pilots from manned aircraft to drone squadrons.  According to a spokesman, 80 officers who recently completed undergraduate pilot training (UPT) will be assigned to UAV units, spending a year in that assignment before being allowed to transfer to a manned platform.  The USAF is hoping that some of the new pilots will decide to stay in the UAV community, but the last time the service diverted pilots from manned systems into the drone world, two-thirds returned to the cockpit at the first opportunity.

The limited UAV commitment for the recent UPT grads has some observers shaking their heads.  While the new pilots already have the basic skills for flying a Predator or Reaper, they must still undergo a training, when their mission capabilities will be limited.  After passing their UAV checkrides, those new pilots will already “on the clock,” counting down the days until their drone tour ends, and they can move on to a plane that isn’t flown by remote control.    

But here’s the real problem: the bonus-and-diversion scheme probably won’t erase the Air Force’s severe shortage of UAV pilots.  According to recent figures, about 1,200 pilots currently in drone units are reaching the end of their service commitment, and most plan to get out of the military.  The USAF needs a minimum of 300 new Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk pilots each year to sustain on-going operations; the current system produces 190.  Bonuses and temporary “fill-ins” (fresh from UPT) are supposed to fill the gap.

Early Air Force projections suggest 50-60% of the eligible UAV pilots will take the bonus.  However, that estimate is probably high; the extra money won’t alleviate the workload that most drone pilots currently face, and signing on for another five-to-nine years virtually guarantees you’ll be flying the line.  One of our former co-workers (a retired Green Beret Master Sergeant) related the decision he faced more than a decade ago.  Fresh back from Iraq and retirement eligible, the Army offered him $250,000 to sign up for another five years.  The bonus was tempting but he turned it down, knowing that the first payment would come with another rotation back to the war zone.

If the USAF is serious about solving its shortage of drone pilots, it needs to start thinking outside the box.  Unfortunately, the service has long believed that pilots should be officers, a concept dating back to the days of Hap Arnold and the Army Air Corps.  As America entered World War II, General Arnold estimated the service would need at least 100,000 pilots and he wanted all of them to be college grads and commissioned officers.  Personnel officers politely told him there weren’t enough qualified college graduates in the nation to fill that quota, so the sheepskin requirement was quickly dropped.

In fact, the service produced more than 2,000 enlisted pilots from the World War I era through the early days of the Second World War.  And, until the early 1960s, it was possible for qualified men to enter pilot training–without a college degree–through the Aviation Cadet program, though they were commissioned upon graduation.

As we noted last month, the USAF could end its UAV pilot shortage by opening those jobs to enlisted members, or bringing back Warrant Officers and training them to operate Predators and Reapers.  It’s no secret that Warrants form the backbone of Army helicopter units, handling most of flying duty, while a smaller cadre of commissioned officers serve in key leadership positions.  Most Army Warrants in a Blackhawk or Apache unit will tell you they’re more than happy to fly the line, and let the Captains, Majors and Lieutenant Colonels endure the headaches associated with management.

The same concept could work just as well for the Air Force but unfortunately, the chances of enlisted personnel flying UAVs (or resurrecting the Warrant Officer ranks for those positions) equal those of me making an NFL roster: approximately zero.  Pilots run the USAF, for better or worse, and they’re not about to let share the cockpit–or a UAV pilot console–with members of the Great Unwashed (and I say that as a former NCO).  It’s bad enough an intel officer ran the 55th Wing at Offut a few years ago, and the just-retired Vice Chief of Staff (General Larry Spencer) came up through the comptroller ranks.

You see, the U.S.Air Force (and to a lesser degree, the Navy and Marine Corps) have definite ideas about who should be a pilot.  Enlisted members need not apply, even if it might solve chronic manning problems in fixed wing and UAV units.  Instead, the Air Force leadership will soldier on with its latest plan, hoping $135K will convince enough drone pilots to endure the conditions that are forcing so many to leave the service.