DEFENSE

Air Force taking steps to fill drone pilot shortage

A MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, is piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.

A MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, is piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.  (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force, File)

The Air Force is taking several steps to fill a significant shortfall in drone pilots, laying out plans to increase incentive pay, bring more National Guard and Reserve pilots onto active duty, and seek volunteers to fill needed slots, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Thursday.

Calling them interim measures, James told reporters they may seek larger retention bonuses for drone pilots, much like the maximum $25,000 stipend that manned aircraft pilots can receive. While the Air Force has long struggled with a shortage of drone operators, the demands of ongoing operations around the world, including persistent airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, have exacerbated the problem.

"This is a force that is under significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations," James said.

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, said plans to reduce the number of combat air patrols by drones are instead "on an upward trend" because of the missions in Iraq and Syria.

"We have just got to get ahead of this," said Welsh, adding that the Air Force can train only 180 drone pilots a year, despite an annual need for 300. The force loses about 240 drone pilots a year, as airmen leave the service or move to other jobs.

James said she will double the monthly incentive pay for some drone operators — from $600 to $1,500 — to persuade them to stay in the Air Force. The increased bonus pay would be targeted to those who have finished their initial six-year service commitment. All drone pilots now get the $600 monthly stipend, but James said current policies do not allow her to give any a retention bonus of up to $25,000 to encourage them to stay in the service.

She also said she will shift funds in order to bring some National Guard and Reserve drone pilots onto active duty, and will ask other trained drone operators to volunteer to deploy for six months to some of the more strained units. Welsh added that the Air Force will ask 33 current drone pilots to voluntarily stay in their jobs, rather than going back to their original aircraft as planned later this summer.

The shortage of drone pilots dates back to at least 2008, when the service was forcing fighter pilots to transfer to the unmanned aircraft to meet escalating demands for wartime surveillance and strike operations. Two years ago, the service was struggling to fill a shortfall of 300 drone pilots to meet the continuing demand for surveillance and airstrike operations in Afghanistan, while other regions, such as Asia, also sought more patrols.

There are currently 988 active-duty pilots for the Predator and Reaper drones — the two most lethal unmanned aircraft commonly used for surveillance and strikes. More than 1,200 pilots are needed.

Drone pilots work six days in a row, for an average of 13 to 14 hours a day. They log 900-1,100 flight hours a year, compared with pilots who fly manned aircraft and put in between 200-300 hours per year, James said.

Drones are currently flying 65 24-hour combat air patrols day around the world. The goal has been to have 10 crews per combat air patrol, in order to meet staffing needs and allow the pilots time for schooling, training and other career-building time. But the Air Force has struggled to maintain eight crews for each patrol and that will become increasingly difficult as a number of pilots prepare to leave the force this year.

Welsh said the plan had been to reduce the daily patrol to 55, but that became impossible when the mission against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria began last year.

Welsh and James said they have trimmed their force as much as they can, but the current 315,000 is as low as they can go.

"We are getting too small to succeed," said Welsh.