US Air Force: The Drone Fleet Is At A 'Breaking Point'

The US drone fleet has been stretched to a “breaking point” due to an increased demand for missions coupled with a shortage of pilots, Dave Majumdar reports for The Daily Beast citing military officials and an internal service memo. 

The constant demand on the Air Force from the Pentagon for drone flights, especially in light of US-led efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has placed significant strain on the branch’s ability to carry out drone operations. 

The Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC) “believes we are about to see a perfect storm of increased COCOM [Combatant Commander] demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases that will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 enterprise for years to come,” an internal ACC memo obtained by The Daily Beast states. 

The essence of this problem lies with the Air Force not having the manpower necessary to operate the drone fleet at the levels the Pentagon demands.

Ideally, according to the internal memo, the Air Force would want a crew ratio of 10 pilots to each drone during normal operations. During emergencies, that ratio could be allowed to drop to 8.5 people per drone. However, the Air Force is struggling to even reach its emergency ratio numbers during drone flights. 

“ACC squadrons are currently executing steady-state, day-to-day operations (65 CAPs) at less than an 8:1 crew-to-CAP ratio. This directly violates our red line for RPA [remotely pilot aircraft] manning and combat operations,” the memo states. 

This shortage in drone pilots has led to work difficulties for the pilots, including canceled leaves and the inability for pilots to attend military education courses. This has had the effect of convincing scores of drone pilots to leave the Air Force altogether. 

“Pilot production has been decimated to match the steady demand placed upon the RPA community by keeping ‘all hands’ in the fight,” the ACC memo stated.

US Air Force 2014 predator dronesAirman 1st Class Christian Clausen/USAFAn MQ-1B Predator, left, and an MQ-9 Reaper taxi to the runway in preparation for takeoff June 13, 2014, on Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The aircraft are assigned to the 432nd Wing, which trains pilots, sensor operators and other remotely piloted aircraft crewmembers, and conducts combat surveillance and attack operations worldwide.

The problem of finding enough pilots to carry out drone missions has plagued the Air Force since at least 2013, Agence France Pressereports. Attrition for drone operators is three times higher than for normal pilots in the Air Force.

This attrition rate is thought to be due to a combination of the demanding hours that drone operators have to work coupled with the fact that drone pilots have a 13% lower promotion rate than other military fields. 

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