The U.S. Air Force is wresting with the manpower, training and cultural issues that surround the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In his presentation to the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference (DIAC) last November,* USAF commander General Norton Schwartz outlined the new terminology and career fields that the service is introducing in response.
“Actually, they’re not ‘unmanned’ vehicles–they’re very manpower-intensive,” Schwarz noted. “We are struggling to man the 50 orbits over Iraq and Afghanistan that we are approaching now,” he added. Schwarz produced a chart showing that each orbit by one of the USAF’s MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers requires a total of 189 support personnel. By the end of last year, the USAF was operating more than 190 Predators, Reapers and RQ-4 Global Hawks. The MQ-1/9 fleet is collecting more than 20,000 hours of full-motion video each month.
UAVs clearly offer persistence, and the removal of the life-support systems for aircrew “opens up an array of possibilities regarding payloads,” Schwarz noted. They also offer flexibility and efficiency, thanks to the modularity of their design. Their connectivity allows remote split operations, whereby missions can be largely planned, monitored and exploited by personnel who are located thousands of miles away from the orbits, for example, at home bases in the U.S.
But although remote and distributed operations reduce the deployed footprint, a perception problem has arisen, according to Schwarz. “Our virtual presence is viewed as an actual absence,” he said. Moreover, psychological problems have arisen, as remote operators are “going to war” by day, yet commuting home to their families each night. Both the Predators and Reapers carry lethal weapons routinely, although the number of attacks are small in relation to the total flying hours that they log.
Schwarz announced that the air force is dropping the terminology “UAV” in favor of “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPA). He showed the audience the “wings” that have been designed for the new career fields of RPA pilot and sensor operator. “We’re still defining the training requirements” for the new career fields, Schwarz explained, but he insisted that the pilots would still have to be rated.
The U.S. Army and some other ground forces around the world do not believe that qualified pilots are necessary to operate their UAVs, especially those that fly under autonomous control. The USAF’s RQ-4 Global Hawks are in this class, but the Predators and Reapers are not. Schwarz said that the USAF is still mulling whether to develop a separate career field for those who maintain the RPAs.
Within the next two or three years, the USAF will have more RPA pilots than F-16 pilots, Schwarz noted. But the real manpower crunch is in the processing, exploitation and dissemination field. The USAF chief continued: “The volume of incoming data is unprecedented; our analysis personnel now outnumber aircrew by 8:1. We’ve added 2,500 to our pool of manpower for exploitation, but this is by no means a problem solved. It’s a big challenge, especially to stay within our mandated ceiling of an overall 330,000 personnel.” o
*DIAC is organized by The Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.