US Army Mulls Merging Drone Training after Scathing Audit

The U.S. Army is mulling consolidating its drone training programs after a scathing federal review, according to the service’s top officer.

Auditors concluded that pilots of unmanned systems such as the RQ-7 Shadow struggled to complete required training “because they spend a significant amount of time performing additional duties such as lawn care, janitorial services, and guard duty,” according to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The Army’s outgoing chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who plans to retire after his term ends in the fall, touched on the issue during a recent interview with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

“We were doing training at a couple of different places and I think we want to consolidate it so we can make sure [initial training is] more efficient and then maybe provide a bit more oversight,” he said, without specifying where the activities might be based.

The Army’s unmanned aerial system initial qualification school is located at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Students are required to take a common eight-week course in aerodynamics, flight safety and navigation. During the next phase of training, which can last between 12 and 25 weeks, students learn to fly and recover one of the service’s three drones, the RQ-7 Shadow, MQ-5 Hunter and bigger MQ-1C Gray Eagle, according to the audit.

The service last year also started a course at Fort Rucker in Alabama in which AH-64 Apache pilots and drone operators teamed up to fly training missions.

Officials at the Army’s intelligence center at Fort Huachuca and aviation center of excellence at Fort Rucker are studying the issue, Odierno said. “They’re going to get back to me on what measures we need to take,” he said.

Of the service’s 65 Shadow units that weren’t deployed in 2014, nearly all of them — or 61 — had the lowest proficiency levels, with less than 340 training hours, according to the GAO report. The units were “untrained on one or more of the mission-essential tasks that the unit was designed to perform in an operational environment,” it stated.

By comparison, 11 of the 13 Shadow units deployed to a combat zone had the highest proficiency levels, with more than 440 training hours.

The Army isn’t the only service struggling to adequately train drone pilots. The Air Force is also filling its ranks with enough unmanned systems operators. It recently announced new incentives to persuade airmen to stay in the field, but fewer than 10 drone pilots were actually slated to receive the $1,500 monthly bonus.