Air Force looks to double number of drone pilots

In-depth coverage

The News-Sun provides unmatched coverage of the Springfield Air National Guard in the region and their role in the war against terrorism. For this story, the paper spoke to local officials, dug through national reports on issues faced by drone pilots and interviewed national security experts.

By the numbers:

2,500 to 3,500 — Airmen the Air Force hopes to recruit

95 to 98 percent —Portion of Springfield drone pilots’ mission spent collecting intelligence and surveillance

400 — Pilots flying drones in 2008

1,350 — Pilots flying drones in 2013

The U.S. Air Force wants to double the number of units flying drones and recruit more pilots to decrease the burden on current crews as demand for the missions soars.

The Air Force also recently allowed enlisted airmen to become drone pilots for the first time as the military increasingly uses unmanned aircraft for surveillance, protecting U.S. soldiers on the ground and attacking targets.

The only drone pilots in Ohio are based at the Springfield Air National Guard Base. The 178th Operations Group flies the MQ-1 Predator overseas from Springfield.

The Air Force has struggled to recruit and retain enough officers to serve on drone units, leading to concerns that crews face more stress, tougher working conditions and longer hours. The service’s Air Combat Command recently made several recommendations to ensure the long-term success of drone missions, based on information gathered from more than 2,500 airmen in the remotely piloted aircraft community.

“Our RPA enterprise was born in combat and recently surpassed 20 years of service, many of which were executed at surge levels,” said Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the ACC’s commander in a statement. “We owe it to our airmen to remove the daily stressors that are responsible for the challenging environment they are operating in.”

The demand has spiked largely because the military sees a need for the missions worldwide in an ongoing war against terrorism, said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst for the Brookings Institution.

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of pilots flying drones in the Air Force spiked from about 400 to about 1,350, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

“The short answer is that special forces and air power, especially drones, are important now from the Horn of Africa to Yemen to Syria/Iraq to Afghanistan,” O’Hanlon said. “The number of active battlefields is very high, and targeted and limited uses of force are the coin of the realm.”

Demand increasing

It’s long been a challenge for the Air Force to recruit, train and retain pilots who often work long hours and under difficult conditions.

The nature of a drone mission is also different for pilots, who often return home to their families at the end of each day after a potentially stressful combat mission, unlike during a deployment. The new recommendations are one way the Air Force is seeking ways to improve the quality of life and retain those crews, said said Col. Bryan Davis, commander of the Springfield Air National Guard Base.

Along with roughly doubling the number of drone squadrons, the Air Combat Command’s recommendations also include:

• Assigning units to new locations across the U.S. and potentially overseas.

• Creating a new wing to improve organization for the missions.

• Study promotion and military education selection rates for drone officers.

• Better define career tracks for officers and enlisted drone operators and maintenance crews.

• Increasing the number of airmen, including maintenance and support personnel, by between 2,500 and 3,500 airmen. Currently 700 officers serve as pilots and 700 enlisted personnel as sensor operators, according to the ACC.

From January to October 2014 alone, drone crews in the Air Force flew more than 2.4 million hours for various missions, said 1st Lt. Carrie Volpe, a spokeswoman for the Air Combat Command.

“This need for (intelligence and surveillance) is the No. 1 request we get from combat commanders,” Volpe said. “It’s a 24/7 requirement, so the need is just always there and we’ve had a hard time meeting that. “

It’s too early to say how Guard members in Springfield might be affected by the Air Force’s plan to increase drone pilots and units, Davis said.

For the past three years, the 178th has remotely operated two Combat Air Patrols per day, flying a total of two Predators daily around the clock, 365 days per year.

The local guard base has the capacity to add missions, Davis said. But the Air Force doesn’t have direct control over the funding and other resources needed to boost the mission and it’s still early in that process. That makes it difficult to know how the local Guard unit might be affected.

“Resourcing these changes is not within the ACC’s direct control,” Carlisle said in his statement. “We we will have to work within the Department of Defense, the White House and Congress on the resources to get this done.”

The 178th has the ability to fly as many as five Combat Air Patrols each day, Davis said, although there are only enough airmen to fly three right now. It’s possible a boost in recruiting could lead to more work in Springfield but there have been no indications if that will occur.

“We could handle it, but I don’t think they’ve solidified the plans to that level,” Davis said.

The Springfield unit doesn’t face the same challenges in retaining airmen, he said, largely because Guard members are volunteers. That means those in charge need to pay close attention to make sure local airmen don’t get burnt out and have the resources they need to do their jobs.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is also located nearby, which provides additional resources to Guard members. It’s possible active-duty airmen could fly drones from Springfield but be stationed at Wright-Patterson, which offers typical amenities like base housing and a commissary, for example, Davis said.

Many of the missions now operate from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, a remote location that requires pilots and other drone operators to take a roughly hour-long bus ride to and from work each day, along with a lengthy shift.

“We work within a constraint that’s slightly different from active duty,” Davis said. “My constraint is if I can’t give them at least a normal lifestyle, they’re going to go back to their normal jobs. The active duty doesn’t have that option.”

Freeing more resources

The Air Force also loosened other restrictions to provide more resources to drone missions. Air Force officials announced last month that enlisted personnel will be allowed to serve as drone pilots for the first time.

The enlisted staff will be allowed to operate the RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone initially and it’s possible they may eventually be allowed to operate the Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Both the Predator and Reaper have the capability to attack targets.

Other branches of the military already allow enlisted personnel to operate drones, but the Air Force previously only allowed officers to pilot the aircraft.

In Springfield, Davis has previously said Guard members have the capability to fire on targets under the right circumstances. But he estimated as much as 95 to 98 percent of its mission is to collect intelligence and perform reconnaissance.

The drones flown from Springfield engage in 60 missions each day, down from 65 earlier in 2015.

The Air Force also uses civilian contractors in a limited amount of surveillance missions. But the goal is to eventually end that practice as recruitment increases, Volpe said. The federal government also recently made it easier to offer drone pilots the same bonuses and other benefits traditional pilots can receive.

The 178th doesn’t use contractors as part of its mission, Davis said.

One challenge for the Air Force that makes it difficult to retain airmen is their skills are in demand. Private firms often can pay more to lure pilots and sensor operators into the business world.

“What we’re really focusing on right now is making the Air Force a great place for them to be and that was part of this process also, was not just to improve the manning and this crazy (operations) tempo we’re putting on them but also to make the facilities better at Creech because we’re aware of what they’re going through,” Volpe said.

The Air Force cares about the pilots and their families, their living conditions and quality of life, she said.

“We just kind of focus on those other efforts to make them want to stay in the Air Force,” Volpe said.

There is currently no timeline in place to hire additional pilots, said Ben Newell, an ACC spokesman. The Air Force is taking the steps it can to improve the quality of life in the short term, he said, but ramping up the training and new staffing will take time, as well as assistance from Congress and the Department of Defense.

“When they introduce all of these new people into the program it’s not going to be all at once,” Volpe said. “One of the problems we’ve run into with training is in order to train and teach you have to pull people from operators. That’s why it’s going to be a slow opening of the value to add a few new people into the current training pipeline we have now.”

About the Author